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Lord Jim Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The novel's primary themes are the careful study of Jim's betrayal of his duty on board the Patna, and the saga of his lifelong search to regain his honor. Much of the novel is concerned with the analysis of Jim's impulsive act of flight from the Patna's crisis. The reader is allowed to see the court's view of the action, Marlow's assessment of Jim and the other three disgraced officers, Jim's own attempt to explain or rationalize his actions, and Captain Brierly's view of the events. Ironically, Brierly, a man of supposedly impeccable moral rigor, is haunted by his encounter with Jim, who seems to dramatize human weakness for him, and soon afterward commits suicide.

Jim's act of flight, undertaken emotionally in the panic of the moment, and following the example set by the senior officers, reveals the way human fears and needs (here the longing for survival) may be stronger than dreams of romantic heroism. Throughout his fiction, Conrad describes how easy it is to yield to fear or expediency and betray one's ideals, especially if one has not been severely tested in the cauldron of experience. What makes Jim particularly interesting to Marlow and the reader is Jim's agony of conscience and self-reproach afterward.

Conrad's second major theme sustains the latter half of the novel, which follows Jim's efforts to regain both respect in the eyes of the world and, even more importantly, his lost self-respect. Here the novel treats Jim's success as a white trader on Patusan and describes the esteem Jim creates among the natives of the island. More importantly, Jim's full understanding of humanity and its capacity for evil is finally reached in his dealings with Gentleman Brown, whom Jim unwisely chooses to trust. The novel's tragic ending, with Jim willingly accepting his own death to regain his honor, also helps to define another major theme of Conrad's fiction: If ideals are easy enough to betray, they may also be justified by valiant action; yet the reward of courageous action in support of ideals is always an ambiguous one. Underlying both themes of the novel is Conrad's apparent conviction that human beings suffer from enormous moral weakness, but need ideals to help them maintain a decent level of moral action.

A character who exhibits the high level of moral behavior that Conrad admires is Marlow, the captain who is the chief narrator of Lord Jim; although Marlow recognizes that Jim has betrayed his trust in the Patna voyage, Marlow also recognizes Jim's worth and feels obligated to learn the truth about Jim's fate. In the related work, Heart of Darkness, Marlow asserts laconically that it is fidelity to our work that "saves us"; but this apparently pragmatic apothegm is a case of ironic understatement typical of modernist authors. In the same novella, Marlow, who follows a high standard of truthfulness, reluctantly and painfully tells a lie about Kurtz to spare his fiancee's feelings. Thus Marlow is at heart both a moralist and a sensitive humanist.


(Novels for Students)

The novel is saturated with the idea of betrayal and the consequences that result from it. The defining incident in the book, the Patna incident, is horrible in many people's eyes because of the betrayal involved. When Jim decides to jump into a lifeboat, leaving the passengers to what he thinks is a certain death, he betrays both his code as an officer and his personal code of heroism. When he first starts on his path to be an officer, he has visions of his "saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane," and other heroic deeds. When he betrays that by abandoning the Patna's passengers, the effect on his psyche is immediate, as he equates the physical jump from the ship with a fall from the heroism he so adored: "He had tumbled from a height he could never scale again." Jim is not the only one who either betrays or feels the effects of betrayal. At the end of the novel, Jim is betrayed by Cornelius, who, unbeknownst to him, dislikes him. Jim sends Cornelius as a...

(The entire section is 1,369 words.)