Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lord Jim discussion: Chapters 1 – 13

The text for Lord Jim can be found for free at Project Gutenberg. There are also audio versions there and at LibriVox. The breaks for discussion for Lord Jim are totally arbitrary but I hope they will be at natural points.

Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim was written around the same time as Heart of Darkness, between 1898 and 1900. Chapters 1 through 13 follow Jim’s education and introduction to the sea. “A simple and sensitive character,” Jim takes a job as first mate on the ship Patna. He has always been a daydreamer of sorts, reading romantic fiction and imagining all the heroic things he would achieve when tested. However when the Patna hits something in the water and threatens to sink, Jim abandons the ship along with the rest of the crew, leaving 800 pilgrims to Mecca to their fate on the leaking boat.
Chapters 1 through 4 has an omniscient narrator relaying the basic facts up to the inquiry of the Patna, while Conrad’s masterful creation Marlow takes over the telling of the tale in Chapter 5.

Jim’s detachment is one consistent trait--first losing himself in valorous dreams, then disengaging from the inquiry’s proceedings. Marlow clearly likes Jim from the start, watching Jim in court and then following up with dinner and conversation. Their meeting is just one of many ironies: after seeing Jim’s lack of courage on the Patna in court, Jim stands up to Marlow after mistakenly believing he was called a “wretched cur.” Then in detailing what happened aboard the ship, we find out things were a lot more complex than a simple case of desertion.

There is constant deception in the unveiling of the story as you are first led to believe certain things, then find out something different happened. For example, you first hear from the chief engineer on the boat that the Patna sank, only to find out it didn’t. (As to the non-sinking, there are several mentions to “how tough old iron can be” to hammer home the things a man can tolerate or take.) Or the apparent boredom of a member of the inquiry panel, Captain Brierly, who never had a weak moment shown in his command. Later it is revealed that he commits suicide shortly after the case. In addition to the deceptions there is abundant irony. One poignant example is the crew member who, while struggling to get clear of the ship, has a heart attack and dies—if he had been calm and stayed with the ship he would have survived.

The atmosphere of the sea is constantly changing, regardless if the weather does. One moment the stillness of the sea is described as serene, everlasting secure, with unbounded peace and safety. The next, the calm sea “appeared formidably insecure in their immobility, as if poised on the brow of yawning destruction.” The stillness is increasingly painted as threatening, with potential danger lurking just below the surface: “Above these faint sounds there was that awful stillness preceding a catastrophe, that trying silence of the moment before the crash.”

Despite the horror of what the crew of the Patna had done, Conrad infuses humor in the moment. The image of the crew members struggling to free a boat for their survival is laughable despite the revulsion of the act itself. You realize how inept the crew is at the start: from the fat German skipper bossing everyone around to the sniveling engineer. Once free of the Patna, the crew began shouting up at the boat: “Eight hundred living people, and they were yelling after the one dead man to come down and be saved. ‘Jump, George! Jump! Oh jump!’”

Having just read Heart of Darkness (HoD) it is difficult not to do some comparisons and see the similarities with Lord Jim (LJ). There is a constant theme of something lurking beneath the surface or the surface disguising what is truly underneath, whether it be the sea, the jungle, Jim, Captain Brierly, etc. Misplaced trust appears in both stories as well, not only for those in charge (Kurtz and entirely up the line in HoD, Jim and crew in LJ) but also in Marlow’s first description of Jim. Another consistency is older people helping out younger characters, whether Marlow’s aunt providing him with effusive letters vouching for his character (HoD) or with Brierly and Marlow offering to help Jim avoid sentencing in the inquiry. And while HoD is one long tale of a chance missed by the world in allowing King Leopold to oversee the Congo as well as Kurtz's turn to a dark side, there are several discrete moments in LJ highlighting chances that were missed to avoid dishonor and shame. The metaphor of Marlow and civilization floundering in HoD is given a physical example in LJ, both from the crew of the Patna and in Jim himself. One last note on similarities is the difficulty in telling the tale itself. Marlow had difficulty in HoD, as if still coming to grips with what he had seen. Jim, while detailing what happened on board the Patna constantly breaks off the conversation, becoming agitated and flustered. Words and facts are not enough to convey some experiences.

Once again I feel like I can’t do justice to what I’m covering in such a short post, so I’ll quote the section where I fell in love with the book and with Conrad. From the start of Chapter 7:
An outward-bound mail-boat had come in that afternoon, and the big dining-room of the hotel was more than half full of people with a-hundred-pounds-round-the-world tickets in their pockets. There were married couples looking domesticated and bored with each other in the midst of their travels; there were small parties and large parties, and lone individuals dining solemnly or feasting boisterously, but all thinking, conversing, joking, or scowling as was their wont at home; and just as intelligently receptive of new impressions as their trunks upstairs. Henceforth they would be labelled as having passed through this and that place, and so would be their luggage. They would cherish this distinction of their persons, and preserve the gummed tickets on their portmanteaus as documentary evidence, as the only permanent trace of their improving enterprise.

No comments: