Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad was originally published in 1900. It is the story of a young Englishman named Jim. The tale is narrated by Marlowe, the ship captain who also narrated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as other works by the author.
Jim is a young sailor who dreams of engaging in brave and heroic acts. After a short career at sea, he becomes the first officer on the passenger ship Patna. The vessel is transporting pilgrims on their journey to Mecca and is packed to the brim. When the ship collides with an unknown object, water rushes in, and it seems like sinking is imminent as an old bulkhead is put under great stress. The cowardly captain and most of the crew prepare to abandon the ship and passengers. At first, Jim scorns them but at the last minute he jumps into a lifeboat with the fleeing crew. In the aftermath of this, Jim’s merchant marine license is revoked, and he experiences an existentialist crisis as his illusion of himself as a brave adventurer has been shattered.
For a time, Jim wanders from place to place all over the Pacific region. Eventually, Marlow and some other friends find him a place at a remote trading station in a fictional country called Patusan. There, Jim shows great courage and character. He sides with one faction in a multi-sided civil war, but he ultimately helps to bring peace and stability to the nation. He becomes a local hero and wise man. He is even attributed to have mystical powers. Further complications ensue when Patusan is invaded by brigands from the outside world.
The novel is full of dense descriptions of people, nature and objects. I find the prose to be sublime. Marlowe provides a torrent of philosophical observations relating to life and human nature as well as Jim’s character in general.
There seems to be a lot here about what is hidden and illusionary in the characters of people. In Jim, we see someone who has built up a self-image related to fantasies of romantic adventure. When that image is destroyed, he falls into a mental and moral crisis. Later, in Patusan, he rebuilds an image of himself.
This dive into human character and psychology is complemented by the book’s descriptions. These play into the theme of illusions and under-the-surface psychology. In passage after passage, landscapes, nature and objects are described in detail. Often, lighting plays a big part of the descriptions. Unusual forms of illumination and tricks of light are often highlighted. Scenes are drawn in the moonlight, in twilight, in the mist, etc. Scenes described in unusual lighting conditions seem to be reflective of the hidden and hard-to-see aspects of people.
In one remarkable passage, moonlight is described:
“after we had watched the moon float away above the chasm between the hills like an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended, cold and pale, like the ghost of dead sunlight. There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery. It is to our sunshine, which— say what you like— is all we have to live by, what the echo is to the sound: misleading and confusing whether the note be mocking or sad. It robs all forms of matter— which, after all, is our domain— of their substance, and gives a sinister reality to shadows alone.”
I think that the above prose is magnificent. I find that this passage can be read as an allegory about what lies underneath the typical human being. Just as the moonlight reveals things about reality that we do not usually see, the narrative reveals things about Jim, other characters and humanity that may not be apparent on the surface. Sometimes, what we see is misleading and confusing. Sometimes, it is mocking or sad. There may be a terrifying reality to our shadow selves. The novel is full of passages like the above.
At one point, a ship’s captain named Montague Brierly commits suicide when he comes to understand things about his own inner character. I get the sense that he saw into the “sinister reality” that the above passage attributes to shadows.
There is also something else going on in this book. The actual narrator is not Marlow. Rather, it is an unknown man who Marlow is telling a story to. The nesting of the story is even deeper. Marlowe’s tale has many accounts of people relating their own stories. Thus, the story often consists of the unnamed narrator describing Marlow telling a story. The story Marlowe is telling is often about someone else telling a story. I think that this adds to the message that the nature of people is inscrutable. We seem to be seeing only a fictional version of people. The real self may be several layers down.
This is a superb novel. It is full of wonderful prose and symbolism. It is deeply philosophical. It is a fascinating and unique character study. The book contains an interesting and engrossing story. I highly recommend this to folks who like philosophical character studies.