Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.

 

Examples

The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.

 

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

Lord Jim, Lord of Mystery

While reading Lord Jim, I realized how Marlow always remarks how he “cannot say he [has] ever seen [Jim] distinctly” (Conrad 169) and is “fated never to see him clearly” (Conrad 185). Jim is described as an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234) who “passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart” (Conrad 318). I thus found myself asking why the need for all this mystery and obscurity around the figure of Jim.

Perhaps, by making Jim out to be this enigmatic, ultimately unfathomable figure, it also elevates his status as “Lord”, a higher being we are never fully able to comprehend or know. The mystery surrounding Jim, and the inability to place/know him, is in direct contrast to the natives, who are easily identified/ labelled.

This is easily seen in Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, in the way in which he describes with such ease the “general character of the Dyaks” (Wallace 67) and comes to simple, stereotypical conclusions such as the “natives of tropical climates [having] few wants, and when these are supplied, are disinclined to work for superfluities without some strong incitement.” (Wallace 73). Here, Wallace’s power is in “knowing” the natives (regardless of its inaccuracy), the power to (in)scribe characteristics onto them, the power to write.

Knowledge is power, and conversely, the lack of knowledge renders one disadvantaged in the power balance. By positing the colonist as mysterious and unfathomable, in this case Lord Jim, it elevates his status as superior race, god-like and all-knowing, reinforcing the justification of colonization of the natives, who are in contrast, ignorant and easily “known”.

Language as a tool of entrapment

In Wallace’s article, he continually espouses the goodness of the Europeans and Sir James Brook in particular for bringing civilisation and freedom to the dyaks who were “oppressed and ground down by the most cruel tyranny” by the Malays and Chinese. It is ironic that he is unable to see that the Europeans practiced the same kind of oppression with colonisation and that colonial rule brought more hardships to the natives rather than benefits. Moreover, he seems to practise colonialism in his writing as well for through the use of words and language, he imposes boundaries upon the natives in his story. His article is written as if he knows that what he sees and reads are irrevocable facts.  

I feel Wallace’s perception of the Europeans and the Dyaks bears strong resemblance to the way Jim and the natives is being represented for us in the novel, that is through Marlow’s eyes. This is seen when Marlow says, ” Evidently I had known what I was doing. I had read characters aright, and so on” (Pg. 143). While reading the novel, I constantly feel that Marlow is trying to fit Jim into a certain mould which he finds acceptable. It is as if he is trying to enforce a frame around the story and he is fitting Jim into this frame, cutting out pieces which do not fit into his idealised picture and he refers to this in ” I put it down here for you as though I had been an eyewitness. My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligeible picture” (Pg. 262). Both Wallace and Marlow use language and words to impose boundaries. This is similar to colonial rule which divides race and perhaps to an extent, religion into categories and boundaries.

 Thus, language fails as it becomes a tool which entraps the natives as seen in Wallace’s article and Marlow’s narrative. Even Jim becomes a victim of language in Marlow’s story. As such, Doramin’s shot which kills Jim at the end of the story is significant for “the shot” grants Jim his freedom from his entrapment. The imagery of the shot also fragmentises the narrative which has been carefully controlled by Marlow.

Women (what women?) in _Lord Jim_.

One of the things that struck me in reading Lord Jim was the absence of women in the text. With the exception of Jewel, there are no significant women mentioned at all. Following the adventure narrative, which has traditionally privileged the male explorer anyway, this is not surprising I suppose. That being said, I’m interested in looking at Jewel. I think she is symbolic of Jim’s potential for acceptance in spite of what he has done, and yet the flipside of that symbolism is that in her importance to him and his to her, his abandonment of her represents his greatest failure. It’s almost as if his earlier abandonments following the jump off the Patna, are forgivable, or if not, at least understandable, but this abandonment is as damnable as his jump.

When he keeps quitting his jobs the moment the Patna incident is mentioned, we understand he is afraid and in some way even though it’s irresponsible, we can find some reason to excuse his fears or weakness. But when he abandons Jewel, it’s as if events have come a full circle and he is repeating events from the ship. The parallels are interesting – the passengers onboard are dependent on him for their lives, for safe passage. Likewise, Jewel now defines herself, and is protected, by Jim. When he abandons her by going before Doramin, he is doing almost the same thing, except possibly even worse given that he, in his “responsibility” for Dain Waris’s death, does this intentionally, knowing the consequences of his action, knowing he is devastating her.

The woman in the text, as represented by Jewel, is most pathetic because she is at his mercy, she could beg him to stay but he won’t. The man is empowered, even if his use of that power is arguably self-centred. It would be interesting to develop the gender argument further, although given the limits now I can’t.