Time moves backward, all our dreams of the future become part of an irredeemable past, what happened long ago the mark of Cain, if we are unfortunate, the burden of our existence, something we do not want to remember and can never forget. It is what Joseph Conrad tells us Marlow tells a few friends, seamen like himself, men who often listen to Marlow tell stories about the sea. Marlow tells them, not just what he observed about a young ill-fated Englishman called Jim, not just what Jim has told him, but what others told him as well, the partial stories that shed their different light on a man who wanted to be a hero and, on the occasion when he could have shown great courage, acted the coward instead. Marlow tells the story of a failed romantic, a hero in all his youthful 19th century dreams, the story of how, because of that failure, he became Lord Jim.
Marlow tells the story, but only after the story is well under way. Jim is a young officer on a rusted out old merchant ship called Patna which is transporting eight hundred muslim pilgrims across the Indian Ocean. Staring out across a calm and endless sea glimmering in the light of a thousand shining stars, he “seemed to gaze hungrily into the unattainable, and did not see the shadow of the coming event.” His thoughts were “full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements.” Suddenly, without warning, the ship hits something and the bow starts to rise straight up. Jim hurries below to inspect the single thin bulkhead and discovers that it is about to buckle and break apart. There are only minutes, perhaps only seconds, before the ship sinks and everyone on it goes down to their death. The captain and the other officers make for the lifeboats and with great difficulty manage to get one of them into the water. But Jim will not leave the ship. Out of their heads with fear, they scream that the ship is going down, that there is not anything he or anyone else can do, and he has to jump. As they pull away, the lights of the Patna disappear. The ship and its eight hundred passengers are lost.
But the Patna does not sink; everyone on board is safe and the ship makes it back to port. Facing an official inquiry, the captain and the others run away. All of them except Jim. It is now, when the inquiry has started, that Marlow meets Jim and begins to tell the story. Jim tells him that the captain and the others, “all got out of it, one way or the other, but it wouldn’t do for me.” One of the judges, a captain, someone “second to none – if he said so himself,” asks Marlow to give Jim money so he can get away. Marlow considers Jim’s refusal a “redeeming feature” in his case.
Jim believes that he had done, “as any other man would have done in his place, that the ship would go down at any moment….” He tells Marlow that “he wouldn’t be afraid to face anything,” and that “there was nothing he couldn’t meet.” To show he means it, he insists that when he was in the lifeboat and the chief engineer said that he had seen the ship go down, “It seemed to me that I must jump out of that accursed boat and swim back to see.” Marlow is astonished. It was as if Jim’s “imagination had to be soothed by the assurance that all was over before death could bring relief.”
A long time after the inquiry, Marlow meets a French lieutenant who had been on the ship that found the Patna and brought her safely to port. He had spent thirty hours on the Patna and left no doubt that it was something of a miracle that it had not sunk. Marlowe then tells the French lieutenant what happened at the inquiry and, as best he knows, what happened to Jim during the next three years. Stripped of his seaman’s papers, Jim goes from one job to another, always driven out of each place he goes by the rumor of what he did, until Marlow helps him find a place where he can, finally, be left alone. From the shadow of death Jim had been brought to the shadow of madness, cut off from “the rest of mankind, whose ideal of conduct had never undergone the test of a fiendish and appalling joke.”
For those who have an interest, a serious interest, in how a great writer writes, it is important to notice what Conrad is doing. For the first thirty pages, Conrad narrates the story the way any author would do, as the impartial, anonymous voice that sees everything, including what goes on inside the mind of each of the novel’s characters. Then Marlow, a character of Conrad’s invention, takes over, and instead of a neutral, omniscient narrator, the story is told the way you or I would tell it, through a single, and singular, set of eyes. But while Marlow tells the story, part of the telling is telling what others have told him.
Marlow has spent his life at sea, and knows what it is like for someone like Jim to stand “on the brink of a vast obscurity, like a lonely figure by the shore of a sombre and hopeless ocean.” All that would soon change, as Marlow anticipated. “The time was coming,” Marlow explains, “when I should see him loved, trusted, admired, with a legend of strength and prowess forming around his name as though he had been the stuff of a hero.” The legend would begin from a place where stories of Jim’s past would never be heard, “three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph lines and mail-boat lines,” where “the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination, that have the futility, often the charm, and sometimes the deep hidden truthfulness, of works of art.” A place, that is to say, where the legend of Lord Jim would not be a legend at all.
Virginia Woolf, who wrote a review of Lord Jim in the l920’s, observed that although Conrad’s “characters remain almost stationary, they are enveloped in the subtle, fine, perpetually shifting atmosphere of Marlow’s mind; they are commented upon by that voice which is so full of compassion….” Ford Madox Ford wrote that he got to know Conrad as “little by little, he revealed himself to a human being during many years of close intimacy. It is so that, by degrees, Lord Jim appeared to Marlow, or that every human soul by degrees appears to every other human soul.” And then he added, “Conrad was Conrad because he was his books. It was not that he made literature: he was literature….”
Read this Joseph Conrad story, read the story Marlow tells you, the story, the tragedy, of this failed romantic, a hero in all his youthful l9th century dreams who became notorious as a coward and who then became known as the heroic Lord Jim. The story, when you read it, is not fiction, a made-up story of the past; it is more real, because more lasting, than anything you read in the papers or see on television. The story Lord Jim is what being timeless means.