Lord Jim

Lord Jim Study Guide

Lord Jim, published in 1900, initially began as a short story based on a real incident involving a steamship called Jeddah, which carried Muslim pilgrims from Singapore to Mecca. Conrad had spent much of the time between 1883 and 1888 in the area that is now Indonesia. (The second half of the novel takes place there, in the village of Patusan on the island of Borneo.)

Typical of Conrad's work, Lord Jim emerges from real events to take on a life of its own. Known for his visionary yet dark, poetic prose style, Conrad negotiated among his international nautical settings with detailed views of individual quandaries, especially moral ones. The work is laden with the ambiguities from which Conrad himself seemed to draw the only possibility of truth.

Lord Jim is one of Conrad's best loved renditions. The novel is distinctive for its narrative style. Marlow, the recurring storyteller in a number of Conrad's novels, pieces together the story of his subject from a variety of sources. Jim is thus presented through the narrator's complex management of what the reader knows. The book begins with the omniscient third-person voice, yet it is interrupted by Marlow's observations and intimacies as well as other second-hand accounts.

Lord Jim, in a way, is Marlow's narrative of an individual quest that begins romantically but ends with several burdens. Conrad's vision, often called pessimistic or cynical, is certainly challenging and difficult. Nevertheless, it includes subtle affirmations of hope. While in some ways the tale is about the inscrutable distances between human beings and the inaccuracies of human judgment--structurally represented by the space that lies between Marlow and Jim--it also expresses our unending desire to be known and understood, the basis of both human community and friendship.

Early on, the novel is dominated by Marlow's account of the Patna incident and the mores that governed the time, including law, seamen's expertise, and generally cherished views about honor. With the appearance of a key minor character, Stein, in Chapter 20, however, the narrative shifts to the more romantically archetypal natural setting of Patusan, where Stein has given Jim the chance to attain his dreams of honor, fame, and success. Stein's maxim for the "romantic"--"A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea"--is tested (162). The dramatic conclusion arrives inevitably, and logically, in tragedy.

By presenting a story of weakness, Lord Jim presses away from earlier Victorian tradition to express the limits of language. Language cannot convey all that one means to say. This sensitivity would preoccupy the Modernist period to come soon after.