Somewhere deep in my memory, right next to the place where the phone numbers of elementary school classmates are permanently inscribed, there exists the odd (and entirely erroneous) conviction that the scene from Return of the Jedi where the Ewoks make C3PO their god is based on Heart of Darkness. That idea entered my brain long before I ever read Heart of Darkness, and every time I have read that novel I have come to the end and been puzzled by the fact that, actually, there is nothing in that novel that even comes close to anything in Return of the Jedi – unfortunately. But it’s all clear now. I’m not sure how the cross-pollination of these two Joseph Conrad novels happened at a time in my life when I probably had never read either book, but it is now clear to me that the scene from Return of the Jedi bears an awful lot of resemblance to Lord Jim.
So if you ever have to read Lord Jim, you can take comfort in the fact that picturing Jim as C3PO and the people of Patusan as the Ewoks will make the experience slightly more enjoyable. Or at least you can tell yourself that.
I will second everything Jill wrote about the greatness of this novel. Its language is beautifully constructed (in ways that I think ultimately hurt the novel; it’s far too aphoristic and distracting in that uber-Modernist sort of way) and its ironic commentary on the global effects of British colonialism is effective and powerful. But I didn’t enjoy this book in high school and I didn’t enjoy it this time – although this time around I did read it carefully and attentively and I did find it intellectually interesting. I was also really surprised when I read Jill’s review to see that she felt invested in Jim’s story and was disappointed to see him fail at the end of the novel. To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me that I should even consider identifying with Jim. None of this is intended to mean that Jill is wrong; we just read the novel differently and emphasized different things.
For me, Conrad seems to want us to view Jim as a symbol or archetype rather than a rounded character. In my earlier entry I compared Jim to Forrest Gump, and I still think that comparison is valid. I don’t know how others feel, but when I watch Forrest Gump I don’t sympathize with him the way I would sympathize with other movie protagonists. I don’t worry that he isn’t going to survive the war or rejoice when he wins the ping-pong tournament or plead with him to just stop running and settle the hell down. I do feel something, but it’s a historical something, a stirring of the zeitgeist as I recognize something in his character that is essential to who I am and what it meant to be American in the twentieth century. And that is the same kind of feeling I have when I read about Jim – although of course I feel that feeling from a distance, since Jim’s world is not my world, and he represents a time and a nation that I know only through history and art.
I do, however, feel invested in Marlow. Even though we know very little about him other than what we can glean from his storytelling style, he seems so much more “human” (i.e. rounded) to me than Jim does. He makes several statements to the effect that he feels “doomed” to tell and retell Jim’s story in almost an Ancient-Mariner sort of way, and to me the most interesting question raised by this novel is why Jim is so damn interesting to Marlow and to the many people who listen to this story. Why does Marlow keep visiting Jim in all the godforsaken places where he lives? Why does he go out of his way to vouch for Jim and get him jobs when he knows that Jim abandons every responsibility he is ever given? What kind of magic magnetism does Jim have that keeps pulling Marlow back to him, and why do the people who are listening to Marlow’s story stick around as long as they do to hear it?
This kind of question, by the way, is also the only thing that has ever interested me about Heart of Darkness.
Marlow himself is puzzled by these questions and seems aware that Jim is more symbol than person. He puzzles over his inability to simply leave Jim behind him: “I was about to go home for a time; and it may be I desired, more than I was aware of myself, to dispose of him… it seemed to me that the less I understood the more I was bound to him in the name of that doubt which is the inseparable part of our knowledge… We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends – those whom we obey, and those whom we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible, and bereft of ties…have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land… to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness” (176-7). It is as if Jim is the smudge on Marlow’s figurative “slate” that must be wiped clean before Marlow can return to the cleanliness and self-declared “civilization” of England. Marlow also seems to feel an obligation to Jim in the Cain-and-Abel sense; he feels he is his brother’s keeper: “Woe to the stragglers! We exist only in so far that we hang together…He had straggled in a way; he had not hung on; but he was aware of it with an intensity that made him touching, just as a man’s more intense life makes his death more touching than the death of a tree” (178).
Marlow also calls Jim “the youngest human being now in existence” (175), and I think what Jim represents for Marlow is the fundamental innocence within each person that life in the far reaches of imperial Britain so quickly and readily killed off. In the pivotal chapter 20 – in which Marlow visits an acquaintance named Stein, who helps arrange for Jim to go to Patusan to represent Stein’s trading company. Stein is an entomologist and obsessed with his butterfly collection, and there is clearly something symbolic going on with the constant juxtaposition of beetles and butterflies that takes place whenever Stein is on the page. “Look! The beauty – but that is nothing – look at the accuracy,the harmony. And so fragile! And so strong! And so exact! This is Nature – the balance of colossal forces” (165-6), and then, out of nowhere, Stein starts alluding to Hamlet, to the “to be or not to be” soliloquy as well as to the “what a piece of work is man” speech: “Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece… 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?” (166) and “In general, in adapting the words of your great poet: That is the question… How to be! Ach! How to be.”
And then this: “‘We want in so many different ways to be,’ [Stein] began again. ‘This magnificent butterfly finds a little heap of dirt and sits still on it, but man he will never on his heap of mud keep still. He want to be so, and again he want to be so…’ He moved his hand up and then down… ‘He wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil – and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow – so fine as he can never be…’” (170).
In addition, it is Stein who diagnoses Jim’s “diseased romanticism”: “He is romantic – romantic… and that is very bad – very bad… Very good too… What is it that by inward pain makes him know himself? What is it what for you and me makes him – exist?” (172)
And then Stein alludes to the “Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty” line from “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and then Joseph Conrad uses the phrase “impalpable poesy” twice on the same page, and then I got a headache and had to go take some Tylenol and hug my cat.
There is still so, so much more that I could say, but I don’t want to go on forever and ever, so I’ll highlight a few points that I think are worthy of some thought:
I think there is significance in the similarity between the names Patna (the ship from which Jim jumps, abandoning hundreds of Muslim pilgrims and beginning the exile that will continue until his death) and Patusan, the mysterious inland community that ends up elevating Jim to near-godlike status. The name ‘Patusan’ almost foreshadows the fact that Jim is fated to continue to repeat his act of cowardice, as is the constant emphasis placed on the fact that Jim entered Patusan by leaping over a river: he left the Patna via a dramatic leap and enters Patusan in the same way.
I did see a lot of connections between this novel and Light in August, and I definitely think the two books are worth studying side by side. I also think a person could do some really interesting analysis if she placed Marlow and Nick Carraway side by side and compared them as narrators. Jim, after all, is sort of like Gatsby in that he is an exile and he is much more of a symbol or a self-creation than a fleshed-out character – and also of course Gatsby and Jim have both constructed their characters around an untruthful core. In fact, I am working (slowly) on churning out some academic writing samples for my upcoming applications to Ph.D programs, and I might do something with Jim and Gatsby. Not sure… it might be too elementary, and I’m SURE it’s a topic that’s been well worked-over in the academic canon, but it’s worth a shot and I would enjoy a chance to play with the idea.
Mostly, though, I am just stunned that someone expected my eighteen year-old self to read and make sense of this novel. Because honestly – there was NO CHANCE. I had no idea that I was once the object of this kind of naïve, optimistic confidence.
It’s almost… kind of… cute.
But I’ve read it now, Fr. Murphy – I really have. And I think I almost understood it. And my neck and shoulders are recovering nicely from how tense they became when I was reading. Thank you for asking.