Lord Jim Essays and Criticism
by Joseph Conrad

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Religion in Lord Jim

(Novels for Students)

In his 1982 book, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels, J. Hillis Miller echoes the same belief that many critics have held since the first publication of Lord Jim in 1900. Says Miller, the book "reveals itself to be a work which raises questions rather than answering them. The fact that it contains its own interpretations does not make it easier to understand." The enigmatic quality of Conrad's difficult book, found both in its complex narrative structure and in its capacity for yielding several conflicting interpretations, is inevitably part of any discussion about the work. Conrad was an acknowledged master at his art, and Lord Jim was written when the author was in the strongest, most experimental phase of his career, so the reader can surmise that this enigma was intentional. In fact, by examining Lord Jim in light of its religious references and themes, Jim's spiritual journey, and his ambiguous, messiah-like death, one realizes that Conrad is ultimately encouraging readers to examine their own beliefs.

A reader might be struck by the overwhelming number of religious references that Conrad includes. The book is positively saturated with religious words, which manifest themselves in a number of ways, from a number of people. When Jim is first introduced, the omniscient narrator says that Jim has "the patience of Job," a biblical character from the Old Testament whose faith was tried by God through a number of brutal trials. God is also mentioned directly many times in the novel. Even those who are not particularly devout, such as Chester, the slimy opportunist who tries to get Marlow to have Jim work for him on one of his colonial projects, invoke the name of God. This is true even when telling stories that are morally suspect: "the Lord God knows the right and the wrong of that story." Devils are also mentioned several times, such as when Conrad talks about the depths the lazy seamen will go to when trying to find easy work: "They ... would have served the devil himself had he made it easy enough." Marlow says to his audience at one point, "I am willing to believe each of us has a guardian angel." Even descriptions of the coarse German captain of the Patna occasionally reference the divine: "The German lifted two heavy fists to heaven and shook them a little without a word."

These are but a handful of the religious references that are scattered throughout the book, underscoring the book's theme of beliefs. These references are particularly apparent during the descriptions of the ill-fated Patna. The steamer is carrying a large group of Moslem pilgrims, "Eight hundred men and women with faith and hopes," who "at the call of an idea ... had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers." Indeed, through his language, Conrad depicts a war between good and evil, believers and non-believers. When he describes the lighthouse that the Patna passes, he notes that it was "planted by unbelievers on a treacherous shoal" and that it "seemed to wink at her its eye of flame, as in derision of her errand of faith." However, derision is not enough to stop the Patna and its devout passengers from reaching their destination, and Conrad gives an early indication that the ship is being protected by a higher power: "The nights descended on her like a benediction." The word benediction is a religious term used to denote a blessing. This is an odd way to describe a nightfall at sea, so it becomes one of the obvious cues that Conrad uses to underscore the religious tone of the story.

Later on, the reference is more direct. When Jim sees that the ship has beaten the odds and is still floating, he notes that the "sleeping pilgrims were destined to accomplish their whole pilgrimage" and remarks that it "was as if the Omnipotence whose mercy they confessed ... had looked down to make a sign, 'Thou shalt not!' to the ocean."

The figure of Jim is juxtaposed next to this highly religious, almost miraculous incident. Jim has become a naval...

(The entire section is 8,646 words.)