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Despite the popular conception that Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim, is merely a fanciful tale about sea-faring adventurers, this carefully crafted novel reaches far beyond its oceanic setting. Conrad’s tale is a bittersweet portrayal of the romantic idealist, which dives into the complex and oftentimes mysterious nature of the human psyche. Lord Jim tells the story of Jim, a youthful sailor who irreparably dishonors himself by abandoning his sinking ship during a crisis at sea, leaving hundreds of innocent pilgrims vulnerable to death. His cowardly act strips him of his dignity in society and he is forced to seek refuge and isolation in the tropics to avoid the anguish of his crime. Jim is given the opportunity to regain his respect when he becomes the leader and protector of a remote territory named Patusan. The novel is deeply concerned with the psychological issues surrounding Jim’s abandonment and how they affect his subsequent actions. The story is narrated in third-person by a spectator named Marlow, whose account of Jim’s story presents a certain degree of ambiguity and uncertainty. Because the story is not told through the eyes of the protagonist himself, there is much room for manipulation and speculation on behalf of the distant observer and narrator, Marlow. The ambiguous nature of the novel has prompted many critics to formulate their own interpretations of Conrad’s original objectives.
Each of the critics explores his own unique aspect of the novel, examining virtually all angles of interpersonal relationships between characters, as well as the more profound issues of the human experience. The majority of critics sustain that the novel’s true drama lies within Conrad’s recurring question, “how to live?” How does one behave in the dark when alone with oneself, without guidance and without direction? While some believe that to navigate through life as an idealized romantic is suicide (Fraser, Glassman 38, Kilvert 140), others feel that the romantic, imaginative spirit is a necessary ingredient in living a rich and meaningful life (Tanner 113). There is also a dominant belief that there exists a monumental separation between the inner world, in which the principal characters live, and the outer world, which holds the rest of humanity (Tanner 110, Fraser 116, Glassman 36). Most importantly, however, is the position that principal characters, Marlow and Jim, are unable to fulfill the requirements of their imaginations (Kilvert 139, Rollyson 712, Glassman 34).
In retrospect, the essence of the novel is ultimately describable in terms of man’s ability to live up to his ideal conceptions of himself. Conrad is making the statement that although it is easy to concoct heroic images and aspirations for oneself, it is far more difficult to live up to these seemingly unrealistic goals. Conrad puts much emphasis on Jim’s youthfulness, suggesting that in youth, it is easy to imagine a prospective future that fulfills all of one’s dreams and aspirations. For many individuals, romanticism gradually turns to pragmatism with maturity and the individual abandons his need to fantasize about imaginary achievements. The novel suggests that romanticism, although necessary for an enchanted life, interferes with mankind’s ability to behave rationally, as evidenced by the character of Jim. Jim was tragically flawed in that he was unable to live up to his romanticized conception of himself. He was tried and tested by the opposing forces of both nature and mankind, but in times of extreme danger, his ideals disintegrate and he is reduced to a state of paralyzed cowardice. Conrad’s perception of the idealist is certainly pessimistic and reveals a distinct degree of existentialism. Jim’s idealistic conquest is one in which he is perpetually “penetrating deeper into the impossible world of romantic achievements” yet he is “overwhelm[ed] by a sense of helplessness” (Conrad 62-63).
Critic Peter Glassman sustains that principle characters, Marlow and Jim are unable to meet the requirements of their imaginations. Resisting the limitations of the human condition is a mistake. The sensible man, he says, should be able to submit to the inevitability of dissatisfaction and commit his energy to simple survival rather than dwelling on imagination and romanticism. He believes that the main question in the novel is “how to live”. Glassman responds to Conrad’s prevailing question by saying that in order to live, man must organize himself to oppose the forces, which threaten human peace, solidarity, and dignity. Glassman’s interpretation is understandably valid because Jim’s tragic flaw was that he was never able to succumb to the limitations of mankind. He could never let go of his crushing guilt and refused to comprehend that humans are fallible. His eventual death is evidence of the fact that his condition prevented him from being able to “simply survive”.
Jim’s hopeless romantic spirit is captured within the very first pages of the novel,
“He loved [his] dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements. They were the best parts of his life, its secret truth, its hidden reality. They had a gorgeous virility, the charm of vagueness, they passed before him with a heroic tread; they carried his soul away with them and made it drunk with the divine philtre of an unbounded confidence in itself. There was nothing he could not face” (Conrad; 14).
This passage reveals the magnitude of Jim’s vast imagination and the extent to which he allows his imagination to triumph over his reason. Jim is a victim of illusion, consumed by his fantasies, and living his life dreaming of things he can never be. He is conditioned by society’s shadowy ideal of conduct and derives his romantic imagery from his reading of popular literature, which illuminates archetypal heroes who are both valiant and stalwart. Jim believes that he embodies these naturally heroic qualities but fails to understand that he must transcend the workings of his inner mind and express himself actively with integrity and fearlessness in order to be truly heroic. Unfortunately Jim engages in a battle with the cruelly unromantic outside world that refuses to sympathize with the na?ve dreamer. Jim’s inability to actively challenge the oppressive outside world, causes him to withdraw inwardly and forces him to cultivate his outlandish aspirations within the confines of his own mind, behind a sort of iron curtain.
Jim thrives on his isolation, detaching himself from the dangerous outside world and living safely within his imagination. “Though it is a violent and adventurous world… it is an interior world… the real drama is what happens inside [Jim]” (Fraser 116). This separation between the interior and exterior worlds, is what makes it impossible for him to actively express himself. Inside, his mind is swimming with images of heroic, ship-bound conquests; in his mind, he truly believes that he is living a fantastic and adventurous existence.
“He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as lonely as a castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation” (Conrad 3).
His predicament is that despite all of his fantastic aspirations, Jim is never quite able to escape the confines of his own mind. When given the opportunity to tackle his greatest feats, he slips into a dream-like state, plagued by fear and entirely helpless. In the midst of crisis when the Panta was sinking,
“His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped…he wanted to die without the added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance…” (Conrad; 66).
Jim’s cowardice does not spring from his fear of death but rather from his fear of emergency. His visions of trauma leave him with an extreme weariness of emotion and desire for peace. He, like so many of us, lacks the willpower to “fight a losing battle to the last” (Conrad 66) and his very desire to continue living ceases.
Jim’s battle between moral idealism and amoral pragmatism illustrates the “qualitative extremes of humanity: man as butterfly, man as beetle” (Tanner 108). Critic Tony Tanner presents a new insight on the role of symbols in the novel. He suggests that there is a possible correlation between Jim and the image of the butterfly, “a creature of beauty, a creature with wings, which can carry it above the mere dead level of the earth which beetles rudely hug” (Tanner 109). The metaphorical significance of Jim as a butterfly translates to his being a “creature of light threatened by the forces of darkness; he is the creature of purity who stands above the dirty crowd” (Tanner 109). Throughout the novel, Jim is portrayed with a mystical quality that makes him superior to the rest of humanity. He is often pictured on elevated ground, while “dark faces stare up at him from below” (Tanner 109). Tanner interprets the beetles as being comparative to the dark side of humanity, “ugly-earthbound creatures, devoid of dignity and aspiration, intent merely on self-preservation at all costs: but gifted with a hard shell, which serves them well in their intent to live” (Tanner 110). Jim’s continual flight, Tanner suggests, is an attempt to escape the beetles of mankind, and Jim’s drama springs from the beetles who are continually crossing his path.
The analogy linking Jim to a creature of fragility, beauty, and light, gives a new depth to his character. Even though Jim abandoned his sinking ship along with the rest of the crew, his motives were undeniably different than those of his shipmates. Critic Peter Glassman goes so far as to say that “behavior does not dictate moral identity” (Glassman 40), implying that people tend to act impulsively without questioning whether their actions are morally right or wrong. Jim is set apart from the rest of his crew because his imagination conquered the power of his rational consciousness during the emergency and there was “not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair” (Conrad 98). His shipmates, or the “beetles of humanity” were devoid of dignity and were merely concerned with their own self-preservation, morality was of no importance.
The sequence of events described on the ship is intentionally vague and misleading. The moment that Jim jumps off of the ship is neglected in Jim’s recount of the episode, suggesting that his abandonment subconsciously occurred while he was submerged in his dream-like trance. The omission of crucial moments of decision making in the narrative, highlights the uncertain nature of the motive. Conrad puts much effort into illustrating the climactic events that lead up to the suspenseful crisis but purposefully avoids the explanations to describe the actual pinnacle of the event. Words are so definite and conclusive that for Conrad to thoroughly describe the event would mean eliminating any imaginative interpretation on behalf of the reader. Conrad strives to remain obscure in his portrayal of Jim and his inexplicable actions, rather allowing Marlow to struggle to decipher the meaning of Jim’s mysterious actions.Jim’s mysterious actions and behavior in times of intense pressure gives light to Conrad’s unique insight into the human subconscious.
Conrad’s portrayal of Jim is indicative of human nature. When mankind is faced with a life-threatening situation, it becomes an issue of morality verses the instinct to survive. What separates the strong from the weak, is the ability to overcome fear and react morally and rationally in times of distress as well as the ability to fight until the battle is over. Conrad is interested in exploring the repercussions of “abandoning a sinner to his own devices” (Conrad; 73), and challenging mankind to navigate in the dark, when there is no light to guide the way. Under the circumstances Jim demonstrates a lack of resolution and courage that renders him weak and incapable of living up to his idealistic, heroic conceptions of himself. For the rest of the novel, he struggles to recover his lost respect that and recreate his tainted image. While some critics believe that his efforts to make heroic tales come to life are ultimately successful, Jim is never truly able to escape the repercussions of his failure. His eventual suicide is a ridiculous effort to satisfy his romantic ideals.
There is no single instance in the novel, in which Jim is truly aware of his inadequacy, or his inability to fulfill his imaginary achievements. Contrary to some beliefs that Jim’s story is one of self-loathing and reconciliation, Jim never actually loses his self-respect, nor is he convinced that his abandonment was immoral. Jim is undeniably convinced of his own self-worth, never losing sight of his preconceived, heroic self-image. Jim’s anguish springs not from his true need for self-reconciliation, but for his need to be rid of his tainted image and public disgrace.
Jim’s greatest attempt to redeem himself is in his conquest of the indigenous island of Patusan where “his physical isolation is complete” (Rollyson 711). He is the only white man for hundreds of miles and the knowledge that his dark secret is safely behind him, Rollyson believes, enables him to concentrate his efforts on bringing order and security to the troubled land of Patusan. Contrary to Rollyson’s speculation, Jim is very aware of his dark secret and during his rule, he never loses sight of the reason he initially came to Patusan. Jim has not yet abandoned his need to live up to his romantic conceptions of himself, and he relentlessly strives to establish his superiority. On Patusan, Jim is initially able to regain his self-esteem and actualize his romantic fantasies for a time. However, at the slightest sign of distress, “Jim’s idyllic but precarious world comes crashing down” (Rollyson 712). Jim’s brief days of glory and success instilled within him, an exalted egoism that proved fatal when his past was uncovered.
“Conrad’s heroes are not the archetypal hero, his heroes are united by a sense of common isolation and loneliness” (Fraser 116). According to Fraser’s translation of Conrad’s heroes, Jim’s confidant, Marlow, is equally as heroic as Jim is. Marlow is yet another portrayal of a man who, like Jim, failed to live up to his idealistic expectations of himself. While the novel does not focus centrally on Marlow’s life story, the reader becomes aware of the significance of Marlow’s entanglement with Jim. Marlow subtly evaluates Jim’s character, the code of honor that rejects him, that drives him to desperate lengths and makes it impossible for him to regain his honor. “Though Jim’s story is an interior one, we are never at any moment ?inside’ him… we see him through the eyes of his skeptical protector, Marlow” (Fraser 116).
Although Marlow does not initially view Jim as being a noble man, he begins to develop a fascination with Jim’s struggle to express himself actively. Fraser believes that Marlow’s intent is not to free Jim of his self-deception or change his character, but rather to “steer” him in the right direction, shape him anew, and help him to be wholly redeemed. Fraser may be justified in his thinking, however, the more significant explanation for Marlow’s involvement with Jim comes from Marlow’s recognition that he is like Jim.
Marlow “recognizes in [Jim] aspects of [his] own nature” (Kilvert 140). Throughout his account of Jim’s story, Marlow continually makes references to how Jim is “one of us”, revealing his belief that Jim reflects the nature of mankind. Furthermore, according to Critic Glassman, Marlow is able to recognize his own follies through Jim. As marlow becomes closer to Jim, he manages to look at himself more closely. He understands that because he has risked nothing and understood nothing in his lifetime, he achieved nothing. Ultimately, Marlow discovers that he has cheated himself out of his life experience and he uses Jim as an instrument of recovery. Marlow believes that if he can physically attach himself to Jim, he can seize Jim’s admirable qualities and make them his own. By organizing, interpreting, and recording Jim’s experience, he can associate himself with it. Marlow searches for meaning in Jim’s actions and finds significance, believing that he was a part of Jim’s victory in Patusan. It is in his association with Jim that Marlow becomes aware of his own meaning. Jim brings to life Marlow’s own dreams of illusory romanticism that were perhaps lost in his youth, and it is for that reason that Marlow takes it upon himself to provide the perfect habitat for Jim to succeed; Patusan.
Patusan, it seemed, was an enchanted paradise that gave Jim every opportunity to make up for his shady past. Jim’s initial successes were indeed honorable, however, his true test comes when his dark secret is unveiled and Jim is forced to make a decision between the welfare of Patusan or the protection of his reputation. Jim compromises the safety and well being of Patusan in order to protect his image, in another desperate attempt to live up to his romantic conception of himself. Jim allowed Patusan to be threatened and recognized his failure. He accepts his responsibility and allows himself to be killed by the chief of Patusan to compensate for his neglect. Jim’s death can be viewed from many different angles. While some critics believe that in his death, Jim is finally able to live up to his platonic ideals and his spirit was finally able to transcend the ruins of his existence, (Tanner 113; Glassman 49) the reality is actually quite different. Jim’s death is an abrupt end to his romantic conquest. It is the final climax when reality violently collides with romance. “Is this a noble act reversing his jump from the Panta? Or is his martyrdom a ridiculous gesture of satisfying his romantic ideals?” (Kilvert 140). Kilvert suggests that there is no concrete right or wrong answer, though it logically seems that Jim’s conquest for heroism never ceased, and his death was just a last attempt to prove his valiancy.
Jim’s lifelong struggle is captured in Conrad’s metaphor that ties all of the fragmented pieces of Jim’s story together. He says,
“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns… the way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep, sea keep you up” (Conrad 161).
Conrad is making the statement that romantics who try to escape the destructive qualities of life will drown. In order to conquer the oppressive forces you must adapt to the circumstances and learn to live in them. The practical world in which Jim lives is comparatively the destructive element in society. Since Jim refuses to submit to the practical world and face his reality, he will inevitably drown. Lord Jim is primarily developed around these abstractions. Jim is habitually fighting against an invincible force and it is for that reason that he will always be defeated. He will never be able to reach the “surface”, meaning that his dreams will never become reality. Jim is far too concerned with reaching the surface than attempting to survive in the present. Unless he is able to submit to reality, in the contest for survival, Jim will always lose.
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