When Lord Jim first appeared in 1900, many took Joseph Conrad to task for couching an entire novel in the form of an extended conversation--a ripping good yarn, if you like. (One critic in The Academy complained that the narrator "was telling that after-dinner story to his companions for eleven solid hours.") Conrad defended his method, insisting that people really do talk for that long, and listen as well. In fact his chatty masterwork requires no defense--it offers up not only linguistic pleasures but a timeless exploration of morality.
The eponymous Jim is a young, good-looking, genial, and naive water-clerk on the Patna, a cargo ship plying Asian waters. He is, we are told, "the kind of fellow you would, on the strength of his looks, leave in charge of the deck." He also harbors romantic fantasies of adventure and heroism--which are promptly scuttled one night when the ship collides with an obstacle and begins to sink. Acting on impulse, Jim jumps overboard and lands in a lifeboat, which happens to be bearing the unscrupulous captain and his cohorts away from the disaster. The Patna, however, manages to stay afloat. The foundering vessel is towed into port--and since the officers have strategically vanished, Jim is left to stand trial for abandoning the ship and its 800 passengers.
Stripped of his seaman''s license, convinced of his own cowardice, Jim sets out on a tragic and transcendent search for redemption. This may sound like the bleakest of narratives. But Lord Jim is also touching, elevating, and often funny. Here, for example, the narrator describes the ship''s captain (proving that clothes do indeed make the man):
He made me think of a trained baby elephant walking on hind-legs. He was extravagantly gorgeous too--got up in a soiled sleeping suit, bright green and deep orange vertical stripes, with a pair of ragged straw slippers on his bare feet, and somebody''s cast-off pith hat, very dirty and two sizes too small for him, tied up with a manilla rope-yarn on the top of his big head. You understand a man like that hasn''t a ghost of a chance when it comes to borrowing clothes.
This is formidable prose by any standard. But when you consider that Conrad was working in his third language, the sublime after-dinner story that is Lord Jim seems even more astonishing an accomplishment. --Teri Kieffer
Young Jim, chief mate of the Patna, dreams of being a hero, but when the Patna is about to sink, Jim, dazed by horror and confusion, escapes in a lifeboat--deserting eight hundred Muslim passengers to apparent death. Tormented by his cowardice and desertion, Jim flees to the west where he befriends the natives of a jungle trading post who come to put complete confidence in him as their Tuan, or Lord Jim.
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