Lord Jim | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Lord Jim | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Jim has a last name but is oddly "anxious that it should not be pronounced." To one and all, he is just Jim. He is a tall, powerfully built young man, always meticulously dressed in spotless white. Self-assured, he possesses "ability in the abstract," or a knack for inspiring confidence in others. This ability is valuable in his duties as a water clerk—a sales rep for merchants who provide supplies and equipment to ship captains. In the various Eastern seaports where he has worked, Jim is always very popular, yet he is mysteriously prone to abruptly leaving a good position for a new port, each time moving further east. Jim is running from "a fact" that follows him "casually but inevitably." Eventually, it drives him away from seaports and white men to live in a Malaysian jungle village. Here he becomes known as Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim.

Jim's father was an English country parson and his home an "abode of piety and peace." As a youth, Jim reads lightweight works of literature and from them develops a passion for life at sea. He's soon sent off to gain experience on a merchant marine training ship. During training, he excels and is generally liked, but spends a great deal of time daydreaming about the "stirring life in the world of adventure" he hopes to have. In his imaginings, he heroically saves people from sinking ships, cleverly survives as a lonely castaway, and deftly quashes a mutiny at sea.

At dusk one winter's day, Jim is jostled from daydreaming by a real crisis. A hurricane-force gale threatens the nearby ships at anchor and sends a coaster smashing into a schooner. While other men on the training ship leap to the task of saving victims of the collision, Jim stands still "as if confounded" until it is too late to join them. He later rationalizes that he has learned more from the experience than his fellow crewmates, who are now celebrating the successful rescue mission. Having stayed back, he has observed and now understands that fear is a greater impediment to action than either wind or sea. Next time, he will perform unflinchingly. Jim's thoughtful reserve makes him seem superior to the "noisy crowd of boys."

Chapter 2

After two years of training, Jim goes to sea but finds it "strangely barren of adventure." Nevertheless, he performs his duties well and, while still quite young, is promoted to the position of chief mate on a fine ship. Unfortunately, he is never again tested by a crisis at sea to "show in the light of day the inner worth of a man."

Only once does Jim glimpse the sea's unbridled anger. During a week of rough weather, Jim is injured by a falling spar—a pole used to support a ship's sails. While he is confined below decks, a brutal storm arises. Unlike most gales, this one seems to come "with a purpose of malice," intent on smashing everything it touches. Jim, though secure in his cabin, senses the "sinister violence of intention" in the storm and is filled "with a despairing desire to escape at any cost." However, as soon as the storm abates, Jim thinks nothing more about it.

At an Eastern port, Jim is hospitalized until his leg heals. The setting is idyllic and bewitching. Rather than seeking passage home when his leg heals, Jim takes a berth as chief mate aboard the Patna, a rusty local steamer. The Patna has been chartered by an Arab to carry 800 Muslim pilgrims on an "errand of faith" to Mecca.

The Patna's voyage passes between two small islets and the Strait of Malacca, crosses the Bay of Bengal, and heads for the Red Sea. The ship sails beneath a scorching and unclouded sky. Daily, the sun follows, catches up with, and beats down on the vessel. At the end of the searing, merciless days, night descends on the ship "like a benediction," or blessing.

Analysis

These chapters introduce Jim, describe his early years, establish the key aspects of his character, and finally set the scene for a life-changing challenge in Jim's future. In this introductory phase, Conrad employs the traditional literary technique of an omniscient narrator. (Beginning with Chapter 5, he will shift his approach to tell Jim's story through Captain Marlow's first-person narration.)

An epigraph precedes the chapter, taking a quote from German romantic poet Novalis (1772–1801): "It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it." Here, Conrad establishes the necessity for trust between storyteller and audience, which extends to trust between characters within the story. Jim will need Marlow to believe his version of the key event that changes his life. In turn, Marlow will need his listening audience to believe the story of Jim as he tells it.

In introducing Jim, the narrator describes him as "an inch, perhaps two, under six feet." This uncertainty about his height is an early indication that no one, not even Marlow, will ever see Jim with precise clarity. The essence of the man will remain elusive. Jim is also described as always neatly dressed in immaculate white clothing. This appearance is a constant, despite Jim's circumstances, and is an outward expression of the inner discipline and perfection to which Jim aspires.

Jim's upbringing in a safe, Eden-like environment does not prepare him for the realities he will face in the outside world. Within the protected walls of the country parsonage, there is nothing to challenge the lofty dreams he entertains. At the core of his story is a question: what if a man's self-image and expectations are built on the highest and noblest ideals of his time, but in a moment of crisis, he fails to live up to that grand vision? This is Jim's dilemma and the key to his character.

His first encounter with harsh reality during a storm aboard the training ship leaves Jim bewildered by his failure to fulfill his romantic ideals. His imagination has been fertile enough to produce visions of valorous deeds but provides no clues for responding courageously to a crisis. Instead, it paralyzes him into inaction. Nevertheless, Jim struggles with "the pain of conscious defeat" until he convinces himself his inaction has been for the best. As a bystander, he could observe the storm and understand he overestimated its menace. He now knows "what to think of it," and is no longer afraid. He is, in fact, glad he did not join the rescue mission. Participating in the mission had been safely left to the lesser men while he "enlarged his knowledge more than those who had done the work." In this way, Jim restores his heroic illusions.

The training ship episode is replicated some years later when Jim is physically helpless and confined below decks. He seems no better prepared for nature's assault than he was before. Both episodes hint at the inherent flaws in Jim's nature. They foreshadow a future failure to act decisively and heroically, which changes the course of Jim's life. The setting for that event will be the pilgrim ship Patna. Jim signs on as first mate, fascinated by rumors of the easy work as an officer aboard a local "country" ship. The idea of visiting exotic Eastern ports appeals to Jim, especially while lounging "safely through existence" with minimum danger and toil. Jim seems to notice no conflict here with his lofty dreams of adventure. He has experienced the violent, unpredictable forces at work in the world and is unconsciously drawn to "soft" skies, "eternal serenity," and "smiling peace," alternatives the Eastern seas seem to offer.

The Patna, with its passenger load of pilgrims, takes a route mirroring that of the historical ship Jeddah. Passing through the Strait of Malacca, it crosses the Bay of Bengal, hooks around the southern tip of India, and enters the Arabian Sea, destined for the Red Sea. The grossly unflattering depiction of the Patna's German captain with his "blood and iron air" reflects Conrad's hostility toward Germans. In the second half of the 19th century, Germany was ruled by Otto von Bismarck, known as "the Iron Chancellor," who waged a series of bloody wars to unify the country. "Blood and iron" is an allusion to a famous speech Bismarck made in 1862 to the Prussian Parliament urging financial support for Prussia's military.

The Muslims aboard the Patna are on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. This pilgrimage, called a hajj, is a trip all adult Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lives. They have left their homes and traveled far "at the call of an idea"—an exacting belief. In their devotion to a belief, the pilgrims are not so different from Jim. However, in a while, he will betray them just as he also betrays the precise and demanding moral code that governs his life.

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