One of Us

This essay was an assignment by an English teacher who asked us to read a british novel (this was a british literature class) and then write an essay about how that book was important to the cannon.  I chose 'Lord Jim' by Joseph Conrad.  (go read it).  I chose to speak about the main character: Jim.

 Through the telling of Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” we gained an important tale of self-learning and self-sacrifice. This “yarn,” (Conrad vii) as Conrad calls it in his note to the reader, is a telling of how an ordinary person would deal with the strife of guilt. The character of Jim reflects the common man, betrayed by his peers and left stranded alone in punishment. With the intention of letting the reader to the story, Conrad made his protagonist –Jim – “one of us” (Conrad 43) and often has Marlow refer back to the point that he is just like the reader.

Jim is a mysterious fellow, and even though the he is described as “clean-limbed, clean-faced, firm on his feet,” and “as promising a boy as the sun ever shone on;”(Conrad 40) he is a multi-dimensional creature that also has “an unshaken and sombre perseverance” (Conrad 74).  Jim changes from a boy running from his past to a dreamer lost in his thoughts “penetrating deeper into the impossible world of romantic achievements.” (Conrad 83) within the space of a few chapters.  

No human in real life show but one unchanging face.  We are fickle beings when dealing with emotions and the very fact that Marlow distinctly mentions the change in the moods of Jim through out the book, proves to the reader that Jim is more like them than they might have realized in the beginning of the story.  Jim is a kind of character that truly reflects humans in general. We walk away from this book feeling as though we just read a tragic tale about someone we knew, going through a troubled time in his life. 

Marlow portrays in his letter, as a young man with dreams of becoming a hero, but when he made a split second decision to abandon ship rather than try and save the passengers aboard, he forgoes his dreams with “the shame that makes you burn.” (Conrad 28). Marlow, sensing something intriguing about Jim, helps the young man—who has been stripped of his titles—find a way back on his feet.  Jim is the kind of realistic person that Marlow believes that we should all strive to be.  His “very existence is based upon honest faith, and upon the instinct of courage.” (Conrad 43). The courage Marlow describes is not “any kind of special courage.” (Conrad 43). This is the courage to stand by the truth and stare down any falsehoods that might sneak into his words.  Jim tells the court, during his own trial, the absolute truth of what happened that night when he abandoned the people on the ship, condemning himself in process, without placing the blame on anyone else.  At one point while on the witness’ stand, Jim looks to another member of the crew, “then turned away resolutely, as after a final parting” (Conrad 33).  The other man never met his eyes and later betrayed Jim by running from the justice that awaited him. 

Throughout the novel, Jim feels the need to hide from his guilt rather than live up to the past.  Whenever the story of the ‘Patna’ is brought up around him, he flees to the tentative and tortured friendship of Marlow.  We know the past haunts Jim’s thoughts, but we never learn how he deals with the truth of his actions when he is alone.  Because Conrad writes the story through Marlow, the reader is never alone with our protagonist for long and we never hear his thoughts. Marlow always sees Jim through “that mist in which he loomed interesting if not very big, with floating outlines—a straggler yearning inconsolably for his humble place in the ranks.” (Conrad 224-5).  He wears a cracked glamour over his visage that barely hides his fear of being discovered for a coward. 

Jim is the common man who wants no attention drawn to him, because he has learned that not all attention is a good thing and he just wants to forget that he was ever in the spotlight for such a terrible thing.  By giving us a character that acts just like a normal human would under such situations, Conrad opens the door for us to join step into the novel and put ourselves in his shoes.  Jim is such a likeable man because every person can relate to the particular situation in which he is placed: one of fleeing from the past and a decision that haunts him until the end of his life.

After several times of running, Marlow finds Jim a place on the remote island of Patusan as the manager of a trading post.  Far away from any place where his past can surface, Jim wins the respect of the local people and is looked to as their protector.  Jim falls in love with a woman named Jewel, and she is as “a bird out of the recess of a nest” (Conrad 278) mild and shy. In some way that we never learn of, she transforms Jim from a guilt-ridden man, to one who would once again do anything to achieve his dream of heroism.  She is the essence of forgiveness, as he would do anything for their wellbeing, even placing her life over his own.  This is a far cry from the Jim we met earlier that jumped ship to save his own neck.  Everyone has someone, or something, that they would risk everything to keep, even if it meant putting it before themselves in a situation that demanded it.  By finding his forgiveness, Jim redeems himself –to himself but not others—by sacrificing his life to save the village from a man only after Jim.  The reader can perhaps assume that the killer is what Jim saw as his sin catching up with him.  Marlow’s description of Jim at his death was that the boy was “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 an extraordinary success.”(Conrad 416).  Jim let go of his past and searched out his peace of mind by completing his dream of heroism. 

Society benefited from “Lord Jim” because we need someone to show us the way to deal with our dealings.  As a reader, we benefit from his mistakes and share a “sympathetic emotion” (Conrad 271) for him that resonates within us all as humans.  The lesson we take away from this telling, is not that everyone makes mistakes, but rather: forgiveness can be achieved by anyone and for any deed, if we first forgive ourselves and face the consequences of our actions.  People can help us with this goal, but in the end, we are the only ones that can find our peace of mind.