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Lord Jim | Themes

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Lost Honor

Modernist literature frequently explores the theme of loss. In Lord Jim Joseph Conrad probes Jim's loss of honor, his acute awareness of that loss, and the related consequences. Jim is an idealist and romantically imagines himself capable of great heroism in the face of danger. His personal moral code demands perfection in duty, responsibility, and ethics. However, he fails these ideals when he abandons the ship Patna and her passengers. His self-aggrandizing illusions are shattered, his reputation as a seaman is wrecked, and he becomes a social outcast.

Nevertheless, Jim refuses to give up on his idealized heroism and inflexible moral code. The incident of the Patna haunts him as he runs from his past, moving from seaport to seaport, seeking a second chance by which to recover his lost honor. This wandering quest ultimately brings him to the island of Patusan, where he makes a final, heroic attempt to live life honorably as dictated by his romantic idealism. He leaves "his earthly failings behind him and what sort of reputation he had," and immerses himself in "a totally new set of conditions for his imaginative faculty to work upon." On the island, he becomes Tuan, or Lord, Jim—a heroic figure whose honor is not questioned. Nevertheless, Jim remains burdened with the knowledge of his dishonorable past.

Exile

Exile from society is another theme common in modernist literature. In Lord Jim Conrad examines Jim's self-imposed exile following his loss of honor. In shame, Jim breaks off contact with anyone he knew before the Patna incident, even his father. Furthermore, he becomes "a seaman in exile from the sea," having lost his license to serve as a ship's officer. Seeking somewhere to start over with a clean slate, he wanders from job to job, always on the move east, "[toward] the rising sun." However, try as he might to become a man without a past, the facts of the Patna scandal "follow him casually and inevitably."

Jim firmly believes the European community cannot forgive his human failing because he cannot forgive himself. In exile, he pursues a second chance to atone and prove his essential worthiness. This lonely pursuit leads him to Patusan, a place so remote "it would be for the outside world as though he had never existed." He carries with him his moral standards as well as the old illusions of potential greatness and dreams of heroism. Though he successfully rebuilds his romantic self-image and earns the respect of the native people of Patusan, Jim remains isolated by the knowledge of his past, the reason for his exile.

Within this guilty secret lie the seeds of Jim's tragic end, cultivated by the arrival of Gentleman Brown to the island of Patusan. Jim has sympathy for Brown, who has been similarly exiled from civilized society. However, in contrast to Jim's exile which is voluntary and well-intentioned, Brown's is compulsory, the result of willful criminal behavior. Brown discerns that some dark mystery lies behind Jim's exile and plays upon it to gain his confidence. He then betrays Jim's trust, costing the life of Jim's closest native friend, Dain Waris. Jim's long exile abruptly ends when he offers up his own life as penance.

Illusions versus Reality

As a boy, while reading "a course of light holiday literature," Jim discovers a love of the sea. Later, while in training to be an officer of the mercantile marine, he imagines himself like the heroes in his books, performing courageous deeds, "saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane," and "quelling mutinies on the high seas." However, this heroic, unflinching self-image is not matched by his behavior. When called upon during his training to act quickly in a crisis, Jim hesitates, and the opportunity to fulfill his fantasies is lost. This missed chance foreshadows his later cowardice in abandoning the pilgrim ship Patna and her 800 passengers.

Jim cannot square his romantic notions of heroism with what he sees as cowardly actions aboard the Patna. A chasm has opened up between his illusions and reality. Driven by shame, Jim ultimately flees to remote Patusan, where he is unknown and believes his past cannot find him.

Here, he rebuilds his romantic self-image, managing to match his behavior with his heroic imaginings. In this new world, he becomes Tuan, or Lord, Jim, and the gap between heroic illusions and reality no longer exists. He at last realizes the success he has always imagined. On Patusan, Jim's idealistic view of heroism is both the catalyst for his greatest moments and the agent of his death. When he allows the scoundrel Brown to exit safely from the island, it leads to the death of his Malay friend and ally, Dain Waris. In his deep desire to live up to his heroic standing as Lord Jim, Jim sees martyrdom as his only path to atonement. He stoically presents himself to Dain Waris's grieving father, Doramin, to be shot dead. At this moment, illusion merges completely with reality, but the tragic outcome is the death of the hero.

Trust and Betrayal

Issues of trust and betrayal underlie several key events in Lord Jim. The novel opens with an epigraph by the German Romantic poet Novalis: "It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it." In other words, trust between storyteller and listener is required for the story to be believed.

Trust is also a necessary element in the relationship between the English sea captain Marlow and Jim. Only when Jim is convinced Marlow believes in him will Jim trust Marlow's friendship and accept his help. This trust is mutual—Marlow views Jim as "one of us"—and that trust is later shared by Marlow's reliable friend Stein, the merchant-adventurer who introduces Jim to the island wilderness of Patusan. Nevertheless, Jim is always painfully aware that Marlow knows and remembers, just as he does, the reason he has retreated to Patusan from the outside world. Jim never trusts the world to forgive his grievous failure to perform honorably during the Patna incident.

The clash between trust and betrayal continues as the story progresses. In abandoning the damaged pilgrim ship Patna, Jim betrays his own heroic expectations and the trust of the sleeping passengers. On the island of Patusan, Jim works tirelessly to win the trust of the Malay villagers. He tells Marlow, "I must feel—every day, every time I open my eyes—that I am trusted." He succeeds only to inadvertently betray that trust—as a result of his own misplaced trust in the "latter-day buccaneer" Gentleman Brown. In going to his death, Jim betrays the love and trust of his European-Malaysian wife, Jewel. However, Jim faces his death courageously. In this way, he is true to the trust he has placed in his heroic self-image and the appropriateness of this final act of atonement.

"One of Us"

On nine occasions, Marlow observes Jim is "one of us." The phrase assumes different meanings as Jim's story unfolds.

Marlow's first impression of Jim is that he is "one of us." Jim has accompanied Captain Gustav and two other shipmates to the harbor master's office to report the Patna incident. Marlow observes the other disheveled and disreputable men seem to fit the sordid tale of the Patna's desertion. However, Jim is "clean-limbed, clean-faced, firm on his feet," and looks to be a promising lad. By all appearances, he is a man defined by traditional European ideals of faith, courage, honor, and morality. He knows the "rules of conduct."

During the official inquiry, Marlow's conviction deepens. He begins to know Jim and judges him "the right sort." He is taken by Jim's youth, fundamental innocence, and romantic ideals that recall his own youthful days and "the illusion of my beginning." Again he says, "he was one of us." Nevertheless, the Patna incident causes Marlow to wonder: If Jim is "one of us," how then could things have gone so wrong?

Jim is anxious for Marlow to see him as the right sort. He has always viewed himself in a superior light. While serving aboard the Patna, he holds himself apart from and superior to the fat, greasy captain and the rest of the crew. At the moment of his jump, however, he joins them physically in the lifeboat and morally in their cowardice. By this "breach of faith with the community of mankind," Jim becomes "one of them." He spends the rest of his life trying to prove he is not.

Marlow's understanding grows of the moral quagmire into which Jim has literally jumped. As a result, his belief that Jim is "one of us" takes on a darker tone. He sees how steadfastly Jim holds on to his traditional, high-minded notions of heroism and moral conduct. Still, he has been proven fallible and has fallen short of these noble ideals. Jim has been reduced to "an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be." Marlow's label "one of us" becomes troublesome. Now the phrase binds Jim to him—and others of the "right sort"—as one fallible human being to another. This connection makes Jim's recurring questions "What would you have done?" and "What would you have me do?" far more personal and significant. Jim's failure suggests any individual of the right sort can suffer a hidden character flaw, and given the right catalyst, any weakness might emerge.

Finally, on Patusan, Jim aligns himself with the Malay villagers, embracing them as his people. Jim's rules of conduct appeal to them and engender trust. It is when he is lured into believing he is morally equivalent to Gentleman Brown—that Brown, as a European, is also "one of us"—that Jim is destroyed. Marlow wonders whether Jim, in sacrificing his life for "a shadowy ideal of conduct," at last satisfies himself that he is worthy to be "one of us."

Flashcards for Themes

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Term:

Basic action in libation bearers

Definition:

Orestes returns secretly and in disguise/ uses Electra's slaves to trick Aegisthus/ kills Aegisthus and is driven mad by furies

Term:

Basic action of Eumenides

Definition:

Orestes pursued by furies to Delphi/ seeks advice and purification from Apollo/ they go to Athens for Athena to solve problem/ Athena sets up jury trial on Areopagus/ citizens of Athens deadlock: accused goes free/ furies established as Kindly Ones

Term:

Orestes myth version differences

Definition:

Homer: Clytemnestra is accomplice only/ Hesiod: Clytemnestra is mostly responsible/ Stesichorus: Clytemnestra is mostly responsible, Apollo sets Orestes on matricide, Orestes gets pursued by Furies and protected by Apollo

Term:

Aeschylus' additions

Definition:

Beacons/ purple tapestries/ pervasive dismal mood/ democratic legal solution

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