Lord Jim | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Lord Jim | Chapters 19–20 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 19

To his circle of friends, Marlow explains these two incidents represent Jim's "manner of dealing with himself under the new conditions of his life." Jim becomes known for his eccentric habit of moving on suddenly from job to job. However, the "nature of Jim's burden" also becomes well known. This fact eventually leads to an unfortunate barroom brawl in Bangkok with a Dutch officer in service to the King of Siam. Afterward, Jim is left with few options for future employment.

Marlow can see Jim is in serious danger of becoming unemployable. He places him next with a ship's chandler named De Jongh but soon becomes aware of Jim's deep dissatisfaction with the work. Jim himself can see no remedy for it. He is looking for an opportunity to prove his worth—not just to "earn his bread"—and working as a water clerk will not supply it.

At a loss as to how to help Jim further, Marlow turns to his friend, Stein, the wealthy, respectable owner of a large inter-island trading company. An adventurer and merchant, Stein is also a renowned entomologist, a person who studies insects. He is famous for his collections of beetles and butterflies. Marlow describes him as "one of the most trustworthy men I [have] ever known." He judges Stein to be extremely capable of advising him on Jim's difficulties as well as his own.

Chapter 20

Later that evening, Marlow visits Stein in his study, where Stein is examining a particularly rare and beautiful butterfly specimen. Marlow muses over Stein's long and interesting history, which begins in Bavaria. In 1848, when Stein is 22, he is forced to flee his homeland after his involvement in a failed revolutionary movement. He finds work as an assistant for a Dutch naturalist collecting insects and birds in the Indonesian Archipelago. Four years later, Stein goes to work for an old Scotsman on the island of Celebes and subsequently inherits the man's prosperous trading business. During a period of political unrest on the island, Stein allies himself with Mohammed Bonso, the youngest son of the queen. Together, over the next eight years, they engage in heroic exploits and have many wonderful adventures. During this time, Stein marries Bonso's sister, and they have a daughter. When Bonso is assassinated and Stein's wife and daughter die of fever, Stein leaves the country which "cruel loss had made unbearable to him." His days of adventure are over. However, he starts life afresh and, in time, acquires a considerable fortune as a trader. Still, his passion for collecting and cataloging beetles and butterflies remains.

Stein explains to Marlow a butterfly is a "masterpiece of Nature—the great artist." In its fragility and strength, its harmony with Nature, the butterfly represents perfect balance in the universe. "Man," he says, "is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece." He is imperfect and out of harmony with nature, going where he is not wanted and making a lot of noise about it. Stein tells the tale of the day he caught the exquisite butterfly he now examines and concludes, on that day, he held something dreamed of in his hands. He then had everything he ever desired: wife, child, friendship, youth, and strength. Suddenly, with the ease of a match being blown out, all of it was gone.

Conversation turns to Jim and Marlow's concerns. Upon hearing the whole tale, from the Patna to the present, Stein immediately pinpoints the underlying issue. "He is a romantic," says Stein, and then declares one thing alone can save Jim from himself: learning how to live as he is. Jim's dreams for himself are so idealized as to be unattainable. Painful reality will always intrude, robbing him of his illusions. "It is not good for you," says Stein, "to find you cannot make your dream come true." Stein advises the best thing will be for Jim to immerse himself in his dream—this thing that will destroy him if he tries to escape it—and to follow it to the end.

Stein suggests he and Marlow should find a practical remedy for Jim's problem.

Analysis

Jim is going through the final phase of his life in the outer world where he is known. He is losing his battle to escape the shame of his past. Settling down in anonymity and starting over is increasingly impossible. Witnessing Jim's struggle, Marlow thinks back to the recommendation sourly offered by Captain Brierly during the court inquiry: "Let him creep 20 feet underground and stay there." Marlow cannot say if this would be any better than "waiting above ground for the impossible." Confounded by the dilemma, he decides to turn to Stein.

Conrad draws inspiration for the character of Stein from Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist and author of The Malay Archipelago, one of Conrad's favorite reference books. Stein is much like Jim in appearance and nature—tall, with slightly stooped posture, an innocent smile, and a courageous, adventurous spirit. However, unlike Jim, his physical courage is not self-conscious or forced; it is natural, not adopted. Stein does not try to prove himself; he simply is.

Like Brierly, Stein has lived the life Jim envisions for himself, full of adventure and heroics. Stein is also a romantic, a dreamer, possessing ideals he will fight for. He has followed the strange path of his life "without faltering ... without shame or regret." Moreover, he knows the pain of losing those dreams: "the heart pain—the world pain." He also realizes "it is not good for you to find you cannot make your dream come true."

By virtue of his nature, Stein understands Jim perfectly. They are not so different. Jim desires to fulfill his romantic ideals, to live up to the standards he has set for himself. As Stein explains to Marlow, Jim sees himself as a very fine fellow, yet there is a rift between his heroic self-image and his human imperfections. Knowledge of this rift is the source of "the heart pain—the world pain" for Jim.

For the romantic, there is no escaping the pain of this condition. The dreamer cannot survive the loss of his dreams. The trick, according to Stein, "is not how to get cured," but "how to live" with the condition. He advises immersion in "the destructive element." That destructive element is the life of dreams into which each person is born. "A man that is born falls into a dream," he explains to Marlow, is "like a man who falls into the sea." Engulfed by the dream, the man will die if he fights to free himself from it—"to climb into the air." If he strikes out with hands and feet—if he swims—the dream, like the deep sea, will uphold him. In Stein's opinion, Jim must swim, must pursue his dreams, and not fight to escape them.

Marlow questions whether Jim is truly a romantic, to which Stein replies it is evident in the pain Jim's imperfections bring him. "What is it that by inward pain makes him know himself," Stein asks Marlow. He then expands this proof to include Jim's effect on others. "What is it that for you and me makes him—exist?" In other words, Jim is an expression of the idealistic notions he holds dear, and those notions are what others see and feel; they are the essence of the man.

Finally, in Stein's opinion, the butterfly is nature's masterpiece, flawless and living in harmony with the world. In this way, the butterfly represents a romantic perfection man can never achieve. Unlike the butterfly, he can never be the fine specimen he envisions when he dreams. Interestingly, Stein's bronze, white, and yellow prize butterfly bears much the same coloration as Jim, who is bronzed by the sun, is always clothed in white, and has golden yellow hair. Stein's prize specimen is preserved in its perfection by death. Jim will be transfigured by death into the romantic perfection he pursues.

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