Close-reading Lord Jim

Inspired by The Reading Ape‘s close-reading posts on Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, I’ve decided to do one on Lord Jim. I’ve chosen, rather than the first line of the novel, the first line of Marlow’s story. Chapter five begins Marlow’s narrative thus:

‘Oh yes. I attended the inquiry,’ he would say, ‘and to this day I haven’t left off wondering why I went.’

What can we say from this?

  1. he would say. The verb form here tells us that, as I discussed yesterday, the story Marlow is just beginning is one he told not once, but regularly. From this we can say a few things with good probability. If Marlow tells the story frequently, he is practiced at it, and knows how he wants to tell it. He’s spent some time thinking about it, and the story will probably have taken on some structure this way. It’s also likely that the story has some interest for many people, if it’s had many listeners—or at least, Marlow assumes it does.
  2. the inquiry. We know from earlier chapters that something happened one night on a steamer, and that Jim had to answer “pointed questions” about it “[a] month or so afterwards” at an “official Inquiry.” He seems to have had to admit that “[y]es, [he] did”—do something. Here, “inquiry” indicates that while Something must have Happened, it must be something that rises to the level of “inquiry” but not of “trial.” A public inquiry, still, since Marlow was apparently able to go without having a reason to, but it can’t have been a murder or rape or assault trial, or something of that kind. It could be that there was a crime sufficiently covered up so as not to go to trial, or something untoward but not criminal. It leaves us wondering what the consequences of such an inquiry could be, though we can assume it likely wouldn’t include prison time.
  3. wondering why I went. This indicates first that Marlow wasn’t obligated to go to the inquiry, but also that he probably wasn’t directly connected with the affair being inquired into, as then he would probably have some idea why he went. Instead he is an unaffected party, attending a public inquiry apparently out of curiosity, or maybe simply out of boredom. We can expect him to relate the story of the inquiry as a disinterested observer with respect to the affair itself—he may have his personal biases, but he’s not an aggrieved party or anything like that.
  4. haven’t left off wondering. Here, the verb form tells us that this is something Marlow has been thinking about for some time, and frequently. He indicates that he continually thinks of the inquiry in some capacity, and specifically that he continually questions why he got involved in whatever is he got involved in. This could mean that the affair haunts him, or has caused trouble for him that lasts to this day, or perplexes him, or disturbs him, etc. Whatever the inquiry was about, Marlow has been thinking and talking about it ever since.
  5. The sentence as a whole tells us some things about Marlow as well. He is the kind of person who would go to an inquiry for no reason, and the kind of person who would think and talk about it for a long time, not just go and then put it out of his mind. He can be affected by things in this way. He’s reflective.

So, what else?

4 comments to Close-reading Lord Jim

  • These first-sentence close-reading exercises were always so much fun for me in college. I became a bit obsessed with first lines and did a whole PowerPoint-based art project that incorporated a slew of them from different sources. <— Dork!

    Anyway, you've done some stellar posting while I was out of the country. I've really enjoyed catching up on all the Conrad posts in your backlog; it's making me crave his work, and in particular a re-read of Lord Jim, which I read in the wrong mood one summer and obviously failed to appreciate to its full potential.

  • “Oh yes” and so on suggests an audience and even a specific question. Marlow has already been talking abut Jim, perhaps for a long time. What has he already said that we don’t get to hear? And who is he talking to, and why?

    “to this day” – M. is describing an event from long ago? Years? He “hasn’t left off wondering” about it for years? Odd bird, that Marlow. Perhaps given to hyperbole.

  • I love the close-reading posts. So interesting to read about the effects of word choice/position in a single sentence. :-)

  • Thanks, Emily. I hope you do pick him up. I’ve been really enjoying it and would love to hear your thoughts.

    AR—Excellent, excellent! Thank you.