What was it about?
As first mate, Lord Jim abandons a sinking ship with 800 passengers on board. After being publicly disgraced for his cowardice, he meets Marlow who offers Jim a fresh start working for a friend. But Jim’s wounded ego is not easily healed. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one man’s quest to make peace with his past. The novel explores cowardice and guilt as well as the motivations behind British imperialism.
What did I think of it?
Joseph Conrad doesn’t have a rosy reputation today. His most famous novel Heart of Darkness has been condemned by authors like Chinua Achebe for its racism and imperialism. Despite his reputation, I decided to read Lord Jim because it is one of the few works of fiction in the English language that explores the psychological effect of guilt. The premise intrigued me.
Conrad writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Rich imagery and psychologically-complex characters fill the pages of this novel. Jim’s story is told from the perspective of all the men and women Marlow met on his travels. Because the narrator is not omniscient, the reader can never know for sure what Jim felt and thought. Lord Jim is cited as one of the first psychological novels in the English language.
Jim’s character resonated with me. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his cowardice. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, so he invents a story to explain why he jumped. Jim desires Marlow’s affirmation, whatever the cost. Most novels look at guilt from the perspective of the victim, but this novel looks at the effect of guilt on the guilty. How do the guilty deal with their past? How should they cope? The second part of the book follows Jim’s adventures on a Malaysian island. The White Man’s Burden theme is balanced by a not entirely positive portrayal of British imperialism. Lord Jim may not bear well under post-colonial scrutiny, but it is a brilliant study of personal guilt. Conrad intended for Jim to represent all of humanity. In that regard, Lord Jim is a good companion to Moby-Dick.
“We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.”