The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

85. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Let me ask you ask you a question, who is morally worse: a person who commits an act thinking it will cause hundreds of deaths, but which in fact causes none; or a person who commits an act that inadvertently counts its casualties in the dozens? In other words, what matters more in determining moral culpability –intentions or consequences? How you answer this question will determine how you feel about the fate of the titular character in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.  

Marlow, known to many a college student as the narrator of Heart of Darkness, returns here with yet another tale. Jim, the son of a parson who “possessed such certain knowledge of the Unknownable as made for the righteousness of people in cottages without disturbing the ease of mind of those whom an unerring Providence enables to live in mansions”, is first mate aboard the   Patna, a steamer “as old as the hills, lean like a greyhound, and eaten up with rust worse than a condemned water-tank”,  a ship charged with transporting 800 Muslims pilgrims across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. The journey promises to be an easy one, and Jim, “penetrated by the great certitude of unbounded safety and peace” enjoys the privilege of being a white man in the Eastern ports. However, the “great calm of the waters” proves to be misleading, and when the ship strikes something in the middle of the night,  the panicked captain and crew convince themselves a bulkhead has been breached, the Patna doomed to sink. The problem is: there aren’t enough lifeboats for the 800 passengers with their “faith and hopes”, their “affections and memories” and sounding the alarm would surely invoke a stampede that would endanger their lives. Disgusted by what is happening, but unaware of a solution, Jim watches as the captain and a pair of engineers struggle to launch a lifeboat, effectively abandoning the passengers in their charge. Jim stands, steeling himself for death, but at the last moment, with a “strange illusion of passiveness”, he steps over the legs of a dead man and jumps ship to join the other deserters.  

As it turns out, the Patna is rescued and towed into port by a French gunboat, its 800 passengers bewildered, but safe. An inquiry is held, and Jim, the only one brought before the tribunal – the captain has fled, the two engineers have been hospitalized – is forced to give testimony that shames him to the core.

Stripped of his license, and no longer able to work aboard a ship, Jim would have certainly been destitute if Captain Marlow, a man with connections throughout the Eastern ports, hadn’t recognized him as an industrious and affable man, a man whose moral fiber belied his desertion of the Patna.  Through hard work and good sense, not mention a genial manner, Jim manages to excel in whatever position –manager of a rice mill, water-clerk for various ship-chandlers – Marlow manages to secure for him.  However, whenever anything, however slight, threatens to expose his role in  the Patna incident, Jim takes off.  

About ready to give up on Jim, Marlow appeals to his friend, Stein, a merchant with trading posts scattered across the South Pacific. Stein agrees to send Jim to manage a far-flung outpost in Patusan, an inland region plagued by tribal wars. Jim is elated; it’s a fresh start, an opportunity for adventure, to make his own life, to break out of the shackles of shame slapped on his limbs after the Patna incident. Through industry, and diplomatic skill (helping the Bugis people to oust Sharif Ali and his clan, Jim effectively limits Rajah Allang’s, the opium-addicted nephew to the Sultan, power). Jim brings stability to the long-suffering people of Patusan, and he is embraced as a community leader.

                As people once told tales about the Patna, and Jim’s disgrace, the people of Patusan now tell tall tales of Jim’s courage and strength, and where Jim once thrust his chest out to counter his shame, he’s now buoyed with pride at his position, and all that he’s accomplished in this isolated backwater.  When Marlow visits Patusan, many a curious villager inquire what keeps a white man like Jim from his proper home. Marlow is forced to explain how Jim’s character flaws make him ill-suited for his homeland, yet his audience is incredulous. 

But when a pack of pirates, lead by the treacherous Gentleman Brown, arrive in Patusan intent of pillaging the community, Jim, having cornered the pirates, elicits a promise of retreat in exchanges for guaranteed safe passage down the river. On Jim’s honor, the Bugis agree to let the pirates pass, but when the pirates double-cross Jim, at the urging of his long-time rival, Cornelius, the chief’s son, Dain Waris, is killed. Jim is devastated; he failed to protect his community and in doing so, lost a good friend.  Jim pays for this failure with his life.

For all his good intentions, Jim’s mistake ultimately costs many lives, and so it seems the morality of the Lord Jim universe is one of consequences. Considering that we can never know another person’s intentions, it isn’t entirely crazy to judge moral culpability by consequences alone; it’s impossible to know another person’s mind, and just as we only know Jim through Marlow’s speculation and anecdote, other people must remain, like Jim, “forever an enigma.” 
However, I found it troubling that Jim was so quick to claim responsibility for consequences that didn’t seem his to claim. The Bugis died not because Jim brokered Gentleman Brown’s peaceful passage, but because of Gentleman Brown and Cornelius’s evil ways. Conversely, it’s hard to mitigate Jim’s responsibility for his desertion, even as he pleads passivity in the act of desertion.

Of course, the question – intentions vs. consequences – stated as such, is too simplistic. Morality is a messy business that doesn’t lend itself well to universally applicable rules or categorical imperatives. We can easily imagine a moral situation where intentions tip the scales, and another where what matters is the result. That is, moral culpability cannot be extracted from context and is essentially socially determined.
 And here we get to the brilliance of this book.

Shame is a social phenomenon. Arguably, one does not feel shame (as opposed to guilt) in the absence of an onlooker, and while it’s Jim’s shame that drives him from job to job, not once does he speak of his guilt, prompting Marlow himself to wonder about the guilt in his heart. And just as his disgrace in the eyes of others sends Jim skulking from job to job in the Eastern ports, it is his approbation in the eyes of others that ultimately revives. And so perhaps it is only fitting that his final act, as judged by the ones so ready to revere him,  is what ultimately does him in. 

           But while I found myself marveling at the entangled intricacy of these themes, I had difficulty losing myself in this book; Jim and his adventures felt like pop-up devices animated solely to serve an exploration of moral philosophy, and while I found myself thinking a lot about the ideas in the book, those same ideas pushed me out of the story; a worthy, thought-provoking read, definitely, but the flatness of characters keep this, in my opinion, from being a truly great book.  


September 7, 2011 at 7:00 PM altadenahiker said...

I enjoy your reviews very much. In a list of top 100, I'd strike any book that lacks humor. Humor is our only hope. So Conrad out, Twain in. But then why do I love Wide Sargasso Sea? Irony, perhaps?

November 8, 2011 at 12:35 PM Devon S. said...

Thanks for reading (and commenting).

I agree. We have to laugh as much as we can; we especially need to learn to laugh at ourselves.

December 29, 2011 at 9:24 AM Bookwurm said...

I'm also undertaking the list and have just finished this entry. I found the idea of Marlow telling the story to friends as a rather silly plot device. What would that have taken, ten hours? The final third of the book I found truly engaging but I agree that it was very difficult to lose oneself in this book; it did appear to be a vehicle for philosophical argument. Looking forward to Elizabeth Bowen (another I've never read...)

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