Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lord Jim discussion: Chapters 14 – 24

This section covers from the outcome of the court inquiry through Jim reaching Patusan. The verdict was relatively mild, requiring the sailing certificates of the Patna crew cancelled (although you got the feeling it would have little impact for most of the crew). As Marlow put it, “The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind…” which correlates with his view of a sailors' duty. The verdict was light given the potential outcome of their abandonment. It isn't clear if the verdict was lenient because of the positive outcome of the Patna, because Jim was the only one that actually stood trial, or because the judges understood what Jim faced. Or maybe they simply wanted to put this out of the public eye as fast as possible.

Jim comes to grips with the verdict and his future in Marlow’s hotel room and the anguish and frustration reflected within Jim is enormous. As with the wreck itself and Jim telling Marlow his tale, there is something ominous and dangerous lurking beneath the surface. There is the constant description of dangerous clouds or mist (or an opaqueness), as well as Jim standing “on the brink of a vast obscurity.” The torrential downpour symbolizes washing Jim's past away as Marlow recommends him for a position with a friend. What is certain is that if Marlow had recommended Jim for Chester’s guano island project, it would have been a death sentence. Relegating Jim to Patusan was far from a guaranteed safe position.

In the interim, Jim knocked about between jobs, leaving one as soon as his past catches up with him. Jim previously spoke of missing out on his chances, not standing up to them with heroic actions in addition to showing his resolve to stand up to anyone judging him. Yet he shirks his duties and the kindness shown him when hints of his involvement with the Patna surfaces and he runs yet again. In comparison, while working as a ship-chandler he displayed such courage that his bosses would declare that “it seemed as though he [Jim] wouldn’t mind going a hundred miles out to sea in an old shoe to nab a ship for the firm.” The priorities demonstrated by those that knew his secret demonstrate a moral perversion: they were more upset over his breaking a billiard cue than his abandoning 800 people to certain death.

The introduction of Stein raises hopes for Jim’s constant vulnerability for several reasons. Stein gives Jim a job in Patusan, where word of his shame would never reach those around him. Stein example of having lived two separate lives offers hope for Jim as well--experiencing deep loss and still being successful afterwards. Stein’s story about lost chances in capturing a rare butterfly, only to succeed when least expecting it, coincides with this hope for Jim. Finally, Stein offers a different type of romanticism counter to Jim:
”Yes! Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? … No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up”

Two more points that come into focus by this point in the book: Marlow’s reliability as a narrator and Conrad’s comments on empire. It was noticeable early on that Marlow is a narrator intimately involved within the narrative. During his recounting I kept noticing that Marlow was giving his impressions on what he thought was going through Jim’s mind and explaining Jim’s emotions. Marlow’s sensations on watching and listening to Jim are accurate, but the accuracy of the truth behind those impressions can not be known. Combine that with Marlow becoming more or less a father figure to Jim and you have a narrator you might not can trust. In this section, additional doubts creep in as Marlow admits that he can’t vouch for the accuracy of particular things said and done.

Regarding Conrad’s view of empire or colonialism, things are much more subtle in Lord Jim than in Heart of Darkness but comments do creep in. Early on in the book (Chapter 2), Conrad has this delicious passage revealing how the ease of colonial life corrupts many men:
They had now a horror of the home service, with its harder conditions, severer view of duty, and the hazard of stormy oceans. They were attuned to the eternal peace of Eastern sky and sea. They loved short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white. They shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives, always on the verge of dismissal, always on the verge of engagement, serving Chinamen, Arabs, half-castes--would have served the devil himself had he made it easy enough. They talked everlastingly of turns of luck: how So-and-so got charge of a boat on the coast of China--a soft thing; how this one had an easy billet in Japan somewhere, and that one was doing well in the Siamese navy; and in all they said--in their actions, in their looks, in their persons--could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence.

Conrad drops a few similar comments on the impact empire has on both the natives and colonists, all of which are devastating in their understatement.

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