Lord Jim, Conrad’s most famous work, is also his most extensive examination of a persistent theme: the conflict between an individual’s inner moral code and his or her outward actions. Throughout Conrad’s short stories and novels, his characters are often afraid, even obsessed, with the concern of how their personal standards will bear up under the stress of events. This situation is explicit in Lord Jim. As a young boy learning the sailor’s craft, Jim is certain he will meet the test of moral courage, but later, while serving as a first mate on the Patna, an old, unseaworthy steamer carrying Moslem pilgrims across the Indian Ocean, he fails the test. The Patna strikes an unknown object in the night and seems ready to sink. The crew, including Jim, abandons the ship and its passengers. When the drifting Patna is discovered and the events are revealed, Jim becomes an outcast, both literally and morally.
These events occur quickly, and the bulk of the novel consists of Jim’s personal and moral redemption. For a while, he drifts from port to port, leaving when his identity is discovered. Finally, he abandons the world of Europeans altogether and heads upriver to a small Malay village. Even there, however, he finds he cannot escape the demands of his sensitive moral feelings and must prove to himself that he is not a coward.
Jim’s early efforts win praise, especially when he rids the countryside of the notorious bandit, Sherif Ali. Yet this is not enough for Jim, who...
(The entire section is 631 words.)
Jim is an outcast and a wanderer. He works as a water clerk in seaports throughout the East, keeping each job only until his identity becomes known and then moving on. The story of Lord Jim began when he determined to leave home to go to sea. His father obtained a berth for him as an officer candidate, and he began his service. Although he loves the sea, his beginning was not heroic, for almost at once he was injured and had to be left behind in an Eastern port. When he recovered, he accepted a berth as chief mate aboard an ancient steamer, the Patna, which was carrying Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. The steamer was not seaworthy, its German captain was a gross coward, and its chief engineer was liquor-soaked. One sultry night in the Red Sea, the ship struck a floating object and the captain sent Jim to investigate.
One month later, Jim testifies in court that when he went to investigate, he found the forward hold rapidly filling with seawater. Hearing his report, the captain, declaring that the Patna would sink quickly, gave orders for the crew to abandon ship. At first, Jim was determined to stand by his post. At the last minute, however, on sudden impulse, he jumped to join the other white men in the lifeboat they had launched. The pilgrims were left aboard the sinking vessel. The Patna did not sink, however. A French gunboat overtook the vessel and towed it and the abandoned passengers into port without its chief officers aboard.
Marlow, a white man, is present at the inquiry. There is something about Jim that becomes unforgettable to Marlow, and he is compelled to recall the event and to tell the story to friends as long as he lives; it becomes a part of his own life.
Marlow’s story had begun with a cable from Aden announcing that the Patna, abandoned by its officers, had been towed into port. Two weeks later, the captain, the two engineers, and Jim had come ashore. Their boat had been picked up by a steamer of the Dale Line, and they were immediately whisked into court for the investigation. The captain lost his papers for deserting his ship, and he stormed away declaring that his disgrace did not matter; he would become an American citizen. The chief engineer went to a hospital. Raving in delirium tremens, he declared that he had seen the Patna go down and that the vessel was full of reptiles when it sank. He also stated that the space under his bed was crammed with pink toads. The second engineer had a broken arm and was also in the hospital. Neither was called to testify.
Jim, wrestling with the thoughts of his upbringing and his father’s teaching as well as his own deeply established sense of honor, becomes a marked man for the rest of his life. Marlow tells how during the trial he had dinner with the young man, who seemed of a different stamp from the...
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