“The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from the readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events – a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death – but some kind of spiritual reassessment of moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death. ” In his literary masterpiece, Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad’s theme development is complex but mirrors Fay Weldon’s statement.
Dealing with the paradox of whether a human being is capable of both good and evil the moral focus of the novel is the degree of the central characters guilt, his related attempts at self-justification, and in the end, whether or not good works can make up for one bad act. As will be supported in the following paragraphs, Lord Jim is a story of guilt, punishment, obsession to regain lost honor, and moral rescue. Within the opening pages of the novel, Conrad’s central character is presented as less than the romantic hero.
Described as being “an inch, perhaps two, under six feet” (Conrad, p. 9) Jim, the young son of a minister, is drawn to the sea as a youth and has developed a romantic view of himself as one who will meet crisis with calmness and determination. Ultimately, he is not shaken in this belief by his failure to reach the cutter of his training ship. As the plot continues, due to an illness, Jim is left behind in Singapore when his ship returns to England. As a result, he decides to take berth on a local steamer, the Patna, which is involved in an accident.
Faced with what he determines to be a hopeless situation, he jumps and deserts his ship when it appears that the Patna is going to sink with all 800 passengers onboard. When it becomes known that the passengers survived, Jim becomes a social outcast. Despite the fact that he was “one of us” (Conrad, p. 63) his jump “into a well-into an everlasting deep hole. . . .’ ‘(Conrad, p. 87) associates him with the other officers, known as troublemakers, who have deserted the Patna. His offense is one upon which the Court of Enquiry can have no mercy.
Jim however, refuses to accept this association and does his utmost to distinguish himself from them as evidenced by the quote “They all got out of it in one way or another, but it wouldn’t do for me. ” (Conrad, p. 64) He even goes to the extent of attempting to pardon himself as is evidenced when he reports to Marlow, “There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair. ” (Conrad, p. 100) Not entirely convincing however, his hope is that he can ultimately rehabilitate himself.
As in his first failure in the training ship, he remains certain that he can still be prepared for any emergency and has only been betrayed by circumstances. He finds it impossible to accept his weakness and chooses not to stay in a place where men know his story. Therefore, he is driven farther and farther east in the search of a refuge where he can start over again by establishing himself as a trustworthy man and seeking escape from his feelings of guilt. In what seems to be a distinct second part of the book Lord Jim, Jim is able find relief from his guilt by settling in the remote village of Patusan.
Acting as an agent for the trader Stein, it is here that he rises to be “Lord Jim,” where the “jump” is never questioned, and the natives become dependent on his strength and character. It finally seems that he has successfully isolated himself from his past, in a place where, “The stream of civilization, as if divided on a headland a hundred miles north of Patusan, branches east and south-west, leaving its pains and valleys, its old trees and its old mankind, neglected and isolated. ” (Conrad, p170)
Despite the fact that he has achieved “the conquest of love, honor, men’s’ confidence,” (Conrad, p. 169) his past comes in search of him. Gentleman Brown and his crew invade the “wall of forests” (Conrad, p. 307), which keeps Jim in his isolation. Physically, as determined by numbers, the people of Patusan are more that a match for Brown, but mentally Jim is helpless before this man who holds scorn for mankind and who “would rob a man as if only to demonstrate his poor opinion of the creature”. Conrad, p. 261) Brown opens the wound of Jim’s past when he asks whether he had “nothing fishy in his life to remember that he was so damnedly hard upon a man trying to get out of a deadly hole by the first means that came to hand-and so on and so on. And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience; a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like a bond of their minds and of their hearts”. (Conrad, p. 86) Everything that Brown says recalls Jim’s past weaknesses and thusly undermines his certainty that he has placed his past cowardice behind him. As a result, Jim finds that his inner peace was just an illusion, that “his fate, revolted, was forcing his hand” (Conrad, p. 290), and that his ability to act decisively is paralyzed. He allows Brown and his followers to leave the country unharmed if they promise to take no life. They however break the pact by killing the chief’s son, Dain Waris.
With solitude shattered, Jim sees the path of destiny before him because he guaranteed the lives of all the people against Brown and his men. He feels that he can only conquer his fatal destiny by suicide, so that “the dark powers should not rob him twice of his peace”. (Conrad, p. 302) Though given the opportunity, he does not try to escape with Jewel, but allows himself to be killed by Doramin. Upon reflection of the events of Jim’s life Marlow understands, with sad irony, that for Jim the sacrifice might seem ‘an extraordinary success” (Conrad, p. 07) for “that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had held the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side. ” (Conrad, p. 307) Therefore, at last, Jim feels himself become a hero by finally being given the heroic chance he had been waiting for. Twice before (on the decks of the training ship and Patna) he had failed to act heroically when given the opportunity to act with honor and courage. At the end of the novel, by offering his own life to Doramin, Jim is able to face and pass the final test with bravery although it costs him his life.
Thus, the novel ends on a positive note because Conrad’s central character triumphs when he finally receives moral redemption. It certainly may sound peculiar to say that the death of the hero provides a successful ending to the novel. Usually, such an ending would be considered to be unsuccessful and in fact, to be a tragedy. However, in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, as the central character, Jim is plagued by guilt over an incident that occurred in his youth. It is this very incident that has dominated his life from the very beginning pages and despite Jim’s “conviction of innate blamelessness,” (Conrad, p. 4) he was to blame, and the rest of the book is taken up with his attempts to deal with his actions. He, in a sense, becomes obsessed with redemption and each choice he makes is controlled by this need. It is only in the end that he comes to the realization of the significance of his choices and to the fulfillment of his destiny. Cowardice in the face of the crucial test was contained in Jim’s destiny and only by realizing that he will never be able to run away from himself could he atone for his offense.
In the end, as described by Marlow, Jim “passes away under a cloud “(Conrad, p. 307), as he had lived under a cloud. Marlow suggests the irony of his narrative by saying that “Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could (Jim) have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success! ” (Conrad, p. 307) Thus, it is only through this last and final act that Conrad’s Lord Jim was finally able to reach success by bravely giving up his life for respect, honor, and redemption.