Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad, is a classic novel of men’s adventure, a deep and moving examination of the nature of moral character and courage.
Jim is the first mate of the Patna, a dilapidated steamer transporting pilgrims to Mecca. The ship strikes an underwater obstruction in the middle of the night, and fearing that the ship is about to sink, the crew panics and abandons the passengers to their fate. Jim at first resists this cowardly act, but somehow finds himself in the lifeboat with the Captain and other white crewmen. When they are rescued, they find that the Patna never sank, the pilgrims all survived, and they all face charges back in port.
More than once, characters express their sorrow at Jim’s failure. A bright, promising young man – “He was one of us” they bemoan.
After losing his sailing papers, Jim drifts throughout the South Pacific, from one menial seaport job to another. At each stop, he is recognized and he is driven further away from civilization by shame. Along the way, he engages the sympathies of a ship captain named Marlow, who does his best to aid him.
Marlow arranges for Jim to take on the administration of a remote trading post in the Malaysian kingdom of Patusan. Here, cut off from western civilization and his past, Jim triumphs and rises to earn the title of Tuan Jim or “Lord” Jim. Just as it looks as though he will redeem himself, Jim stumbles, however, and the book ends on a tragic note.
Lord Jim is highly regarding by critics, due to its sophisticated storytelling. Jim’s tale unfolds primarily from the viewpoint of Marlow, and the reader is left to piece together the central mystery of Jim’s soul through scattered anecdotes, conversations, and letters. Conrad is regarded a master prose stylist; there are certainly moments of beauty and arresting description in Lord Jim, but I think he occasionally goes on a bit. There are passages where three pages of text could easily have been boiled down to one, which makes Lord Jim (and much of Conrad’s work) a challenge for modern readers.
However, I do think it is well worth the effort. Lord Jim is a superb study of the notions of honor and courage and how difficult it is to live up to the expectations of a hypocritical society.
Lord Jim was adapted to film in 1965, starring Peter O’Toole as Jim. It’s passable entertainment, but it largely fails to match the original as a work of psychological depth.