Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lord Jim discussion: Chapters 25 – 45

This section covers the Patusan episode of Jim’s life. Reaching Patusan safely, Jim is imprisoned by one of the rival leaders. He leaps twice to safety and renown (as compared to his one leap to dishonor from the Patna), once over the blockade and once over the narrow river between settlements. Jim devises and carries out a plan to defeat Sherif Ali, a warlord recently established above Patusan. With victory, Jim is able to oversee an uneasy truce between Doramin and Rajah Allang while the natives put their trust in his leadership. As you are introduced to Cornelius and Gentleman Brown, you realize Jim is fated to an unhappy ending.

Jim is tormented by guilt, even after two successful years in Patusan. “I have not forgotten why I came here. Not yet!” At some point I wonder how disproportionate the feelings of guilt are to the crime. While the inquiry sentence was light, Jim stood trial and received judgment. But he imposes a sentence on himself that doesn’t allow him to progress until he is completely away from anything Western. Somewhat related is the role of fate—how much control does Jim have and exercise? Quite a bit (for better or worse), even when you look at the people that haphazardly enter his life: Marlow, Brierly, Jewel, and Stein on the good side; Cornelius, Gentleman Brown, and the entire crew of the Patna to the bad. And given how his guilt allowed Gentleman Brown to escape and commit his atrocity, I think it is easy to say that Jim would never transcend his guilt.

Jim isolates himself in Patusan, but ultimately ends up responsible for the villagers much like the skipper of a ship. Everyone on a ship and everyone in the village are part of a community with a role to play, and that includes the leaders. To some extent Jim exceeds the requirements of a leader by pledging his life for the safety of the villagers if Gentleman Brown is allowed to go free. Was he trying to expiate his guilt? Or simply that he put too much faith in Brown who obviously was not a man of his word? Probably more the latter, but since Brown played on Jim’s guilt the former is a factor. Jim clearly felt he owed something to the villagers, but ignores what he might possibly owe to Jewel or Stein. And he clearly fails to realize that by identifying with Brown, he does not understand the levels of evil loose in the world.

As I have mentioned, there are several father figures to Jim. His real father is mentioned several times and is one of the reasons he does not return home after the inquiry. Marlow constantly shepherds the younger man along, taking care of him almost in spite of Jim. Brierly offers to finance Jim’s escape (just like Cornelius offers to save Jim’s life at one point for $80). And Stein clearly sees Jim as an heir to “all this,” just as Stein was once befriended and enriched by an older patron. While the book is full of irony, Jim’s measurement in comparison to these father figures provides plenty. Jim has trouble communicating, while Marlow is loquacious and articulate. Jim’s dereliction of duty on the Patna would have caused many a sailor to do something drastic, yet it is one of his judges that commits suicide.

There are many symbols and motifs in the book as well. The “one of us” motif is constantly echoed, usually in conjunction with meaning a gentleman, or a sailor, or something similar. But it also echoes the biblical origins of the phrase, where a fallen Adam becomes like the other beings and can differentiate between good and evil. It is probably too much to say that Jim fell from a state of innocence, but he did get a very hard lesson in the way of the world with the events on the Patna. Unfortuantely he did not appear to make it to the same level of recognizing evil when he confronted it. Stein introduces some imagery that appears quite a bit in the Patusan episode, that of his collections of beetles and butterflies. Most of the descriptions are straightforward, but in one case Gentleman Brown malevolently invokes the image: “I’ve lived—and so did you, though you talk as if you were one of those people that should have wings so as to go about without touching the dirty earth. Well—it is dirty. I haven’t got any wings.” And with that, Brown puts his finger on the pulse of Jim’s guilt, using his own fears to probe Jim’s. Stein’s romanticism that I quoted in the previous post is how Jim lives in Patusan, “swimming” successfully in the “dangerous element” by not trying to rise out of it. There is one humorous image of Jim’s success (literally in this case of swimming in the dangerous element) upon his second leap for freedom—he lands on a muddy bank on the other side of the small river and almost buries himself alive by trying to climb out.

While there is some additional discussion on colonialism in the last section, it is usually much more open-ended or is presented with a counterpart. Gentleman Brown is probably the exception, with thoughts like “The land already seemed to be his to tear to pieces, squeeze, and throw away.” Yet even then his counterweight is Jim who runs the trading station fairly and equitably. Brown is someone that Jim could never comprehend nor know how to deal with. Jim's servant Tamb’ Itam has none of these problems when disposing of Cornelius. Evil is usually presented as having an advantage over pure innocence or inexperience. And by mistakenly identifying with Brown, Jim signs his death warrant.

At the end of the book, Marlow questions his judgment not just of Jim but of the meaning of (and reality of) Jim's existence:
There are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force; and yet upon my honour there are moments, too when he passes from my eyes like a disembodied spirit astray amongst the passions of this earth, ready to surrender himself faithfully to the claim of his own world of shades.

Marlow can’t answer whether Jim was a romantic reality or illusion, and of course neither can the reader. Despite everything presented, even if Marlow is accurate in his assumptions as to what is beneath the surface, the quote I could hear at the end was Marlow’s reaction to the inquiry (and was echoed in many places in the book): “They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!”

As much as I would love to read much more Conrad right now, I’ll limit myself to The Shadow Line and then move on to Ford Maddox’s Ford The Good Soldier next. I hope to have the 1965 movie version of Lord Jim, with Peter O’Toole as Jim, available later this week and will add a review of it.

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