Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
Conrad introduces Jim as an able-bodied seaman with romantic ideas about his own courage. Those ideas change drastically, though, when a crisis strikes the Patna, a decaying steamer aboard which Jim serves as chief mate; the rest of the novel explores the complexity of Jim’s character as he struggles to form a new conception of himself.
The steamer strikes a submerged object one night at sea and begins to go down, carrying a load of passengers. The unscrupulous captain and his drunken crew abandon the vessel immediately, and though Jim remains behind for a long while, he eventually jumps from the ship and joins the others in the captain’s lifeboat. But the steamer does not sink; the passengers are rescued and Jim’s actions become the subject of a legal inquiry, while the rest of the crew slips away unpunished.
It is at this inquiry that Marlow first appears, and he goes on to narrate much of the remaining story. Marlow helps Jim in his attempt to come to terms with the meaning of his actions and restore his lost honor. Marlow eventually finds work for Jim in a remote trading settlement, where, among the natives, be becomes known as Lord Jim. Here at last he arrives at some understanding of himself, though the dramatic conclusion of the novel challenges the depth of that understanding.
Conrad adds interest to the tale and complicates his themes of lost honor and self-knowledge by introducing Marlow as a narrator. Marlow becomes a kind of mediator between Jim and the reader, so that Jim’s story can, at times, tell us as much about Marlow as it does about Jim. It is this added dimension--a Conrad trademark--that makes LORD JIM the profound exploration of human character that it is.
Cox, C. B. Joseph Conrad: The Modern Imagination. London: J. M. Dent, 1974. Maintains that the novel reveals the meaninglessness of the modern age. Marlow and Jim cannot find the language to reveal the truth of Jim’s actions. No words can be found; meaning can only be apprehended through glimpses and hints.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Includes two extended chapters on Lord Jim, the first of which explores the work as impressionistic rather than realistic, which requires the reader to reflect morally and emotionally on the central character. The second examines Marlow’s role and character as narrator.
Karl, Frederick R. A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. An excellent beginner’s source on Conrad’s works. Provides analyses of major works, characters, and themes. Especially helpful is the explanation of Conrad’s time shifts and use of the Marlow narrator figure in Lord Jim.
Kuehn, Robert E., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Lord Jim”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Fourteen essays covering the novel’s composition and its themes and symbolism. Chapters discuss guilt and redemption, the loss of innocence, and Marlow’s judgment of Jim. Helpful chronology and selected bibliography.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Provides a history of the book’s composition and includes sources for the plot and main character. Covers such topics as the development and method of the narrative, Marlow’s use of symbols, Conrad’s structure of time, Jim’s sojourn in Patusan as romantic escapism, the relationship between Jim and Marlow, and the significance of the ending.