I am of the opinion that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands in a league of its own for the very breadth nightmarish, sublime and slightly racist vision, but Lord Jim is Heart of Darkness matured, a longer work with a more even-tempered focus on that divide between community and the individual, with the concept of agency and of Western ideals being forcefully upheld around the world. I think that those who disregard Heart of Darkness may feel more fulfilled by Lord Jim, a monumental work that is also parts Don Quixote and Hamlet.
Lord Jim is, simply enough, the story of a sailor who is forever haunted by a single action. When Jim, second mate of the Patna, decides to abandon the ship carrying hundreds of Muslim pilgrims up through the red sea, it permanently puts a damper on his reputation, as the ship, which had hit something sticking out of the water, gets safely towed to port by a small boat. While the other sailors escape any trial by running away, Jim gets banned for years from sailing and had to get odd jobs in several ports many times before his story caught up to him. Eventually, though, he meets Marlow, who hears his story and eventually sends him out to Patusan, a trading post in the far East few know about.
While Jim is there, things start turning towards his favor. While he’s there, he ends up routing the people against a local tyrant threatening their land and in doing so gains reverent status among the locals. But his happiness is short-lived, as a man named Gentleman Brown pays a visit, attacking some of the local while he’s gone. While he confers with Brown and he allows brown to leave without any force, Brown ends up taking another route and ambushing a group of Patusani that includes the chief’s son. Jim, then, will soon be embroiled in what can only be his own tragic end.
It is difficult to ascertain what exactly Conrad is trying to in this novel based only on the plot, as there is plenty going on in the storytelling itself. Without marginalizing the sheer complexity of the story, one major theme of Lord Jim is the relationship between the individual and language. I had a writing professor who once taught me about the importance of naming in fiction, and the example he used was the Patna/Patusan binary, which he recognized was separated by “us”. The Patna, the ship that Jim ends up being completely responsible for, represents the Western idealization of the individual, and how he must uphold a certain individual code. This is contrasted by his entry into the community of Patusan, where his actions have positive implications.
I mentioned two classic works of literature in the introduction that I want to briefly go over. The first is Don Quixote, and i think that Lord Jim speaks to the Quixote trope as one that simply cannot exist in the real world. Quixote, who romanticizes adventure and the individual, is simply delusion, just as Jim, who fancies a life out on sea, cannot live up to this individual code. I tentatively want to make a link between this seafaring code and Don Quixote as both speaking to the ideals the Western World creates for itself that cannot be upheld. This concept of reputation fetishizes the individual and shuns opportunity to redeem oneself. The appearance of Gentleman Brown at Patusan should feel inevitable, but should also remind us that colonialism was an ideal so many could not escape from alive. When Jim tries to leave it, he must suffer his fate.
The other work I mentioned is Hamlet, and while that work stands in a league of its own, I definitely see a striking resemblance between the two. Both of them are subsumed by a world that does not reward ambiguity and indecision, whereas Conrad’s narrative actually celebrates ambiguity and multiple perspectives. Not only does Jim’s perspective come out, but Marlow’s, Browns, and other Patusanis get a say as well. Conrad also does away with chronology, allowing the various narrators to tell their stories with disorder. this causes the reader to change impressions throughout the book, making them rethink what occurred in the past.
There is an order that Conrad is insistent on subverting here that represents a much larger pattern. Intent on breaking down the divides caused by colonialism, Lord Jim is one of the first novels to recognize that language can be an oppressor against a people, as opposed to mere force. It is so fitting that community is divided between those upholding impossible ideals and those welcoming unity and collective contribution.