In Lord Jim, words do not contain singular meanings and its plurality results in the confusion over meaning. The word “cur” means different things to different characters, depending on various contexts, and this results in misunderstandings that arise between characters. The innocent remark made by Marlow’s companion in relation to the yellow dog, “Look at that wretched cur” (Conrad, 58), is misunderstood by Jim. He comprehends it as a personal verbal attack, assuming wrongly that he is being criticized by both Marlow and his companion: “I won’t let any man call me names outside this court” (Conrad, 59). This disjuncture between the companion’s intended meaning and Jim’s perceived meaning results in hostility on Jim’s part towards the initial meeting between Marlow and himself. Since Marlow does not share Jim’s understanding of the remark, he is unable to understand the initial hostility shown by Jim. Later, Jim uses the same word twice – that he took offense at – on himself when he questions his decision to abandon ship, “you don’t think yourself a – a – cur?” (Conrad, 66. And again in the next chapter, Chapter 8).
Another example in the novel of the plurality of meaning in language is seen in the begging of water by a passenger. Jim admits his incredulity at the meaning of the word: “Water, water! What water did he mean?” (Conrad, 73). Jim does not share the passenger’s context and this leads to his mistake in comprehending the word. Jim’s focus on the immediate potential danger that the sea poses results in the confusion of meaning, and he realises only later that “[the passenger] wanted some water – water to drink” (Conrad, 73). Language is vague in the novel and Conrad does not offer clarity.
Conrad rejects the presentation of a simple, singular meaning in his novel to portray a reality that is complex and multi-faceted. This plurality of meaning in language compliments the ambiguous nature of his novel that seeks to pose more questions that to answer them. I also think that much can be said about the metaphor of the sea and its various meanings that is contained in Lord Jim.