Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim is, like all of Joseph Conrad’s books that I have read, a tale of tragic optimism in the way in which it is better to be good than to be evil, but that both those who are good and evil meet the same end of death, and that virtue as well as vice can be the instrument of our doom. Like Heart Of Darkness, this novel has the sympathetic Marlow as a narrator, providing a foil for the (presumably sympathetic) audience as he tells, in a very nonlinear fashion, the life and death of a Lord Jim, an English sailor who found his home and his death in a Borneo village.
The novel itself is a relatively short (250 pages in the volume I read) yarn about a “romantic” sailor whose career is blighted by an act of cowardice by which he abandoned 850 souls on a ship called the Patna to their fates after a collision with the hull of a sunken ship, believing them about to die and joining three other “cowards” on a boat. For this act of cowardice “Jim” lost his first mate’s certificate in a court of inquiry, and found himself unable to escape the horrible reputation of his actions all over the Indian ocean, from Aden to Bangkok. Finally, seeking to escape the dull life of a water-clerk and a bristly and prickly sense of pride, he takes the opportunity to be a representative of a merchant who strongly reminds one of Alfred Russel Wallace in his fine collection of beetles for Western audiences and his general populist sympathies .
There is no doubt that Lord Jim is a tragic romantic hero, tragic for a variety of reasons. For one, the penalty of an instantaneous act of fear and panic (which appears to be like a panic attack, something I would view somewhat sympathetically) is so disproportionate to the actual harm done (nonexistent), that it appears like a Greek tragedy where the truth of man’s true cowardice and pride of life wrecks absolute havoc on his happiness and well-being. So it is here. Lord Jim’s fatal flaw, aside from a moment of weakness and despondency both on the Patna and in the final crisis in the Malay village where he seeks an escape from the cruel gossip of the West (which reminds one of the destructive gossiping tendencies of our own time in the Internet Age and the way in which fragile and sensitive souls are driven to despair and self-destruction over the publicity of their private sins and faults to the entire world), is his pride. It is his pride that leaves him to abandon job after job once his identity as the coward of the Patna is known, and his pride that keeps him from going back home and seeking to explain himself to his own friends and family, and finally to abandon the world of Europeans in general for a small little village where he finds the love of an uncomprehending and simple girl of mixed parentage. And it is his pride, ultimately, that leads to his tragic doom as a result of the treachery of some European-led buccaneers as well as the vengeance of the tribal leader he had befriended over the death of his own son by that treachery.
But ultimately, even given the complicated and non-linear nature of the story, which serves to bring the reader into the frame story to attempt to solve the puzzle of Jim’s character, the reader is led into an understanding that Lord Jim was one of us. He was a humanitarian European in an age of imperialism, a sensitive and romantic soul, a person whose biggest flaws were the result of his brittle and prickly and defensive pride and the basic desire to preserve the life of himself and others. He had the compensating virtues of being steadfast and even fatalistic when it came to doing his duty by those who trusted him, and in being a relatively simple and decent soul himself without the greed and avarice that poison so many lives. But because of the tragic nature of his times, his life was a profoundly tragic ones. The world thought him unworthy to live, but it is in fact the world that is unworthy of such decent and gentle, if flawed souls, as we all are. Lord Jim allows us the chance to muse on some very dark aspects of the truths that lie within us all, and as such it is a novel of the highest order.