Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

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37 thoughts on “Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

  1. I’ve had this in the TBR forever and I can never quite face it. It does sound interesting though, and its very useful to know that it picks up again towards the end, if I find myself struggling in the middle!

    • It is well worth reading – some of the writing is great, though his style takes a bit of getting used to. I’m becoming more and more interested in books about the Empire recently, so I’m sure that helped hold my interest even during the more draggy parts. He kinda has the perspective of an outsider looking in which makes him more perceptive maybe…

  2. I have read this, but unfortunately mostly remember it being hard work. I’m afraid the the highlights and less slow moments you mention didn’t stick with me, though this post has almost convinced me it’s worth another go…

    • I tried Conrad years ago and couldn’t get on with him at all, but I’ve become increasingly interested in reading about the Empire recently and I’m sure that’s partly why I’m finding his stuff so much more enjoyable this time round. Being a kind of outsider, he has a slightly different perspective than a lot of British writers of the time.

  3. As a window into the psyche of the times, this sounds excellent, FictionFan. And it is interesting to see how things like one’s image get infused with national character, if I can put it that way. What I find the most interesting, though, is the whole question of colonialism and its impact on those who ‘carried the banner.’ OK, perhaps not a perfect novel, but I can see how you saw a lot of good in it.

    • I’m becoming more fascinated by the whole colonialism thing the more I read about it. Maybe finally enough time has passed for us Brits to be a bit more objective about the Empire, and read these books without getting hung up on guilt. I think that’s what makes Conrad so interesting – being an outsider he seems more perceptive about his British contemporaries than perhaps they were themselves, so he gives a fairly unique perspective. Just wish he wouldn’t use quite so many “‘”‘”quotation marks”‘”‘” 😉

    • I hadn’t read any Conrad till a year or so ago – I tried him when I was young and couldn’t get through him at all. I still find him hard work, but now the effort seems worth it… 😀

  4. Another one I’ve managed to avoid (er, miss out on!) Doesn’t sound like I’ll be rectifying that anytime soon either, despite your excellent review. Thank you for tackling it so I don’t have to — where were you when I was in school having to wade through tomes I wasn’t particularly interested in??!

    • Hahaha! My school teachers would be amazed that I willingly write “book reports” for fun, after all the rows I got into for not handing them in on time! These days I laugh at the number of searches I get for classics, all saying things like “book report Moby Dick”. I wonder what their teachers make of the resulting essays… 😂

  5. I’ve not read this, though I have vague memories of reading Heart of Darkness when I was in school. (or maybe just excerpts? why did they do that – just have us read snippets of classics??) So much of what you say sounds appealing, yet… the older I get, the more I struggle with class, caste, or any kind of division that makes anyone feel superior (or inferior) to others.

    • Ooh, we didn’t get snippets – the whole thing or nothing! I’m fine with reading about class so long as it’s long enough ago. The more modern the book, the more it annoys me. I kinda expect twentieth century writers to have got over it, although a lot of them haven’t! But nearly all British classics are about class in some way or another, which must tell us something about Britain… 😉

  6. Excellent review as always, FF. I’ve added it to my list of books I know I really should read, but am doubtful when I’ll get around too. That particular pile is increasing almost as much as my regular TBR.

    • Thanks, Alyson! Haha – I know the feeling. Every time I enjoy a book by an author I haven’t read before, I groan inwardly at the though of his/her back catalogue! I’ve read some Conrad novellas before, but this is the first of his novels I’ve tackled, and now I feel I’ll have to read more… aargh!!

  7. Hmmm I find it so interesting (read; annoying) that despite some huge, horrifying mistake, Jim is still rewarded with a position/job. Albeit it’s a worse one, and he’s been sent out to a remote place, but still, a white man always seems to have a safety net at that time in history…

  8. What a wonderfully insightful review, for someone like me who has not read the book: fair and even-handed when it comes to the novel’s strengths and failings. When I at last get back to Conrad this is certainly a title I’d consider.

    • Aw, thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I’m just discovering Conrad after years of avoidance, so don’t know how this compares to his other stuff, but I’m hoping to find out… as soon as I’ve recovered from this one… 😉

  9. You’ve persuaded me to give this a go. I read Heart of Darkness years ago as a set text and have never gone near Conrad since, but I’ve been thinking of late I should give him another go so maybe with this?

    • I tried Conrad when I was younger and didn’t get on with him at all, but I seem to have grown into him finally – only took a few decades! 😉 I read Heart of Darkness last year and then didn’t get around to reviewing it, so I must re-read it – it’s on my Classics Club list. In some ways, this one is easier, I thought, but it’s also much longer. I also read some of his other novella length ones last year and thoroughly enjoyed them so that might be a way to see if he works for you now? An Outpost of Progress or Karain were my favourites.

    • Ha – I know, butterfly mind, that’s me! 😉 I’ve only started reading Conrad recently myself but so far I’ve been very impressed. Hope you are too, if you manage to fit him in sometime… 😀

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