It’s been quite some time since I’ve read anything by Joseph Conrad. Years ago — just after college — I read Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, both of which I liked very much both for their gripping plot and for their beautiful writing. While Lord Jim (1900) was equally beautiful in its structure and its writing, I found it sometimes difficult to grasp. This is not to say that the events or the plot are intricate or confusing — those are clear enough. Rather, the theme (crimes against honor and the possibility or impossibility of coming to terms with one’s past) is enacted through a narrator and a protagonist who are both so shifty and misty about that theme that I found it, at times, practically impenetrable.
Jim, a young English seaman in the far East, is first mate aboard the Patna, which is taking hundreds of pilgrims to Mecca for the hajj. The ship suffers an inexplicable accident in the night and begins to sink, and Jim — along with the captain and the engineer — abandons the ship and leaves the passengers to drown. In fact, however, unknown to the crew, the ship is rescued the next day, and the crew’s cowardice is exposed. Jim’s navigation command certificate is revoked by the court, and he becomes a ship-chandler’s clerk. He blames himself deeply, both for his weakness and for his failure to become a hero.
The news of Jim’s actions on the Patna follows him from one port to another, and he can’t keep a job or a post of any responsibility. Finally, in desperation, his friend Marlow (the narrator of the tale, who befriended him at the trial, despite a certain reluctance to know a man who could do what Jim did) finds a job for him in remote Patusan, a Malay settlement where Jim’s past can stay hidden. There, Jim becomes a sort of benign ruler (“Lord Jim”), deciding all sorts of local questions and becoming — finally — a trusted man. This all comes to an end when a local (white) pirate, “Gentleman” Brown, attacks the settlement and Jim must decide what to do.
The structure of this novel is one of the most interesting and sophisticated things about it. Most of the book is narrated, as I said, by Marlow, to a group of silent interlocutors at a club, and other characters tell their own stories within that narration in nested dialogue (Jim, Stein, Captain Brierly.) The conclusion is a letter from Marlow to another silent reader, with a couple of other pieces of written evidence making their appearance. Here, too, other characters get to speak, notably Jewel (Jim’s love) and even Gentleman Brown. The pieces of the story are told out of chronological order, and we’re never sure who is telling the truth and who has an agenda. The fact that we receive the information second-or third-hand makes the tale oddly distanced, and in many cases Marlow invents what Jim must be thinking or feeling.
Bu how else are we going to know? Jim is a romantic young man with an idea of himself as a hero, but he doesn’t make long speeches about it. He stammers out cliched boarding-school phrases like “By Jove!” and “I say!” and a few simple paragraphs explaining his actions. Most of his speech is made up of incomplete sentences that he allows Marlow to finish: “Do you know what was my first thought when I heard? I was relieved. I was relieved to hear that those shouts — did I tell you I had heard shouts? No? Well, I did. Shouts for help,… blown along with the drizzle. Imagination, I suppose. And yet I can hardly… How stupid….The others did not.” Jim doesn’t talk about his motives and emotions. Marlow has to guess:
I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog — bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading.
Misleading, twisty, secondhand knowledge, through the mist and fog. This is how we learn about what it means to be honorable, to earn trust, to be (as Marlow says, over and over again) “one of us.” So what is the meaning of honor after all? Conrad paints a picture of colonialism in the far East in which this romantic British aristocratic sense of honor – as shifting and secondhand as it has become in this environment — turns a man’s life into a pressure-cooker. In the end, the whispered echoes of it become tragic and absurd, when a fight at the back of beyond between a ship-chandler’s clerk and a ragged pirate are also, mistily, a duel between a Lord and a Gentleman.
This novel is at the same time romantic (with its themes of honor and heroism and love) and as near as dammit to modernism, with its experimentation with form and its views through the fog. It was also, like all the Conrad I’ve read, extremely beautifully written; anyone who could read the pieces on night sailing and not pause, staggered by the loveliness of the prose, is probably dead inside. Lord Jim is dreamlike and strange, and I recommend it for that and other reasons as well.