Title: Lord Jim
Author: Joseph Conrad
Do your moments of weakness define you, or your moments of strength? You have both. We all do. You don’t exist in a constant state of either. You vacillate between them. You’re one person in this situation, and somebody else in another. Context matters. Details matter. Decisions made in the moment may not reflect who you are so much as they reflect the desperation you felt, the immediacy of action, the necessity of leaping before you look.
Lord Jim is one of my personal favorite novels, and I say that as someone who isn’t especially a fan of Joseph Conrad. His writing doesn’t resonate with me. It doesn’t move me. I read it, I understand it, and I move along. Other authors stick in my craw, shape the way I see the world, stow away in my subconscious to be remembered and considered for years down the line.
On the whole, Conrad doesn’t do that for me. Even his celebrated Heart of Darkness, which was indeed good, just didn’t stick. Lord Jim, however, is the welcome exception. It shares a narrator with Heart of Darkness, but that’s about all it shares. It tells a completely different, much better, much more effective story. To me, at least, the experience of reading it held infinitely more meaning.
The novel focuses on disgraced sailor Jim, who, one night aboard a steamer, notices that the ship is about to sink. Understanding that it’s too late to prevent the tragedy, and aware that there is not enough rescue equipment to save all of the passengers–and that alerting them would only cause chaos without hope of survival–Jim abandons the ship.
It doesn’t sink.
It’s a simple act of cowardice, a bad decision made in a moment of panic, but it comes to define the rest of his life. His scared, selfish moment haunts him. As many times as he tries to outrun the news of his unforgivable cowardly act, it always catches up to him. He’s always reminded of what he’s done.
And he packs up, and moves along. Jim is forever unable to escape the ghost of his own shame. He holds onto it. Internalizes it. Lets it become part of what defines him.
He is always the coward, the fool, the deserter. It was a poor decision made by a young man who didn’t know much better, and it colors the way he’s perceived–and the way he perceives himself–for the rest of his life.
I was assigned this book in college. Before the course started, I looked at the reading list. Seeing Lord Jim there meant nothing to me, aside from the fact that I already knew I wasn’t partial to Conrad.
For some reason, I started reading it early. Maybe I thought I’d give myself a little longer to plod through an author I didn’t quite like. Maybe I was just bored. I really don’t remember. But I do know that I intended to read a bit of the book ahead of time, and I ended up finishing it before the class even started.
It was a book that spoke to me the way few others can, and it did so immediately. To this day when I find a used book store I look for a copy of Lord Jim, just to check it out its cover art…and sometimes to buy. I don’t know why, but I accumulate copies. It comforts me to do so. It reassures me. Perhaps I just feel like I’m doing good by poor ol’ Jim, who desperately needs somebody to believe in him. Someone to root for him. Someone to let him know, in whatever way he needs to know, that he is not his mistakes.
The novel is Jim’s continuous attempt at atonement. His error causes him to push himself. To become a better person. To not only flee his past, but to try to live a better life in the future. It’s a novel of regular, constant achievement…and none of it helps, because Jim can’t stop holding himself accountable for a transgression long passed.
It’s a novel of psychological torment, but it doesn’t read like one. It reads more like a novel about a good man who can’t bear to show himself forgiveness.
It’s a journey of the most difficult kind, because his main obstacle is himself. As we all know…there’s no getting around that one.
And so Jim grows up. He helps people. He gives of himself to others. He shows the world a kind of grace that he will not grant himself. He becomes better, without managing to feel better.
It’s a kind of reverse Christmas Carol. Rather than learning about what an awful person he is, Jim gradually comes to understand that he’s not the monster he thought he was. As with Scrooge, however, he fights against the revelation. He clings to the image he already holds of himself. He pushes back against the reality, and refuses to accept it.
That’s interesting to me. Literature is filled to bursting with characters who become better people over the course of a novel, or story, or poem. But I don’t know of many who refuse to believe that they’ve become better people.
Jim didn’t commit a murder. He wasn’t a thief. He wasn’t a liar, he didn’t cheat anybody, and literally nobody came to any harm as a result of his mistake.
But he lets it define him more than he lets any of his subsequent acts define him. His is a life of constant penance for a mistake that, quite frankly, many others would have made.
It wasn’t many others, though.
It was him.
And he can’t forgive that.
I still love Lord Jim. I’ve considered covering it for Fiction into Film because I have so much to say about the book, but I haven’t seen either of the movies adapted from it.
Truth be told, though, I’m not sure I want to see them. They might be great. (Peter O’Toole plays Jim in the second one, and I can imagine him being quite good.) But Lord Jim is one of those books that hit me deeply, in a way that I’d rather not dilute with alternate interpretations.
I want to hold onto it. Internalize it. Let it become part of what defines me.
That’s only fair. It sure helped me to let go of many of my own mistakes that I’ve held onto, internalized, and let define me.
You should read Lord Jim.