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.

The Voiceless Savage.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I was most struck by his allusion to the concept of a “voice”, a kind of tool for empowerment. To Conrad, the ability to speak and more importantly, to be understood is affirmation of one’s place and power. This is why Marlow describes his impression of Kurtz as being primarily one of “voice… of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression” (107). Kurtz is most powerful to Marlow as far as he is able (and certainly at this point in the novel merely imagined) to communicate. By contrast, Conrad reduces the native to a series of grunts, and in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe makes this point most strongly: “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa.” (341) 

If the means to communicate is of such importance in according status to characters in Conrad’s novel, then by extension the inability to communicate (as portrayed in the “savages”) is ultimately demeaning to their position in relation to the Western “adventurers”. Conrad then does not merely participate in effectively silencing the native voice since only speakers of English receive any measure of merit in the plot, he is an active promulgator of such a message. The native is thus a victim of the silencing of his own voice since he is unable to communicate in a way that Conrad believes is necessary for any measure of status to be accorded to him. He will always be inferior to the Western narrator because he is excluded from being heard.