Lord Jim (1900), Joseph Conrad’s fourth novel, is the story of a ship which collides with “a floating derelict” and will doubtlessly “go down at any moment” during a “silent black squall.” The ship, old and rust-eaten, known as the Patna, is voyaging across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Aboard are eight-hundred Muslim pilgrims who are being transported to a “holy place, the promise of salvation, the reward of eternal life.” Terror possesses the captain and several of his officers, who jump from the pilgrim-ship and thus wantonly abandon the sleeping passengers who are unaware of their peril. For the crew members in the safety of their life-boat, dishonor is better than death.
Beyond the immediate details and the effects of a shipwreck, this novel portrays, in the words of the story’s narrator, Captain Marlow, “those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be. . . .“ That individual is a young seaman, Jim, who serves as the chief mate of the Patna and who also “jumps.” Recurringly Jim envisions himself as “always an example of devotion to duty and as unflinching as a hero in a book.” But his heroic dream of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line,” does not square with what he really represents: one who falls from grace, and whose “crime” is “a breach of faith with the community of mankind.” Jim’s aspirations and actions underline the disparity between idea and reality, or what is generally termed “indissoluble contradictions of being.” His is also the story of a man in search of some form of atonement once he recognizes that his “avidity for adventure, and in a sense of many-sided courage,” and his dream of “the success of his imaginary achievements,” constitute a romantic illusion.
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