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First edition cover
An early and primary event is the abandonment of a ship in distress by its crew including the young British seaman Jim. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Lord Jim 85th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Jim (his surname is never disclosed), a young British seaman, becomes first mate on the Patna, a ship full of pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the hajj. When the ship starts rapidly taking on water and disaster seems imminent, Jim joins his captain and other crew members in abandoning the ship and its passengers. A few days later, they are picked up by a British ship. However, the Patna and its passengers are later also saved, and the reprehensible actions of the crew are exposed. The other participants evade the judicial court of inquiry, leaving Jim to the court alone. The court strips him of his navigation command certificate for his dereliction of duty. Jim is angry with himself, both for his moment of weakness, and for missing an opportunity to be a 'hero'.
At the trial, he meets Charles Marlow, a sea captain, who in spite of his initial misgivings over what he sees as Jim's moral unsoundness, comes to befriend him, for he is "one of us". Marlow later finds Jim work as a ship chandler's clerk. Jim tries to remain incognito, but whenever the opprobrium of the Patna incident catches up with him, he abandons his place and moves further east.
Later, Marlow's friend Stein suggests placing Jim as his factor in Patusan, a remote inland settlement with a mixed Malay and Bugis population, where Jim's past can remain hidden. While living on the island he acquires the title 'Tuan' ('Lord'). Here, Jim wins the respect of the people and becomes their leader by relieving them from the predations of the bandit Sherif Ali and protecting them from the corrupt local Malay chief, Rajah Tunku Allang. Jim wins the love of Jewel, a woman of mixed race, and is "satisfied... nearly". The end comes a few years later, when the town is attacked by the marauder "Gentleman" Brown. Although Brown and his gang are driven off, Dain Waris, the son of the leader of the Bugis community, is slain. Jim returns to Doramin, the Bugis leader, and willingly takes a fatal bullet in the chest from him as retribution for the death of his son.
The crucial event in Lord Jim may have been based in part on an actual abandonment of a ship. On 17 July 1880, S.S. Jeddah sailed from Singapore bound for Penang and Jeddah, with 778 men, 147 women and 67 children on board. The passengers were Muslims from the Malay states, travelling to Mecca for the hajj (holy pilgrimage). Jeddah sailed under the British flag and was crewed largely by British officers. After rough weather conditions, the Jeddah began taking in water. The hull sprang a large leak, the water rose rapidly, and the captain and officers abandoned the heavily listing ship. They were picked up by another vessel and taken to Aden where they told a story of violent passengers and a foundering ship. The pilgrims were left to their fate, and apparently certain death. However, on 8 August 1880 a French steamship towed Jeddah into Aden – the pilgrims had survived. An official inquiry followed, as it does in the novel. Conrad may also have been influenced by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's 1869 account of his travels and of the native peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago.
The inspiration for the character of Jim was the Chief Mate of the Jeddah, 'Austin' Podmore Williams, whose grave was tracked down to Singapore's Bidadari Cemetery by Gavin Young in his book, 'In Search of Conrad.' As in the novel, Williams created a new life for himself, returning to Singapore and becoming a successful ship's chandler.
The second part of the novel is based in some part on the life of James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was an Indian-born English adventurer who in the 1840s managed to gain power and set up an independent state in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Some critics, however, think that the fictional Patusan is to be found not in Borneo but in Sumatra.
The novel is in two main parts, firstly Jim's lapse aboard the Patna and his consequent fall, and secondly an adventure story about Jim's rise and the tale's denouement in the fictional country of Patusan, presumed a part of the Indonesian archipelago. The main themes surround young Jim's potential ("he was one of us", says Marlow, the narrator) thus sharpening the drama and tragedy of his fall, his subsequent struggle to redeem himself, and Conrad's further hints that personal character flaws will almost certainly emerge given an appropriate catalyst. Conrad, speaking through his character Stein, called Jim a romantic figure, and indeed Lord Jim is arguably Conrad's most romantic novel.
In addition to the lyricism and beauty of Conrad's descriptive writing, the novel is remarkable for its sophisticated structure. The bulk of the novel is told in the form of a story recited by the character Marlow to a group of listeners, and the conclusion is presented in the form of a letter from Marlow. Within Marlow's narration, other characters also tell their own stories in nested dialogue. Thus, events in the novel are described from several viewpoints, and often out of chronological order.
The reader is left to form an impression of Jim's interior psychological state from these multiple external points of view. Some critics (using deconstruction) contend that this is impossible and that Jim must forever remain an enigma, whereas others argue that there is an absolute reality the reader can perceive and that Jim's actions may be ethically judged.
However, there is an analysis that shows in the novel a fixed pattern of meaning and an implicit unity that Conrad said the novel has. As he wrote to his publisher four days after completing Lord Jim, it is "the development of one situation, only one really, from beginning to end." A metaphysical question pervades the novel and helps unify it: whether the "destructive element" that is the "spirit" of the Universe has intention—and, beyond that, malevolent intention—toward any particular individual or is, instead, indiscriminate, impartial, and indifferent. Depending (as a corollary) on the answer to that question is the degree to which the particular individual can be judged responsible for what he does or does not do; and various responses to the question or its corollary are provided by the several characters and voices in the novel. 
The omniscient narrator of the first part remarks of the trial: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" Ultimately, Jim remains mysterious, as seen through a mist: "that mist in which he loomed interesting if not very big, with floating outlines – a straggler yearning inconsolably for his humble place in the ranks... It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun." It is only through Marlow's recitation that Jim lives for us – the relationship between the two men incites Marlow to "tell you the story, to try to hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality – the truth disclosed in a moment of illusion."
Postcolonial interpretation of the novel, while not as intensive as that of Heart of Darkness, points to similar themes in the two novels – its protagonist sees himself as part of a 'civilising mission', and the story involves a 'heroic adventure' at the height of the British Empire's hegemony. Conrad's use of a protagonist with a dubious history has been interpreted as an expression of increasing doubts with regard to the Empire's mission; literary critic Elleke Boehmer sees the novel, along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as part of a growing suspicion that 'a primitive and demoralising other' is present within the governing order.
The book has twice been adapted into film:
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