Reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim

by Sunita

It took me a very long time to start this book, and I only did because a friend wanted to do a buddy read (thanks Sirius!). I remember it being assigned in high school (not to my class) and everyone complained about it, so I thought it was one of those endless, description-laden books where no one is likable. It is definitely description-laden; Conrad never met a similar or metaphor he couldn’t use. But it turned out to be compulsively readable. Who knew?

It’s beautifully written and far more accessible than I expected. Even though it is wordy and descriptively dense, it draws you in and you just keep going. The structure is unusual; almost the entire story is related by Conrad’s favorite narrator, Marlow. So you almost never see a character POV, and yet you come to know them all, at least somewhat. Conrad’s portraits are so beautifully observed, even when the characterization embraces a stereotype (e.g. in the case of Jewel, the young woman who falls in love with Jim and whom Jim loves), there are flashes of insight and respect in the depiction.

The writing style feels late Victorian, but the subject is entirely modernist. It’s a character study, but it’s also about fate, redemption, and imperialism/colonialism. It’s not a book for readers who can’t tolerate the High Imperial view of the colonized; they mostly wind up being infantilized and are always seen through the eyes of their colonizers, with all the expected shortcomings therein. But Conrad is no Kipling. He shows you the excesses and distortions of the imperialist project, and there are no unalloyed heroes here. Jim comes closest, and his heroism grows out of his great act of cowardice.

I should say something about the plot. Jim (we never learn his last name) is a young seaman on a rickety old boat called the Patna. When the Patna is damaged and looks to be capsizing, the (white) captain and a couple of other crew abandon their hundreds of (nonwhite) passengers. At the last minute, Jim joins them. The boat fails to sink, the passengers are rescued, and the crew are brought to trial. Jim’s life is spared, but his act of cowardice follows him wherever he goes. Marlow, who attends the trial and is intrigued by Jim’s acceptance of his moral culpability, helps him find other work, eventually arranging for him to be a commercial representative in a far-off jungle village, somewhere in the Malay or Indonesian archipelago. He finds success and solace for a while, even becoming Lord Jim to the indigenous people, but eventually his world intrudes. The ending is completely fitting and deeply sad.

The exploration of imperialism is nuanced in a way I wasn’t expecting, especially considering the book was written in 1899-1900, which is pretty much the heyday of imperialism and imperialist ideology. Conrad was born a Ukrainian Pole and his parents were political dissidents, so although his English writing is superb, his background encompassed both imperial power and colonial-type subjugation. He was, always, an outsider. Maybe that’s what makes his depiction so nuanced, or maybe it’s just that he was a deeply gifted artist. Lord Jim draws on several real-life historical figures, but the characterization feels utterly original.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. I expected to appreciate it, it’s a widely praised classic after all. But I also just liked it. It is a book that will stay with me and that I will probably reread.