Note: Before getting into the review, I want to mention how disappointed I was by the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. There was an unnecessarily massive amount of footnotes, and one of the endnotes disclosed a major spoiler, long before I reached that plot twist! Normally I’d recommend B&N Classics, but this one I cannot.
It’s been more than fitting to have read Lord Jim during my last quarter of college. I would say, in fact, that this ‘bildungsroman‘ by Joseph Conrad is a timely read for those of us who can sympathize with Jim – a Romantic holding his ideals in one hand and finding his place in the world with the other. Is it best read as a warning, a fairytale, or a historical fantasy? Hopefully, by the end of this post, I will have figured it out. One thing is certain: Lord Jim is not your typical trainwreck. It’s a longer, more tedious disaster, realistic in its portrayal of events whose consequences are as realistically ambiguous.
Once again, we meet up with Marlow, the narrator from Heart of Darkness, who is telling his audience the life story of the titular Jim. The son of an English cleric, Jim’s ambition since childhood is to go to sea, like many another sea story protagonist. Jim’s dream, however, is to be more than ordinary – he wants to be a hero. He wants to be in life-threatening situations and, if necessary, give his all to save someone.
In a bizarre chain of circumstances and decisions, Jim ultimately becomes a failure to his dream. He becomes, in his own eyes, the lowest of the low, battling his depressing reality with a strange brand of egotism. It is a longer and stranger path which later earns him the respectful title of Tuan (“Lord”) Jim, given him by people who truly regard him as a hero. The question is, will he ever see himself again as they see him now?
I’m hopelessly biased, in that I love Romanticism, Joseph Conrad’s writing, and sea stories. I’m giving Lord Jim 4.5 out of 5 stars, because Jim’s story really resonated with me.
To be more objective, I can say I don’t remember reading any book that deals with these themes in the way Conrad has. First of all, Marlow does not concretely judge Jim’s actions. In fact, the illustration of Jim’s family is a not-so-subtle reminder to the reader that it is difficult, impossible – not even permissible? – to judge him from our psychologically and geographically distant environment. However, I found myself sympathizing with Jim because there were grounds for sympathy. There was a real dilemma; this is a book where the ambiguity is real, without sugar-coating the very real wrong of Jim’s actions.
I would say that Marlow certainly wants us to sympathize, but nowhere did it feel like I was being required to take Jim’s side. The very fact that Jim feels a need for “redemption” indicates there is a wrong needed to be made right. I think it is subject to interpretation, whether he redeemed himself or not. Though the ending was extremely unsatisfying – subtracting half a star from my rating – personally I felt Jim had at least forgiven himself. That was the one conclusion that I could find.
It raises the question of how much of his troubles resulted from his Romanticism. One of the brilliant aspects of the book is Marlow’s interviews of other characters, in which he learns their opinions of Jim. One is a French officer, one is an old German adventurer, another is the girl Jim loves, and a fourth is a ruthless pirate. While excessively varied, the common theme is an awe of (or contempt for) Jim’s heroic ideals. Do these ideals originate out of moral standards or simply egotism? Some of both, probably. Undoubtedly they are the cause of much of his unhappiness, and the greatest source of his sense of what it is to live.
These characters either love or hate Jim passionately. What most of them don’t understand is he would not be himself without his ideals. “That was the way. To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream…”