Lord Jim

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Lord Jim
First edition cover
Author Joseph Conrad
Country Britain
Language English
Genre Psychological novel Modernism
Publisher Blackwood's Magazine
Publication date
OCLC 4326282

Lord Jim is a novel by Joseph Conrad originally published as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine from October 1899 to November 1900.

An early and primary event is the abandonment of a ship in distress by its crew including the young British seaman Jim. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Lord Jim 85th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Plot summary[edit]

Jim (his surname is never disclosed), a young British seaman, becomes first mate on the Patna, a ship full of pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the hajj. When the ship starts rapidly taking on water and disaster seems imminent, Jim joins his captain and other crew members in abandoning the ship and its passengers. A few days later, they are picked up by a French ship. However, the Patna and its passengers are later also saved, and the reprehensible actions of the crew are exposed. The other participants evade the judicial court of inquiry, leaving Jim to face the court alone. The court strips him of his navigation command certificate for his dereliction of duty. Jim is angry with himself, both for his moment of weakness, and for missing an opportunity to be a 'hero'.

At the trial, he meets Charles Marlow, a sea captain, who in spite of his initial misgivings over what he sees as Jim's moral unsoundness, comes to befriend him, for he is "one of us". Marlow later finds Jim work as a ship chandler's clerk. Jim tries to remain incognito, but whenever the opprobrium of the Patna incident catches up with him, he abandons his place and moves further east.

Later, Marlow's friend Stein suggests placing Jim as his factor in Patusan, a remote inland settlement with a mixed Malay and Bugis population, where Jim's past can remain hidden. While living on the island he acquires the title 'Tuan' ('Lord').[1] Here, Jim wins the respect of the people and becomes their leader by relieving them from the predations of the bandit Sherif Ali and protecting them from the corrupt local Malay chief, Rajah Tunku Allang. Jim wins the love of Jewel, a woman of mixed race, and is "satisfied... nearly". The end comes a few years later, when the town is attacked by the marauder "Gentleman" Brown. Although Brown and his gang are driven off, Dain Waris, the son of the leader of the Bugis community, is slain. Jim returns to Doramin, the Bugis leader, and willingly takes a fatal bullet in the chest from him as retribution for the death of his son.

Marlow is also the narrator of three of Conrad's other works: Heart of Darkness, Youth, and Chance.


The crucial event in Lord Jim may have been based in part on an actual abandonment of a ship. On 17 July 1880, S.S. Jeddah sailed from Singapore bound for Penang and Jeddah, with 778 men, 147 women and 67 children on board. The passengers were Muslims from the Malay states, travelling to Mecca for the hajj (holy pilgrimage). Jeddah sailed under the British flag and was crewed largely by British officers. After rough weather conditions, the Jeddah began taking in water. The hull sprang a large leak, the water rose rapidly, and the captain and officers abandoned the heavily listing ship. They were picked up by another vessel and taken to Aden where they told a story of violent passengers and a foundering ship. The pilgrims were left to their fate, and apparently certain death. However, on 8 August 1880 a French steamship towed Jeddah into Aden – the pilgrims had survived. An official inquiry followed, as it does in the novel.[2] Conrad may also have been influenced by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's 1869 account of his travels and of the native peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago.[3]

The inspiration for the character of Jim was the Chief Mate of the Jeddah, 'Austin' Podmore Williams, whose grave was tracked down to Singapore's Bidadari Cemetery by Gavin Young in his book, In Search of Conrad. As in the novel, Williams created a new life for himself, returning to Singapore and becoming a successful ship's chandler.

The second part of the novel is based in some part on the life of James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak.[4] Brooke was an Indian-born English adventurer who in the 1840s managed to gain power and set up an independent state in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Some critics, however, think that the fictional Patusan is to be found not in Borneo but in Sumatra.[5]

Critical interpretation[edit]

The novel is in two main parts, firstly Jim's lapse aboard the Patna and his consequent fall, and secondly an adventure story about Jim's rise and the tale's denouement in the fictional country of Patusan, presumed a part of the Indonesian archipelago. The main themes surround young Jim's potential ("he was one of us", says Marlow, the narrator) thus sharpening the drama and tragedy of his fall, his subsequent struggle to redeem himself, and Conrad's further hints that personal character flaws will almost certainly emerge given an appropriate catalyst. “...even though Marlow has not revealed his true intention while calling Jim ‘one of us’, we have to agree with all the points... All the senses seem to be applicable to Jim- it is Marlow who may have intrinsic racism since he possibly starts helping Jim because he is a white man; besides, Jim has a shameful past like most others; furthermore, he deserves our sympathy and respect because he is trustworthy and a man of honour; perhaps, Jim is not homosexual but perhaps Marlow is and the latter has mistakenly [or correctly] thought that the former is homosexual; he is a man of courage and faces the hurdles of life with positivity; Jim is universal in the sense that he represents ‘everyman’; anyone regardless of the geographical frontiers can relate to his emotions and mental sufferings.” [6] Conrad, speaking through his character Stein, called Jim a romantic figure, and indeed Lord Jim is arguably Conrad's most romantic novel.[7]

In addition to the lyricism and beauty of Conrad's descriptive writing, the novel is remarkable for its sophisticated structure. The bulk of the novel is told in the form of a story recited by the character Marlow to a group of listeners, and the conclusion is presented in the form of a letter from Marlow. Within Marlow's narration, other characters also tell their own stories in nested dialogue. Thus, events in the novel are described from several viewpoints, and often out of chronological order.

The reader is left to form an impression of Jim's interior psychological state from these multiple external points of view. Some critics (using deconstruction) contend that this is impossible and that Jim must forever remain an enigma,[8] whereas others argue that there is an absolute reality the reader can perceive and that Jim's actions may be ethically judged.[9]

However, there is an analysis that shows in the novel a fixed pattern of meaning and an implicit unity that Conrad said the novel has. As he wrote to his publisher four days after completing Lord Jim, it is "the development of one situation, only one really, from beginning to end." A metaphysical question pervades the novel and helps unify it: whether the "destructive element" that is the "spirit" of the Universe has intention—and, beyond that, malevolent intention—toward any particular individual or is, instead, indiscriminate, impartial, and indifferent. Depending (as a corollary) on the answer to that question is the degree to which the particular individual can be judged responsible for what he does or does not do; and various responses to the question or its corollary are provided by the several characters and voices in the novel.[10]

The omniscient narrator of the first part remarks of the trial: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" Ultimately, Jim remains mysterious, as seen through a mist: "that mist in which he loomed interesting if not very big, with floating outlines – a straggler yearning inconsolably for his humble place in the ranks... It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun." It is only through Marlow's recitation that Jim lives for us – the relationship between the two men incites Marlow to "tell you the story, to try to hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality – the truth disclosed in a moment of illusion."

Postcolonial interpretation of the novel, while not as intensive as that of Heart of Darkness, points to similar themes in the two novels – its protagonist sees himself as part of a 'civilising mission', and the story involves a 'heroic adventure' at the height of the British Empire's hegemony.[1] Conrad's use of a protagonist with a dubious history has been interpreted as an expression of increasing doubts with regard to the Empire's mission; literary critic Elleke Boehmer sees the novel, along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as part of a growing suspicion that 'a primitive and demoralising other' is present within the governing order.

To put Jim's anguish into perspective, one must have committed in his past some crime morally or legally. Anyone who has not done so will never fully understand what Jim must do for redemption. Jim longs for his chance to restore what he lost by one single misstep (literally and figuratively). He believes (and in the end) it is a "debt" that can only be paid in his death.[1]

Film adaptations[edit]

The book has twice been adapted into film:

Allusions and references to Lord Jim in other works[edit]

  • Jim's ill-fated ship, the Patna, is also mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Immortal".
  • The Disney motion picture, Spooner, used the story of Lord Jim as a shadow and point of comparison for the dilemmas faced by the movie's main character, Harry Spooner/Michael Norlan (played by Robert Urich).
  • Lord Jim is the name of a boat, and subsequently the nickname of the boat's owner, Richard Blake, in Penelope Fitzgerald's Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.
  • Lord Jim is referenced in the final section of Herman Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny as the captain of the Caine struggles to come to terms with his own decision to abandon ship.
  • Lord Jim is referenced in the song Conrad by English singer- songwriter Ben Howard, "You were the boat that bridged / In the tale of Conrad / We will never be the change / To the weather and the sea and you knew that."
  • In the Mexican film Amor Libre, directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, the lead characters July (Alma Muriel) and Julia (Julissa) are reading the book. July read the first half, and Julie the second.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Elleke Boehmer (2005). Colonial and postcolonial literature: migrant metaphors. Oxford University Press. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-19-925371-5. 
  2. ^ Joseph Conrad; Linda Dryden; Cathy Schlund-Vials (2009). Lord Jim. Penguin Group. p. ix. ISBN 978-0-451-53127-8. 
  3. ^ Rosen, Jonathen (February 2007). "Missing Link: Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin's neglected double". The New Yorker. Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Conrad, Joseph. Cedric Thomas Watts, ed. Lord Jim. Broadview Press. pp. 13–14, 389–402. Retrieved 24 September 2009. 
  5. ^ Hampson, Conrad's Heterotopic Fiction See also 1923 Curle article
  6. ^ Ziaul Haque, Md."“One of Us” in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim: Fact or Myth?", Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 3, no. 3; 2015, p. 317. Retrieved on August 25, 2015.
  7. ^ Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, p.346
  8. ^ J.Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition, p.22
  9. ^ D. Schwartz, The Transformation of the English Novel, p.222
  10. ^ Kenneth B. Newell, Conrad's Destructive Element: The Metaphysical World-View Unifying LORD JIM, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, ISBN 1-4438-2667-7

External links[edit]