Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad in 1902, is a well-known classic of English literature and is #17 on my current 100 top novels list. Lord Jim (1900), one of Conrad’s lesser-known works, is its equal in message and prose—so much so that rating one over the other is difficult; I may need to reread the later novel, which I last read over 20 years ago, in order to properly place the earlier one on my list.
Below, I outline most, but not all, of the plot of Lord Jim in a sort of parable form. These spoilers do not ruin the book because the careful unfolding of the story is a joy whether you know the story or not. I do not believe the book’s ability to touch its reader, its moral significance, or any of its other powers are diminished by foreknowledge of the plot.
Consider the story or a man whose reputation and word is worth more than anything else to him. The man is part of the small crew of ship with thousands of passengers. There are not enough lifeboats for all the people on board. The ship is old and a freak accident creates a situation in which a thin bulkhead is all the stands between life and death. The bulkhead’s steal creaks, bulging inward with the force of the sea behind it. Any reasonable person would believe the ship will go down at any moment. A storm is approaching, making the chances even worse for the boat and its inhabitants.
The man does not know what to do. He is frozen in fear and uncertainty. When his captain and two other shipmates escape their impending doom in a lifeboat, he, at the last minute, jumps to the boat without thinking, an automatic survival response. The ship disappears in the storm, apparently sinking without a trace, and they believe themselves lucky to have got out when they did. However, the man is immediately ashamed of his actions and wishes to be on the ship, despite the fact that he would be dead. Death seems preferable to life knowing that he deserted the thousands of people who trusted in the crew to carry them safely to their destination.
Fortunately for its passengers, the ship did not sink; by morning it is found and then towed to a nearby port. Because the other men in the lifeboat run away, the man stands trial alone during the inquiry into the affair. The public disgrace he suffers is surpassed only by the disgrace he feels within himself. Once the trial is over, he tries to escape his reputation, but it always finds him—or at least he imagines it finds him. Eventually he flees the “civilized world” altogether. Even there, in a colonially privileged status that sets him apart from the people around him, his fate is determined by his need to live up to the standard he sets for himself.
Told by a narrator sympathetic to the man, the story is full of regret for a life destroyed by a moment’s indiscretion, of respect for the impossible standard to which the man holds himself, and of quiet, resigned disdain for a world that does not acknowledge the virtue and beauty of the man or, for that matter, of any person: “What I had to tell her was that in the whole world there was no one who would ever need his heart, his mind, his hand. It was a common fate, and yet it seemed an awful thing to say of any man. . . . He was great—invincible—and the world did not want him, it had forgotten him, it would not even know him.” “Nobody, nobody is good enough” for a world that gossips about our flaws and never celebrates our successes, even though we all have our share of both.
A complex story of human pathos and principle, told in brilliant, stylistic prose, Lord Jim stands with Heart of Darkness as a classic and deeply thoughtful novel.
My thanks to Michael for calling my attention to this book.