Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad : “A free and wandering tale”


“A free and wandering tale” about “the acute consciousness of lost honour”. Lord Jim is not a simple book that could be called novel: this is too reductive.

From a technical point of view, it is an idealistic image, a Jamesonian novel. Conrad tries to innovate by rejecting Victorian methods of writing and patterns.

In an essay called “The New Novel” (1914), Henry James tries to analyze Conrad’s complexity: “Conrad’s first care is explicitly to set up a reciter, a definite responsible first person singular, possessed of infinite sources of reference who immediately precedes to set up another to the end that this other may conform again to the practice”.

Conrad’s mark resides in a series of embedded testimonies. The narrative complexity brings about mystery and elusiveness as if nothing could be pinned down.

E.M. Forster’s try to give a definition of elusiveness: “What is so elusive about him is that he’s always promising to make some general philosophic statement about the universe and then refraining. […]. He is misty in the middle as well as at the edges.”

Conrad was never understood by his contemporaries, for instance Virginia Woolf said:
Mr Conrad is a Pole, which sets him apart and makes him however admirable not very helpful.” (helpful on the reflection on the English novel).

James coughed at Conrad’s technique and compared his situation of elocution to buckets of water being passed on for the improvised extinction of a fire, before reaching our apprehension. In a nutshell, Conrad creates a sense of suspense but it’s like it’s created for nothing because the end does not live up to the promises.

Thus, Conrad’s fiction writing, consisting of the adding-up of novelties, was ignored by Virginia Woolf. Why rejecting Conrad? Conrad testifies to a complexity of influences which may be what his contemporaries failed. He is a crucible of different influences.

I – Adventures at sea

Conrad mentioned two authors who influenced him.

Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848): Mr Midshipman Easy (1836) is a ship microcosm of society.

James Fenimore Cooper, who introduced the sea novel genre in American literature and used sea romances as a means to regain and recast identity in fiction. Like Cooper, Conrad was reticent to reveal details about his life (a refusal to disclose any sense of privacy).

The paradox is that you depend on the narrator to know the story but this “I” refuses to make too personal comments. Besides, different languages coexist in Lord Jim :

  • attempt to reproduce foreign language:
    • quoting French (French lieutenant)
    • quoting German (Stein)
  • attempts from Indians to speak English:
    • broken syntax
    • poor English
  • Shakespearian overtones between Marlow and Stein (ch. 20, cf. Hamlet)

Why is the sea so central ?

Life at sea is compared to the process of writing (cf. A Personal Record). Once you’ve starting sailing, you cannot stop. It’s a need that cannot be refrained and once you stop, you become a wreck.

The same applies for Conrad : his short-story became a novella and eventually a novel.

There are 3 common factors: restraint, solidarity, and fidelity.

A. Restraint

The sea is a test which puts to the proof the mettle of sailors. The merest moment of absent-mindedness can be devastating: cf Jim’s failure to make a decision, absence of decision:

  • The beginner saving the 2 mates is a warning.
  • When he leaves the Patna, his attention flags : devastating consequences.

One way to praise soldiers is to call them “strictly sober”, i.e. not liable to yield to sudden impulses.

The risk for the writer is to be too complacent, to give in to sentimentality and sensationalism. Conrad wishes to subordinate emotions to imagination and intelligence. It is the whole thing between possessing a feeling and being possessed by it :

“It may be my sea training but the fact is that I have a positive horror of losing even for one moving moment that full position of myself which is the first condition of good service”.

In a way, Conrad never establishes an intimate relationship with the reader. Dignity in the story prevents you from identifying with the story: it creates a distance with the reader and there is a lot of linguistic work. English is not Conrad’s first language and this lack of spontaneity is a form of restraint.

We could argue that Conrad is the exact opposite of D.H. Lawrence for Conrad is not at his best at love and passion. He is not a writer putting much faith in the generative powers of nature, yet he is unrivaled on two questions:

  • problem of personal identity.
  • moral conduct and ethics.

B. Solidarity

In Lord Jim, to become a seaman means belonging to a group, a confraternity with a tradition of service. This decision of Jim to assume responsibility brings nothing else than shame.

Marlow constantly says : “he was one of us”, which is a reference to the society of sailors. The meaning of an artist’s life must be sought in an ideal of human solidarity and seek to express man’s capacity for comradeship.

Marlow’s interest for Jim comes from the fact Marlow wishes to come to some understanding of the deepest motivations in mankind. He wants to rescue a certain realistic image of mankind.

Conrad repudiates the view that moral life would depend upon abstract principles. Moral reflections are not inspired by Heaven or abstract principles but are edicted by circumstances: Conrad is a moral pragmatist, the opposite of Rousseau (“an artless moralist” according to Conrad).

The second view rejected is the insistence on individualism. The self as self-reliant is a solipsism. Conrad rejects utilitarianism, liberalism and aestheticism. The individual should stand in the limelight.

C. Fidelity

Conrad is in a marginal position (as a Pole). He is neither a patriot nor a traitor, in position of nomadism and with a pessimistic approach to Nature and the Universe (cosmic forces): the elements are unreliable and destructive (p.68: the storm is described as an ” infernal joke”).

Nature can provide no comfort or relief. Some sort of meaning has to be found in human relationship. Fidelity is like a bulwark (separation, protective screen) against the drift of dissolution.

To be faithful is to make a definitive commitment, for example Marlow’s pledge to Jim p.93: “our communion in the night was uncommonly like a last vigil with a condemned man.”

II – Lord Jim as a colonial saga

Conrad followed the 19th-20th century fashion of colonial places (cf. Paul Gauguin in Tahiti). Patusan is a medley of different influences. It is influenced by Berau (place near Borneo) and by Conrad’s own reading, especially The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace, who was interested in collecting butterflies and beetles. The references to insectology and entomology in Lord Jim show the correspondences between Stein and Wallace.

In chapter 20, Stein catches a gorgeous butterfly. The butterfly is an embodiment of the absolute beauty which transcends man’s finitude.

Read p.125:
“as though on the bronze sheen of these frail wings, in the white tracings, in the gorgeous markings, he could see other things, an image of something as perishable and defying destruction as these delicate and lifeless tissues displaying a splendour unmarred by death.”

The butterfly is the epitome of a central romantic paradox: through its beauty, it attains a form of eternity and through its symmetry, it escapes the boundaries of corrupting time. Yet, it is pinned down lifeless on cardboard: it is physically dead while challenging the very idea of death.

Beetles encapsulate everything horrendous and are used as flat characters. Cornelius is depicted as a beetle p170:
“His slow laborious walk resembled the creeping of a repulsive beetle, the legs alone moving with horrid industry while the body glided evenly.”

On a geographic level, Patusan is fictitious, the name contains all the letters from “Patna” and introduces two new letters “us”. The Patna is still very much present in Patusan. There is no escape. Patusan was colonized by Dutch and English colonists for the pepper trade (under the reign of James I in the 17th century).

With the arrival of Gentleman Brown, there is a shift from Borneo to the West coast of Sumatra. It is a chronotope: a symbolic space-time which may be used to contribute to a definition of the characters, to organize diegetic events, to convey emotions and to transmit a system of values.

Patusan has a symbolic significance in the book, it is a chronotope for the limits of moral transgression and for the social rupture with the Western world.

With Patusan, Conrad breaks with the exotic picturesque representation of the East commonly found in books published in the Victorian age (cf. Rudyard Kipling or Rider Haggard).

In adventure tales, a threshold has to be crossed. Once it is been crossed, conquest may start. In Lord Jim, this right of passage does not work at all. It is a leap – when Jim escapes from the Rajah and jumps from a palissade: “He took off from the last dry spot, felt himself flying through the air, felt himself, without any shock, planted upright in an extremely soft and sticky mudbank”.

  • primordial, primeval matter
  • earth and its origins

The jump is not a forward but a backward leap, indicating a regressive process. That is why Lord Jim is a modernist novel, Jim is not an explorer bringing about civilization. The mud he leapt in is a by-word for regression.

Conrad changes the significance of what would be a rite of passage. Patusan is described as a dead-end, a place of no-return : “this is my limit because nothing else will do” (p198).

There is nothing else after Patusan, it is the ever-undiscovered country from which we know Jim will never return (cf. Hamlet). Patusan is also the place where the ideal of Western civilization will collapse. Profound pessimism (for Conrad had read Schopenhauer).

The Humanist tradition (Renaissance) was called into question by Schopenhauer: the Western man proud of his superiority is replaced by the naked man, having lost everything, including the faith he used to put in himself.

Man is no longer capable of forming objective opinion and he can no longer trust any transcendental power: he is powerless in front of blind impulses which he cannot refrain.

The moment of the jump from the Patna is never treated as such. It seems that the key moment is not one in which a decision is made. Jim is not acting but acted upon. He is not totally in control of the situation, a situation which cannot be grasped through language. It is a sort of silence, considered in retrospect (cf Schopenhauer: man is partly victim of circumstances).

In 1828, Conrad wrote that “the worst thing about man’s condition is that he’s conscious”. Consciousness is lethal.

Schopenhauer’s influence can be found in Holy-Terror Robinson, Chester’s friend, who shows that under certain circumstances, some civilized characters may regress to the most barbarous practices. Indeed he survived only through cannibalism (p99).


Lord Jim clearly illustrates a point made by Bakhtin in his essay “Epic and the Novel”, who says that the Novel as a genre has a tendency to incorporate elements of other genres such as myth, romance and sea-life adventures in the case of Lord Jim.

Through its narrative technique, it comments on the transition in the European cultural tradition from oral to written narratives, which Walter Benjamin showed in his essay “The Story-Teller”:

The Story-Teller takes what he tells from his experience: his own or that reported by others… The Novelist has isolated himself… To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.”

Finally, the subtitle of Lord Jim is “A Tale”. It is a novel, predicated upon an act of telling to come into being, relayed by different tellers. Hence it shows that everything told is fragile, relative, filtered by different minds and that the reader must be active.

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2 pensées sur “Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad : “A free and wandering tale””

  1. Hello,
    I beg your pardon, but before I leave you in peace, there is still one more little thing that cries to Heavens to be corrected.
    When saying: “Conrad was never understood by his contemporaries” you are making a brave statement considering the fact that his ‘fun club’ consisted of some of the epoch’s greatest luminaries: from Bertrand Russel (if you want philosophy) to Hugh Clifford (if politics) to T.E. Lawrence (a celebrity, no doubt) from Arnold Bennett (let us switch to men of letters) to H.G. Wells ,from William Blackwood to Edward Garnet, from John Galsworthy to Ford M. Ford and Henry James and Stephen Crane – for Trans Atlantic connection or Andre Gide and Thomas Mann -if you want it more Continental…
    And all that on the strength of his writing alone – please, note that his social standing on the day of his “Almayer’s Folly” consisted in his being a British subject and a Master Mariner. I personally cannot think of anything quite as stunning when it comes to high profile acclaim among contemporaries in all of British literary history. Can you?

    • Hello,

      Conrad was admired but his way of writing was quite different from the others’. The man was understood, his work proved more difficult than it first appeared.