Despite a bit of a guilty feeling – not having finished The Brothers Karamazov yet – I was really in the mood to read Lord Jim. This is my second or third attempt. Previously I could hardly get past three pages; now I’m nearly a third of the way through and have definitely put BK on hold.
That’s not to the detriment of BK, but to the genuinely captivating prose in Lord Jim. Once I finally get into a Conrad story, I become intrigued and entranced. It doesn’t matter if I don’t always understand what is going on. This novel, probably Conrad’s best-known after Heart of Darkness, is almost quite as surreal, reading like stream-of-consciousness, albeit very structured and subtle. Part of this comes from a familiar voice: the narrator Marlow. Ever loquacious, he recounts his perspective of the controversial seaman “Jim,” his trial, and his personality.
There is much to talk about, even so early on. What particularly stands out are the echoes of Romanticism (and, at times, Melville-esque “Dark” Romanticism). The story itself is simple: the ship Patna appears to be about to sink; the officers escape, leaving their passengers behind them, and Jim is one of those officers. It is the psychology of the case that fills pages with nuances and further questions.
Conrad refers back to themes from Heart of Darkness, which he had published earlier that same year (1899). Again, there is the idea that motives are complex, and that Kurtz is not so much an entity as he is a trait or alternative identity.
The commonest sort of fortitude prevents us from becoming criminals in a legal sense; it is from weakness unknown, but perhaps suspected, as in some parts of the world you suspect a deadly snake in every bush—from weakness that may lie hidden, watched or unwatched, prayed against or manfully scorned, repressed or maybe ignored more than half a lifetime, not one of us is safe.
Juxtaposed with this pessimism is the character of Jim. He is fascinating because, like many Romantic or Byronic heroes, he is a product of his times and he strives for what he has not achieved – heroism. Jim spent his childhood dreaming of being a hero, being always prepared to be a hero, yet ultimately missing opportunities and being confronted finally with what, from many perspectives, constitutes not only a disaster but a crime.
It was solemn, and a little ridiculous too, as they always are, those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be, this precious notion of a convention, only one of the rules of the game, nothing more, but all the same so terribly effective by its assumption of unlimited power over natural instincts, by the awful penalties of its failure.