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.
Thanks for your insights into this great novel. I love Conrad and this is among my many favorites. It still amazes me, after reading many of his novels and stories, that English was not is first language.
i kid you not: this post, conflated with my memory of the book, sent chills up my spine... you exactly nailed what Conrad, imo, was driving at... congratulations, and tx for a very fine post!
Excellent review. Conrad is one of the few writers who can capture the physical environment and express it coherently and at the same time portray his characters in great depths. Humans are always more than what they seem on the surface.
This is a superb novel and your review is worth of it. I like how you describe the story as dense with description. I haven't read Conrad in a while and in fact, never finished Lord Jim but now I want to.
I also like authors that want to analyze the human soul.
Great post Brian. I've often thought I should read Zlotd Zjim. It was on a university reading list but was not one of the ones I chose. Ive had mixed feelings about reading Conrad again but your post encourages me a little further in that direction.
Lord Jim of course. What was predictive text doing while I wasn't watching?
I read 'The Secret Agent' some time ago and was rather impressed with the atmosphere Conrad created. I'm looking forward to reading his maritime books in the future. There's just too many SF references to ignore them!
This sounds like a profound work. I read Heart of Darkness many years ago. Excellent review!
Thanks Sharon. I also like writers that dig deep and Conrad does that very well.
Thanks James. I find Conrad's prose magnificent. The fact that English was not his first language is indeed remarkable.
Thanks so much Mudpuddle. Conrad really touches something in me too.
Thanks Fred. Conrad's descriptions of the physical world are amazing. His characters and what lies beneath them are too.
Thanks WG. I really loved this book. For what it is worth I think that I would have gotten a lot less out of it when I was younger. Spell check is one of the great babes of the modern age :)
Hi CyberKitten - I have never read the Secret Agent. I think that I will do so soon.
Hi Suko. This one is really deep. I felt the same way about Heart of Darkness.
Hi Brian, This is a book I have been thinking about reading for some time and your rexcellent eview has nade it a must. The idea of the shadow self as you say is fascinating. We all think we know ourselves and how we will behave in a crisis. But we get tested in life and sometimes we don't behave with tbe courage and decency we thought we would. I'm wondering if Jim is haunted not so much by the fact that he wasn't as brave as he thought but is it the guilt about the people left on the ship that really bhaunts him?
Indeed, human behavior in a crises is a fascinating topic. I am reading a history book on the French and Indian War. In it is an account of Gearge Washingtons first test under fire. He behaved terribly. He was only 21 years old however. I know that later in his life he showed enormous courage and calm again and again. How we behave even varies with age and experience.
As for guilt, there is a delicious twist in this book on that account.
I've never read Lord Jim but I thought Heart of Darkness fascinating. I like framed stories in general, and I think I would also find the layers upon layers an interesting way to communicate the complexity of conveying the truth of one's story/history.
Hi Jane - Heart of Darkness was a great book. I actually liked this one better.
If you read this one, I would be curious to know what you thought of it.
Hmm I am not a huge fan of lots of descriptions of things within books, Moby Dick really put me off. However you are always so passionate in your reviews I am tempted to check this one out Brian xxx
Hi Lainy - Moby Dick was very unique. This book is also unique in a different way. The descriptions were really heavy. If you did give this a try, I would love to know what you thought of it.
I like these kind of narrative choices (if they're done well), plus the themes the book explores on what is real about a person and consistent about identity. He wrote a short story, An Outpost of Progress, that at one point states how what men think of as their individual character is often just a collection of responses to what they believe are relatively safe, well-organized surroundings.
Nice review, you have me interested in it. Sounds a little like Heart of Darkness -- with the psychology & character study. Hmm. I like ship novels too. Count me in.
Hi Hila - I should read An Outpost of Progress. The themes sound fascinating. These explorations of identity are fascinating.
Thanks Susan. I thought the seagoing parts of the book was fascinating.
I also thought the this was not as dark as Heart of Darkness, but that it was a little better.
Though not one of our 'official' O' level English Lit texts I do remember reading this at school. Not a book that I've read since, perhaps if I were to read it now I'd appreciate it more.
This sounds like an interesting one Brian. I like the passage you shared about the moonlight. "There is something haunting in the light of the moon"...it's so true when you think about it. Also, the moon is held responsible for things ...like when it is a full moon supposedly people tend to act differently or in fiction, it brings out the werewolf.
Enjoy your weekend!
Hi Tracy - I think that I would not have appreciated this when I was younger. Our tastes change over time.
Hi Naida - That is a great passage. Images of the moon are so ingrained in our art and literature and our psyches. This book paints such strong and effective images.
OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, Brian!
From your description, this is a totally FASCINATING book that I should definitely read soon!! Yes, I'm one of those folks who LOVE "philosophical character studies", as you put it. Well said! This is one of the things I love the most about literary fiction! We do get character studies in popular fiction, but they are not usually accompanied by philosophical reflections on the book's characters. The emphasis is on action more than anything else. And, of course, we don't get sublime prose or beautiful descriptions of nature, either. Well, I guess that depends on the author, but, for the most part, descriptions are not all that important in popular fiction, at least not in the nuanced way they're handled in literary fiction.
The use of descriptions of nature as a metaphor for the darkness inside the human soul is truly admirable. People tend to be mostly unaware of their own dark depths, until perhaps circumstances arise which bring these depths to the fore. However, there is also much good in human nature. We are a mixture of light and darkness. So Conrad's contrast of day and night is especially apt.
Had I done what Lord Jim did -- abandon the passengers of a ship as that ship was sinking -- I don't know how I would have lived with myself. It's remarkable that he did not attempt suicide, nor descend into madness. Instead, he ended up being a hero, in another place and time.
I will try to get a copy of this book ASAP! And, in fact, I need to make time to read classics again. As you know, I LOVE Young Adult fiction, and have been reading quite a bit of it for some time now. But the classics, and literary fiction in general, provide a special type of enjoyment that popular fiction lacks. They are literary wine of a far subtler, more sublime vintage.
Thanks for your highly insightful thoughts!! <3 : )
I think that sometimes popular books do include all of the good qualities that you mention. They then attain something of a classic status. But such high quality is few and far between.
Jim’s difficulty with living with his actions is the prime driver of this book. There is an ironic twist to it all that I have not given away.
I love your comparison between great literature and great wine.
this time sounds like completely my type of book Brain !
i am sure i will read it though little later but i will
para you shared here from book is so compelling and intriguing .
i love reading philosophical out look upon human nature and i also love symbolism.
this one sounds all the required embellishments which make it worth reading .
how the central character fantasizes life and how he rises after falling is major appeal ,
thank you so much for such incredible review my friend!
Hi Baili- I think that you would really like this one. If you read it I would love to know what you thought of it.
From that quote alone I can see why you call this superb. I’ve heard a lot about this an Heart of Darkness and they are both on my piles. I should really read them. It’s sound beautiful and profound. Great review, Brian.
Thanks Caroline. I also read Heart of Darkness. I liked this one a little better.
Wonderful review, Brian. I’ve heard that the book is excellent but the descriptions & character insights you remarked upon makes it sound much more than just a good book. Thanks for the thoughtful comments regarding character, shadows etc. Very intriguing!
Thanks Carol - This book is really special. The only other Conrad that I have read is Heart of Darkness. I now want to read more.
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