Lord Jim | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Lord Jim | Context


Joseph Conrad never intended Lord Jim to be a stand-alone novel. He envisioned it as the third narrative in a three-part book, which included the novella Heart of Darkness (1902). Each story would be narrated by English sea captain Charles Marlow—introduced in the short story, Youth (1902). Before Conrad began writing he was sure he could tell Lord Jim's story in three or four monthly installments for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. However, a remarkable tale unfolded that required 14 installments and began to reshape the artistic rules that had governed the Victorian literary world since the mid-18th century.

The Seeds of Literary Modernism

Under the rule of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), Britain flourished. With a keen sense of destiny and moral responsibility, the British Empire extended its geographical reach, bringing Western civilization to the larger world through trade and direct control of colonies. At its peak, the Empire's colonial holdings encompassed one quarter of the world's land mass. From the safe vantage point of the average Briton, this rule was paternalistic and highly moral.

In tone and style, much of the era's literature reflected pride and confidence in the Empire. However, by the turn of the century, Britain had begun a slow decline as a world power, and the Empire's continued supremacy and prosperity came into question. The self-assured Briton's perception of the world and his place in it no longer seemed guaranteed. To some, the future looked bleak.

In literature, this crisis of confidence reflected in a strain of realism differing sharply from the safe, sure-footed realism of Victorian fiction. In works such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the moral consequences of Britain's colonial endeavors became the subject of scrutiny. Novels like Lord Jim examined the cost of human weakness and moral failings. Within the context of these stories, perceptions of people and events were unreliable and conflicting, the usually accepted universal truths were challenged, and no worldview was trustworthy.

This departure from Victorian literary conventions held the seeds of 20th-century modernism—an experimental, avant-garde movement that rejected 19th-century standards in literary style and form, and explored nontraditional themes of destruction, chaos, loss, and exile. Lord Jim stands as a groundbreaking bridge between the Victorian and modernist periods. Conrad applies innovative techniques such as nonlinear time-shifts and multiple perspectives that reflect multiple truths. His protagonist, Jim, holds dear the high-minded, heroic expectations embraced by the Victorian era. However, when circumstances drive Jim to act contrary to this personal vision, his life becomes a battleground where old-fashioned virtues struggle to rise above the shame of personal failure. Viewed from the modernist perspective of a crumbling, unstable world, the nobility of his battle is tainted with futility.

Voyage of the Jeddah

When crafting a story, Conrad often looked to historical events for inspiration. While in the island nation of Singapore, he encountered the ship involved in a notorious scandal he had read about earlier, which he used to shape a key event in Lord Jim to test Jim's courage and inner worth. The repercussions of the infamous event reached from Singapore to London.

On July 17, 1880, the Jeddah, a ship carrying more than 900 Muslim pilgrims, set sail from Singapore for Jeddah, a Middle Eastern port on the Red Sea near the Islamic holy city of Mecca. The ship sailed under British colors and was manned by a European crew. The passage was stormy, and about three weeks into the voyage, the Jeddah began to leak badly. Her captain and officers soon decided she was in imminent danger of sinking and abandoned ship, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. When the seamen found safety, they reported the Jeddah and all her passengers had been lost. They were wrong. A day later, the British ship S.S. Antenor sailed into the Yemeni port of Aden with the Jeddah in tow and the pilgrims on board, alive.

The desertion of the Jeddah and its passengers was an act of cowardice, and the officers' false report of the ship's sinking was inexcusable. Although most passengers survived, the incident cost the lives of 10 pilgrims and one of the ship's crew. Only the chance encounter with the S.S. Antenor brought the truth to light.

In Lord Jim Conrad builds his story of the pilgrim ship Patna and her desertion by the European crew—including Jim—on this infamous case. Jim's failure to do his duty as an officer on the ship challenges his idealized sense of self and alters the course of his life.

Malay Archipelago and the White Rajah of Sarawak

Disgraced by his actions aboard the Patna, Jim in due course flees to Patusan, a remote island in the Malay Archipelago. Like events aboard the Patna, events here are drawn from historical accounts. This time, Conrad looks to the life of a swashbuckling adventurer.

That adventurer was British statesman James Brooke, destined to become the first White Rajah of Sarawak. In 1838 at age 36, Brooke set sail for the island of Borneo as a private merchant with the goal of promoting trade while bringing Christianity and the benefits of civilization to the island inhabitants. Borneo lies off the Malay Peninsula, which is the southernmost tip of the Asian continent. It is one of the approximately 25,000 islands that lie within the sprawling Malay Archipelago, also known as the East Indies. The archipelago is made up of smaller island groups such as the Philippines and Indonesia with Borneo counted among the Indonesian islands. Brooke was headed for Sarawak, a constituent state of Malaysia.

The timing of his arrival could not have been better. The Sultan of Brunei, who also controlled Sarawak, was being threatened by a native uprising in the region. He offered Brooke rule over Sarawak if he could successfully quash the rebellion. Brooke, who had once served in the armed forces of the British Indian Empire, eagerly accepted the challenge, led the Sultan's army to victory, and assumed the role of Rajah of Sarawak.

Like Borneo, Lord Jim's fictional island Patusan is populated by Muslim Malays and non-Muslim Dyaks. In creating Jim's rise to the status of "Lord" among the islanders, Conrad borrows from Brooke's documented exploits in Sarawak. Like Brooke, Jim heroically defeats the enemies of a powerful island leader and is rewarded with administrative control of Patusan. In further imitation of Brooke, Jim frees all slaves and introduces a justice system based on equality. He also eliminates customs at odds with European ideals of civilized behavior while raising the people's overall standard of living.

As a seaman, Conrad had traveled to the Malay Archipelago. Nevertheless, when creating Lord Jim's island world and depicting its people, he turned to a favorite authoritative source: The Malay Archipelago, published by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1869. Wallace's insights helped Conrad create a fictional setting that is historically credible, from Patusan's political and social hierarchies and struggles to its economy and religious and cultural practices.

Critical Reception of Lord Jim

Upon its publication in 1900, England's Daily Mail said of Lord Jim, "The whole narrative is profoundly psychological, profoundly human—a tragedy of daily life which stands out grimly against the romance of the sea."

Contemporary reviews of Lord Jim were so favorable that Conrad wrote to his publisher, Blackwoods, "I am the spoiled child of the critics."

In 1958 American critic and author Albert J. Guerard declared that "human fallibility" lies at the heart of Lord Jim's impact because most people have "jumped off some Patna" and are forced to "[reconcile] what we are with what we would like to be."

The novel's ambiguity allows readers to create their own meanings for the tale, which has endeared it to its audience for more than a hundred years. Lord Jim is included on the New York Public Library's list of Books of the Century.

Conrad's modernist style and use of antiheroes proved a significant influence on other 20th-century American writers, including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, and English novelist Graham Greene. In 1925 Fitzgerald stated he had used Conrad's literary style in writing his masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925), modeling narrator Nick Carraway on Conrad's Marlow.

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