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In modern parlance, the word ‘romantic’ is often and understandably used with a positive connotation. A romantic individual is most often recalled with fondness, if also with pity. The faults of such a person might be limited to mere naivete: “He was a hopeless romantic; he just wasn’t meant for this cruel world.” However, it must be remembered that the romantic mind, as opposed to the idealistic mind, is almost always clouded to varying degrees with egocentricity. Though, like the idealist, the romantic is a dreamer, one who often strays from pragmatism; the romantic is also characterized by a devout self-interest. That distinction, between idealism and romanticism, must be remembered when reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Jim, the principle character, is indisputably romantic. He is a dreamer; he is out of touch with reality; and he is completely self-interested. But an idealist, Jim is not. If this distinction is kept in mind, it should be apparent to the reader that Jim is, indeed, a tragic figure but he is not a tragic hero.
Jim’s character is most clearly developed in the first four chapters where an omniscient narrator describes his nature through his thoughts and actions. It is imperative to understand that after the fourth chapter, all the information the reader receives about Jim is filtered through at least two sources: Jim tells the story to Marlow who tells it, indirectly to the reader. Marlow seems trustworthy, but he, himself, admits that he doesn’t fully understand Jim. “My eyes were too dazzled by the glitter of the sea below him to see him clearly; I am fated never to see him clearly.” (p. 146) Though he might not understand Jim, Marlow certainly admires him. His account, therefore, is more sympathetic to the title character than is the detached recounting of the omniscient narrator. It is for this reason, that the most faithful description of Jim’s true character comes at the beginning of the novel.
Though the word romantic is not immediately used to depict him, it is quite evident that he is a dreamer. But more than that, he is self-absorbed and the narrator describes his looking down from the foretop, “…with the contempt of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers.” (p. 9) Jim’s boyhood reveries have more to do with his own glorification than with good deeds. He wants more to be a hero than to be heroic. In his dreams, “He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane”. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seasas unflinching as a hero in a book. (p. 9) However, when Jim is confronted with the opportunity to realize his dreams, he balks. Hesitating from fear of a storm, Jim misses his first chance to be lauded as a hero, having to listen instead while another boy bragged of his efforts in “a pitiful display of vanity.” (p. 10)
Self-indulgent dreams and brief spells of cowardice can certainly be forgiven a young boy in training to be, but not yet, a seaman. Unfortunately, this is not an obnoxious adolescent trait that Jim eventually grows out of. Initially, he finds time on the Patna to dream. At such times his thoughts would be full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements. (p. 17) On board his first ship as an officer, Jim is put temporarily out of commission by a fallen beam. The narrator reveals Jim’s sentiments to be secretly glad that he did not have to work on deck with the other men. It is apparent, then, that Jim wants only to be a hero, he is not interested in the mundane tasks of the sailor and would just as soon lie lethargically in his cabin as to undertake his duties as a seaman.
This injury also leads indirectly to Jim’s decision to sail with the Patna. During his recovery, Jim is exposed to the benefits of working on native, rather than English, ships. On these vessels, one benefits from short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white. (p. 13) The promotion of this type of work is voiced by a crowd of men who shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives. (p. 13) That Jim would choose to associate himself with this type of men rather than those with the temper of buccaneers and the eyes of dreamers [whose] death was the only event of their fantastic existence that seemed to have a reasonable certainty of achievement, (p. 12) says something of his character. The men of the latter breed are the romantics in the sense of the word described in this paper’s opening lines. As such, Jim cannot relate to them, as he is a romantic in the self-serving sense, still a dreamer but also lazy and in love with the idea of heroism, not with the sea.
It is on the Patna, of course, that Jim’s life is changed forever. It is true that he does not consciously decide to abandon the imperiled ship, leaving 800 passengers to drown. However, were he an idealist, that jump would have been an impossibility. Initially Jim acts responsibly, but his true state is revealed first when he strikes a pilgrim who begs him for water and of course, when he, in a near unconscious state, abandons ship. That Jim jumps from the Patna may be his most damning sin, but more troublesome is his reaction to what he has done. Jim’s feelings of horror that the ship had not yet sunk, coupled with the relief felt when its light is no longer visible show that he had little concern for the 800 lives he thought to be lost. He is at first horrified that rather than being glorified he will be vilified for deserting the vessel. These feelings are shortly eclipsed by a sense of relief that the 800 potential accusers are dead. He even considers swimming back to the wreck to make sure that the noyade was successful.
Had Jim stayed aboard the Patna it is likely he would have been welcomed as a hero after the ship was rescued. However, at the time, he has no idea that the ship might stay afloat. He remarks later to Marlow, who has taken over the narration of the story that he felt sure the bulkhead would have burst after he examined it. He then emits the lament, Ah! what a chance missed! My God! what a chance missed! (p. 53) It is perhaps one of the most important lines in the book in evaluating Jim’s character. He bemoans the fact that he had abandoned ship because the ship did not go down. The guilt that Jim feels, then, is less towards the pilgrims who he left for dead, but to himself, for failing once again to be a hero. One wonders whether Jim would have considered the Patna a missed opportunity had it sank as expected. This is the difference between that incident and the missed chance during his training days. In his dreams, Jim imagined saving lives and fighting savages, but he never imagined himself dying. If he had remained on the sinking ship and drowned, he would have been regarded posthumously as a brave and noble man but he would not live to see himself glorified. It is evident, then, that Jim’s ‘ideal’ was not heroism but ‘herodom’.
If the incident with the Patna is Jim’s downfall, then his time on the island of Patusan is his renaissance. It is there that Jim finally begins to atone for his sin. Following Stein’s advice, “in the destructive element immerse,” Jim starts over on the remote island where no one could possibly know of his history. He vows to bring peace to the island and comes as close as any man could to achieving that end. He shows his bravery and his strong leadership capability. Not least, in his marriage to Jewel, he shows that he is human even if the natives regard him as divine. Despite this, though, Jim is truly alone on the island. His self-fostered and native-indulged sense of racial superiority alienates him from those who revere him. More importantly, he cannot escape the truths of his past. Though no one on the island has ever heard of the Patna, Jim is reminded of his horrible secret during his conversation with the despicable Gentleman Brown. Brown senses a weakness in Jim when the latter cannot quickly respond as to what brought him to Patusan. He hints at a shared sense of guilt with Jim, and manages to secure a safe departure from the island, when based on his character, he should probably have been killed. Of course, Jim’s decision to allow Brown to leave Patusan results in Jim’s own death. And so, the romantic’s past, in the end, catches up with him and contributes to his untimely, yet honorable demise.
Though Jim gains some degree of respect at the end of the novel, it must not be mistaken that he continues to be self interested through the final pages. Throughout the book, Jim shows no sign of consideration for any others, leaving employers with little notice when his secret catches up to him and cutting off communication with his father who would be devastated to hear of Jim’s shame. In the end, he hasn’t changed. Though his wife begs him otherwise, Jim goes willingly to his own death, tearing himself from 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. (p. 246) That, incidentally, is the only coupling of Jim’s name with the word ideal, a fact that is not entirely superfluous. The word ‘romantic’ is used 19 times in the novel, the word idealist, just once, and never in reference to Jim. Jim’s death is romantic; he went before a grieving man, keeping his word that he would give up his own life if the man’s son died because of Jim’s bad judgment. But what ideal was served? No one was serviced by Jim’s death except Jim himself. He had redeemed himself, if only in his dying eyes and he dies with a ‘proud and unflinching glance’ on his face. (p. 246) In the end, the reader can rest assured that Jim was not a bad man. He was everyman, ‘one of us’. The reader should, though, be weary of calling Jim a tragic hero or an idealist.
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