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Lord Jim
Joseph Conrad



Jim is a young man with a vivid, romantic imagination, who decides to become a sailor after reading sea stories. He loves picturing himself as a hero, but he misses his chance when it comes. As a student on a training ship, he hangs back from a rescue mission during a storm because the storm frightens him so.

Later, Jim signs on as first mate of the Patna, a rusty old ship that's been hired to take 800 Muslims on a pilgrimage. One calm night the ship is damaged at sea, and the other white members of the crew- the obese German captain and the three engineers- decide to flee in one of the lifeboats. Jim is horrified: They're responsible for 800 other lives. But considering the damage, the Patna seems certain to sink any moment. At the last minute, Jim leaps overboard and into the escaping lifeboat.

The five men are soon rescued, and they report the sinking of the Patna. But later it turns out that the Patna hasn't sunk: A French gunboat discovered it and towed it into port. Jim and his mates look like cowards to the rest of the world. An inquiry is held, though Jim is the only one of the runaways who actually attends. The German captain has fled; the first and second engineers are hospitalized; the third engineer died during the escape. At the end, the court revokes Jim's license to serve as a ship's officer.

During the course of the inquiry Jim meets Captain Marlow, who's twenty years his senior. Marlow becomes interested in Jim's story and invites Jim back to his hotel; Jim, relieved to have a sympathetic ear, supplies all the painful details. Though there's no excusing Jim, it's also clear that he's not as great a scoundrel as the other crew members. Marlow develops some compassion for the young man. (It's Marlow who narrates most of the novel.)

One of the judges at the inquiry is a highly successful and extremely conceited captain named Montague Brierly. The inquiry disturbs him, and he tries to talk Marlow into bribing Jim to run away. Brierly is so anguished by the potential for human cowardice that Jim has demonstrated that he kills himself at sea a short time later.

After the inquiry, Marlow comes to Jim's aid by recommending him to a friend who owns a rice mill. Jim does well there, but when the second engineer of the Patna shows up looking for work, Jim leaves. He can't stand being reminded of his humiliation. For the next several years he drifts from port to port, working as a water clerk for suppliers of provisions to ships. As soon as he's recognized, he leaves. But eventually he becomes so well-known that there's almost no place left for him to hide.

At this point Marlow seeks advice and help from his old friend Stein, a wealthy German merchant whose chief interest is collecting butterflies and beetles. Stein hires Jim as a trade representative in the remote district of Patusan. The district is tyrannized by its ruler, the Rajah Allang. The Rajah's main rival is old Doramin, who leads a settlement of Muslim immigrants and is, incidentally, an old friend of Stein's. A third political force is Sherif Ali, a cult leader who has terrorized the countryside.

The Rajah takes Jim prisoner as soon as he arrives. But Jim escapes and seeks out Doramin, who protects him for the sake of his old friendship with Stein. Jim hatches a plot to rout Sherif Ali, and with the help of Doramin's son, Dain Waris, they drive him out of Patusan. Jim rises to a position of leadership in the community, and the Rajah's power is curbed.

But the person who hates Jim most isn't the Rajah but Cornelius, the man Jim replaced as Stein's representative. Cornelius' dead wife bore a daughter by another man, and Jim falls in love with this daughter. He calls her Jewel. Jewel loves Jim fiercely, but she's terrified he'll abandon her as her father abandoned her mother.

Under Jim's leadership, life for the villagers becomes stable and secure. But that changes when a malicious British pirate named Gentleman Brown invades Patusan, bent on plunder. Jim is away when Brown's men sail up the river, but Dain Waris leads the defense, cornering Brown and his men on a hill. When Jim gets back, he negotiates with Brown, who agrees to leave quietly. Jim's decision to let him go without a fight is controversial, but Jim thinks it's best to avoid bloodshed.

But Brown wants revenge, and Cornelius is ready to help him. He knows that Dain Waris is camped downstream with a group of men who are guarding the river, and he leads Brown and his men up behind the camp, where they stage a sneak attack. Dain Waris and a number of others are killed. Jim's servant, Tamb' Itam, witnesses the massacre, and he manages to kill Cornelius before speeding to the village with the terrible news.

Jim and Jewel know that Doramin is going to want revenge for the death of his son. Jewel begs Jim to either put up a fight or escape with her; but Jim refuses. Proving once and for all that, no matter what happened on the Patna, he's not afraid of death, he goes to face Doramin. The angry old man shoots him through the chest, and Jim falls dead.

[Lord Jim Contents]


  • JIM

    Conrad's title character is a complex intellectual puzzle, and it is very difficult to judge him. In deserting 800 pilgrims aboard the Patna, Jim commits an action that's utterly inexcusable. But Conrad provides facts that soften the crime in every possible way. Jim genuinely believes that the ship is about to sink, and that he can't do anybody any good by staying aboard. Besides, his escape owes far more to an impulse- an inexplicable impulse- than to any conscious decision. Moreover, Jim has so many admirable qualities (which he demonstrates amply in the second half of the novel) that it seems unfair to remember him as the man who jumped off the Patna. And yet that's how people do remember Jim- even his friend and champion Marlow and, from what Marlow can gather, Jim himself.

    According to Marlow, Jim is finally "not clear" to him. So it's no wonder that the readers have reached no consensus about Jim, either. The second half of the novel remains particularly controversial. Some readers believe that Jim's accomplishments in Patusan make up for his cowardice aboard the Patna. Others are equally certain that his final blunder of judgment, a blunder that costs many lives, is intimately linked with his behavior on the Patna. (A deeper question arises: Is there a scale on which you can balance a person's good acts against his bad acts?)

    Considering this moral ambiguity surrounding Jim, it's fitting that the image he's most often associated with is mist. Marlow complains that he can never get a clear picture of him, because Jim always appears, metaphorically speaking, in a fog or mist. Occasionally the mist parts, allowing Marlow (and the reader) a deeper glimpse into Jim's inner workings. But the mist always closes again. This image undergoes a metamorphosis in the last part of the novel, where Jim repeatedly appears "under a cloud." "Cloud" retains the associations of "mist," suggesting that it's difficult to see beyond the surface of Jim's actions into his motives. But the phrase also carries its usual implication of a damaged reputation. Jim dies "under a cloud" in that he leaves so many people both in Patusan and in the wider world thinking that he deserves to be condemned. But the wording also suggests that those who condemn Jim don't see or understand him clearly. Surely, for example, Doramin is wrong to think Jim is guilty of any kind of treachery toward Dain Waris.

    Jim is the victim of his own vivid imagination. He tends to freeze in difficult situations because he's so adept at picturing the worst possible outcomes. He's also a romantic idealist- that is, he thinks perfection is really within his grasp, and so he's doubly hard on himself when he fails to be perfect. He may not live up to his vision of himself, but he's no hypocrite, either- he strives to live up to it. He's naive, even immature, to have so little perspective on his ideals. But if he's naive he's also admirable. After all, he does manage to impose his vision of order and justice, at least for a while, on troubled Patusan.

    Jim's naive idealism isn't his only boyish trait. He has a youthful exuberance that borders on impulsiveness, and doesn't always serve him well. His response to an insult is either to blush or to fight. And he occasionally stammers like a tongue-tied boy. Marlow frequently notes this inarticulate quality but admits that it doesn't keep Jim from being "wonderfully expressive." He has a sulky side, which comes to the fore when he's criticized, combined with a stiff-upper-lip British pride that makes him want to hide his feelings. Thus, in Chapter Six he tries to pick a fight after he hears someone call a dog "that wretched cur" and mistakes the words for an insult directed at him. But what humiliates him most deeply is having his wounds exposed: Until then he had faced his loss of reputation with a public air of indifference that was a long way from his true feelings.

    Jim's judgment may (or may not) be unsound, but he does at least prove by the end of the novel that he's not afraid of death. He arrives in Patusan, knowing the danger, with an unloaded gun. He leads the assault on Sherif Ali at great risk to his own life. He regularly demonstrates his fearlessness by drinking the Rajah's coffee, which he has good reason to believe may be poisoned. And finally he goes to confront Doramin knowing that he will almost certainly die. Whatever Jim's faults, he rebuts the charge of cowardice in the face of death.

    Those faults may have to do with his egoism, a characteristic to which Marlow refers again and again. Jim is ultimately obsessed with himself, his image of himself and his own behavior. He isn't very concerned with the rest of the world (which is not to say he's selfish). His good deeds in Patusan satisfy a test he's set for himself- fine as he is, he doesn't go there out of charity. He takes great satisfaction in being loved and trusted and revered, and in knowing that nobody in Patusan would call him a coward. But in the end he places his own ideals, and his own needs, far above Jewel's or the community's- whose interests aren't served by his death. Jewel is left widowed and alone; the community loses a leader who's brought peace and curbed the tyranny of the Rajah. In fact, the only interest served is an abstract one: Jim's egoism, his personal ideal of bravery, at the cost of his own life.


    Although Marlow, the ship's captain who tells most of Jim's story, plays only a small part in the action of Lord Jim, he's as important to the novel as the title character. Almost everything that happens is filtered through Marlow's consciousness via his narration. As a thinker, Jim is rather dull. His ideas are simple and boy-scout naive. What gives the novel its verve and its complexity is Marlow's wide-ranging observation and analysis.

    Marlow is a practiced observer- the very opposite of the egoistical Jim. While Jim is obsessed with himself, it's other people (particularly Jim) who fascinate Marlow. He complains about the way men and women constantly seek him out to spill their innermost thoughts, but you can see why they do: His interest and compassion, his need to understand, make him a natural confessor.

    Conrad had already used Marlow as a narrator, in the short story "Youth" (1898) and the short novel Heart of Darkness (1899). But in those works Marlow was little more than a fictional stand-in for the author; his attitudes, perceptions, judgments were Conrad's. In fact, their only major difference was their birthplaces- Britain for Marlow, Poland for Conrad. But in Lord Jim the relationship has altered. Marlow is no longer simply a stand-in, though his moral and ethical judgments still resemble Conrad's. Now Marlow allows his affection for Jim to soften his judgment. Deep down, he wants to find a way to excuse him. Conrad, in contrast, presents the evidence with rigorous objectivity. For example, in his talk with the French lieutenant (Chapters Twelve and Thirteen), Marlow wants to think that the lieutenant's sympathy and understanding of human fear will lead to his pardoning Jim. Conrad lets Marlow build this house of cards out of his hopes- then has the lieutenant topple it with a few words about a topic Marlow has been avoiding: honor.

    Jim's emotions are essentially simple because he views the world in simple, even naive terms. Marlow, on the other hand, is endlessly complex in his responses to events and his analyses of them. He's exasperated by Jim's immaturity, though he's also drawn to the way Jim has held on to his youthful illusions. But though Marlow may have lost his own illusions, he's anything but a cynic. In fact, he's the opposite- a moralist. Marlow is concerned with the essential goodness or badness of people, their "butterfly" or "beetle" natures. (See the Note in Chapter Twenty.) He readily condemns the Patna's captain and engineers, or Cornelius and Brown; and he doesn't hesitate to heap praise on characters like Stein and Dain Waris. What disturbs him about Jim's case is the ethical problem. Marlow is an adept enough judge of character to recognize that Jim is a far cry from the scoundrel he would have expected in a first mate who deserted his ship. In fact, his confidence in Jim goes so far that he's willing to make himself "unreservedly responsible" for Jim's behavior by recommending him for employment in terms you would use only for a close friend. So Marlow faces the moral puzzle: how could a genuinely good man behave like a very bad one?

    Philosopher though he is, he balks at the one answer that might let Jim off. He's unwilling to concede that the "fixed standard of conduct," the code of ethics by which we behave, isn't grounded or "fixed" in any cosmic sense as, for example, the law of gravity is fixed. He refuses to believe it's an arbitrary standard, "fixed" only for our own convenience but dispensable in certain situations. For Captain Marlow the good sailor, a ship's officer doesn't abandon the passengers under any circumstances- period. But Jim seems no more villainous, really, for his action. This moral puzzle is part of what draws Marlow to Jim. In addition, of course, he likes him. And he feels a certain responsibility, recognizing that nobody will help the young man if he doesn't, and that without help Jim is probably bound for a future of alcoholic ruin.

    And yet for all his kindness Marlow is so reserved that he seems cold. He seems to have difficulty handling affection. Whenever Jim tries to express friendship or gratitude, Marlow dodges with a joke or a gruff reply. He actively avoids moments of what he calls "real and profound intimacy," preferring for such intimacy to be understood rather than expressed. Marlow's formality keeps the prose from turning mushy. Marlow is an admirable man, but he doesn't like to claim his own virtues; he'd rather come across as bad-tempered and gruff.


    Jim's captain, a vulgar, obese German by way of Australia, is everything a captain shouldn't be: irresponsible, corrupt, and contemptuous of his passengers (he calls them "cattle"). When his ship is damaged at sea, he wastes no time trying to save the passengers, and abandons it without a second thought. Later, before the inquiry, he vanishes- apparently having (unlike Jim) some place to go, some connections who will take him in. Conrad has a good deal of fun at his expense, ridiculing his vulgarity, his bad English, and his grotesque bulk.


    The chief engineer is a cohort of the captain's, and just as corrupt. They're a team of embezzlers. Physically they look grotesquely like Laurel and Hardy: the captain revoltingly fat, the chief engineer bone-thin, with sunken cheeks, sunken temples, and sunken eyes. It's the chief engineer who, once the Patna has been deserted, has the illusion of seeing it sink. His illusions continue back on shore, where he succumbs to hallucinations after three days of heavy drinking. He claims to have a clear conscience about abandoning the ship ("I could look at sinking ships and smoke my pipe all day long"), but his drinking suggests he's trying to forget. The toad visions seem to be displaced guilt: His deranged mind has transformed the abandoned pilgrims into vengeful toads. His distress suggests that breaking the "fixed standard of conduct" carries heavier personal consequences than Marlow first thought.


    The second engineer is a nasty, obnoxious little man who talks too much. He's as corrupt as the captain and the chief engineer, but he does at least show a little spirit during the Patna crisis by running to the engine room, at great risk and in great pain from a broken arm, to fetch a hammer. Months after the inquiry, he turns up destitute at Mr. Denver's rice mill, where Jim has found work with particularly good prospects. His offensive familiarity eventually drives Jim away. There's a hint in his fawning that he intends to blackmail Jim.


    Poor George surfaces just long enough to die of heart failure during the Patna crisis. He's in bed when the ship is damaged, and the other officers rouse him. Jim notes the irony of his death: If he had been a little braver and not exhausted his heart trying to get off the ship, he would have survived. When Jim leaps into the lifeboat, the other officers mistake him for George in the darkness, not realizing that George has died.


    "Big Brierly" is a highly successful and conceited sea captain who serves as one of the nautical assessors, or judges, at the court of inquiry into the Patna incident. He seems like a man who's enjoyed every possible stroke of good fortune. And yet he kills himself shortly after he hears the case.

    From what Marlow gathers, Brierly's suicide seems directly related to his high opinion of himself. Brierly perceives that few sailors ever have to confront the kind of moral test Jim has faced (and failed) aboard the Patna. Apparently he becomes obsessed with the anxiety that he would behave the same way. After all, Brierly's life has consisted of one piece of luck after another. What would happen if his luck ran out? Brierly, it would seem, has never thought about that question, but once he starts thinking about it he can't stop. He kills himself out of fear of his own cowardice. He has based his opinion of himself solely on externals- all the awards and honors and praise he's received. He has no fundamental belief in himself, nothing internal. When he starts questioning his worth, he has no internal confidence with which to fight off doubts and the doubts soon overwhelm him.


    Jones is Brierly's chief mate at the time of his suicide. He detests Brierly so much that he can hardly stand being civil to him. After Brierly's death, though, he develops such reverence for his former captain that he comes close to weeping when he talks about him. His change of heart owes much to Brierly's having recommended him as his successor in a letter written just before he jumped overboard. Jones doesn't get the promotion, but by the time Marlow speaks to him, some two years later, he's taken charge of some other "nautical wreck."


    More than three years after the fact, Marlow encounters an elderly lieutenant of the French gunboat that towed the Patna to port (Chapters Twelve and Thirteen). The lieutenant fills Marlow in on what happened to the Patna after its officers abandoned her. He's a model of military courage and efficiency. The scars on his hand and his temple attest to the action he's seen. He condemns actions on the Patna. Fear may be understandable, but cowardice isn't defensible. The lieutenant's highest value is honor. He would never have the slightest doubts about the fixed standard of conduct.


    Chester is an Australian adventurer who accosts Marlow after Jim's trial with a job offer for Jim (Chapter Fourteen). He has a crackpot scheme for hauling guano (sea bird manure, for fertilizer) off a waterless Pacific island, and he wants to engage Jim as overseer for 40 coolies there. Though he derides Jim for taking his punishment to heart so, he also knows Jim doesn't have any other prospects. Chester prides himself on seeing things "exactly as they are," but in fact he's a gross cynic without the least conception of personal honor. His cynicism is the reverse of Jim's idealism; he forms a beetle to Jim's butterfly (see the note to Chapter Twenty). The Chester episode demonstrates to Marlow how vulnerable Jim will be to unscrupulous adventurers, making Marlow feel his responsibility as Jim's only real friend. Chester does eventually set sail for his guano island, but the whole enterprise disappears in a hurricane at sea (Chapter Sixteen).


    After Jim's trial, Marlow sends him to work for Mr. Denver, a wealthy friend who owns a rice mill (Chapter Eighteen). Mr. Denver is an elderly bachelor who's spent his life distrusting people, but he's so charmed by Jim that Jim has a good chance of becoming his heir. When the obnoxious second engineer of the Patna turns up, Jim runs away, leaving Mr. Denver wounded and bitter.


    Stein was born in Germany, as his thick accent and mangled syntax attest. He is a wealthy merchant operating out of Java. As a young man, he was a partisan in the region's bitter power struggles, and his exceptional courage led him through one adventure after another. He married, but both his wife and daughter are long dead. The old man's main interest now is his remarkable collection of butterflies and beetles- Conrad's symbols for the two poles of human nature. You will hear more about these later.

    Stein's appearance in Chapter Nineteen heralds a shift in the basic assumptions of the novel. The early chapters are grimly realistic, with heavy emphasis on the futility of illusions. In the first half, Jim's idealism is viewed as commendable, perhaps, but obviously impractical and even dishonest in the distance between Jim's fantasies of himself and his behavior on the Patna. Stein expresses this point of view even as he contradicts it. He explains that the distance between your dreams and accomplishments is necessarily a source of pain. But all the same, he advises, "In the destructive element immerse"- that is, keep following your dreams even though you can't attain them.

    The reason Stein partly undercuts his own advice is that he seems to have attained all his own dreams. Of course, as he explains to Marlow, a casual observer can't see his failures, his lost dreams. Still, he seems like exactly the kind of romantic dreamer that Jim was criticized for being- and exactly the kind of man Jim would like to be.

    Stein plays a small part in the plot of the novel, sending Jim to Patusan as his trade representative. But his position in the center of the book lends great weight to his words. In fact, the novel ends with Stein and his butterflies.


    Mohammed Bonso is Stein's princely ally in the regional power struggles, assassinated when peace was at hand. Stein married his sister, "the princess." Both she and their small daughter, Emma, later died of an infectious fever (Chapter Twenty).


    The nominal ruler of Patusan is the retarded Sultan (Chapter Twenty-two), but the real power is his corrupt old uncle, the Rajah Allang. The rajah is a dirty, wrinkled opium addict, and he's a tyrant. Any peasant who violates his trade monopoly by doing commerce with someone else faces a death sentence. The rajah takes Jim prisoner when he first arrives in Patusan. Later, after Jim has risen to power, the rajah can't afford to kill him (though he'd like to) because Jim protects him from the wrath of Doramin's followers, who would very much like his head. Jim regularly demonstrates his fearlessness by accepting the rajah's coffee, which he has good reason to think may be poisoned.

    When Patusan is invaded by Gentleman Brown and his small army of pirates, the rajah, through his representative Kassim, carries on negotiations with the invaders. This cynical diplomacy comes to nothing, but the outcome of events- the deaths of Jim and Dain Waris- seems likely to restore the old tyrant's former power.


    Kassim, the rajah's right-hand man, is a cunning diplomat who greets Jim on his arrival in Patusan (Chapter Twenty-four) and later negotiates in the rajah's name with Gentleman Brown. Like the rajah, he hates Jim and Doramin.


    Doramin is the leader of the Patusan Bugis, a group of some 60 Muslim families, from the neighboring island of Celebes, who form the faction opposed to the rajah. The old man is immensely fat, but his weight isn't comical; each pound seems to add to his mountainlike dignity. Doramin protects Jim for the sake of his old friendship with Stein. He is, in general, wise and wily; but he ultimately lets his love for his son Dain Waris overrule his good judgment. Thus, he forestalls an attack on the invaders in Jim's absence, fearing that his son will be harmed in the battle. Later, after Brown's men have killed Dain Waris, Doramin takes revenge by shooting Jim. Not only is his vengeance an irrational act, but it's a highly foolish and irresponsible one that will bring great harm to the Bugis he leads, since Jim is their main protection against the tyranny of the Rajah Allang.


    Dain Waris, Doramin's son, is a stock figure of adventure fiction: handsome, intelligent, daring, respectful of his parents, and so forth. Marlow sings his praises by listing the ways in which he's "like a white man" (Chapter Twenty-six)- a racist way of implying that Malays who aren't like white men are inferior. Because Doramin is ambitious for his son to become ruler of Patusan, he's not entirely comfortable with Jim's power- especially after Marlow assures him that Jim is never going to leave even though Jim and Dain Waris are best friends. Dain Waris dies through the treachery of Brown and Cornelius, but Doramin's rankling resentment leads him to avenge his son by shooting Jim.


    Sherif Ali, "an Arab half-breed" and religious fanatic, has incited the tribes in the interior to rise and terrorize the countryside. He's built a stronghold on one of the twin hills overlooking the village. Both the rajah and Doramin are wary of him. Jim makes his name by leading Doramin's men into Sherif Ali's supposedly impregnable camp and driving him out of Patusan.


    Jim's faithful servant, silent and dour, is another stock character of escapist fiction. This name means "black clerk" in Malay. Like Jim, he's an outsider (a Malay from the north) whom the rajah took prisoner on his arrival in Patusan, and who escaped to the Bugis. He witnesses the massacre of Dain Waris' men, and he executes the treacherous Cornelius on the spot. Much of Marlow's information about Jim's last days comes from Tamb' Itam, who has escaped with Jewel to Stein's home in Samarang.


    "Jewel" isn't her real name (which Marlow never discloses), but the English translation of Jim's affectionate Malay nickname for her. She, too, is something of a stock figure- romantic and tragic- but with slightly more depth of character than the other Malays. Jewel's father abandoned her mother, who then married Cornelius. Now the mother is dead, and Cornelius has transferred his long bitterness to poor Jewel, whom he browbeats constantly. She leads a miserable life until Jim arrives and falls in love with her. But she's terrified that Jim will leave her, as her father left her mother. When, at the end, he marches off to die, her fierce love turns into bitterness. Essentially she goes from one false picture of Jim to another. During his lifetime, she won't believe anything bad of him; after his death, she won't forgive him because, she insists, he has abandoned her.

    Though Jewel is fairly helpless in her dependency first on Cornelius, then on Jim, she's nonetheless spirited and resourceful. She saves Jim from Sherif Ali's assassins. Later, when Brown's men invade and Jim is away, she proves herself a natural leader of the community. But her judicious call for strong action against the invaders is thwarted by Doramin's over-cautiousness.


    Cornelius, a Malayan-born Portuguese, lives in Patusan as Stein's thoroughly incompetent trade representative before Jim is appointed to the post. He got the job only through Stein's regard for his wife, who was pregnant by another man and needed a refuge. Cornelius never forgives his wife, and he never forgives her daughter, Jewel. Marlow dislikes Cornelius so much that his descriptions are almost funny in their disgust. One scathing adjective follows another. Cornelius even moves like some kind of vermin, "skulking" or "slinking" or sidling." The only thing that keeps him from being really dangerous is his cowardice. It takes Brown to give Cornelius' malice some teeth.

    Cornelius despises Jim, presumably because Jim has replaced him. But there's something deeper in his hatred- the natural animosity (like Brown's) of a low creature for a superior one. He assists Sherif Ali's plot to assassinate Jim, but doesn't get punished for it. (Jim spares him out of deference to his position as Jewel's "father.") He ingratiates himself with Brown's men, he pleads with Brown to kill Jim, and he leads the invaders to the position from which they stage their sneak attack on Dain Waris and his men. Tamb' Itam stabs him to death in retaliation for his part in the massacre, and so he never has the satisfaction of seeing his treachery lead to Jim's ruin.


    Marlow's spoken account ends at Chapter Thirty-five. Chapters Thirty-six through Forty-five comprise a written addendum that Marlow sends, more than two years later, to one of his original listeners. This "privileged man" (privileged because he's the only member of that audience to learn the rest of Jim's story) is never named. He seems to be elderly ("his wandering days were over"), and the city he lives in forms a geographical contrast to the remote village he'll be reading about. The privileged man's outlook is racist, in that he has criticized Jim for deserting his own culture to live among a people he likens to brutes.


    Gentleman Brown is called "Gentleman" because he's supposed to be the son of a baronet, but in fact he's the lowest kind of pirate. He has virtually no morals. His only display of feeling is reported in a tale about his weeping over the corpse of a woman he'd stolen from her missionary husband. Brown and his men invade Patusan because they need food and money, and the village looks prosperous and vulnerable on a map. But it proves to be difficult prey. Brown's men are soon surrounded on a hill in what looks like a hopeless position- until the rajah, via Kassim, opens negotiations. It's then that he hears about Jim. Brown is such a low creature that he can't imagine Jim as anything other than a plunderer like himself. But when they meet, and he perceives his error, his hatred is immediate and absolute. Later, as the dying Brown relates his story to Marlow, it's clear that his hatred is instinctive: it's like the natural enmity of, say, a cobra for a mongoose. But Jim is too innocent to feel this kind of enmity. He lets Brown escape with his life, never dreaming that Brown could be so despicable as to stage a sneak attack on innocent men- exactly what he does as he's leaving Patusan.

[Lord Jim Contents]



Most of the action of Lord Jim takes place in and around Singapore and the Malay Archipelago, a chain of islands extending from southeast Asia to just north of Australia, including Indonesia and the Philippines. Conrad was familiar with the area from three visits he had made, during his sailing years, between 1883 and 1888.

Marlow never names the city in which the Patna inquiry is held, but his description of the harbor office, the hospital, the hotel, and so on- suggest that it's Singapore. The city is a port situated on the small island of Singapore, off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. In Conrad's day Singapore had already long been under British rule. (It became independent in 1959.)

For a stretch midway through the novel, Jim works as a water-carrier in various ports, notably Bangkok, Siam (present-day Thailand) and Samarang, Java (present-day Indonesia), which is where Stein lives as well. After that, the action shifts to the fictional district of Patusan. Conrad appears to have based Jim's refuge on a settlement on the Berau River, on the island of Borneo (mostly part of present- day Indonesia) that he had visited himself. Although Conrad spent only a brief time there, the locale proved to be a fertile starting point for his imagination; he had used a similar setting for his earlier novels Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896). But since he was only loosely acquainted with the settlement, he probably supplemented his knowledge with various books about the area.

The shift from a bustling port city to a remote island village signals a shift in the novel as well. After Jim arrives in Patusan, the fantasy element grows stronger. The novel becomes much more like escapist fiction, with less emphasis on the troubling moral questions that dominate the first half. Remote villages are much more the stuff of romance than cities are. The shift to such a picturesque setting probably has much to do with the change in tone, especially since the protagonist, Jim, is so given to fantasies to start with.


The following are major themes of Lord Jim.


    Twenty years before Lord Jim, Dostoyevsky suggested in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. The agnostic Conrad doesn't mention God, but the great underlying theme of Lord Jim is related to this dictum. Does a "fixed standard of conduct" exist- or is everything permitted? The behavior of the Patna officers, and the fact that at least some of them escape punishment, lead Marlow to wonder whether the standard of conduct isn't really artificial, "fixed" for our own convenience but without any basis in truth. Jim's case disturbs Marlow even more deeply, because it raises the question, are there circumstances under which the fixed standard may be violated? If there are, then the standard isn't "fixed" at all, but movable. If it's movable, then what kind of truth could it rest on? Are these questions answered in Lord Jim?


    After you have violated the standard of conduct, what kind of second chance can you expect? Many readers put this question in terms of salvation or redemption. Some argue that no matter what kind of glory Jim attains in Patusan, he isn't redeemed. Others say he does achieve salvation. Still others claim that these terms are all wrong for Lord Jim because Conrad isn't the kind of religious writer for whom they would have any meaning: Jim may not be "redeemed," but he's certainly rehabilitated. The only person who seems unable to forgive Jim is Jim- the Patna scandal keeps gnawing at his memory. Several times Conrad pictures Jim's second chance as a "veiled opportunity," an image that culminates in opportunity removing its veil at Jim's death. If in fact Jim's second chance comes only when he looks death in the face and doesn't turn away, proving once and for all he's not a coward, but at the cost of his life- if that's Conrad's meaning (but it's a big "if")- then the ending is very bleak indeed.


    Jim is so hard on himself after the Patna disgrace because he's spent much of his life fantasizing about being a hero. Marlow criticizes this aspect of Jim in the first half of the novel. Jim's illusions seem useless and, in view of his cowardice, even hypocritical. But at the same time Marlow is drawn to Jim's naive ideals, because they remind him of his own youthful dreams. With Stein's pronouncements in Chapter Twenty, Jim's ideals become a much more positive character trait. You may not be able to accomplish all your dreams, Stein advises, but you should keep following them all the same. Jim's stupendous success in Patusan seems to justify Stein's words. Is there a difference between ideals and illusions?


    Stein is a naturalist who collects butterflies and beetles, and these two insect types crystallize another theme, the two poles of human nature. Jim may be fascinating because his behavior is ambiguous (more so in the first half than in the second), but the other characters fall pretty clearly into two groups. The butterflies are the idealists, the romantic dreamers, the people who aren't corrupted by the dirt that surrounds them. The beetles are the cynics, like Chester and Brown, and the cowards, like Cornelius and Jim's fellow Patna officers. Whatever Marlow's doubts about the fixed standard, he's confident enough that morality is based on some kind of truth that he isn't afraid to pass judgment on the behavior of others. Are his judgments accurate?


    Friendship is a subtle theme that runs like a thread through the novel. Marlow immediately feels his kinship with Jim, and keeps referring to him as "one of us" (see the note to Chapter Five). He also sees in Jim a reflection of his younger, more naive self. Marlow doesn't sermonize about the rewards of friendship. But he goes out of his way to help Jim, and he expends a lot of energy thinking and talking about him. Because Marlow tends to be unsentimental, even gruff, and because his affection for Jim is sometimes obscured by the relationship of narrator to subject, this theme stays a little below the surface. It's still the novel's basic plot mechanism. Without the friendship, there wouldn't be a novel.


Conrad wrote in a famous statement that his task as an artist was "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see." To achieve this goal, he fills his pages with one image after another. Conrad's prose is rich, complicated, and sensual. It frequently verges on excess. His reputation as an "impressionist" novelist stems from his dependence on sense impressions to create his images and make his points. Such a dependency is fitting for an agnostic novelist: someone who doubts that there are general truths you can depend on- who isn't sure whether there's a God or not- will be likely to rely on what he can perceive directly with his senses rather than on abstract ideas.

Conrad employs a wide-ranging vocabulary, much of it drawn from sea life or from the exotic eastern regions that form the setting of the novel. A big vocabulary is typical of Victorian novelists, but Conrad doubtless took special pride in his command of English, since it wasn't his first language. By the time he was writing Lord Jim, he had achieved such fluency that he could enjoy playing with the language- as he does, for example, in the various non-English accents (like Stein's) that find their way into the book, or in the public-school slang ("bally" this and "bally" that) that Jim is prone to use.

It would be exhausting to attempt to point out every noteworthy image. Many of the images- for example, the moon over Patusan- have a deeper symbolic significance. But much of the pleasure you'll get out of Lord Jim will come simply from the hundreds of lovely or strange or shocking word pictures, and you should keep yourself open to this remarkable beauty as you read.


The first four chapters of Lord Jim are written in the voice of an omniscient narrator- that is, a narrator who has the ability to pry into a character's thoughts, in this case, Jim's. Conrad thus lets you get to know Jim quickly, and what soon becomes obvious is that Jim is a dreamer whose heroic fantasies are a long way from reality.

With Chapter Five, Marlow takes over the narrative; from that point on, you're allowed to know only as much about Jim as Marlow knows. But aside from the fact that you no longer get to listen in on Jim's thoughts, this shift in point of view isn't as significant as you might expect. The main advantage the impersonal narrator gets from his omniscience is a thorough knowledge of Jim's fantasies- something Marlow understands after speaking with Jim for only a few hours. This omniscient narrator doesn't enjoy certain other advantages that the typical omniscient narrator has at hand. For example, when the Patna strikes whatever it is she strikes at sea, he doesn't fill you in by saying, "It was an old shipwreck." This surmise, in fact, comes later, from Marlow, and it's only a guess.

Conrad is a "skeptical" novelist, skeptical about the kinds of information that are available to human beings. Just as Conrad the agnostic doubts the existence of general certainties, Conrad the novelist believes that what a narrator (or anybody) can know is what he can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell- and deduce from that evidence. So he limits the novel to Marlow's point of view. (The narrator of the first four chapters resembles Marlow in every aspect but his omniscience.) Marlow could be Conrad's double as far as general character traits and outlook go, so using him allows Conrad to speak, more or less, in his own voice (but without the Polish accent).

However, limiting Jim's story to Marlow's point of view requires some structural gymnastics on Conrad's part, since Marlow has to have contact with everybody who has important information about Jim. When Jim is leaving one job after another, Marlow has to trail around getting his employers' side of the story. For Marlow to relate in full the events leading to Jim's death, Conrad has to arrange an interview between him and Gentleman Brown. This interview, with Brown on his deathbed, is vividly described, but it's one of the less convincing sections of the novel.


Instead of narrating events in a strict time sequence, Marlow jumps back and forth among the events of Jim's life, as well as events in his own life (like meeting the French lieutenant) that have a bearing on Jim. Consider, for example, the events in Chapters Twenty-six through Twenty-eight. This is how they occur chronologically:

  1. Jim and Jewel fall in love.
  2. Jim leads the assault on Sherif Ali.
  3. Marlow, approaching Patusan, hears a rumor about Jim owning a precious Jewel.
  4. Marlow, visiting Patusan, talks with Jim (a) and Doramin (b).

But these four events are described in this order: 2-4a-2-4b-1-3. This fracturing of chronology was one of Conrad's most important contributions to the development of the novel, though he didn't take it as far as later writers such as William Faulkner. In fact, the novel overall has a conventional chronological structure, beginning with Jim's early days and moving on from the Patna incident to Jim's stint as a water clerk in various ports, then to his eventual success in Patusan and, finally, to his death. This overall chronology stays intact, even though within chapters, or groups of chapters, the time sequence is radically rearranged.

Structurally, the novel breaks into two parts that might be called "Patna" and "Patusan," with Chapters Eighteen through Twenty forming a rough transitional link. Conrad admitted that the halving was a "plague spot" in the novel. There's nothing inherently wrong with a two-part structure. But many have argued that the Patna and Patusan episodes of Lord Jim are so different in tone and in their basic assumptions about dreams and heroics that they make it difficult to see the novel as a unified whole. Do you agree?



ECC [Lord Jim Contents] []

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