Grad School Writing Sample–Conrad’s Lord Jim

Perhaps the strongest point of interest in this piece, which I reworked from a paper I wrote in the Fall 1998 (my senior year at TMC), is that my rejection of Romanticism is beginning to take shape, here:

Writing Sample
Baylor Graduate School
Department of English
April 1, 1999

In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad presents a highly stylized image of a young romantic, trapped in his own dreams of heroism on the high seas, falling to cowardice on his first real temptation—a fate worse than death, according to many of his contemporaries. Given a shot at redemption, Jim makes good and exceeds all expectations in a remote post in the interior where no one has heard of his great failure. However, the intrusion of outlaws from “outside” his territory ends in a great fall; Jim loses the faith of his native followers and faces death at the hands of their leader. It is in voluntarily facing this death, when he could have escaped, that Jim finally lives up to the romantic ideal he has set for himself. Ironically, it is this death which fulfills the expectation which immediately followed his first act of cowardice. However, in view of all that had transpired since that first fall, the voluntary submission to an unnecessary and undeserved death seems tragic or even foolish. It is this apparent folly which Conrad examines through several character viewpoints. An analysis of the four major character views of Jim’s death yields a multifaceted insight into Conrad’s pessimistic evaluation of the hopes and dreams of men.

In opening the last phase of the account, that which deals with the circumstances leading up to Jim’s death, Conrad presents the reader with a new character. One of the hearers of Marlow’s tale which makes up the bulk of the story, this person (unnamed) is revealed as a former adventurer who, according to Marlow, “showed an interest in him that survived the telling of his story, though . . . [he] would not admit he had mastered his fate” (252). It is in response to this continued interest that Marlow sends a letter revealing all he has been able to find out concerning Jim’s unfortunate end. Marlow sets the tone for the entire ending in his letter, when he says, “The point, however, is that of all mankind Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself, and the question is whether at the last he had not confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). In this way, Conrad flags to the reader what the theme underlying Marlow’s narrative will be and, through the character of the unnamed hearer, foreshadows what the outcome will be.

The four primary character views on Jim’s death are those of Jim, “the girl,” Marlow and Stein. Jim believes his fall (abandoning 800 people on a sinking ship of which he was Chief Mate) has left him dead to the world of civilization, where he must forever be branded a coward. Even his achievements in the interior, which include reviving a failed trading post, destroying one enemy of his tribal friends and forcing another into submission, and maintaining peaceful and profitable order, cannot erase from his mind the blot of his failure to face death honorably. He swears never to leave the girl (his wife, by common-law at least) because he knows he can never go back to the world at large.

As a result of this view of his relation to the world, when Jim finds himself face-to-face with death once more he is unwilling to run, though the girl implores him to do so (309). Having failed to do his duty before through his cowardice, Jim now compensates by deliberately going to his death in order to complete the redemption of his self-image. From his viewpoint, his death is the heroic expiation of his sins against his romantic ideal, the act of heroism by which he validates all that he once believed to be true of himself.

The girl, however, is unable to see it that way. She sees Jim only as false to his promise to her; for, in serving his romantic ideal, he has abandoned her and failed to uphold his promise to her. She casts this up to him as they part, trying desperately to induce him to fight or flee, rather than deliberately go to face death. She calls to him as he leaves in an especially revealing passage:

‘Will you fight?’ she cried. ‘There is nothing to fight for,’ he said; ‘nothing is lost.’ Saying this he made a step towards her. ‘Will you fly?’ she cried again. ‘There is no escape,’ he said, stopping short, and she stood still also, silent, devouring him with her eyes. ‘And you shall go?’ she said, slowly. He bent his head. ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, peering at him as it were, ‘you are mad or false. Do you remember the night I prayed you to leave me, and you said you could not? That it was impossible! Impossible! Do you remember you said you would never leave me? Why? I asked you for no promise. You promised unasked—remember.’ ‘Enough, poor girl,’ he said. ‘I should not be worth having’ (309).

Here Jim’s view and the girl’s come into direct confrontation. For her, his death is unnecessary and faithless, a sign that his word has always been flawed—as she has always feared. He, meanwhile, cannot escape the sense that he is already dead because of his previous cowardice. His view of himself takes precedence over her claims on his love and honor; she, sensing this, cannot forgive him—for he is impenitent.

Ironically, when the girl’s perspective is taken into account Jim’s redemption by facing death loses its redemptive quality; instead, it becomes a second failure. In the first failure, Jim fails to live up to his romantic ideal and, in so doing, also fails to discharge his duties honorably. In his death Jim also fails to discharge his duties honorably, this time in pursuit of the romantic ideals he had previously failed. The irony is that Jim never does learn how to behave rightly and honorably; he simply swings from one extreme of narcissism to the other, without ever getting the point. As Marlow says to the stranger, “Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself” (253). Never learning love or honor, Jim is doomed to a fate for which the girl cannot forgive him—she who has devoted her life to him can only bitterly condemn him for his faithlessness.

The third view, and probably the most impartial, comes from Marlow. In his view, Jim’s redemption is limited by Jim alone; while Jim achieves the ideal he sought, this is made tragic by its cost in terms of real human relationships. Because Marlow is Conrad’s major viewpoint character, he is fairly explicit about his views:

He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such extraordinary success! For it may well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an eastern bride, had come veiled to his side (312).

“That opportunity,” of course, is that chance to face death with stoic resolve which Jim had nurtured since his earliest days at sea—and which he had failed to take advantage of earlier. It is this glorious deathwish that, to Marlow, defines Jim; in an earlier passage, Marlow comments that “he had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain” (61). In the end, then, Marlow sees Jim likewise unconcerned with what he loses, in seeking to obtain that elusive glory which so concerns him:

We can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiles wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied—quite now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us (312).

It is Marlow’s statement that Jim “is one of us” that sets the tone for the final evaluation of Jim’s behavior, and broadens the conceit of Jim’s “exalted egoism” to include, ultimately, all the hopes and dreams of humanity.

The final major character view of Jim’s death is that of Stein—which is not offered directly. Rather, Stein’s view is offered through the symbol of his butterflies, and through his position as a catalyst for Jim’s chance at redemption. Stein’s prophetic descriptions of Jim’s personality and needs are invoked at the very end of Marlow’s letter, which is the end of the novel: “Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . . ‘ while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies” (313).

The image of the butterflies is a universal image of the mortality of human ideals, introduced earlier in the account when Marlow first goes to Stein for help in understanding Jim. Stein rhapsodizes about butterflies, prompting Marlow to exclaim, “And what of man?” To which Stein replies,

Man is amazing, but not a masterpiece . . . Perhaps the artist was a little mad . . . Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass? (153-4).

In describing the experiences of his own romantic youth, Stein equates the finding of the butterfly he had seen in a dream—the prize of his collection—with the love of his wife and child, the support of his friends and the discomfiture of his enemies (156). Of them all, only the butterfly remains, a fact Stein notes in summary fashion:

‘Friend, wife, child,’ he said, slowly, gazing at the small flame—’phoo!’ The match was blown out. He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams (156).

To make the analogy clearer, Marlow describes Jim to Stein as a “specimen,” though “nothing so perfect” as a butterfly. Stein’s revealing reply is, simply, “Well—I am a man, too” (156-7). When Jim’s case is explained to him, Stein diagnoses it simply: “He is romantic” (157). Asked for a remedy, Stein says, “There is only one remedy! One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure!” (157). The implication is clear: death alone will deliver Jim from himself. As Marlow says, and as the reader senses, “The case which he had made to look so simple before became if possible still simpler—and altogether hopeless” (157).

The issue Marlow and Stein are consulting about, however, is not how to cure romanticism—which Conrad makes clear is hopeless. Rather, it is how to live out life with it; and this, Stein makes clear, is a matter of man’s ideals outracing his mortality. Man wants to be more than he can be, and so fights to remove himself from the “destructive element” that is the world about him—to be delivered into an ideal realm which transcends daily life.

In the end, then, Stein’s opinion of Jim is that he fails to submit to the destructive element—that, like a drowning man, he tries to “climb out into the air” rather than “make the deep, deep sea to keep you up” (158). The dream, like all human dreams, must be followed—while remembering that, like the butterfly specimen, it too will die. Only the appreciation for the ultimate emptiness of dreams makes the dreams worth pursuing—while man is trying to transcend them, to idealize them beyond the limits of mortality, he is drowning.

When these views are taken together, Conrad’s theme is clarified: Jim has not truly “confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). Rather, he has failed to realize the mortal limitations of all human dreams, and therefore failed to even manage the minimum standard of his self-image. Jim’s egoism prevents his attaining those objects of love, friendship and victory which are the content of the romantic dream. Instead, his idealization of the dream is self-destructive. Only Stein, the romantic who has given himself over to the dream and survived its destruction, has a handle on the depths of the romantic problem—and he sees it as the underlying tension in all men’s lives, the reason why older men like Marlow long to relive their youth in younger men like Jim, yet know that they can’t go back; and the reason why, the dream gone and Jim gone, Stein begins to age badly.

In the end, Conrad’s view is deeply pessimistic. Despite his accurate perception of Jim’s fatal egoism, the stubborn clinging to the romantic ideal of himself which destroys all he loves, Conrad continues to imply that this is perhaps the best humanity has to offer. The element in which those who survive must immerse themselves is the “destructive element” which drowns dreamers; at the same time, the dream must be retained in order for there to be a reason to swim through the sea and breathe the air of dreams. In the end, Stein’s butterflies are better than humanity; but those butterflies are dead, pinned in cases. They are static beauties, once alive but transient; and while the beauty remains, the life passes. To Conrad, the greatest hope allowed a man is to live out his life in the expression of a beatiful dream, then die without having given up the dream. While he condemns Jim for confusing the dream and the reality, he generalizes Jim’s egoism into a description of all human hopes—and so precludes any possibility of a hope outside man’s ego.

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1965