Reading Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’

It makes a world of difference to read Lord Jim after 20 years. The novel was a prescribed text in my Masters Program at college, I remember reading most of the novels of Conrad soon after and a tome of literary criticism on Conrad’s works. Most often in a college program we read a work of fiction/play /poem through various lens, so there was a colonial reading of Conrad, reading Lord Jim as a romantic novel, as adventure fiction, psychological novel, as a modernistic novel, we read it for its stylized structure and much more. There was always this anxiety to see the layered meaning of the novel.

Now I have no such anxiety, I read the book for the sheer pleasure of reading. The book evoked the predictable responses it did that many years ago, though in a muted way because of what the passage of time has done to me as an individual. I, in fact, read the same book from my college days, a yellowed paperback where I have liberally marked with pencil in the margins – ‘honour’, ‘morality’, ‘guilt’, ‘imagination’, ‘isolation’, ‘romantic’ – superficially, tags that I used as pointers for preparing essays; but at a deeper level those were the frames where, with a feeling of awe, I froze the tragic hero Jim.

Jim is a slave of his imagination, illusions, romantic longings; he lives a major part of his life in his head. As a young water clerk he imagines saving sinking ships, quelling mutinies, but during his first training to be a sailor he fails to spring into action at the sight of a coaster crashing through a schooner on a wild weather day. This acts as a prelude to what is to come, the omniscient narrator wastes no words and time to imply that Jim is ear marked for a life of tests and tribulations.

The novel can be divided into two – Patna and Patusan. Patna is the ship that takes eight hundred pilgrims to Mecca, Jim joins the crew as a chief mate. The ships runs over  something and sustains a dangerous leak. The native pilgrims are sleeping and the four white crew members, one being Jim, abandon the ship and escape in a boat. Jim who had been waiting for opportunities to show his heroism has missed a lifetime chance. Jim had been paralyzed into inaction by his imagination of the impending tragedy. Before the minute of catastrophe he lives in his head to the last detail the sinking of the ship with the 800 pilgrims in the cold waters. Even in the boat he hears the cries of the pilgrims as they sink.

At one level Jim groans over his missed chance and wasted opportunities – here we see a twenty four year old romantic fed on holiday literature of adventure and heroism, not realizing that reality always falls many notches below the ideal. He sees himself as different from the other crew members, he sees their influence as a dark force that willed him to jump into the well of disgrace. At a very important level he fights the assaults from his conscience on his moral standing. This makes him seek for atonement and retribution, he searches for a mission that is unalloyed by coarseness of purpose.

This search lands him in Patusan a forested island in the Malay Archipelago, a land bloodied and ripped apart by warring factions of people – the Malay Tunku Allang, the treacherous descendant of the Sultan who wants to consolidate his power base and establish his monopoly over trade; the Bugis who are immigrants from Celebes, this race is headed by Doramin and his son Dain Waris, who are friends of Stein ( Jim is sent to Patusan by Stein to manage his trading company), and Sherif Ali an Arab sailor who with his men terrorizes the Bugis and loots the land. Jim, the white Lord descends into this Inferno to restore order and peace in the land.  This could well be read as another trip in his romantic journey.

Was it a quest to be a hero that drove him to the sequestered island?   Marlow the narrator of Jim’s tale says, “ The conquest of love, honour, men’s confidence – the pride of it, the power of it, are fit materials for a heroic tale.” Vey soon Marlow adds, “I affirm he achieved greatness; but the thing would be dwarfed in the telling, or rather in the hearing. Frankly, it is not my words I mistrust, but your minds.” Marlow fixes his glance on the readers accuses us of sacrificing our imagination to feed on a story, to fix on the ‘externals of success’ –  reprimanded we realign our understanding of heroism. Jim routs the Arab, establishes peace by reconciliation, builds bridges. He fights with an urgency of purpose and a conviction to establish stability; in the process he gets a larger than life image where ‘his word was the one truth of every passing day’. His battles are not pantomimes of his notional heroism that he read in books, Jim sees clearly that he is in no romantic situation as the jungle threatens to creep in and overwhelm him. In the end when he visits the bereaved Doramin and is prepared for any punishment that the grieving father will inflict, he goes with a complete knowledge that there are no heroes.   

Problems with Lord Jim
The novel is exclusively Jim’s. He is isolated not just by his moral predicament but he is the isolated white man working his destiny among the natives in a distant land. The people and the land are used as mere props all through the novel, this becomes very problematic.  Jim is best described in the company of other white men like Marlow and Stein, and his relationship with Malays, Bugis lacks dimension.

The lands Jim visits are a blur, the people of the land are a smudge. Most of the places he visits do not have names, not even fictitious ones – it suits Conrad to keep mentioning eastern ports, eastern seas. The place the Inquiry is held may very well be Bombay because there are references to people with caste marks on their foreheads, there is a reference to a Parsee firm, there is a sprinkle of words like punkah,  annas,  gharry-wallahs, and a tokenism through a one line mention of Hindu belief in reincarnation which sounds irreverent. He compares the pilgrims in Patna to animals packed in a pen; he writes, “800 pilgrims were driven on board”, and they gratefully “surrendered to the wisdom of the white man”.

In the section on Patusan, characters like Doramin and Dan Waris who are portrayed sympathetically, or Sherif Ali and Tunku Allang who are painted as devilish, or Jim’s half caste girlfriend Jewel whose only refrain is ‘they always leave us’ lack the intellectual and emotional breadth that Jim, Marlow or Stein are portrayed to possess. The people in Patusan are consistently single dimensional, they are not even caricatures –  caricatures of characters like Cornelius and the Captain of Patna offer a relief, the people in Patusan are not credited with even that.

Folds on Doramin’s bulk arrange and rearrange themselves every time he is mentioned, the only emotional dimension of Doramin is his love for his son and his desire to make him his successor. Dan Waris is mentioned as Jim’s fine friend, as valuable to Jim as Marlow. This rings hollow because the story does not support this. The author only states, but is not able to show the depth of their relationship.

Conrad describes the land, the physicality of the people but cannot understand the depth of their souls to write about the choices they make. Despite all the action that takes place in Patusan, the place appears unpeopled. This is because we do not hear the voices of the people, their stories, their myth
s, their folk lore, the language they speak, the songs they sing, the nature of their dreams.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea Of Poppies                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          &nb

In this context, I read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies as representing all that Conrad chose to leave out. Sea of Poppies  tells the story that  Lord Jim  left unsaid, story of the diverse people, from rascals to rajahs to impostors to outcastes to Devis who travel by Ibis, a one- time blackbirder, a ship that transported slaves. These characters inhabit the noisy underbelly of the ship; they might be packed like animals but nobody can stop their animated voices, they tell their tales, sing their songs and hold the notion of their home through their shared histories and stories.

2 thoughts on “Reading Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’

  1. So glad you re-read the book and wrote this! I’m leaving “Lord Jim” for later but will return to your post when I do read it, toward the end of this Conrad marathon! You’ve made me anticipate it even more.

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