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Lord Jim opens almost exactly midway through the plot, with Jim holding a series of jobs working for ship-chandlers (suppliers of provisions to ships) in various Eastern ports. The first half of the novel will bring you up to this point in Jim's life. The second will take you beyond it. Your first view of Jim is mysterious, and rather tantalizing. He works incognito, you learn, in order to hide some disturbing fact, but you don't learn what the fact is only that when it makes itself known, Jim will drop everything and take off for another port. The author, Joseph Conrad, is playing with your curiosity; it will be several chapters before he reveals exactly what it is that Jim is concealing. The narrator does go so far as to mention, however, that whatever this circumstance was, it finally drove Jim away from civilization and into a remote village, where he became known as "Tuan Jim: as one might say- Lord Jim."
NOTE: FIRST VIEW OF JIM.
Translating "Tuan Jim" as "Lord Jim" has a similar twist. The Malayan word "Tuan" is a form of respectful address that comes closer to "Mr." than "Lord." "Lord Jim" is an inflation, a slightly mocking exaggeration at Jim's expense.
The rest of the chapter fills you in on Jim's background. It's significant that Jim decides to go to sea "after a course of light holiday literature." His image of life aboard ship isn't a realistic, mature one- it's one formed by adventure stories. You soon learn that he likes daydreaming, and that in his daydreams he is always a hero. Jim takes a romantic view of himself. He's an idealist, a person whose behavior is based on his conception of the way things should be; and he pictures himself living up to his very highest ideals. (As you read, you'll note that this tendency to romanticize his self-image is an important side of Jim's personality.) But, as if to burst Jim's romantic bubble, Conrad immediately presents a scene in which Jim fails to live up to his high opinion of his own courage. Jim is a student on a training ship moored in port; during a storm, two nearby ships collide, and quick action is called for. But Jim holds back from the rescue, paralyzed by fear of the storm. Later he explains that he was simply caught unawares; the incident doesn't reduce his high opinion of himself. But it should make you wary of accepting Jim as a typical hero. This lapse foreshadows the more serious one that is to follow- the terrible fact that he will someday seek to hide from his series of employers.
Life at sea turns out to be more boring than Jim expected. He doesn't find the heroic adventure he had dreamed about. But he's capable, and in a short time he rises to the rank of chief mate (second-in- command). However, he receives his promotions "without ever having been tested." It remains to be seen whether he'll turn out to be the hero he thinks he is. And when a week of furious storms gives him a chance to show his mettle, an injury lays him up and the opportunity passes.
You learn more about Jim while he's shut up in his cabin. Most of the time he's frustrated or bored. But occasionally he's overcome by terror of the storm. Jim's imagination makes him a lively and intelligent man, but it also makes him have vivid fears. He can picture the sea's anger and brutality too powerfully for his own good. But this storm passes, too, and- as with his momentary paralysis on the training ship- Jim soon forgets his fear.
After a stay in a port hospital, Jim does something else unheroic- he signs on for a job that promises to be easy. The Patna is a creaking, corroded vessel that has been hired to transport 800 Muslims on a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place. The ship's captain is a fat German who has only contempt for the Muslims.
NOTE: The captain's first words to Jim- "Look at dese cattle"- tell you a good deal about him. He's nasty and racist. Conrad also lampoons the way the captain mauls English- which is amusing, since the Polish Conrad spoke English with a pronounced accent to the end of his days. Various characters in Lord Jim speak with accents- German, Scottish, Irish, French. Conrad had developed a fine ear for speech, and he obviously enjoyed showing it off. Moreover, some of the national pride of the naturalized Englishman shows through in this rather mean portrait of the fat and brutal German.
The exquisite descriptions of the nighttime sea, which open this chapter, contain some thickly laid-on irony. These thoughts about "everlasting safety" and "the scheme of a safe universe" will seem like a bad joke in the ugly light of the disaster that occurs at the chapter's end. There's even heavier irony in the description of the sleeping pilgrims having "surrendered to the wisdom of white men and to their courage, trusting the... iron shell of their fire-ship." The white men, it will turn out, are anything but wise and courageous; the rusted-out old ship is anything but safe.
And still, Jim's daydreaming continues, so heroic and so vivid that he's convinced he belongs to a higher order than the rest of the crew. Indeed, they're a low-comedy group. The obnoxious captain and his chief engineer have a reputation for peculation (embezzling), and the second engineer is strident and obviously drunk. (His claim of fearlessness is a degraded version of Jim's fantasies, and it too will soon be put to the test- and shattered.) No wonder the sensitive, intelligent Jim feels superior.
A comic brush between the tipsy second engineer and the irritable captain is interrupted, at the end of the chapter, by a puzzling mishap. Notice the way that Conrad, who has often been called an "impressionist" writer, describes the event purely in terms of the men's sensations or impressions. Instead of telling you the ship hit something, he restricts himself to showing you the results: the second engineer falls down, the captain and Jim stagger forward "by common accord," and so forth.
A sudden flashforward- typical of the way time is fragmented in Lord Jim- shifts the scene to Jim's testimony, about a month later, at an official inquiry. The presiding officers are a magistrate and two nautical assessors (experts who have been appointed as assistant judges). Jim testifies that the Patna hit something, probably the floating remains of an old shipwreck, that knocked a hole in it. The front of the hold (the lower part of the ship) quickly filled with water. The only thing keeping the rest of the hold from flooding, and thus sinking the ship, was a single rusty bulkhead (partition).
One mystery- what happened?- has given way to another- why is Jim in hot water? Instead of clearing it up, the narrator focuses on the inadequacy of facts- "as if facts could explain anything!" Whether they can, or whether the facts can differ from the truth behind an incident, is one of the questions you will have to consider. Just as Jim is despairing that it's useless trying to explain his actions, a new character, Marlow, appears on the scene.
Conrad had already used the crusty, philosophical sailor Marlow as narrator in two other works, the short story "Youth" (1898) and the short novel Heart of Darkness (1899). (Lord Jim was originally planned as a short story, "Jim: A Sketch," to round out a volume of the three Marlow tales.) In the earlier works, Marlow is Conrad's alter ego- his judgments reflect the author's. But the case in Lord Jim is more complex. There's still a lot of Conrad in Marlow, but the author has distanced himself somewhat. Author and character share a sympathy for Jim, but the character is perhaps a little more eager to find reasons to excuse him. The author marshals evidence objectively, pro and con; he doesn't load the dice.
Launching before an after-dinner audience into his garrulous, digressive monologue, Marlow steers clear of just what it was that happened on the Patna. Instead, he describes the arrival of the Patna officers in town. The Master Attendant (the British officer in charge of the port) bawls out the captain. The captain, in turn, deserts his three officers, disappearing in a gharry, a horse- drawn cab. Jim, on Marlow's first view of him, appears so unconcerned that Marlow would like to see him squirm for his offense. You might think at this point that the officers are guilty of deserting a sinking ship- which would be almost, but not quite, correct.
Already Marlow's attitude toward Jim is complex. When he says that trusting a ship to Jim wouldn't be safe, he comes closer than anywhere else to condemning him outright. Jim looks "as genuine as a new sovereign" (a gold coin), when in fact there is some "infernal alloy" mixed in. And yet Marlow is also ready to regard Jim's offense as the result of a weakness from which "not one of us is safe." Here is the key to Marlow's interest in the case. He doesn't care about the captain or the engineers, but Jim makes an impression on him, he explains, because "he was one of us"- a phrase he will use again and again.
NOTE: "ONE OF US."
In the longest anecdote in this long chapter, Marlow visits the local hospital, where he encounters the Patna's chief engineer, laid up with a severe case of D.T.'s (delirium tremens- hallucinations brought on by excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages). The engineer claims to have seen the Patna go down, a claim Marlow dismisses (for reasons the reader can't know yet) as a "stupid lie," though the man seems to mean what he says. Marlow realizes that he's suffering from hallucinations- he thinks he's surrounded by millions of vicious pink toads.
NOTE: THE ENGINEER'S HALLUCINATIONS.
Marlow goes off on another digression, this time about Montague Brierly, one of the two nautical assessors assisting at the inquiry. Brierly is a young (32), successful captain, so well-regarded that he considers himself superior to everybody. Why, then, does he kill himself a week after the inquiry ends?
The details of the suicide come from his chief mate, Jones, whom Marlow encounters some two years after the fact. (This complicated device, with the primary narrator relating the words of Marlow, and Marlow in turn repeating Jones' tale- quotation marks within quotation marks- is typical of Lord Jim.) Jones' story is interesting, but it provides few clues to Brierly's behavior. More clues surface, though, when Marlow returns his narrative to the first day of the inquiry, when he speaks at length to Brierly. Brierly feels mortified by the questioning; he can't imagine why Jim has remained to face the court rather than vanish as his captain did. His agitation causes Marlow to reconsider Jim's behavior, and he discovers, for the first time, real courage in Jim's staying to face the court. Moreover, since Brierly's attitude of "contemptuous boredom" on the bench actually masks a profound anxiety, couldn't Jim's appearance of "gloomy impudence" be a mask as well?
In any case, Brierly seems more concerned about Jim's public humiliation than about his pangs of conscience. It becomes clear that for him the "fixed standard of conduct" has less to do with right and wrong than with what people think of you. It also appears, in view of Brierly's suicide, that Jim's failure has filled Brierly- who to all appearances is a model seaman- with self-doubt. But if Jim has failed the test, at least he's remained to face the consequences of his failure. Brierly, his judge, can't even face the idea of the test, much less the real thing. He tries to talk Marlow into bribing Jim to clear out- not very upright behavior for an officer of the court.
The rest of the chapter deals with Marlow's first encounter with Jim, an awful, comic misunderstanding. On leaving the court, a stranger points out a yellow dog and tells Marlow, "Look at that wretched cur." Jim, hearing but not seeing, thinks they're talking about him, bridles at the insult, and collars Marlow. While Jim is threatening the bewildered Marlow, who has no idea what he's so angry about, Marlow observes the young man closely enough to see that his calm, insolent posture has been a front. Anyone so ready to jump at an insult- an imagined insult, in this case- must be feeling deeply humiliated. Jim, when he finally understands his error, is so abashed at having betrayed his facade that he practically runs away, with Marlow in pursuit.
Marlow has been talking all along about his curiosity, but his behavior indicates more than mere curiosity. Why, in your opinion, is he ready to offer compassion to Jim? An invitation to dine at Marlow's hotel initiates the friendship that will form the core of the novel.
The empty-headed diners at Marlow's hotel contrast with the troubled, intense Jim in a way that shows him off to advantage. As he begins his long account, Marlow warns his listeners, "I wanted to know- and to this day I don't know." Presumably he is referring to Jim's motivations. Or perhaps he is describing his difficulty in judging Jim. Should you be harsh or lenient? On the one hand, Jim is obviously making excuses, looking for ways to escape the terrible self-knowledge that came when he failed the test of honor. "Ah! what a chance missed!" Jim cries, leading Marlow to observe that his romantic imagination is still too active: Jim focuses not on the honor that he lost, but on the glory he might have won. And Jim's excuse is the same one he made after the storm on the training ship (Chapter One)- he wasn't prepared. It strikes Marlow as obvious self-deception.
Yet other factors argue for leniency. One of them was already noted by Brierly (Chapter Six): Jim may have failed the test, but so few of us are ever tested at all that we had better beware of judging too hastily. "Do you know what you would have done?" Jim asks Marlow. Besides, he had good reason to leave the Patna.
Finally you learn exactly what the Patna officers are guilty of. Marlow remarks, "So that bulkhead held out after all." That thin, rusty partition, the only thing keeping the ship from being flooded, but which was certain to give way, somehow managed to hold. The officers abandoned a sinking ship that didn't sink. No wonder the case has become well known, and they're so deeply disgraced.
Yet there was every reason to believe the ship would go down any minute. Anybody would have thought so, Marlow assures his audience. To make matters worse, there weren't enough lifeboats for the pilgrims. Jim's overactive imagination (which, you may recall from Chapter Two, is sometimes too vivid for his own good) leads him to envision the scene of panic that's surely imminent, and he's paralyzed with horror.
NOTE: THE JEDDAH INCIDENT.
Jim thinks of readying the lifeboats, but as he's leaving the bulkhead one of the pilgrims grabs him and begins jabbering. The man won't leave him alone even after Jim hits him with his lantern. Jim maintains that he was afraid the shouts would create a panic among the other pilgrims, but he may have struck out of his own panic. It turns out that the man just wants some water for his sick child.
When he reaches the bridge (above the deck), the other three officers- captain, chief engineer, second engineer- are preparing a lifeboat for themselves. They don't care about the pilgrims. Jim is disgusted, and he refuses to help them. But he doesn't do anything to help the pilgrims, either- he just stands there, outraged but immobile. He doesn't ready the lifeboats. He considers trying to reinforce the rotten bulkhead, but it seems hopeless. Besides, he doesn't want to start a panic. And what can he do alone?
But Jim isn't alone. In his paralysis, he forgets the East Indian sailors (lascars) who make up the rest of the crew. The two helmsmen, for example, never desert their post, even though they know something is wrong. Marlow jumps, for a moment, to their testimony at the inquiry. It never occurred to them to desert their posts. Behavior like that is so inconceivable to these honest men that they're convinced the white officers must have abandoned ship for some good, secret reason other than saving their skins. Their "extraordinary and damning" testimony puts Jim doubly in the wrong- not only for deserting, but also for not trying to avert disaster when there were other sailors on board who could have helped him.
Throughout this chapter, Marlow's view of Jim swings between sympathy and disgust. He suspects, rather uncomfortably, that Jim is looking for an absolution Marlow cannot grant. But he also admits that the issues are more complex than any court of inquiry could handle. Jim, he complains, makes you "look at the convention that lurks in all truth." He makes you notice something arbitrary in the fixed standard of conduct. This is the kind of troubling awareness that nobody wants to face, because questioning the whole structure of morality can drive you to despair. (Compare this with the passage about the fixed standard in Chapter Five.) That's what Marlow's talking about when he says that the case was "momentous enough to affect mankind's conception of itself." There's every reason to excuse Jim except that his behavior calls the fixed standard into question. And without it, there's no sure right or wrong, no sure good and evil; the structure of morality is undercut.
As if things aren't dreadful enough, a storm now appears on the horizon. Jim finally cuts the lifeboats loose. But then he plants himself again, immobile, across from the spot where the officers are bumbling with the lifeboat- "as far away as he could get from them," he tells Marlow, which clearly isn't true. The struggle he's watching is as slapstick as a Three Stooges comedy, except that there are now four officers, for the third engineer has joined them. Not for long, though- he presently drops dead from a heart attack. (The ridiculous irony isn't lost on Jim: If the man had been less intent on surviving, he wouldn't have killed himself trying to escape.)
Still insisting that nobody has a right to judge him, Jim virtually bullies Marlow into making "some fatal admission about myself which would have had some bearing on the case"- that is, admitting that he would have acted as Jim did. But Marlow has more self-respect than that. He may be willing to concede that his honor is untried, but not that it's deficient.
By now the officers have launched the lifeboat, and they're shouting for the third engineer (who is lying dead on the bridge) to jump. Jim's description of his final moments on board makes him seem utterly passive. And of course he wants to preserve this illusion, because it's a way to keep from believing that he made the conscious, cowardly decision to jump. He vividly recalls the sensations of that moment, but he can't remember either deciding to jump or jumping. But he does jump, "into an everlasting deep hole" from which he can't climb. The deep hole is his shame. No wonder he wishes he could die.
The ultimate question for any of us to answer is what would we have done in Jim's place. Could you say with any certainty how you would have behaved? Why?
Once at sea, the four men quickly lose the Patna's lights and assume it's sunk. The chief engineer even thinks he sees the ship go down- a delusion he retains, you'll recall, when he's delirious in the hospital (Chapter Five). Conrad develops at length the imagery of darkness, quiet, void. Jim really has leaped into an abyss of sorts. "Nothing mattered." The moral world, the fixed standard, has vanished, and Jim is like a man floating in a vacuum.
The storm never amounts to much- a false alarm, In the dark, the others think that Jim is the third engineer, whose death they don't know about. When they discover their error, they let loose a torrent of abuse and threats. Marlow notes the element of "burlesque meanness" in their degraded behavior. It looks, for a moment, as if a fight will break out, and Jim grabs the tiller, a heavy piece of wood, as a weapon. He stands with it, alert and tense in the freezing rain, for six hours- till sunrise. Even in Jim's disgrace, Marlow can't help admiring his heroic endurance.
Remembering the horror of that night, Jim makes an unbelievable attempt to blame his jump on his cowardly companions. Marlow recognizes the absurdity of such a claim, but he consoles Jim that he's been through a lot. "More than is fair," Jim responds, as petulantly as a small boy- a resemblance Marlow has already noted.
The other officers make up a story to have ready when they're rescued. Jim won't have anything to do with them, but they feel he won't betray them. After all, he jumped, didn't he? The memory of their behavior upsets Jim (to the point of knocking over a bottle of cognac) in part because he knows that his actions, if not his intentions, were no better than theirs.
But actions aren't everything. Jim's claim that he contemplated suicide the whole time he was in the boat is believable, for it's becoming apparent that although he jumped, it wasn't solely (as with his companions) out of cowardly fear for his life. Jim is obviously a better man than that. And when Marlow assures Jim that he's ready to believe anything Jim tells him, he isn't being sarcastic. Jim may deceive himself, but he's too upright to consciously deceive others. But the question remains: Why did he jump, then? Recall Marlow's comment (Chapter Seven), "I wanted to know- and to this day I don't know." Does Jim know himself?
By now Marlow has developed a somewhat fatherly feeling toward the young man, and he reflects on "the fellowship of the craft," the emotions that bind an older sailor to a younger one. The illusions that a young man carries to sea differ wildly from the actual drudgery of life aboard ship. Jim, remember, went to sea bolstered by his romantic imagination and the light literature he had read. But abandoning the Patna has robbed him of many of his illusions, especially about himself. And watching this young man who is in many ways so admirable, Marlow feels cheated of the last sparks of his own illusions. He's suddenly so desolate that he now feels, as Jim did in the previous chapter, as if he's been wandering in a void. Notice that Marlow doesn't regard illusions as always bad. Some of Jim's illusions are what's best in him- they're an ideal he would like to live up to.
But Jim's complaint that there was only a thin line ("not the thickness of a sheet of paper") between the right and the wrong of his action exasperates Marlow. That thin line is just the point. Right and wrong aren't usually separated by chasms. If they were, it would be simple to choose right all the time. Real moral courage lies in choosing right even when the difference doesn't seem great; it's still there, and you can still discern it.
When Marlow says that Jim "cleared out," Jim corrects him: "Jumped." He's determined to maintain these subtle distinctions. "Cleared out" suggests a conscious act of will, while "jumped" merely describes an action. Jim wants to believe that he didn't jump of his own free will, that some other power (he keeps looking for places to lay the blame) was responsible.
He decides that suicide would be cowardly, a form of running away. Instead he'll "wait for another chance" to prove himself.
The lifeboat is spotted by a ship just before sunset. Once aboard, the other officers tell the story they've invented about the sinking of the Patna. Jim doesn't contradict them- partly because he thinks it's true in essentials, but more because their story doesn't matter to him. What matters is the fact that he jumped. He'll have to spend the rest of his life with the memory of his cowardice. Whether the rest of the world knows what he did is beside the point (he claims). In fact, he tells Marlow that he was relieved when the truth came out. True, he and the others were exposed as cowards. But for Jim the humiliation is more than balanced by relief that the 800 pilgrims haven't drowned.
Marlow interrupts Jim's account now, and flashes forward to a conversation in Sydney some years later. There he encounters a lieutenant who happened to be aboard the French gunboat that rescued the Patna. Conrad's portrait of this rather austere soldier is almost comical. In remembering the Patna affair, the lieutenant becomes emotional only once, when recalling that, for the 30 hours he spent aboard the Patna as it was towed to port, there was no wine to go with his meals. The memory still upsets him. Otherwise he's a model of brusque efficiency. The scars on his hand and his temple are convincing details; he's a soldier who's obviously seen action.
What he tells Marlow lends some support to Jim's account. The bulkhead, in his version, is every bit as weak as Jim described it, and the French crew agrees that the safest thing to do is to leave it alone. Jim's failure to reinforce it thus receives some justification. The Patna's situation is so precarious, in fact, that two officers are kept stationed for the whole 30 hours of the towing, to be able to cut the tow lines in case the ship should suddenly go down.
When Marlow tells the lieutenant what he knows about the Patna and Jim, the lieutenant seems sympathetic enough. This impression deepens when the lieutenant observes that nobody is free from fear. "Man is born a coward." Courage is merely a habit you discipline yourself into, aided by the example of others around you. Marlow reminds him that Jim didn't have any examples of courage (he forgets about the lascar helmsmen) and says he's delighted at the lieutenant's lenient view.
The lieutenant immediately stiffens. Conrad describes him in terms of metals, his hair "iron- grey," his irises resembling "two tiny steel rings," and his efficiency like "a razor- edge on a battle-axe." Suddenly he seems almost machinelike- all efficiency, no compassion. He doesn't take a lenient view at all. Fear is one thing, dishonor another- and that, he informs Marlow coldly, he knows nothing about. (You might ask yourself what the different characters mean by "courage" and "honor.")
This conversation took place, Marlow recalls, more than three years after the Patna business. By that time Jim was working as a water clerk for a certain De Jongh. (This, you'll recall, is where you came in on Jim, in Chapter One.) The work is anything but glamorous- a fitting way for Jim to atone for his dreams of glory?
The notion of drudgery takes Marlow off on another digression- this time about Bob Stanton, who once had the boring job of selling insurance. But what Marlow wants to talk about is Bob's death at sea, after he'd left the insurance profession. Like Jim, he was a chief mate involved in a shipwreck. There was time to clear out the passengers and crew, but one hysterical lady's maid refused to leave. Rather than abandon her, Bob drowned with her, hoping he'd be able to save her at the last minute.
The anecdote- which is a sad bit of comedy in its own right- reflects terribly on Jim. Bob's devotion to duty is behavior the French lieutenant would approve of. You don't desert a sinking ship when there are still passengers aboard, no matter what. If you agree, can you say why?
Marlow has to admit that Jim was guilty. (As if to drum home the point, he repeats "guilty" three times in two short sentences.) Yet he wants to see him spared all the same. And his reasons, he says, should be obvious by now, though he's too delicate, or too embarrassed, to spell them out. He is talking about friendship.
NOTE: MARLOW'S FRIENDSHIP.
By the end of Jim's narrative, Marlow is so sick at heart that he repeats Brierly's offer- the bribe, if Jim would agree to run away, that he had earlier (Chapter Six) refused to make. There's a certain selfishness in this action, in that Marlow wants to spare himself the pain of seeing Jim punished by the court. That's why he grows annoyed when Jim declines the offer, even though Jim is doing the "honorable" thing. Jim explains his refusal in the same terms he had distinguished between "jumped" and "cleared out" in Chapter Eleven: "I may have jumped, but I don't run away." His willingness to remain and be humiliated has more honor in it, at this point, than the "irreproachable" Marlow's attempt to get rid of him. Moreover, Jim is very aware of his dishonor- so aware that he fears (to Marlow's amazement) that Marlow will refuse to shake hands with him. It's an embarrassing, painful moment; but it shows Jim off to advantage. He isn't making light of his offense.
NOTE: FRAGMENTATION OF TIME.
This time line is very different from one in a traditional novel, which begins, as a rule, at the beginning and ends at the end. But Conrad doesn't really rearrange time. Despite all the internal jumps, the story as a whole still follows traditional chronology. Jim's sea training comes, more or less, at the beginning of the book; the events around the Patna bring us to the point we're at now; and the rest of the book will continue Jim's life after the inquiry. Why do you think Conrad breaks up the story as he does?
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