Born in the Polish Ukraine in 1857, Joseph Conrad was the son of a political exile who championed Poland’s resistance to Russian rule and was consequently forced to leave his native land. Conrad lost both parents before he was ten years old, and he was reared by an uncle. In 1874, he went to sea; by 1886, he had earned his master mariner’s certificate and had become a naturalized British citizen. Working in the merchant service, Conrad served mostly in Eastern waters with the exception of one trip to the Congo. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River, was published in 1895; in 1896, he married Jessie George and settled down to write. During his last years he suffered from rheumatic gout and worried about his work and finances.
Some critics have said that Lord Jim, which began as a short story and was first published as a magazine serial, became a novel because its author lost control of his material. They also point out how unlikely it is that Jim’s long, tragic story would be told on one occasion among a group of men sitting on a veranda. Conrad claimed that men do sit up for hours at night exchanging stories, and he declared that Jim’s story is interesting enough to hold the attention of listeners and readers, for, as suggested by the motif of the novel, “He is one of us.” Because Jim, like every human being, is an enigmatic paradox of strength and weakness, Conrad allows his readers to judge Jim’s actions but reminds them that often there is “not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong” of something.
The novel is often confusing, and shifts in point of view and a seeming disregard for a logical time sequence give it a meditative style. Using an unnamed third-person narrator in the first four chapters, Conrad shifts in chapter 5 to Marlow’s oral narration and then in chapter 36 to a letter written by Marlow. As Jim’s story unfolds, however, Conrad also allows other reliable characters to comment on Jim and his actions: the French lieutenant who saves the Patna after Jim deserts it; Stein, who gives Jim another chance to prove himself; and Jewel, the native girl who loves him. Conrad thus gives his readers the pieces to a gigantic puzzle—the connection between human motivation and human character—but he himself admitted that much in the novel would remain inscrutable.
Conrad stated that the central theme of Lord Jim is the “acute consciousness of lost honour.” Jim may be uncommonly idealistic, but Conrad claimed to have seen Jim’s “form” in an Eastern port. To help clarify Jim’s desperate preoccupation with his dreams of himself, Conrad describes Jim as having in his youth spent his time reading “light holiday literature” and having imagined himself “always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.” In addition, Jim had been brought up by a father who was a minister and who held absolute ideas of right and wrong. He had written to Jim just before he joined the Patna as chief mate, saying that one who “gives way to temptation . . . hazards his total depravity and everlasting ruin.”
Jim is a dreamer who becomes lost in his own imagination; this aspect of his character is revealed by the training ship incident in which he fails to respond to a cry for help from a wrecked schooner because he is reveling in dreams of his own heroism. His inability to face the reality of his failure is seen when he blames nature for catching him off guard and when he rationalizes that he is saving himself for bigger emergencies. When the crucial emergency comes—that of the Patna ’s crisis—he again fails to act because he imagines the chaos and the screaming desperation of eight hundred pilgrims fighting for space on seven lifeboats; he stands frozen while the other members of the crew lower their lifeboat and prepare to jump. Jim wants to make it clear that he did not plan to jump, nor did he help to lower the boat. He interprets his...
(The entire section is 1,129 words.)