Lord Jim

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Lord Jim
Joseph Conrad

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, first published in England in 1900, has long been acknowledged as a very difficult book for readers to understand, especially on the first read. However, those who have taken the time to understand the book acknowledge that the effort is worth it. Lord Jim, which Conrad began as a short sketch, grew into a novel that is widely recognized for its modernism—its tendency to buck the conventional narrative trends of its day. The most obvious technique that Conrad used was a shifting form of narration, in which the reader hears a tale first from one narrator, then another, and finally from several disparate accounts.

Like many Conrad novels, this book features autobiographical elements from Conrad's own naval past. The story concerns a young man named Jim, who undertakes the training to become a naval officer, but his certificate is revoked when he deserts his ship during a crisis, leaving eight hundred Moslem pilgrims to what he thinks is a certain death—although the pilgrims live to tell the tale of his cowardice. Jim continually runs from this past, eventually to Patusan, a remote island in the Far East. Here, Jim starts fresh, earning the respect of the natives, who call him Lord Jim and attribute his many successes to supernatural powers. Jim must face the fears from his old life, however, and his ability to finally do this leads to the novel's tragic and ambiguous ending. Conrad's tale is so complex and open to individual interpretation that many critics have noted that the book has no one meaning and that it is all based on a paradox. However, this ambiguity has captivated readers for over a hundred years, and since its publication, many have regarded the book as Conrad's best.

Author Biography

Conrad was born Teodor Józef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in the Polish Ukraine. He was an only child to his parents. His father, Apollo Nalecz, was mainly a poet and translator throughout his life. His mother, Ewa Bobrowska Korzeniowski, was a frail woman, who had come from a good family. Throughout his life, Conrad experienced loss, alienation, and rejection. This trend began with the loss of his parents during childhood. His father allegedly took part in anti-Russian activities and was sent into exile in northern Russia. Together the family endured exile in a harsh land of scarcity and illness, until Conrad's mother died of tuberculosis, sending his father into deep depression. Conrad was sent to his uncle's, and his father died four years later, a profound event in the young Conrad's life.

After receiving his education in Poland, Conrad took a trip through Europe and decided not to return to his homeland. Instead, in 1874, he moved to Marseilles, France, so that he could follow his dream of going to sea. He gained experience as a seaman, and in 1878, at the age of twenty-one, he saw England for the first time and began to sail on English vessels, where he also started to learn the English language; in 1886, Conrad became an English citizen. Conrad's experiences during his twenty years on the sea—during which time he rose through the ranks of the British Merchant Service—gave him the basis for many of his novels, starting with his first novel, Almayer's Folly, published in English in 1895. Conrad had started writing this novel while aboard a river steamer in the Congo. By the time the novel was published, Conrad was done with his life at sea, and he settled into the writing life. Conrad followed up his first novel with a number of other novels based on his maritime experiences, including Heart of Darkness (1899), one of Conrad's most famous works, and Lord Jim (1900), considered by many to be his greatest novel.

In any case, Lord Jim belongs to Conrad's early period as a writer, when Conrad was experimenting with modern narrative techniques, which most critics regard as the high point of his literary artistry. Following Lord Jim, Conrad wrote quickly and prolifically, publishing three more novels over the following five years: Typhoon (1902), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907).

At the outbreak of World War I, Conrad and his family barely escaped being imprisoned in Poland while on vacation. In England, Conrad was offered a knighthood by the British government, which he turned down. Conrad died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924, in Kent, England.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1-12

Lord Jim starts out with a capsule description of Jim—a tall, powerful man—by a third-person narrator, who gives both Jim's background and briefly mentions events that take place far in Jim's future. This jumping around in time is a common technique in the book. As a child, Jim is drawn to the sea and goes into training to be an officer, hoping to be a hero someday. His first attempts at heroism fail, and, in fact, the narrator starts to talk about a mysterious incident that happens to Jim on the Patna but does not explain exactly what happens. At this point, the story shifts to a first-person nar-ration by Marlow, a man Jim meets at his yet unexplained trial. Marlow's language reveals that he is telling Jim's story to a group of people, and the reader is merely listening in. Eventually, the reader learns that Jim was one of the officers aboard the Patna who deserted the ship when they thought it was going to sink, leaving their eight hundred Moslem pilgrims to die. However, the ship is saved, and Jim stands trial for his dishonorable actions.

Chapters 13-21

The night before Jim's sentencing, Marlow offers him money to flee from punishment. Jim refuses to run, and faces his sentencing, which involves the revoking of his naval certificate. Mar-low gives Jim a second chance by referring him to a job with Mr. Denver, the owner of a rice mill. However, when one of the Patna crew shows up and threatens to blackmail Jim for a full-time job, Jim leaves the position. He does this several more times, earning a reputation as a transient individual. When Jim throws a drunken navy officer off a verandah and into a river after the officer makes a remark about the Patna, Marlow realizes that Jim will never get over his guilt unless something is done. Marlow goes to see Mr. Stein, a merchant and butterfly collector, who says that Jim is a romantic and that a romantic cannot be cured, people can only tell them how to live. Marlow then describes the island of Patusan, introducing it to his audience and talking briefly about a visiting the island two years later, when he finds Jim is a changed man.

Chapters 22-27

At this point, Marlow jumps back to the time when he told Jim about Patusan. Although Jim is nervous at first, he warms to the idea of escape there, and Marlow helps him pack, giving him a silver ring that Stein received from Doramin, one of the island's leaders. Jim and Marlow say their emotional goodbyes, and Jim says that he never wants to come back. The narrative agains shifts and Marlow relates the details of his visit to Patusan two years later, when he goes to see Jim and to deliver a business message from Stein about setting up a proper trading post there. Marlow finds that the natives, especially the Bugis Malays, treat Jim with the utmost respect, revering him as "Tuan" Jim, or Lord Jim. Jim sits with Marlow and talks about his first experiences—how he was captured by Rajah Allang, one of the leaders on the island, and how he escaped and went to Doramin—showing him Stein's ring.

Jim learns of the three warring factions: Allang, who wants to have exclusive trading rights; Doramin, a native who opposes Allang and leads the Bugis Malays; and Sherif Ali, a half-Arab who believes in guerilla warfare and who watches over the area from a mountainous stockade, causing problems for the other two factions. Jim introduces Marlow to the monumentally fat leader, Doramin, and his son, Dain Waris. Jim recalls the past, telling Marlow of his great plan to bring peace to the island by dragging cannons up to the top of one mountain to blow up Sherif Ali's stockade, which is on the other mountaintop. The plan works, Dain and another native, Tamb' Itam, pledge themselves to Jim, and he is looked upon as someone with supernatural powers. From this point on, the villagers look to him for truth and justice in all matters.

Chapters 28-35

Following Jim's victory, Allang willingly submits, and the island is peaceful. Everybody assumes that Jim, like other white men, will leave some day, and Doramin hopes that when this day comes, his son, Dain, will rule in Jim's place. Mar-low is unable to assure Doramin that Jim will go back home. Marlow talks about Jewel, the mulatto native whom Jim falls in love with and marries. Her stepfather, Cornelius, Jim's predecessor, does not like Jim. Jim tells Marlow about the night he got the inspiration for the attack on Sherif Ali's stockade and how Jewel supported him in everything, even rescuing him one night by waking him up so that he could defend himself against assassins. While Marlow is staying in Patusan, Jewel expresses her concern that Jim will leave her. When he is pressed, Marlow finally explains that Jim is not good enough for the outside world, but she does not believe it. In a distraught state, Marlow is accosted by Cornelius, who is distressed to learn from him that Jim does not plan on leaving. Marlow leaves Patusan the next morning.

Chapters 36-45

Marlow finishes his part of the story, and his confused audience does not know what to make of this incomplete ending. Two years later, one of the men in the audience gets a package from Marlow, containing the conclusion to the story and more information about Jim, which is spread out over many accounts, including a letter from Marlow, some frantic notes from Jim, a letter from Jim's father dated before Jim's ill-fated voyage on the Patna, a second letter from Marlow, which pieces together the story of Jim's death, and a final sheet of Marlow's notes. Marlow writes about the so-called Gentleman Brown, a dirty pirate who plays the largest role in Jim's death and who considers Jim a coward for not fighting. The narrative jumps back to the previous year, when Marlow visits Stein, and Tamb' Itam is also confused over Jim's unwillingness to fight. Marlow talks to Jewel, who says she can never forgive Jim for leaving her.

The story shifts back to Brown, who has evaded capture by fleeing to Patusan, where he is stopping for supplies on his way to Madagascar. Jim is away from the fort and has left Dain Waris in charge. Both Dain and Jewel want to kill Brown and his men, but the Bugis Malays, afraid that Dain might die if he tries to kill the white men, want to wait for Jim to tell them what to do. When rumors of Brown's reinforcements circulate, Doramin sends Dain and his men downriver to head them off. A native from Allang's party, Kassim, arranges for Cornelius to meet Brown, to encourage an overthrow of Jim. Jim comes back, and Brown confronts him, guessing correctly that Jim, like him, has come to Patusan because he is running away from something. Jim's past haunts him once more, and he appeals to the Bugis to let Brown go, pledging his life against the lives of any Bugis who may be harmed by this decision. He also sends word to Dain not to fire on Brown. However, Cornelius betrays Jim, telling Brown where Dain's men are stationed and how to ambush them. Led by Cornelius, Brown's party kills Dain. Tamb' Itam catches Cornelius and kills him and then goes to talk to Jewel and Jim. Itam and Jewel urge Jim to flee or fight, but Jim feels compelled to adhere to his code of honor and goes to answer for Dain's death. Doramin shoots Jim, who dies with a proud look on his face. Although Jewel and Itam think Jim and his actions are a mystery, Marlow thinks he understands why Jim sacrificed himself and says that Jim took control of his destiny for the first time ever.


Sherif Ali

Sherif Ali is the corrupt head of one of the factions that opposes Jim and the Bugis Malays. After Jim has been with the Bugis for a while, Jewel alerts him to an attack by Ali's assassins. Jim kills one and sends the other three back to Ali as a message. Later, Jim sends a stronger message when he blows up Ali's mountaintop fort using Doramin's cannons.

Rajah Allang

Rajah Allang is the head of the faction that captures Jim when he first arrives at the island. Up until Jim arrives, Allang tries to maintain a monopoly on trade off the island by using force and intimidation. When Jim escapes Allang to Doramin, one of Allang's rivals, Allang chases him, but Doramin protects him. After Jim's successful destruction of Sherif Ali's fortress, Allang does not give him any more trouble and, in fact, becomes very docile around Jim, fearing Jim's charismatic power over the natives.


Blake is one of the two partners of Egström & Blake, a ship-chandler where Jim works for a while as a water-clerk. Blake is the more abusive of the two partners and insists on yelling at everybody who works at the ship-supplies store.


Brierly is the accomplished naval judge at Jim's trial, who commits suicide by jumping into the sea—after realizing that he is a lot like Jim and could easily find himself in Jim's shoes one day.

Gentleman Brown

Gentleman Brown is an unscrupulous pirate who ambushes and kills Dain, setting off the chain of events that leads to Jim's death. Brown calls himself "Gentleman" because he comes from a good family. However, his piracy on the seas has earned him an evil reputation. In the process of fleeing from authorities, he stops in Patusan for supplies on the way to Madagascar. The natives stop him, and he realizes he is outnumbered. While the Bugis await Jim's return so they can receive his input on whether or not to kill Brown and his pirates, most people are anxious to kill them. When Brown meets the famous Lord Jim, he guesses luckily that Jim is hiding in Patusan from a shadowed past, just as he is. This knowledge helps to sway Jim to let Brown go. Once Brown is free, and with the help of Cornelius, he launches his attack on Dain. Interviewing Brown on his deathbed years later, Mar-low tries to account for the circumstances of Jim's puzzlingly submissive death in order to understand Jim's enigmatic actions.

The Captain

The captain of the steamer Patna is Jim's commanding officer on the fateful voyage that leads to Jim's trial. Jim is not impressed by the New South Wales German captain when he sees him, since the man is coarse, tends to scream vulgarities at his crew, and is not too concerned with his appearance. When Jim, the captain, and the two crewman in the lifeboat are picked up by the Avondale, the captain repeats the lie that he and the two crewmen have fabricated about the Patna's demise. This lie is exposed and useless when they reach shore and find out the ship did not sink. Although Jim stands trial for his actions, the captain disappears.


Cornelius is the person who used to hold Jim's job in Patusan and the one who betrays Jim. When Mr. Stein hires Jim to take Cornelius's place, Cornelius is jealous of Jim and immediately dislikes him. Cornelius is verbally abusive to his stepdaughter Jewel, and Jim offers to kill him, but Jewel says that Cornelius is miserable enough as it is. After Jewel and Jim are married, Cornelius seeks a payment in exchange for the loss of his stepdaughter, urging Marlow to persuade Jim to pay. When Cornelius finds out that Jim is not leaving, he searches for a way to get rid of him. He finds his chance in Brown, whom he helps to ambush Dain—an act that leads to Jim's sacrificial death.

Mr. Denver

Marlow gets Jim a job at Mr. Denver's rice mill, which goes well until somebody threatens to blackmail Jim using the Patna affair, and Jim quits. Mr. Denver, who does not understand why, writes an angry letter to Marlow.


Doramin is the enormously fat chief of the Bugis Malays tribe, who kills Jim after Jim's actions lead to the death of Doramin's son, Dain. Doramin has befriended Stein in the past, and when Doramin gives Stein a silver ring denoting their friendship, Stein gives Doramin some cannons in exchange. When Jim escapes from Rajah Allang and comes to Doramin for help, he shows the chief Stein's ring, and Doramin takes him in. Using Do-ramin's cannons, Jim and the Bugis Malays are able to destroy the mountain fortress of Sherif Ali. In the process, Jim becomes great friends with Dain, Doramin's son. Although Doramin is the chief of the tribe, even he often waits for Lord Jim to give his opinion before making a decision, as when he wants to kill Brown but waits for Jim's advice. Unfortunately, when Jim lets Brown go—offering his own life as compensation for any potential deaths—Brown ambushes and kills Dain. Jim presents himself before Doramin, who shoots Jim.


Egström is one of the two partners of Egström & Blake, a ship-chandler where Jim works for a while. Egström ignores the caustic behavior of his partner and tends to the actual management of the ship supplies store. He is very impressed with Jim's performance and does not understand why guilt over the Patna incident makes Jim leave.

The French Lieutenant

The French Lieutenant helps the Patna, after Jim jumps ship, by towing the crippled ship to land. The lieutenant stays on board the Patna for thirty hours. He is willing to let the damaged Patna sink if it starts to even though that means going down with it, if it starts to threaten his own ship. His biggest concern is that the Moslem pilgrims have no wine to drink with dinner.

Media Adaptations

  • Lord Jim was adapted as a black and white, silent film in 1925 by Paramount Pictures. The film was directed by Victor Fleming and featured Percy Marmont as Jim.
  • Lord Jim was adapted as a film in 1965 by Columbia Pictures. The film was directed by Richard Brooks I and featured Peter O'Toole as Jim. It is available as a Columbia Classics video. Lord Jim was adapted as an abridged audio book by HarperCollins Publishers in 1999. It is narrated by Joss Ackland.

Tamb' Itam

Tamb' Itam is Jim's friend and bodyguard. He does not understand why Jim chooses to die. When Jim and Dain lead the attack on Sherif Ali's fortress, Tamb' Itam is right behind them. Along with being Jim's bodyguard and confidant, Tamb' Itam serves as Jim's messenger. When Jim lets Brown go, he dispatches Tamb' Itam to tell Dain not to harm Brown as he passes. While still in Dain's camp, Tamb' Itam witnesses Brown's attack and Dain's death. Tamb' Itam realizes Cornelius has led Brown to the camp and kills Cornelius as a result. Tamb' Itam is the first to reach Jim with the news of Dain's death. He, like Jewel, does not understand why Jim will not either fight or flee Doramin, but he respects Jim enough to obey his wishes.


Jewel is Jim's wife, who never forgives him after he willingly chooses to sacrifice his life. When Jim arrives in Patusan, he and Jewel, a mulatto native of the island, fall madly in love. She is worried about Jim leaving Patusan some day, even when both Jim and Marlow tell her that this is not an option, since the outside world does not want Jim. She is fiercely protective of Jim and warns him of assassins that try to kill him. She is also receptive to his ideas. However, when he says he is not going to fight or flee Doramin, who will surely try to kill him for Dain's death, Jewel accuses him of lying and abandoning her. Later, after Jim's death, Jewel speaks with Marlow at Stein's place and is still bitter and confused over her husband's choice to die.

Lord Jim

Lord Jim is the title character who redeems a life haunted by shame when he offers his life as payment for the life of his dead friend. Jim is an idealistic young man who dreams of being a hero and tries to achieve this dream by becoming a naval officer. His first attempts at glory are failures, yet he waits for his chance. When he deserts his ship, the Patna, leaving eight hundred Moslem pilgrims to what he thinks will be a horrible death, Jim feels he has betrayed himself. When the ship does not sink and the public trial of Jim reveals his actions, he loses his commission and can no longer serve as an officer. Through the help of Marlow, an older naval captain, Jim tries to reestablish himself by working in a job that Marlow gets for him. However, when somebody mentions the Patna incident, he leaves the job and goes to a different town. After doing this several times, his reputation becomes synonymous with the Patna incident. In an attempt to help him get away from all of this and start fresh, Marlow arranges for Jim to go to Patusan, a remote island in the Far East.

In Patusan, Jim finds a new life and a people who do not know of his past. Through a number of heroic deeds, including the overthrow of one of the two factions that war with the Bugis Malays—Jim's chosen tribe—Jim gains the respect of the Malays, who call him "Tuan," or "Lord," Jim and who believe he has supernatural powers. From this point on, they look to Jim to solve their disputes and tell them what to do. Jim marries Jewel, a mulatto woman who was born in Patusan, and his life is starting to fall into place, as Marlow sees when he visits Jim. However, at the arrival of a pirate who calls himself Gentleman Brown, the tide turns. When Jim's friend Dain is ambushed and killed by Brown on his way out of Patusan, Jim's wife and friends encourage him to fight or flee. However, Jim refuses to run again and presents himself to Dain's father, holding himself accountable for Dain's death. Jim seems happy as he dies, realizing that, for once, he has stayed true to his beliefs.


Marlow is the person who serves as narrator for most of the tale. Marlow first speaks in the fifth chapter of the book, when the narration switches from third-person omniscient to first-person narration. Marlow, an old sea captain who features prominently in other Conrad tales, narrates the tale from this point for most of the book, presumably telling Jim's tale as an afterdinner story. When Marlow first meets Jim at the formal inquiry for the Patna incident, he is ready to dislike Jim, thinking that Jim is remorseless for his actions, as his cool demeanor seems to indicate. However, as Mar-low gets to know the young man, he realizes that Jim is ashamed of his actions and tormented by guilt. The night before Jim is to be sentenced, Mar-low offers Jim money and the chance to run away before his sentencing. Jim declines, not wishing to run. After Jim's commission is revoked, Marlow gives him a second chance by recommending him for a job. Marlow is glad to hear from Jim's employer that Jim is working out well, but he is distressed when he finds out shortly thereafter that Jim has left the job. When Marlow inquires into the particulars, he realizes that Jim left because somebody had brought up the Patna incident. This happens several more times, at which point Marlow seeks out the services of Mr. Stein, a merchant and butterfly collector.

With Stein's help, Marlow is able to send Jim to the remote island of Patusan, where Stein's friendship with one of the tribes, the Bugis Malays, helps Jim to win favor early on. Marlow visits Jim two years later and is impressed to see how Jim has been transformed from a guilt-ridden young man into a confident leader. Everybody assumes that Jim, a white man, will not stay for long in Patusan, since most whites leave the island after awhile. Jim's wife, Jewel, thinks Jim will leave her and asks Marlow about why Jim cannot go back to the white world. Although Mar-low tries to indicate that Jim is not wanted, she does not believe him. Marlow leaves the island shortly thereafter and never sees Jim again. At this point, Marlow ends his yet incomplete tale. However, for the next two years, Marlow seeks out information about Jim, including the events surrounding his death. He travels around the world interviewing witnesses, including the pirate Brown. At one point, he compiles all of these accounts, along with other items written by and to Jim, and sends them to one of his guests from the dinner party where he started telling the tale. Although Jim is the main protagonist in the tale, Marlow also undergoes changes as he tries to come to grips with why Jim acted the way he did on Patusan.

Mr. Stein

Mr. Stein is Marlow's friend, a merchant who offers Jim the chance to go to Patusan. Mr. Stein is a wealthy man, having made his fortune in business. However, he is a romantic and a naturalist and loves nothing more than collecting butterflies and beetles. He recounts to Marlow one day the story of when he found a particularly rare butterfly. He says that he felt at that point that his life was fulfilled and he could die. However, he lives for many years and is distraught over Jim's death, which he does not understand. When Mar-low comes to see him after Jim's death, he finds Jewel and Tamb' Itam staying with Stein.

Dain Waris

Dain is Jim's friend and Doramin's only son, who is killed in an ambush by Brown. Dain is a strong warrior, who eagerly leads battles, as when he and Jim lead the attack on the fort of Sherif Ali. Dain and Jim become best friends, and Dain trusts Jim's opinion, even when he does not agree with him. Dain wants to kill Brown and his men but holds off when Jim instructs him to. As a result, he is at ease and not prepared for Brown's ambush, which takes his life.



The novel is saturated with the idea of betrayal and the consequences that result from it. The defining incident in the book, the Patna incident, is horrible in many people's eyes because of the betrayal involved. When Jim decides to jump into a lifeboat, leaving the passengers to what he thinks is a certain death, he betrays both his code as an officer and his personal code of heroism. When he first starts on his path to be an officer, he has visions of his "saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane," and other heroic deeds. When he betrays that by abandoning the Patna's passengers, the effect on his psyche is immediate, as he equates the physical jump from the ship with a fall from the heroism he so adored: "He had tumbled from a height he could never scale again." Jim is not the only one who either betrays or feels the effects of betrayal. At the end of the novel, Jim is betrayed by Cornelius, who, unbeknownst to him, dislikes him. Jim sends Cornelius as a messenger to the pirate, Brown, but Cornelius uses the opportunity to let Brown know that he "is acquainted with a backwater broad enough to take Brown's boat past Dain's camp." This information leads to an ambush of Dain, who dies in the process. Dain's death, in turn, leads to Jim presenting himself to Dain's father, holding himself accountable for his friend's death. When he does this, Jim's wife, Jewel, thinks he is betraying her: "'You are false!' she screamed out after Jim." Although Jim asks for her forgiveness, she is stung by what she sees as his betrayal of her, and she never forgives him for his death.


Heroism is another major theme in the book. In addition to Jim's early heroic daydreams, Mar-low also notes some "heroism" in Patusan's past, when the demand for pepper was such that men would "cut each other's throats without hesitation … the bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in a thousand shapes … it made them heroic." Of course, these are not the heroes of legend, or even of Jim's daydreams, who put their lives on the line for good deeds. For these men, the motivation is "mere greed," not altruism. However, Jim himself does exhibit the true kind of heroism that he aspires to do. After he has been staying with the Bugis Malays in Patusan for a while, he gets a vision one night of how he can conquer the other warring tribes and thus bring peace to the island. Although "he had to drive it into reluctant minds," his idea finally takes hold, and Jim coordinates the massive effort of moving Doramin's heavy cannons up onto the mountaintop that faces Sherif Ali's "impregnable camp." After their successful attack on Ali, which destroys their rival's camp, Jim is made into a supernatural hero, and stories get around that he "had carried the guns up the hill on his back—two at a time." Jim becomes a superior being in the eyes of the natives, and he finally achieves the heroism that he craves.


Although many themes can be determined from Conrad's complex novel, the majority of them can be based on one larger theme that permeates the others: beliefs. What the characters believe is extremely important to understanding them. At the beginning, although young Jim dreams that he wants to be a hero, when he is put to the test on the Patna, his actions show that he believes first and foremost in his survival. Jim is not the only one. When Marlow talks to the French lieutenant whose ship rescues the Patna and tows it to shore, he notes that, even though he willingly stayed with the debilitated steamer, "all the time of towing we had two quartermasters stationed with axes by the hawsers, to cut us clear of our tow in case she…." The man does not finish the sentence, but his meaning is clear: his ship's survival comes before the Patna's.

In Patusan, after Jim has become a hero and a leader of the people, he meets Brown, a despicable sort, whom most of Jim's people advocate killing. However, Jim believes "that it would be best to let these whites and their followers go with their lives. It would be a small gift." Since Jim is a nice person, who believes in his heart that all people will be good if given a chance, he advocates letting Brown and his men go. ("It is evident that he didn't mistrust Brown.") Even though this move backfires on Jim, he is true to his beliefs in the end when he adheres to his romantic and idealized notion of honor by presenting himself before Dain's father and making himself accountable for Dain's death. At this point, unlike in the beginning, holding true to a code of ethics is more important to Jim than survival. "He hath taken it upon his own head," one of the members of the crowd around Dain's body says. For once, Jim chooses his destiny and dies knowing he has done the right thing by adhering to his beliefs.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research what life was like as a sailor in the 1890s. What did it take to get this kind of job? Put yourself in the place of a sailor from this time period and write a mock letter home to a family member who is considering a life at sea. Provide this family member with details about the daily life of a sailor, including duties, types of food available, and any pastimes or recreational activities.
  • In the story, the captain and Jim are taking Moslem pilgrims to the Holy Land. Research the history of such voyages from this time period. How does Conrad's account differ? How is it similar?
  • Create a world map that indicates, in numbered order, all of the places that Jim has been in the world, using the text as your guide. Connect these destinations using one line. Now, research Conrad's own history on the seas, and plot these destinations on the same map. After you have drawn a line connecting these, compare Conrad's real-life journeys with those taken by Jim in the book.
  • In the story, Jim befriends the Bugis Malays, who are long familiar with white faces, having been besieged by them when Patusan was regarded as a treasure trove for the pepper it held. Research actual colonization stories from around this time period, and discuss how the outside influence has affected the colonized area, the surrounding area, and the world in the past century.



Narration is the most obvious technique that Conrad uses in Lord Jim. In the first line of the first chapter, the reader is introduced to the title character in the following way: "He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he … made you think of a charging bull." For the first four chapters, narration continues in this way, in the third person, with an unseen, omniscient narrator, who introduces Jim and gives details about his background. Then, starting in the fifth chapter, Conrad introduces a first-person narrator, Mar-low—a character from some of Conrad's earlier stories—who continues to tell Jim's story to the reader: "And it's easy enough to talk of Master Jim." Marlow talks of Jim for the remainder of the book, sometimes giving his own view of experiences he had with Jim. The first of these recollections describes how he met Jim at the inquiry into the Patna disaster: "My eyes met his for the first time at that inquiry." At other times, when Marlow is talking about parts of Jim's life when he was not present, Marlow gives the perspective of somebody else who was there: "I am sorry that I can't give you this part of the story, which of course I have mainly from Brown, in Brown's own words." These many accounts of the one story underscore the many ambiguities in the novel.


Lord Jim is a good example of a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which a young protagonist must face painful challenges on his or her road to adulthood. Bildungsromans are educational novels that show how other young people have weathered the necessary initiation into adult society, with its mature values. In his case, Jim is plagued by his act of betrayal, when he forsook his duty and left the Moslem passengers to die on the Patna without trying to save them. This shameful episode haunts him wherever he goes and affects the course of his life; Jim ends up leaving several jobs where he is happy, when anything even close to the Patna incident is mentioned. When Jim's boss at Egström & Blake, a firm that sells provisions for ships, tells him, "This business ain't going to sink," even the unintentional reference to sinking is enough to speed Jim's departure. However, Jim eventually finds peace and happiness in Patusan, and when the past is mentioned again, he does not run from it. Instead, in the end, he faces up to his past, and when he is forced to be sacrificed out of honorable duty to his slain friend, he accepts his fate with "a proud and unflinching glance." As Marlow notes at the very end of the story, "Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success." Jim's mature, adult life is only "a short moment," much shorter than most protagonists who weather the storms of youth to become adults and who usually live to tell the tale themselves.


Lord Jim is regarded by many as one of the best examples of literary modernism, a type of narrative writing that distinguished itself from most other late-nineteenth-century novels. Modern novels are often harder to read, requiring more work on the part of the author's audience. However, the payoff is also larger for the reader. Rather than use one narrator to tell his story straightforward, in chronological order—or at least in a simple order that is easily understandable to the reader—Conrad tries techniques that were relatively new at that time. As mentioned above, he employs more than one narrator. Also, Conrad keeps the reader in suspense by manipulating time in confusing ways. The author describes in chronological order the events that lead up to the Patna incident, but he only alludes to what is actually happening: "What had happened? The wheezy thump of the engines went on. Had the earth been checked in her course? They could not understand."

And neither can the reader, especially when at the start of the next chapter, Conrad has jumped ahead in time to the inquiry at which Jim is explaining his actions: "the official inquiry was being held in the police court of an Eastern port. He stood elevated in the witness-box." The reader knows that something bad has happened, and as the chapter goes on, suspects that the something is horrible: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" However, the horrible something is not revealed in full until many chapters later, when readers learn that Jim has deserted the Moslem passengers, but that against all odds the ship did not sink: "And still she floated!" In fact, where Jim and his crew failed, "two Malays had meantime remained holding to the wheel," thereby making Jim's embarrassment even deeper. Conrad uses this technique of delaying crucial background information many times in the novel. Using complex narrative techniques like multiple narrators and chronological ambiguity is a hallmark of the modern novel, which Conrad helped to develop through works like Lord Jim.

Historical Context

Conrad wrote his novel at the dawn of the twentieth century, when the world was rapidly changing in many ways. One of the biggest changes was the massive and widespread colonization of islands and other remote lands by European countries and by the United States—in many cases to establish trade or military posts. These colonization efforts, which in many places had begun centuries earlier, came to a head in several conflicts and events at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1892, France, eager to gain more control over West Africa's interior, where it already had many holdings, launched a campaign against Da-homey—a country that provided much-needed access to the south coast of West Africa. The bitter conflict, in which the Dahomeyan army launched themselves at French forces several times, ended with a victory for France, although both sides suffered many losses.

In 1893, the United States, foreseeing the need for a military base in the Pacific Ocean near the rising power of Japan, annexed the Hawaiian is-lands—of which Pearl Harber on the island of Oahu had already been ceded to the United States six years earlier. Although the United States came prepared to wage war if necessary, landing scores of marines who surrounded the Hawaiian capital, it was an easy annexation, as the islanders did not fight back. Queen Liliuokalani, who had been concerned about the increasing American influence, was deposed.

In 1894, England, wishing to strengthen the hold it maintained on South Africa, launched a war against the Matabele warriors who inhabited Matabeleland, modern-day Zimbabwe. Dr. Jameson, the administrator of Mashonaland, one of the neighboring English colonies, declared the war after Matabele warriors raided some Mashona natives working for the English. It was a very quick battle, as the English carried guns, whereas the Matabele warriors brandished spears.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1890s: Horribly outnumbered, the British lose their battle with the Boers in South Africa's Cape Colony. However, since the Boers fail to place some of their men in strategically important places, they lose the opportunity to eradicate the British, who still have access to their naval base and supplies.

    Today: After decades of political instability brought on by strife between whites and blacks in South Africa, the region is enjoying an uneasy peace.
  • 1890s: The United States engages in a fierce jungle war in the Phillippines, which have been recently surrendered by Spain to America, al though American citizens are divided in their support over the conflict.

    Today: The United States engages in a fierce desert war in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. The majority of American citizens support this war, which resulted from terrorist attacks in the United States.
  • 1890s: Jewish French Captain Alfred Dreyfus is found guilty of betraying his country by spying for Germany; he is sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island off French Guiana. Later that same decade, Dreyfus is formally pardoned by the French government in an attempt to end the allegations of anti-Semitism in the bitter controversy known as the Dreyfus Affair.

    Today: After the United States is attacked by Middle Eastern terrorists, many citizens of Middle Eastern descent are detained and interrogated by the American government over their possible connection with the terrorist groups. In several cases, these people are found innocent and released.

In 1896, following the direction of an Italian government that sought the success of foreign conquest as a mask for troubles at home, General Baratieri and his army of sixteen thousand occupied northern Tigre. Ethiopa, angered by this affront, launched an army of one hundred thousand (many of whom carried Italian rifles) against the Baratieri, leaving almost half of the Italian force dead and sending a shockwave throughout Europe, which had been used to winning its battles.

In 1898, when Cuban rebels began to fight for their independence from Spain, a number of American newspapers created sensationalistic stories about the brutality that the Spanish were supposedly visiting upon the Cubans. The American public, and indeed Congress, spurred on by this hype, encouraged President McKinley to declare war on Spain, although McKinley was reluctant to do so at first. After the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in a Havana harbor, which was sent to protect United States citizens resident in Cuba, war was inevitable. Within a couple of months, America had won. In the peace treaty drawn up later that year, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines to the United States for twenty million dollars.

Critical Overview

In the 1992 article Lord Jim: After the Truth, Ross C. Murfin notes that the book "was generally well received" on its first publication in 1900. Murfin says that reviewers were fond of "the novel's romance, the faraway feelings it evoked, and the original poetry of Conrad's language." However, they "decidedly did not like … Conrad's way of telling his story, the odd narrative method that gives structure to the novel." The anonymous reviewer in the New York Tribune notes that even though the book "is a long narrative … it should be read, if possible, at a sitting…. because Mr. Conrad's mode of composition demands it." However, this reviewer was ultimately able to look past what could be an inconvenience and declared Lord Jim "a book of great originality, and it exerts a spell such as is rarely encountered in modern fiction." Another anonymous reviewer, for the Spectator, called the book "a strange narrative" and named it "Mr. Conrad's latest and greatest work."

Reviewers throughout the twentieth century had various reactions to the work, which was in retrospect identified as a modernist creation for its tendency to break the narrative conventions of the day. Although many early critics were confused by Conrad's ambiguous narrative structure, later critics, such as Paul B. Armstrong in the 1950s, note that Marlow "paradoxically feels at times that he knows less about Jim the more he acquires opinions about him. Each interpretation seems 'true,' at least to some extent." Another critic from the 1950s, Albert J. Guerard, notes the ambiguity of the novel but talks about the "psycho-moral" implications, which have "no easy solution."

In 1979, Ian Watt, in Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, drew attention to the sources that Conrad used in his composition, following the progression of the novel from its first appearance as a small sketch. Watt believes that understanding this path is important "because it provides some initial clues both to the narrative form and the thematic development of the novel." In Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan's 1991 book, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, the author notes that "A somewhat crude but useful distinction can be made between 'first generation' and 'second generation' critics of the novel." Erdinast-Vulcan identifies this first generation as focusing on creating "a stable ethical code by which Jim's story is to be judged," while she sees the second-generation critics regarding the novel as an unsolvable, "modernist expression." For her part, Erdinast-Vulcan sees the novel as an attempt to defeat the modern temper "by a regression to a mythical mode of discourse," using the term "'identifiction' to denote a literary text or genre on which a fictional character construes his or her identity." In other words, Conrad relies on traditional forms to tell Jim's story, which is romanticized to fit the genre.

Questions of Jim's authenticity and what, in fact, Conrad intended the novel to mean have plagued the book throughout its existence, although, as with the early critics, most modern critics acknowledge Conrad's literary artistry. The book has so captivated critical and public minds that in 2000, on the book's one hundredth anniversary, leading Conrad scholars were called together for a special publication, Lord Jim: Centennial Essays. As Allan H. Simmons, one of the editors of the book, notes in his essay, "'He Was Misleading': Frustrated Gestures in Lord Jim":

Ultimately, the novel is based on a paradox that invites us to admire commitment to an ideal that can never be justified: the quest for an underlying moral truth that will somehow explain Jim implies the belief that such a truth exists; yet the belief itself is unsustainable.


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette holds a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses the religious qualities of Conrad's novel, Lord Jim.

In his 1982 book, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels, J. Hillis Miller echoes the same belief that many critics have held since the first publication of Lord Jim in 1900. Says Miller, the book "reveals itself to be a work which raises questions rather than answering them. The fact that it contains its own interpretations does not make it easier to understand." The enigmatic quality of Conrad's difficult book, found both in its complex narrative structure and in its capacity for yielding several conflicting interpretations, is inevitably part of any discussion about the work. Conrad was an acknowledged master at his art, and Lord Jim was written when the author was in the strongest, most experimental phase of his career, so the reader can surmise that this enigma was intentional. In fact, by examining Lord Jim in light of its religious references and themes, Jim's spiritual journey, and his ambiguous, messiah-like death, one realizes that Conrad is ultimately encouraging readers to examine their own beliefs.

A reader might be struck by the overwhelming number of religious references that Conrad includes. The book is positively saturated with religious words, which manifest themselves in a number of ways, from a number of people. When Jim is first introduced, the omniscient narrator says that Jim has "the patience of Job," a biblical character from the Old Testament whose faith was tried by God through a number of brutal trials. God is also mentioned directly many times in the novel. Even those who are not particularly devout, such as Chester, the slimy opportunist who tries to get Marlow to have Jim work for him on one of his colonial projects, invoke the name of God. This is true even when telling stories that are morally suspect: "the Lord God knows the right and the wrong of that story." Devils are also mentioned several times, such as when Conrad talks about the depths the lazy seamen will go to when trying to find easy work: "They … would have served the devil himself had he made it easy enough." Marlow says to his audience at one point, "I am willing to believe each of us has a guardian angel." Even descriptions of the coarse German captain of the Patna occasionally reference the divine: "The German lifted two heavy fists to heaven and shook them a little without a word."

These are but a handful of the religious references that are scattered throughout the book, underscoring the book's theme of beliefs. These references are particularly apparent during the descriptions of the ill-fated Patna. The steamer is carrying a large group of Moslem pilgrims, "Eight hundred men and women with faith and hopes," who "at the call of an idea … had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers." Indeed, through his language, Conrad depicts a war between good and evil, believers and non-believers. When he describes the lighthouse that the Patna passes, he notes that it was "planted by unbelievers on a treacherous shoal" and that it "seemed to wink at her its eye of flame, as in derision of her errand of faith." However, derision is not enough to stop the Patna and its devout passengers from reaching their destination, and Conrad gives an early indication that the ship is being protected by a higher power: "The nights descended on her like a benediction." The word benediction is a religious term used to denote a blessing. This is an odd way to describe a nightfall at sea, so it becomes one of the obvious cues that Conrad uses to underscore the religious tone of the story.

Later on, the reference is more direct. When Jim sees that the ship has beaten the odds and is still floating, he notes that the "sleeping pilgrims were destined to accomplish their whole pilgrimage" and remarks that it "was as if the Omnipotence whose mercy they confessed … had looked down to make a sign, 'Thou shalt not!' to the ocean."

The figure of Jim is juxtaposed next to this highly religious, almost miraculous incident. Jim has become a naval officer because he hopes to be a real hero someday, putting his life at risk for the benefit of somebody else. However, Jim is human, which means he is flawed. When the moment comes when he can prove his heroism, he panics, and, for whatever reason—Conrad makes it unclear in the end as to why Jim acts the way he does—deserts the ship, taking a symbolic fall from heroism to shame as he jumps into one of the lifeboats, leaving the eight hundred passengers in his care to go under on the partially sunken ship. Jim feels the effects of his actions right away: "There was no going back. It was as if I had jumped into a well—into an everlasting deep hole." The use of the word everlasting is particularly telling. In the Christian sense, Jim has "fallen" from grace, and fallen souls, if not redeemed, will be cast into an eternity of hell, another everlasting deep hole. From this point on in the story, Jim embarks on a spiritual journey, which Conrad paints in biblical terms at times. When Marlow is discussing the stormy night following Jim's trial and subsequent expulsion from officer service, Marlow uses some curious terms: "The downpour fell with the heavy uninterrupted rush of a sweeping flood, with a sound of unchecked overwhelming fury." For Marlow, these sounds call "to one's mind the images of collapsing bridges, of uprooted trees, or undermined mountains." This type of description evokes images of the flood that God calls forth in the Old Testament to wipe the earth clean of sinners.

Of course, the analogy is not a perfect one. Jim is not Noah, the one virtuous man whom God spared from the flood. Also in the Hebrew Bible, the Flood occurs long after the Genesis of Man, whereas in Lord Jim, Jim does not experience his genesis into his new life until he reaches Patusan, where "he left his earthly failings behind him." This reliance on certain biblical events in an unconventional order prevents the story from becoming a true allegory, a type of story in which many characters, settings, and events have a symbolic quality within the context of one greater theme. Jim is not Christ and attempting to label him as the Christian messiah while labeling the other aspects of the story as Christian symbols is a futile enterprise.

So if Jim is not Noah or Christ, who is he? At one point, after his near-death in the marshy Patusan creek, he becomes Adam, as Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan notes in her book Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper: "He wakes up, covered with mud and 'alone of his kind' as Adam was when he was created." Just as Adam was pure and seems alien to modern, "fallen" humans, so does Jim appear to the natives of Patusan, although for different reasons: "He pelted straight on in his socks, beplas-tered with filth out of all semblance to a human being." This view of Jim as something other than a normal human is perpetuated as he begins to live among the Bugis Malays and leads the battle to destroy the camp of their rival, Sherif Ali. After this, the natives "called him Tuan Jim: as one might say—Lord Jim." The villagers create a legend around Jim, which, by the time Marlow visits him, "had gifted him with supernatural powers." The natives think that Jim has performed miracles, perhaps Christ-like to the reader, such as carrying heavy cannons "up the hill on his back—two at a time." In fact, the natives view Jim with "a strange mixture of familiarity and awe."

Once Conrad establishes the religious undertone of the book and then paints Jim as a religious messiah, he stays true to the fate of most messiahs and has Jim die at the ending of the book. However, even the way that Jim dies points to the religious theme. The last part of the book, which details the events that lead up to Jim's death, deviates from the rest of the narrative. For the majority of the book, Marlow narrates Jim's tale to a group of friends, based on what he has heard from Jim or experienced himself. But when Marlow ends his portion of the tale, Conrad finishes the story by using several, sometimes disparate accounts from various narrators. As Paul B. Armstrong notes in his article, "Monism and Pluralism in Lord Jim" for the Centennial Review: "considered as a group, the readings do not fit together. And because they are finally irreconcilable, they frustrate Marlow's attempt to develop a coherent, comprehensive view of Jim as much as they aid it." This narrative method evokes an image of the Bible, which was also written by several authors, who sometimes contradict each other in their telling of certain events. The events surrounding the death of Christ in the New Testament have been particularly scrutinized, since there is no one account that tells the events in chronological order, from beginning to end.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Muhummad Asad's The Road to Mecca (2001) is a book about the author's journey through the Islamic world. The book discusses four different aspects about the journey: geographical, historical, linguistic, and spiritual.
  • Almayer's Folly, Conrad's first novel, originally published in 1895, depicts a trader in the South Seas who becomes mired in the Malaysian environment through his business and his marriage and cannot leave to go back to Europe, as he wishes to. This book critiques the colonialism that was prevalent in Conrad's day.
  • Conrad's Heart of Darkness, originally published in 1899, details Marlow's journey into the Congo to find a man who has gone mad and is hiding out in the jungle. The book inspired the famous movie Apocalypse Now, which set Conrad's story in Vietnam.
  • Conrad's Typhoon, originally published in 1902, is a story about a man who spends his life at sea, writing monthly letters home to his uncaring wife. When he and his crew face a storm like no other, Conrad illustrates how different men react in crisis situations. The last part of the story is told by the letters that the captain and crew have written to their significant others.
  • Conrad's Under Western Eyes, originally published in 1911, takes place in Russia, where a philosophy student gets caught up with a group of political refugees who plot a murder. His conscience causes him to confess to the police and then to tell his friends what he has done, even though he endangers his life by doing so.
  • Conrad's Victory: An Island Tale, originally published in 1915, is a story about a man who lives in isolation in the South Pacific. He has a chance meeting with an English girl who is part of a touring orchestra group, rescues her from a man named Schomberg, and brings her back to his island home. Schomberg sends his henchmen to retrieve the English girl and kill the man.
  • Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, originally published in 1886, is a story about a man who achieves status, power, and esteem only to lose it all when events from his past come to light and when his greed and bad judgment get the better of him.
  • Adam Hochschild's, King Leopold's Ghost, published in 1998, depicts the true story of a greedy Belgian king who committed horrific acts but who is largely unknown when compared with other brutal rulers like Hitler. During the time of European colonization, King Leopold II frantically scrambled to claim other countries as his own and won the modern-day Congo. His reign of terror killed several million indigenous people, while the remaining survivors were left to harvest rubber and mine ore.

Conrad mimics this style, especially at the end, turning the events surrounding Jim's death into legend, as he paints Jim as a Christ-like figure. When he is faced with imminent death, as Christ was, Jim does not flinch from his destiny and instead chooses to conquer by submitting: "There was nothing to fight for. He was going to prove his power in another way and conquer the fatal destiny itself." As Ross C. Murfin notes in his book, Lord Jim: After the Truth, "Christ's 'new' law of self-sacrifice" is "at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith." Like Christ, Jim ultimately dies for somebody else's sins. Christ died for the sins of all humanity, including his enemies', as Jim dies for the actions of Cornelius and Brown, the enemies who seal Jim's fate when they kill Dain and force Jim to make good on his promise to be accountable for the death. "I am come ready and unarmed," Jim says, when he presents himself to Dain's father, who immediately kills Jim. Says Erdinast-Vulcan of Jim, "He perishes, like a true biblical or mythical hero, by his own word."

In the end, many readers, like Marlow, walk away confused, feeling, as Marlow felt at one point, that Jim stands "at the heart of a vast enigma." It appears that Conrad has deliberately structured his story so that it negates a decisive interpretation. Even in this essay, where an abundance of religious references, Jim's spiritual journey, and the narrative method surrounding Jim's ambiguous death have been used as support to show Conrad's religious undertone, one cannot pin Conrad down to an overall guiding thematic structure—which is exactly how Conrad wanted it. Jim's life and death will hold different meanings for different readers, just as Marlow, Jewel, and Tamb' Itam all elicit widely different interpretations. Whether one views Jim as a redeemed human, a religious messiah, or a foolish romantic, in the end it is only relevant to the individual reader. The meaning of Jim's life, like the meaning of life in general, is ultimately beyond human explanation. The important thing is to be true to one's individual beliefs, religious or otherwise, as Jim is true to his beliefs in the end and so dies a fulfilled man—even if most of those left behind do not agree with or understand his actions.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Lord Jim, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Douglas Hewitt

In the following essay, Hewitt discusses Lord Jim in contrast with Heart of Darkness.

Lord Jim was begun immediately after Conrad had finished writing 'Youth' in the summer of 1898, dropped for a time, taken up again after he had written Heart of Darkness, and finished in the summer of 1900. 'My first thought', he says in the 'Author's Note' to the Collected Edition, 'was of a short story, concerned only with the pilgrim ship episode; nothing more'. But later he perceived that

the pilgrim ship episode was a good starting-point for a free and wandering tale; that it was an event, too, which could conceivably colour the whole 'sentiment of existence' in a simple and sensitive character.

Signs of this change in conception may be discerned, though not where we might expect to find them—in a thinness of material or an untidy linking of an illogical second part. Rather are they apparent in a certain muddlement throughout, an uncertainty of the final impression intended by Conrad.

In terms of plot there are undoubtedly two parts to the story: the defection of Jim and the disaster after he seems to have rehabilitated himself; certainly the second part has been added. But, as we have seen, and as I hope to show here in more detail, they are intimately connected. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine the first part alone as a satisfactory story—certainly as a story by Conrad; the account of a cowardly leap for safety alone could hardly be enough; it demands development.

The general lines of the story are given in miniature in the first chapter. Jim, having developed a romantic view of himself as one who will meet crises with calmness and determination, is not shaken in this faith by his failure to reach the cutter of his training ship when it puts out to effect a rescue. In the main crisis of the first part of the novel the failure is repeated under circumstances where he offends most unequivocally against 'the obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct'. His crime is described in terms which are reminiscent of some passages of 'Heart of Darkness'—in terms of what, in that story, is called 'sordid farce'.

It was part of the burlesque meanness pervading that particular disaster at sea that they did not come to blows. It was all threats, all a terribly effective feint, a sham from beginning to end….

There is a flavour of shameless farce about all the weaknesses and crimes of which Conrad writes at this time; his mean characters are all horribly comic.

Jim's offence is one upon which the Court of Enquiry can have no mercy. But he insists on what, to many of the spectators, seems like trying to brazen it out. Brierly's question: 'Why eat all that dirt?' sums up the feeling of most of them. His hope, however, is that he can rehabilitate himself; as in his first failure in the training ship, he is still sure that at bottom he is ready for any emergency, that he has only been betrayed by circumstances. He will not accept his weakness and stay in a place where men know his story, and so he is driven farther and farther eastwards in the search for a refuge where he can start with a clean sheet and establish himself as a trustworthy man.

Finally, in the jungle settlement of Patusan, he rises to be 'Lord Jim', one whose authority and honour are never questioned and on whom all the natives are dependent. It seems that he has successfully isolated himself from his past, in a place where

The stream of civilization, as if divided on a headland a hundred miles north of Patusan, branches east and south-west, leaving its plains and valleys, its old trees and its old mankind, neglected and isolated.

But, despite the fact that he has achieved 'the conquest of love, honour, men's confidence', his past comes in search of him. Gentleman Brown and his crew of cut-throats penetrate the 'wall of forests' which shuts Jim in his isolation. Physically the people of Patusan are more than a match for Brown, but mentally Jim is helpless before this man who combines with his ferocity 'a vehement scorn for mankind at large and for his victims in particular' and who 'would rob a man as if only to demonstrate his poor opinion of the creature'. Everything that Brown says recalls Jim's past weakness, undermines his certainty that he has put behind him a cowardice that was only momentary.

He asked Jim whether he had nothing fishy in his life to remember that he was so damnedly hard upon a man trying to get out of a deadly hole by the first means that came to hand—and so on and so on. And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience; a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like a bond of their minds and of their hearts.

Jim finds that 'his fate, revolted, was forcing his hand'. We remember the 'unforeseen partnership' with Kurtz which Marlow accepts in 'Heart of Darkness'; but here there is an explicit weakness in Jim to which the partner appeals, and he confronts this appeal under circumstances which make his actions of vital importance for all the inhabitants of Patusan. He speaks no more than the truth when he says: 'I am responsible for every life in the land'. Unable to disown Brown, he brings disaster on the village, takes the death of the chief's son on his own head, and is killed as punishment.

In enlarging the simple story of the pilgrim ship episode, however, Conrad makes a more significant addition than the second half of the story; he introduces Marlow, who, although he does not appear as storyteller until the fifth chapter, is the person to whom we naturally look for commentary and judgment. Judgment we find in plenty—but, far from clarifying the moral issues, Marlow's reflections only succeed in making them more confused.

We remain at the end, I believe, uncertain as to what our verdict on Jim is meant to be. Many views are put before us. The elderly French lieutenant's is clear:

But the honour—the honour, monsieur!… The honour … that is real—that is! And what life may be worth when … when the honour is gone—ah ?a ! par exemple—I can offer no opinion.

This discourages Marlow; he feels that the lieutenant has 'pricked the bubble'. Yet at times he seems to see Jim as expiating his fault by taking on himself the punishment for the disaster to the village, finally re-establishing his honour. At other times a totally different verdict seems to be presented, as in the conclusion:

But we can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct.

We remain uncertain whether Jim's moment of panic is one which can be expiated or whether, in the judgment of Marlow the seaman, it has placed him for ever beyond the possibility of forgiveness, uncertain, indeed, whether he is to be blamed for hoping that his weakness can be forgotten or for being so morbidly conscious of it.

The reason for this uncertainty is clear; it is because Marlow, Conrad's mouthpiece, is himself bewildered. As in 'Heart of Darkness', which Conrad wrote while recasting the novel, Marlow plays a greater part than might at first be thought. We may reasonably wonder whether the feelings which brought 'Heart of Darkness' to birth may not be the chief cause why Lord Jim developed from a simple short story into a complex novel, for there are many resemblances between the relationship of Marlow and Kurtz and that of Marlow and Jim.

There is an 'unforeseen partnership' not only between Jim and Gentleman Brown but also between Jim and Marlow. 'Why I longed to go grubbing into the deplorable details … I can't explain' Marlow says, and wonders:

Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before?

A relationship is quickly established between them. When Jim explains his hopes of regaining the respect that he has lost, Marlow says:

… it was I … who a moment ago had been so sure of the power of words, and now was afraid to speak, in the same way one dares not move for fear of losing a slippery hold…. It was the fear of losing him that kept me silent, for it was borne upon me that should I let him slip away into the darkness I would never forgive myself.

Just as in 'Heart of Darkness' Marlow feels the power of nightmares which his previous experience and standards have not made him ready to understand, so here he is appealed to by Jim in ways for which he is not prepared.

I was made to look at the convention that lurks in all truth [Marlow says] and on the essential sincerity of falsehood. He appealed to all sides at once—to the side turned perpetually to the light of day, and to that side of us which, like the other hemisphere of the moon, exists stealthily in perpetual darkness, with only a fearful ashy light falling at times on the edge. He swayed me. I own to it, I own up.

It is his own security for which Marlow fears; when he goes for information to one of Jim's fellow officers, it is because he hopes to learn of a redeeming motive for his offence.

I see well enough now [he says of this incident] that I hoped for the impossible—for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man's creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death—the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct.

It is obvious enough that Marlow is disturbed because Jim, a fellow English seaman, has not been true to the standards by which they all live.

I was aggrieved against him [he says], as though he had cheated me—me!—of a splendid opportunity to keep up the illusion of my beginnings, as though he had robbed our common life of the last spark of its glamour.

But this alone is not sufficient to account for the disturbance of mind in which he is plunged. Jim has also raised doubts of the finality of the very standards themselves; he has suggested the possibility that there are hidden depths of feeling against which they are powerless. Marlow—and, as we shall see in a minute, Brierly—cannot cast Jim out as an offender and forget him, and this is not merely because he is a fellow Englishman, but because he seems to cast doubt on the values by which they could condemn him. Marlow speaks thus of the courage which Jim so signally fails to display:

… an unthinking and blessed stiffness before the outward and inward terrors, before the might of nature, and the seductive corruption of men—backed by a faith invulnerable to the strength of facts, to the contagion of examples, to the solicitation of ideas. Hang ideas! They are tramps, vagabonds, knocking at the back-door of your mind, each taking a little of your substance, each carrying away some crumb of that belief in a few simple notions you must cling to if you want to live decently and would like to die easy.

Marlow would seem here to be at one with Winnie Verloc of The Secret Agent in her belief that life does not bear looking into very closely, and he continues with the direct implication that such courage is only possible for fools:

This has nothing to do with Jim, directly; only he was outwardly so typical of that good, stupid kind we like to feel marching right and left of us in life, of the kind that is not disturbed by the vagaries of intelligence and the perversions of—of nerves, let us say.

He goes on to reminisce about 'that good, stupid kind' and about how moved he is when a boy whom he has taken to sea for his first voyage greets him after many years, now grown into one 'fit to live or die as the sea may decree', just as, in the voyage into the heart of darkness, the Marlow of that story clings for a moment to the manual of seamanship as the relief of something tangible in the midst of nightmare. The nostalgia for the normal, for the reliance on simple duties and uncomplicated virtues, is the same, and in both cases the relief can only be temporary.

The feeling of insecurity is deepened by the story of Brierly's suicide. That impeccable captain has felt the same apprehension as Marlow: '… the only thing that holds us together', he says, 'is just the name for that kind of decency. Such an affair destroys one's confidence'. We might feel the conclusion to be extreme, for in any group of men there will be some who will betray the faith reposed in them, but we know that, all the time he is enquiring into Jim's case, he is also sitting in judgment on himself and finding a verdict of 'unmitigated guilt'. Marlow speculates that, in his case too, it is the awakening of some idea:

… the matter was no doubt of the gravest import [he says] one of those trifles that awaken ideas—start into life some thought with which a man unused to such a companionship finds it impossible to live.

We are given no hint of what the 'idea' is, except that it is not a commonplace worry about drink, or money, or women, but the effect of what we are told about Brierly is to reinforce Marlow's own obliquely expressed conviction that the virtues of seamanship—all of which Brierly possesses in superabundant measure—are still vulnerable to 'ideas'—that they are not enough in themselves and can easily be imperilled.

For all those issues with which Brierly's virtues can deal, the judgment on Jim is certain, but, in Marlow's words, Jim's attempt to explain his deed gives the impression that

he was only speaking before me, in a dispute with an invisible personality, an antagonistic and inseparable partner of his existence—another possessor of his soul. These were issues beyond the competency of a court of enquiry.

The effect of muddlement which is so commonly found in Lord Jim comes, in short, from this—that Marlow is himself muddled. We look to him for a definite comment, explicit or implicit, on Jim's conduct and he is not able to give it. We are inevitably reminded of the bewilderment with which the Marlow of 'Heart of Darkness' faces Kurtz. By appealing to 'that side of us which, like the other hemisphere of the moon, exists stealthily in perpetual darkness' he confronts Marlow with 'issues beyond the competency of a court of enquiry' and thus shakes the standards by which he would normally be judged.

Here, as in the short story, the experience of Marlow goes far beyond that of the man whom he cannot disown. Kurtz is only a 'hollow man', Jim himself is, by comparison with Marlow, naïve, a romantic thinking in the terms of a boy's adventure story.

But the muddlement goes farther than this. I have so far begged the question by saying 'Mar-low, Conrad's mouthpiece'. In fact the confusion seems to extend to Conrad's conception of the story, and this reveals itself in some of the rhetoric given to Marlow. A good deal of this is imprecise and some is little more than a vague and rather pretentious playing with abstractions. It is in these terms that he speaks of the approaching catastrophe:

Magna est veritas et … Yes, when it gets a chance. There is a law, no doubt—and likewise a law regulates your luck in the throwing of dice. It is not Justice, the servant of men, but accident, hazard, For-tune—the ally of patient Time—that holds an even and scrupulous balance…. Well, let's leave it to chance, whose ally is Time, that cannot be hurried, and whose enemy is Death, that will not wait.

There are many such passages, and they give the impression rather of a man who is ruminating to obscure the issue than of one thinking to clarify it. But they are not 'placed'—Conrad, that is, does not so present them that we see them as deliberate, part of the portrayal of a man who is bewildered. They come rather from his own uncertainty as to the effect at which he is aiming. There is, very clearly, a conflict in his own mind; he raises the issue of the sufficiency of the 'few simple notions you must cling to if you want to live decently', but he does not, throughout the book, face it consistently.

Lord Jim is, at bottom, concerned with the same preoccupations as 'Heart of Darkness' and other works of this period, but Conrad has chosen to treat them in such a way that he inevitably feels more directly concerned. As he says in the concluding words of the 'Author's Note': 'He was "one of us".' The uncertainty which remains even at the end of the book as to what judgment we should pass on Jim and the passages of imprecise rhetoric are, I believe, an indication that his feelings are too deeply and too personally involved for him to stand above the bewilderment in which he places Mar-low. The fixed standards of the simple sailor are those which, above all others, Conrad finds it difficult to treat with detachment. He was too aware of the depths of treachery and cowardice of which men are capable not to cherish whatever seems to provide a defence against them, and at times we have the impression that, just as much as Marlow, he is himself fighting to retain a faith in the efficacy and total goodness of the 'few simple notions'.

Source: Douglas Hewitt, "Chapter III: Lord Jim," in Conrad: A Reassessment, Rowman and Littlefield, 1975, pp. 31-39.

Eban Bass

In the following essay, Bass discusses Conrad's difficulties with presenting speech, idiom, and dialect in his writing.

One does not have to read far in Lord Jim to observe Conrad's difficulties in making speech idiom read true. A Yankee deserter who is the crack marksman of Brown's derelict pirates, keeping his eye on a human target, says unconvincingly, "This there coon's health would never be a source of anx-iety to his friends any more"; and later, when there are no further victims to shoot at, he pronounces the calm of Patusan to be "on-natural." The difficulty of rendering Jim's British idiom, however, Conrad seems to have turned into an asset rather than a liability. Jim is sometimes limited to a mere inept stutter, the mixture of pretense and modesty that is after all pretty much the base of his character. When Marlow proposes the Patusan venture to him, the young man speaks his gratitude in as embarrassingly stilted (and unauthentic) a manner as that of the Yankee deserter's phrases: "'Jove!' he gasped out. 'It is noble of you! … What a bally ass I've been,' he said very slow in an awed tone 'You are a brick,' he cried next in a muffled voice…. 'I would be a brute now if I…'" The halting is more extreme here than elsewhere because Jim is deeply moved at being given a second chance in life, but hardly ever is he eloquent.

If his words sound unreal during times of strong emotion, so is Jim himself excessive as a romanticist. He does not speak so all the time, fortunately; in fact, he generally speaks rather little. Also informative are the verbal anomalies associated with Jim (these are sometimes auditory errors); they suggest an index to "the subtle unsoundness of the man" that so puzzles Marlow, who knows Jim best of all. Three incidents that come early in the novel show Jim as a victim of verbal confusion. Individually, they are errors that anyone might make, especially in the context of emotional tension in which they occur. Collectively, however, Jim's misunderstandings lead one to see them as symptomatic of a kind of inattention or failure on his part—almost, in a sense, as if language has come to mean something different to him from what it does to anyone else. Marlow's first encounter with Jim, on the steps of the courthouse where the Patna hearing is being conducted, is marked by a verbal-auditory error that dramatizes Jim's shame, as well as his belligerence, over his desertion from the ship. An acquaintance of Mar-low's remarks of an ugly forlorn dog belonging to some Malay native, "Look at that wretched cur." Jim overhears the phrase and, already stinging from the shame of public disgrace, thinks this is a further insult directed toward him. Assuming Marlow to be his accuser, "He made a step forward and barred my way. We were alone; he glared at me with an air of stubborn resolution. I became aware I was being held up, so to speak, as if in a wood."

Marlow himself is highly articulate and persuasive, and once he wins Jim's confidence the troubled young man unburdens his problems to him. Significantly, however, most of the incidents Jim recounts are couched in Marlow's words. One exception, however, is the second instance of Jim's verbal misunderstanding. It takes place when Jim goes below deck to investigate the bulkhead of the disabled Patna which may at any moment give way and flood the ship. Returning past some of the native passengers, Jim is stopped by one of them.

"The beggar clung to me like a drowning man," he said, impressively. "Water, water! What water did he mean? What did he know? As calmly as I could I ordered him to let go. He was stopping me, time was pressing, other men began to stir; I wanted time—time to cut the boats adrift…. He would not keep quiet: he tried to shout; I had half throttled him before I made out what he wanted. He wanted some water—water to drink; they were on strict allowance, you know, and he had with him a young boy I had noticed several times. His child was sick—and thirsty. He had caught sight of me as I passed by, and was begging for a little water. That's all."

Needless to say, the potential panic of this scene is explanation enough for Jim's mistake, just as the misunderstanding of the epithet "cur" is not unusual, given the circumstances in which it occurs. Yet these two errors, told in the same order in Marlow's narrative as they are given here, prepare for Jim's fatal mistake of the Patna, which significantly is in part a verbal (or auditory) one.

Once the German captain and his deserting crew ineptly launch their life boat, Jim becomes more intensely aware than ever of the danger of panic among the native passengers. The ugly irony that rouses Jim from his inaction (really his refusal to help the deserters with their boat) is the collapse of the third engineer, apparently from a heart attack, on deck; Jim stumbles over the man's legs. Inasmuch as it is the "dead" man (he in fact stands once more, then collapses for good) who rouses Jim back to life, Jim in some respect assumes the engineer's identity. This must be the explanation for his erroneous response to the deserting officers' calls to their compatriot. "With the first hiss of rain, and the first gust of wind, they screamed, 'Jump, George! We'll catch you! Jump!' The ship began a slow plunge; the rain swept over her like a broken sea; my cap flew off my head; my breath was driven back into my throat. I heard as if I had been on the top of a tower another wild screech, 'Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!' She was going down, down, head first under me …" Jim again is the narrator, rather than Marlow, but he breaks off for a moment with the strain, and Marlow remarks his vague gesture of sweeping away cobwebs with his hand, before Jim concludes his account: "I had jumped." His instant of cowardice can thus be viewed partially as a verbal error, but it is not so easily explained away as the "cur" and "water" mistakes. The less serious, more believable ones, however, lead up to the fatal, less justifiable error. Jim's rigid non-participation in the act of desertion, i.e. the actual lowering of the lifeboat, is not enough to relieve him of moral responsibility. The dead man stirs Jim back to life, and for a moment Jim assumes the dead man's identity and makes his cowardly escape in George's name.

One further auditory error by Jim occurs while he is in the lifeboat; it may be taken to be the nightmare effect of an ill conscience, and in a milder sense is comparable to the pink toads which the hospitalized crewman, in his D.T.'s, imagines to be under his bed. Jim's apprehension of the deserted pilgrims is less fantastic: while on board the lifeboat he imagines he hears shouts from the "sinking" Patna, even though the other deserting officers say they hear nothing—regardless of the firm conviction of all the deserters that the ship's passengers are indeed drowning. "I was relieved to learn 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. I asked them afterwards. They all said No. No? And I was hearing them even then! I might have known—but I didn't think—I only listened. Very faint screams—day after day."

Jim's auditory errors are in keeping with his halting, boyish manner of speech. Marlow's comment on the young man's verbal mannerisms is in-formative: "He had confided so much in me that at times it seems as though he must come in presently and tell the story in his own words, in his careless yet feeling voice, with his offhand manner, a little puzzled, a little bothered, a little hurt, but now and then by a word or a phrase giving one of these glimpses of his very, own self that were never any good for purposes of orientation." Here we see the necessity of Marlow to "speak" for Jim: because Jim lacks a sense of verbal continuity and direction. More than once, Marlow notes Jim's lack of eloquence. Jim does not reveal, for example, what he said to Jewel once he did recover his voice after her heroic act of revealing the would-be assassins. "He did not tell me what it was he said when at last he recovered his voice. I don't suppose he could be very eloquent."

Marlow himself does not condemn this poverty of Jim's speech: "He was not eloquent, but there was a dignity in this constitutional reticence, there was a high seriousness in his stammerings." No doubt Conrad seriously tried to capture in Jim's heroic British slang the characteristic understatement that he admired in the national character of the man. That he largely failed in this attempt gives an interesting further dimension to the novel which Conrad must not have intended, but one which adds greatly to what Conrad in effect says about Jim's failure with language.

Jim is inarticulate when expressing gratitude, and his attempts are as painful for Marlow as they are for himself: "He couldn't think how he merited that I … He would be shot if he could see to what he owed … And it was Stein Stein the merchant, who … but of course it was me he had to … I cut him short. He was not articulate, and his gratitude caused me inexplicable pain." Jim's emotions are simply too extreme, whatever they happen to be, to admit verbal expression. Gratitude, humiliation, love, are among the feelings he is inept at conveying. "His lips pouted a little, trembling as though he had been on the point of bursting into tears. I perceived he was incapable of pronouncing a word from the excess of his humiliation. From disappointment too—who knows?"

When Jim leaves Patusan, Marlow puts him on board a ship whose captain employs a language symptomatic of the dilemma Jim will face. Though quite different from Jim's speech, the captain's is equally informative. The ship's master is a Westernized half-caste.

His flowing English seemed to be derived from a dictionary compiled by a lunatic. Had Mr. Stein desired him to "ascend," he would have "reverentially"—(I think he wanted to say respectfully—but devil only knows)—"reverentially made objects for the safety of properties." If disregarded, he would have presented "resignation to quit." Twelve months ago he had made his last voyage there, and though Mr. Cornelius "propitiated many offertories" to Mr. Roger Allang and the "principal populations," on conditions which made the trade "a snare and ashes in the mouth," yet his ship had been fired upon from the woods by "irresponsive parties" all the way clown the river; which causing his crew "from exposure to limb to remain silent in hidings," the brigantine was nearly stranded on a sandbank at the bar, where she "would have been perishable beyond the act of man."

This verbal hodgepodge is in keeping with the social and political disorder Jim encounters in Pa-tusan—and out of which he temporarily brings order and meaning. The disorder comes of a haphazard mixture of white and Malay culture. The half-caste shipmaster uses all the cliches of the "white man's burden" and distorts them: the net effect, via language, is to show the failure of the white mission in the Far East. That is the final judgment of Lord Jim, expressed by the unnamed recipient of Jim's papers and of Marlow's final statement about Jim. Thus the language of the half-caste is a proper index to conditions in Patusan: an ugly amalgam of western enlightenment and eastern ignorance. As Marlow observes when trusting Jim to safe passage on board the half-caste's ship, "My heart was freed from that dull resentment which had existed side by side with interest in his fate. The absurd chatter of the half-caste had given more reality to the miserable dangers of his path than Stein's careful statements."

With his departure to Patusan, Jim supposedly escapes from the white man's world and his own failure in it, an index to which is his failure with its language. Yet his parting cry to Marlow from the ship of the half-caste reiterates the verbal anomaly of Jim's good name, his repute, and his vain hope of recovering his lost honor. "I saw him aft detached upon the light of the westering sun, raising his cap high above his head. I heard an indistinct shout, 'You—shall—hear—of—me.' Of me, or from me, I don't know which. I think it must have been of me." The ambiguity in this case may only be Marlow's failure to hear. But the mere fact that Jim still hopes to achieve heroism precedes another dimension the stature he achieves as a folk hero among the Malays of Patusan.

Jim cannot really shut himself off from the white man's world. At the time of his final departure from Marlow, who has once visited him in his native kingdom, he says, "You shall never be troubled by a voice from there again." This bravado no man can live up to, and yet it is characteristic of Jim's error that he set up this sort of verbal responsibility for himself. Shortly after, Jim tempers it with a pathetic try at one more farewell to the white world. It is revealing for what it implies about the spirit of empire and the loyalty that spirit impressed on the men it sent to far nameless places. "'Will you be going home [to England] again soon?' asked Jim, just as I swung my leg over the gunwale. 'In a year or so if I live,' I said. The forefoot grated on the sand, the boat floated, the wet oars flashed and dipped once, twice. Jim, at the water's edge, raised his voice. 'Tell them …' he began. I signed to the men to cease rowing, and waited in wonder. Tell who? The half-submerged sun faced him; I could see its red gleam in his eyes that looked dumbly at me…. 'No—nothing,' he said, and with a slight wave of his hand motioned the boat away. I did not look again …"

The language Jim uses in Patusan is his own, as well as that of the natives, but he has a fresh chance to speak authoritatively, in the words of idealized romance and heroism. Yet verbal error still dogs him: in one instance, there is a curious misunderstanding of the name he gives Cornelius's step-daughter, the woman he loves. Jim calls her "Jewel," but the shrewd practical world or rumor applies a literal, rather than Jim's figurative, meaning to the name. "Such a jewel—it was explained to me by the old fellow from whom I heard most of this amazing Jim-myth—a sort of scribe to the wretched little Rajah of the place;—such a jewel, he said, cocking his poor purblind eyes up at me (he was sitting on the cabin floor out of respect), is best preserved by being concealed about the person of a woman. Yet it is not every woman that would do. She must be young—he sighed deeply—and insensible to the seductions of love." Jim of course sees Jewel's own merits as precious; contrary to rumor, she guards no fabulous great emerald.

In teaching the girl to speak his own language, Jim educates her in his own private system of values which the outside world has had trouble understanding and which Jim was inept at expressing because of his own verbal limitations. "Her mother had taught her to read and write; she had learned a good bit of English from Jim, and she spoke it most amusingly, with his own clipping, boyish intonation." But in the end she does not really understand Jim's values, and she believes him to be a traitor for giving her his word, and then leaving her.

Jim's few verbal successes take place at Patusan, when he acts upon his own concept of chivalry, courage, and honor. The chivalry is vocal in Jim's attack on the unspeakable Cornelius for his mistreatment of Jewel.

He let himself go—his nerves had been over-wrought for days—and called him many pretty names,—swindler, liar, sorry rascal: in fact, carried on in an extraordinary way. He admits he passed all bounds, that he was quite beside himself—defied all Patusan to scare him away—declared he would make them all dance to his own tune yet, and so on, in a menacing, boasting strain … He came to his senses, and ceasing suddenly, wondered greatly at himself. He watched for a while. Not a stir, not a sound. "Exactly as if the chap had died while I had been making all that noise," he said.

Jim's heroism is also successfully verbal on the occasion when he organizes one faction of the Patusan community against its own enemy. "Jim spent the day with the old nakhoda, preaching the necessity of vigorous action to the principal men of the Bugis community, who had been summoned for a big talk. He remembered with pleasure how very eloquent and persuasive he had been. 'I managed to put some backbone into them that time, and no mistake,' he said." In this event, as in the one in which he lashes out at Cornelius, Jim experiences deep satisfaction through his verbal success, and the action that results from it. But in neither case do we hear the actual words of these speeches, and it is characteristic of Conrad's uncertainty with Jim's speech idiom that he report only the manner and the effect.

The success of the white lord, in word and deed, is short-lived. Jim fails in the encounter with Brown and his fellow-pirate invaders of Patusan because of Brown's lucky verbal hits: what began as a debate across the river ends with Jim, who had all the initial advantage, mutely accepting Brown's accusations of dishonor. "When he asked Jim, with a sort of brusque despairing frankness, whether be himself—straight now—didn't understand that when 'it came to saving one's life in the dark, one didn't care who else went—three, thirty, three hundred people'—it was as if a demon had been whispering advice in his ear. 'I made him wince,' boasted Brown to me. 'He very soon left off coming the righteous over me. He just stood there with nothing to say, and looking as black as thunder—not at me—on the ground.'" Thus ends Jim's brief success as an orator and leader among the Malays. His old inarticulate gloom comes upon him again.

The inarticulate message Jim writes on the day of his disaster confirms the return of his old speech-lessness. Addressed to no one in particular, it is his last attempt to make known the unspeakable within himself. "'An awful thing has happened,' he wrote before he flung the pen down for the first time; look at the ink blot resembling the head of an arrow under these words. After a while he had tried again, scrawling heavily, as if with a hand of lead, another line. 'I must now at once …' The pen had spluttered, and that time he gave it up. There's nothing more; he had seen a broad gulf that neither eye nor voice could span."

Unlike Jim, Conrad optimistically estimates his own success in mastering the English language.

The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born. I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption—well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idioms I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character.

Though Conrad achieved phenomenal success in a language he did not learn until he was twenty-one, his choice of a verbal dilemma as one aspect of Jim's failure as a man cannot be dissociated from Conrad's own sense of alienation in a foreign land. Before his recognition and success, the Polish-born novelist knew long, lonely years in England, and he spoke English with a heavy accent to the day of his death. In his short story "Amy Foster," he depicts a Carpathian immigrant shipwrecked on the English coast, a refugee who is assumed to be insane because the English farmers who take him in do not know his language. It is a curious irony that Conrad should have sought to depict a sense of verbal inadequacy in a young Englishman whose speech idiom Conrad himself had not perfectly mastered, just as it is ironic on another level that Jim understands so well the code of honor expressed in books and in the literary imagination (a linguistic repository) but that he should be so inept at speaking out his sense of honor in real life and acting upon it in a practical moment of crisis.

Source: Eban Bass, "The Verbal Failure of Lord Jim," in College English, Vol. 26, No. 6, 1965, pp. 438-44.


Armstrong, Paul B., "Monism and Pluralism in Lord Jim," in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, pp. 470-71, originally published in Centennial Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 1983.

Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna, "The Failure of Myth: Lord Jim," in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, pp. 493-94, 496, 500, 504, originally published in Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Guerard, Albert J., "Lord Jim," in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 397, originally published in Conrad the Novelist, Harvard University Press, 1958.

Miller, J. Hillis, "Lord Jim: Repetition as Subversion of Organic Form," in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 453, originally published in Fiction and Repetition: Seven English novels, Harvard University Press, 1982.

Murfin, Ross C., Lord Jim: After the Truth, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 23, 48.

Review of Lord Jim, in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, pp. 393-94, originally published in New York Tribune, November 3, 1900, p. 10.

Review of Lord Jim, in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 396, originally published in Spectator, Vol. 85, November 24, 1900, p. 753.

Simmons, Allan H., "'He Was Misleading': Frustrated Gestures in Lord Jim," in Lord Jim: Centennial Essays, edited by Allan H. Simmons and J. H. Stape, Rodopi, 2000, p. 31-32.

Watt, Ian, "Composition and Sources," in Lord Jim: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas C. Moser, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 424, originally published in Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, University of California Press, 1979.

Further Reading

Coundouriotis, Eleni, Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel, Columbia University Press, 1999.

This book discusses the comparative arguments on how African writing and ethnography helped to shape colonial cultures, novel writing, and postcolonial ideology.

Secor, Robert, Joseph Conrad and American Writers, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985.

This book discusses the link between Conrad and the American writers he has influenced, including modern-day writers. It also includes a chapter on how film directors have portrayed Conrad's work. Throughout, the study records an extensive amount of bibliographic information for significant references.

Stape, J. H., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge Companions to Literature series, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

This comprehensive book on Joseph Conrad, including a biography about his life and essays about his major works, is a great general introduction to Conrad and his art. There is also a bibliography included that is a good source of additional readings on Conrad.

Watt, Ian., Essays on Conrad, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Watt, a noted Conrad scholar, collects many of his previously unpublished essays that address Conrad's later work. Watt's insight into Conrad and his works has been influenced by Watt's own experience as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai.