Note- taking for Lord Jim (Week 7): Part 2

 Topic of Class

The first part of discussion was focused on the accuracy of Wallace’s methodology with regards to his observations about the Dyaks. Not surprisingly, the more common reactions pointed out that Wallace adopted the mindset of the superior European in his documentation of the Dyaks and hence, questioned the presence or rather, absence of empirical evidences in his writing. Yet, on the other hand, it was also pointed out that Wallace had only what he observed and he was only trying to paint a picture for the Europeans with the limited knowledge he had. The fact that the article was written as a scientific travel book became problematic for Europeans took his words as “the truth” and hence justified their belief of their superiority.

 Interestingly, it was also brought up that science is used to validate political stance and the discovery of biology at the height of Imperialism during the 19th Century not only validated but intensified the colonial movement. Science and knowledge is not a bad thing in itself but it is constantly manipulated by people to obtain power. As such, Science is driven by power and this is exemplified in both Wallace’s article and Lord Jim where biological differences is used to ascertain the superiority of the Europeans.

 With these in mind, the question that should be on everyone’s mind is if things have really changed, taking into consideration the fact that in relation to science and methodology today, similar methodology are still being used as representations.


‘The Dyak is closely allied to the Malay and more remotely to the Siamese, Chinese and other Mongol races. All these are characterized by a reddish- brown or yellowish- brown skin of various shades, by jet – black straight hair, by the scanty or deficient beard, by the rather small and broad nose, and high cheekbones; but none of the Malayan races have the oblique eyes which are characteristic of the more typical Mongols. The average stature of the Dyaks is rather more than that of the Malays, while it is considerably under that of most Europeans. Their forms are well proportioned, their feet and hands small, and they rarely or never attain the bulk of body so often seen in Malays and Chinese.’ (Wallace, Pg. 68.)

 ‘I am inclined to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral character they are undoubtedly superior to them.’ (Wallace, Pg. 68.)

The above examples show that while Wallace shaped his writing according to his observations, the very same observations laid the foundations for science and methodology to be used for the justification of imperialism.  

 Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

 We were led to discuss modernism as a crisis of knowledge and representation with the evidences of constant changes and the continual use of the natives to define European superiority in both Wallace’s text as well as Lord Jim. This brings to mind Achebe’s criticism of Conrad’s supposed racism in Heart of Darkness as opposed to the common idea that Conrad was advocating anti- imperialism in his text. It enforces the fact that language is malleable and that people are left to make meanings for themselves, depending on the perspectives they take. Perhaps, it can then be suggested that despite all the periods such as colonialism, modernism etc, there really is no real change for there is only the change in perspectives brought about when different people such as Achebe starts to write in addition to European writers.

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.



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.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 7) – Part I

Topic of Class

The presentation today was mainly concerned with the overarching theme of narrative (both the oral and written tradition) and how these narratives help shape the construction of identities in Lord Jim. The presenters explored the use of frame narratives, missing narratives and misappropriated narratives in order to highlight both the inadequacies and strengths of such an act of storytelling.

One of the biggest inadequacies was the way that the failure of language highlights the instability and subjectivity of narratives, particularly the oral ones. Because there is a sense that many oral stories are told can be altered according to the way audience response. (Said: “…a storyteller has the power to shape his material to match his audience’s response)

But the group also suggested that this was also a strength for the oral tradition, because it involves many more people than a writing process would, which in Said’s words, is essentially a “work of solitude”. The valorization arises from the fact that oral traditions are rooted in the idea of the Gemeinschaft (community) which places value on the plural and fluid multiplicity of perspectives. Hence, by putting these various perspectives together, Conrad not only manages to highlight the fact that having a singular coherent narrative is impossible, highly artificial and unconvincing, he also manages to effectively highlight the narrative gaps in the story, suggesting that indeed there are many multiple ways of approaching and understanding a part of the “Truth”, as opposed to one hard and fast method of doing so.

The group also discusses however the fact that oral narratives necessarily beg the complicity of the reader/listener. This is because in listening to the story, not only are the listeners made to become “keepers of Marlow’s story”, their participation in reproducing the story also therefore means that they have an ethical responsibility towards the text and future readers/listeners as well.

The group then explored the idea that the written tradition provides a foil to the unofficial oral tradition, in that a written narrative which is considered “official” is often left unquestioned as a unified objective understanding of the “Truth”. Through various explorations of underlying assumptions, the presenters hence pointed out to us the need to question the singularity of writing exercise and the way it blanks out and obliterates multiplicity. They suggest that the function of written narratives is not to provide plurality or a chorus of voices, rather, they are there to define, archive, remember and also confine. i.e. in trapping Jim in a static text, one can then look at him with retrospective glamour or nostalgia. However, there’s also the increasing awareness that the act of writing is also an act of appropriating, selecting and mediating, so that at any one point you can never really retrieve the essence of the moment anymore – i.e. “No live-entering”. Worse, the power of writing diminishes when one realizes that the final outcome is fixed and immutable and that ultimately, language sets you further away from the truth than it brings you closer.

Lastly, the presenters considered how the construction of Jim’s identity is done via the mediums of other characters like Marlow, Brierly, Brown and even Tam’Itamb. Also, even Jim’s construction of his ownself is highly problematic. He will not and has not forgotten the fact that he jumped ship but he lives in this narrative and fictionalised reality so that he can re-write the guilt and the past. So the juxtaposition of these narratives raises the increasing awareness that Jim’s glorified narratives are constantly undercut by his past narrative upon the Patna. As a result, Jim is always in a personal tug-of-war with himself. So, there is a sense that the Jim we know is the collection of various perspectives we have retrieved so far. Yet in our pretended belief that we are getting closer to who Jim is, there is also an increasing sense of estrangement from his character. This is especially so if we consider the open ending – an ellipsis. Here, the audience/readers can take away whatever they want from the ending and therefore construct Jim for the way they assumed him to be. Seeing how this is subjective, then can one then ever really know his character?


EG. Official written as unquestionable? Wallace’s reading was considered one of “best scientific travel books”. While you believe him because of the empirical evidence methodology that he utilises and because of his authority as an established biologist, there is a sense that as he describes what he observes, he ends up prescribing our constructed imagination of the dyaks, chinese and malay respectively. As a result, a strong racism is embedded in the narratives passed on as truth!

E.G. Ethical complicity: the man on the verandah “He paused again to wait for an encouraging remark, perhaps, but nobody spoke; only the host, as if reluctantly performing a duty, murmerd – “ You are so subtle, Marlow’” (Conrad, 256) So, the man on the verandah becomes complicit in listening and responding to the story that the narrator. Then, “He existed for me, and after all it only through me that he exists for you. I’ve led him out by the hand and I have paraded him before you” (Conrad 172) As a result, as listeners to this tale, we also implicitly become “keepers of Marlow’s story”

E.G. Writing as defining; as archiving; as remembering and as confining. “Wallace associates a Charaxes kadenii butterfly with a moment in time when a boy brought it to him. “ “And Stein similarly felt a huge sense of happiness in capturing his butterfly”(Conrad 161). Here, while being able to capture the immense overwhelming force and internalising it as fulfilling, the inherent fallacy then becomes evident when you realise that everything is still selected and mediated, and that it’s not just merely collection.

E.G.: Construction of Identity through others: Brierly saw himself in Jim and in a sense because he recognised his own ability to be cowardly and guilty, it’s as if all his attempts to stay together in one piece and to be honorable and ideal previously were pointless and futile. Hence he commits suicide (Wake 92-3) Brown as Doppelgaenger: “And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience, a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like the bond of their minds and hearts” (Conrad 296) Tamb’itam echoes Jim’s thoughts: “’It is not safe for thy servant to go out amongst the people,’ said Tamb’itam…It was not safe for his servant to go out amongst his own people!” (312)

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

The questioning of the reliability of narratives whether oral or written is not a new topic. We have done with Heart of Darkness and to a certain extent we even questioned the gaps of narrative in Passage to India when we no longer heard the narratives of Mrs. Moore, Adela and Aziz (at different points in the book). Today’s discussion really opened up this debate and extensively highlighted both the successes and failures of reading/writing. However, there is also the fact that because we are aware of the shortcomings, therefore there is the possibility that we are not disempowered by this lack of total knowledge; rather, we are empowered in the sense that we have access to a plurality of perspectives that puts us in a better position to understand and approach the heart of the matter. That being said, this is also nevertheless undercut by the fact that every subsequent story we tell will never allow use full access to the past already. (Think: No live-entering argument) So perhaps our sense of empowerment as a reader also depends highly on how aware we are of our shortcomings, assumptions and responsibilities as readers to a text.

Bloody Racists.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction to Wallace’s essay on the Dyaks, I was thoroughly disgusted by the sheer presumptuousness of the man. Wallace systematically and unabashedly relegates the natives to savages in his chapter on Borneo, comparing the Dyaks with Malays and Chinese, and trying to rank them in order of superiority. He enters Borneo and Java with the intention of searching for a potential new commodity that he could exploit, and repeatedly quantifies nature.

I don’t know why I’m so indignant, this is not something we haven’t seen before. Wallace is the quintessential colonist with a typical imperialist mindset.

Wallace has absolutely no idea that he is being derogatory, and here I am reminded of Edward Said and his statement that all western texts are inherently racist. Certainly, to the Victorian civilian in England, Wallace may seem to be providing an impartial account of his experiences in Borneo and Java. I can see that Wallace did not write this text with the intent of belittling the natives,  but I do feel that no matter how hard the colonizers strive to appear objective (as Wallace is so nobly trying to achieve in “The Malay Archipelago”), by the mere virtue of their race and the time period in which these writers lived, the zeitgeist inadvertently trickles down to their writing and reveals their latent imperial mindsets.

In all fairness, I may also be guilty of occidentalism, where we automatically single out the western in the text and vilify them. By pointing my finger at them, there are also three more fingers pointing back at myself. Perhaps, as a former colony, we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal our own, and have become trained to read colonialism into all the texts that we study, be it overtly racist or not.

Rainbows and butterflies

There was an article I read in National Geographic on Alfred Russell Wallace published in December 2008. It’s still available online at the National Geographic website. The article describes, amongst other things, how his letter to Darwin sparked Darwin into publishing On The Origin Of Species, a little of his personality, and his methods as a naturalist for commercial and scientific purposes. Just like Stein (or possibly the current of similarity flows the other way round), Wallace collected butterflies and other species of insects. Wallace also had to sell his collections to museums in England to fund his trips around South-east Asia.

Now that I’ve used up a hundred words rambling about Wallace in order to mask my inability to contribute a meaningful post, I would like to say that in reading Wallace’s records about the Dyaks and the region, it is obvious to us that there is that sense of wonder and excitement that exudes from his writing. Yes, Wallace does exoticise us regular folks in the East and we could read some form of colonialism implicit in his writing, but in his defence, is it not natural for people when they come across something that astounds and awes them to embellish accounts and/or come up with speculations? Conrad may have been influenced by Wallace’s descriptions of the region when writing Lord Jim, but excitement and exuberance are replaced with a nagging sense of foreboding in Conrad’s texts.

Darwin never consulted Wallace when he announced their discovery to the Linnean Society, and read his papers along with Wallace’s. Wallace was pleased and flattered, but still preferred enduring the wet weathers, fevers and hardships in the region rather than returning to receive academic praise. How cool is that?

The gaze that kills the butterfly

As I was reading Wallace’s article about his observations of the Dyaks, it struck me as very odd that he would include their moral characters as part of his observations of them. It seems almost as though he fails to realize that as the observer,  his interaction with the Dyaks might contribute somewhat to the way in which they react to him and thus what he says about them actually reflects a part of himself. If they were hostile, he was likely perceived to be a threat and if they were friendly, he was likely genial as well. In subjecting the Dyaks to comparisons based on a Eurocentric values, he is reducing them somewhat and not truely able to represent them. It is weird to think of a naturalist classifying all the fauna and insects along with the human inhabitants, as though they were all part of the savage landscape.

In doing so, he pins them down much like how the collector of butterfly specimens does in Lord Jim. Stein catches his rarest specimen in the moment of a native’s literal death and kills it so that he might keep it still enough to study and describe it. The native is silenced and ‘killed’ in the records that manages to decribe things about him such as the physical attributes but the true essence of life is lost and thus the descriptions are unable to capture the truth about the native.

Stein’s butterflies and the dream

How the romanticized myth of imperialism fuels the ambitions and dreams of despotic or hopeful men may be read as one indictment of the novel. The symbolism of Stein’s butterflies foretells men’s desire to grasp hold of every minute microcosm that constitutes the universe – to label, to showcase, to proclaim something as one’s own; as if the dream is the singular obsession which gives meaning to a person’s life. The ambition /quest to possess on colonist terms is subtly hinted at when Conrad suggests that ‘Stein never failed to annex on his own account every butterfly or beetle he could lay his hands on’.

Conrad attacks the romanticized idea of the dream as a distant ideal which can never be attained, as Stein laments ‘And do you know how many opportunities I let escape; how many dreams I had lost that had come in my way?’ By the end, it is telling how Stein is himself world-wearied, and “says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this… ‘while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies”.

The chief overreacher in the novel, Lord Jim, is also self-conscious of the one failure that haunts him like a dodging shadow to his life, in spite of his successful venture in Patusan. He is constantly aware that his existence is uncared for and unwanted by the larger world that has casted him away, in Marlowe’s words, as ‘not good enough’.    Jim’s romantic quest to be worshipped as a hero and as a successful adventurer inevitably rings hollow in his failure to acknowledge the reality of human errors and imperfections.

The Legitimacy of Language

Conrad, as a modern writer, explores the role of language through Lord Jim as he had done in Heart of Darkness.  His focus, like most modern writers, is on the ability of language to evade and alter the truth in the process of its disclosure.  Conrad’s emphasis on the constant quest for meaning, and elusiveness of ultimate truth are inherently modernist concerns, despite the geopolitics of Lord Jim and its reactionary anti-imperialist undertones.  Marlow’s narrative is couched in ambiguity.  The language of facts and the domain of the artistic narrative intersect as their boundaries are permeable by the inherently deceptive nature of both: “There shall be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (Lord Jim, 256).

For Conrad, the structure of language implicitly validates the social order, which demarcates the limitations of creative thought by playing with the framing and documenting of memory and perception.  Language, when viewed as a means of documentation, is an act intended to be objective but one that cannot help but be subjective, owing to its deeply flawed structure .  The language of facts is something that is completely arbitrary as we see when reading Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a legitimate scientific article based on the theories of (and dedicated to) Charles Darwin.  Truth and accepted reality become the one and the same under this line of thought, which is one of the unfortunate by-products of using language as a means of documenting experience.

In Lord Jim, this is dramatized in Marlow’s growing belief that the idea of social cohesion is an illusion and that communal solidarity is not indomitable–and  is, as all things believed to be stable, vulnerable to the individual.

Reading colonialists and their texts

What I found most interesting about the Wallace reading was not so much Wallace’s portrayals of the natives, but the way in which he presented his “observation[s]”. His writing in the chapter affects a sort of scientific, ‘factual’tone , with his cross-comparisons of Britain and Sarawak, and the way he sets forth clear causalities for many of the Dyaks’ attributes. To me, this pointed to a clear agenda within the text, despite the fact that Wallace says his are more casual, personal observations. The fact that he frequently drew straight comparisons between Britain and Sarawak intrigued me, because it seemed almost forced—not just defining the self as ‘not-Other’, but, more, defining the Other as definitively not-Self. Perhaps this was a manifestation of subconscious (or unconscious) ‘white guilt’? I doubt Wallace was overly plagued by a sense of white guilt, as his interest was more of a ‘biological’ nature, but still, I think the impulse to constantly remind the reader how unlike Britain Sarawak was does point to a neglected recognition of the moral grey-ness of colonialism.

On the other hand, I suppose we could also see Wallace’s constant references back and forth to be nothing more insidious as a reflection of the extent to which we approach new things (people, texts, etc) with preconceived notions. Which led me to think about how we read Conrad and other colonial writings—the stance of a ‘postcolonial’ reader has always troubled me, because of the (seemingly) inherent bias we have against the colonialists. Achebe’s article on Heart of Darkness is one good example of this. Yet, in that way, aren’t we reading the colonialists in the same, framed and restricted way that they ‘read’ the natives they encountered? I’m not sure how else we can read these texts—it seems hard to come up with a convincing reading sympathetic to the colonialists, and I’m not positing that we should (or I’m not sure whether I am or not). It’s kind of a scary thought, to me at least, that as much as we like to vilify the colonialists for their greedy condescending, we as readers seem to be reading from a position not much different from that of the colonialists ‘back in the day’.

Possibility of friendship?

Conrad was influenced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s article on the Dyaks while writing Lord Jim, thus when reading Wallace’s article, I could not help noticing parallels between the figure of Sir James Brooke and that of Lord Jim. Wallace justifies the imperial presence in Sarawak by valorizing the deeds of Sir James Brooke.

“Sir James Brooke found the Dyaks oppressed and ground down by the most   cruel tyranny. They were cheated by the Malay traders and robbed by the Malay chiefs…From the time Sir James obtained possession of the country, all this was stopped.” (Wallace, p.71)

Brooke is portrayed as the heroic figure in Sarawak, whose intervention brings justice and peace to the natives. Like Brooke, Jim is similarly portrayed as the heroic figure who brings peace to Patusan. The white man’s deeds are valorized in both texts and this serves to justify imperial presence by positing the white man as a superior being who comes to save the native.

Although Conrad shows Jim’s integration into the Patusan community, by valorizing his deeds, Jim is set apart from his adopted community. This brings the question of the possibility of friendship between the white man and the native. In A Passage to India, the cultural differences between the white man and the native figure overcome any possibility of friendship. However in Lord Jim, Jim does have a close friendship with Dain Waris and even finds a lover in Jewel. While Jim achieves what Fielding failed to in his connection with the natives, it is note worthy that Dain Waris and Jewel are described as having European influences. Dain Waris “knew how to fight like a white man … he had also a European mind” and Jewel is the daughter of a Dutch-Malay woman. This again highlights the divisions between the white man and the native, since the possibility of friendship only arises when the native figure is not completely seen as the ‘other’.

Binaries and the Breaking of Binaries in “Lord Jim”

Colonialism seems to tend to draw a binary between the good, moral white man and the evil, immoral native. The adventure tradition, upon which Lord Jim draws strongly, tends to espouse this view. Some of the stereotypes for example, include the righteous white hero, the “noble savage”, the evil, scheming native villain. In light of that, I think it is striking that there are a multiplicity of races and nationalities in Lord Jim. For example, there is the French Lieutenant, the British Jim, and the Australian trader among others (not to mention the natives in Patusan, the pilgrims on the Patna, the Malays on the Patna). On the surface, this seems to disrupt the binary presented by colonialism. After all, there is no longer a clear, distinct circle of “whites” and “natives”. Instead, the “whites” are fragmented into different nationalities, different individuals, with different ideas on morality, for example, while the “natives” are fragmented into the group ruled by Doramin, the group ruled by Sherif Ali and the group ruled of Tunku Allang.


However, I think this is problematic, as even as the binaries are broken up into multiple groups, certain stereotypes still remain. For example, the white men all express multiple views on issues such as morality and Jim’s actions, while the natives don’t seem to exhibit the same level of intellectual discourse. Doramin seems mainly concerned with establishing his son as ruler of his land through Jim’s help, while Tunku Allang seems only concerned with establishing his own power base. In fact, even though there are a variety of white men with different personalities, the natives seem to fall quite neatly into stereotypical images of the native, such as Tunku Allang, who seems to be the cowardly but violent native. In that sense, even as Conrad disrupts the stereotypes of the “white man”, he seems to reinforce the stereotype of the “native”.

exoticism… can we ever escape it?

To add on to Russell’s observations about Conrad’s portrayal of natives, I do feel that it is difficult to escape this whole exoticization of the Orient and its people. One way of identifying oneself is in opposition to the other. So Conrad and Wallace define the native figure using the white, european male as the standard. thus the dyaks are described as shorter than europeans, their behavior favourable because they treat the europeans well etc. So in that sense, Wallace and Conrad are using their own ways of western knowledge to conceive the Other and construct the Other for us. And it is through these observations of their physical characteristics that meaning is later ascribe and judgement passed on their moral character and mental capacity. And it is through this process that myths such as that of the lazy native, the sensual native woman etc. come about and actually stick and these labels are hard to shrug off.

I mean, even in movies today, this exoticism of the native figure from long ago comes into play eg. Pirates of the Caribbean and its portrayal of Singapore as this dangerous, pirate-filled, opium-consuming place and how Sao feng is a brutal, cunning Chinese pirate (affirming Wallace’s observation that Chinese are untrustworthy) as well as in popular fiction like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club where Chinese-ness is defined by eating dumpling, single eyelids, playing mahjong and well, myths of Chang-e (how apt since mid autumn festival is right around the corner). In many ways, popular media is perpetuating this notion of the exotic East and the scary thing is that these movies and books later become the top grossing film or best seller at the bookstore. So we as consumers are complicit in this system. How often are we attracted to book covers featuring a sensual woman with a flower in her hair eg. Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory? Well i for one stop to take a second look. So can we ever break free from this constraints of exoticism that is commodifying our asian culture and objectifying its people? I sure hope we do.

Conrad in Singapore?

I was in the vicinity of Fullerton Hotel last weekend, trying to find my way amidst the flurry of road blocks and road closures when I chanced upon a Joseph Conrad plaque just outside Fullerton Hotel! Yes, imagine my surprise! Why in the world do we have a plaque of Conrad here in Singapore?

Apparently, the plaque was erected as one of national heritage board’s (NHB) heritage trails, and begins with the following words: “Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski, a Pole by birth, British Master Mariner and a great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world.” To read the rest of it, please go here:

It got me thinking—even if Conrad did make “Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world”—what kind of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known to the world? Looking at how Lord Jim draws on and repeats ideological constructions of Southeast Asian natives, to say that a less than flattering impression of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known would surely be an understatement. Here we have a description of immigrants from Celebes: “the men of that race are intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than the other Malays, and restless under oppression” (Conrad 196). Compare this with Wallace’s desire “to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral characters they are undoubtedly superior” (Wallace 68). Keeping in mind that Conrad’s information on Southeast Asia was drawn from many sources, including Wallace, Brooke and McNair, surely Conrad is perpetuating the inherent ethnocentrism present in these sources? The ideological effects of enabling such racial generalisations are extreme! I wonder if NHB considered this before erecting the Conrad plaque in recognition of his putting Singapore and Southeast Asia on the world map.

Conrad for Soft Imperialism?

“I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.”

While reading Alfred’s Russel Wallace’s “Borneo –The Dyaks”, there were moments when i couldn’t help sniggering to myself. While his writing was most earnest, I guess for modern readers like us…it’s just difficult not to notice how distant and ironic reality can be, from an individual’s perspective. While I do not disagree that Sir James Brooke had acquired much merit with the laws and changes imposed under his reign over Sarawak, for instance, the protection he rendered to the natives and the abolishment of slavery, I believe that Wallace’s faith in this white ‘Rajah’ as a heroic and noble figure reaffirms the British ideal of masculinity and how this evidently translates into the desired character of how the ‘Colonizer’ should be.

Having aided the Sultan in the Bidayuh Uprising, Sir James Brooke later coveted the power by threatening the Sultan himself with military force. During his reign, his pockets grew fat and both the natives and English back home reverenced him. It is undeniable that he took possession over a land that was never his to begin with, imposed his own laws and customs and reaped tremendous wealth and fame in the process, just as other colonizers did. Except that he deviated from the normal exploitative and inhumane models. Therefore, if Conrad’s Lord Jim was devised from James Brooke, then it seems likely that Conrad is indeed, racist and believes that the natives belong to a race that needs to be regulated and salvaged by the white man’s laws and customs. This then, validates SOFT IMPERIALISM?

Note taking (week 6 part 1)

Topic of Class

Lord Jim: the romantic “hero” of the adventure novel

The presentation examined the identity of both the text and the titular character in relation to the adventure romance tradition, and Conrad’s re-appropriation of conventions to critique dominant ideologies. The adventure tradition is affirmed in Lord Jim through the formal conventions that Conrad appropriates in his writing. However, it is later subverted because the pro-imperialist ideology that is inherent in adventure fiction is destabilized: the civilization, morality and rationality of the white man is questioned in the text and becomes ambiguous.

The romantic tradition is identified in Jim’s character as the idealistic hero who upholds strict ideals. His self-exile to Patusan and his eventual death does not provide a satisfactory conclusion to his strict adherence to romantic aspirations. The examination of other white characters that may provide satisfactory alternatives to Jim’s failure to embody the ideas of honor and morality reveals the idealistic aspirations inherent in the notion of the English gentleman. These ideals are strictly upheld by the characters however, they are undermined because honor and duty become self-serving and unrealistic. While the white male characters failed to adequately represent English superiority, the native characters serve to reinforce the binary distinctions between the white man and the other. The Patusan natives are either associated with degeneration or that are in deference to Jim.

Ultimately, the identification of the adventure romance tradition in the text and the simultaneous undermining of that tradition ties in to the modernist concerns with the obscurity of truth. Lord Jim and Lord Jim fail to fit adequately into proper categories resulting in ambiguity and ambivalences.


Jim’s romantic imagination of seeing himself “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line… in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book” is undermined in his abandonment of his ship.

When crisis arises, Jim fails to act on his ideals and abandons the ship in an act of cowardice. This romantic imagination is thus critiqued by Conrad as unrealistic and not substantiated by action.  In addition, although it may be argued that Jim’s eventual death was an honorable and redemptive death because he dies for his values, it begs the question of the futility of values.

While Jim’s movement to Patusan is viewed as an attempt at self-redemption, it also reveals his egotism; Jim desires to uphold his ideas of honor so that he can live out his heroic aspirations (emphasis mine). His morals and values are ambiguous since they are not borne out of his duty, but are seen as self-serving. Likewise, pro-idealist ideology that was prevalent in the adventure tradition is destabilized because the colonization motive of bringing civilization to places outside England is revealed to be an egoistic enterprise that reinforces white superiority.

Topics from Other Weeks

Forster adopts the Manichean view of the white man and the figure of the native in the beginning of A Passage to India: the division of physical location between the English and the natives is apparent. However like Conrad, Forster undermines the pro-imperialist ideology through his critique of organized religion, in the form of Christianity (the religion of the white man).

The English characters do not practice the Christian virtues of love, forgiveness and consideration to others. Adela’s accusation of Aziz is unsubstantiated but believed because the word of the white woman is privileged over that of the native. This results in Aziz being condemned by the English before being allowed to speak; the native’s voice is excluded. Christian virtues are not embodied in the characters instead, the English characters worship the idea of white superiority. The notion of white supremacy is thus undermined and viewed as morally inferior to Indian religion (in particular, Hinduism) that is accommodating. However, the binary views are not re-established by positing Hinduism as a fully satisfactory alternative to Christianity.

Convention is re-appropriated to comment and to critique itself by modernist writers. Conrad and Forster breaks down pro-imperialist ideology to highlight its flaws and to create texts and characters that are hard to define.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 6)- Part 2

Topic of class

The question that dominated the second part of the class was whether we could consider Lord Jim, with its self-proclaimed subtitle, to be a romantic text. ‘Romance’ refers largely to the late 18th century movement, Romanticism, with its notions on idyllic/ gothic nature (a reaction against civilization), and the prizing of journeys over destinations. It can also refer to the novel in its early, vernacular form (romances of the medieval ages).

Some argue that certain aspects of form and themes in the text are romantic. For example, Jim can be seen as the typical romantic hero/figure who sets off on a quest when young, grows in the process, yet also fails spectacularly. He is the quintessential over-reacher, and arguably, so is Marlow and the reader, for they are attempting to reach some sort of ungraspable truth of Jim and understanding of the events in the novel.

However, keeping in mind Conrad’s Polish heritage and family background, it appears more likely that Conrad is writing in reaction to Romanticism. He is making use of certain conventions in order to critique and undermine the movement. Conrad shows how Jim’s futile imagination leads to cowardice and how the romantic dream, with its ideals of morality and honor, fails in modern life and in the context of imperialism.


‘He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies…’ (Chapter 1)

This choice example highlights the way in which Conrad critiques the romantic imagination and its brand of heroism. Jim’s daydream prevents him from taking action (genuine work seems to be a concern of Conrad; it saves Marlow’s sanity in Heart) and he is too late (so says the captain of the ship) to save anybody. Yet, the ‘pain of conscious defeat’ didn’t deter him and he swore to ‘affront greater perils’ the next time. We all know what happened to that in chapter three.

Connections with other topics from other weeks

We have seen how Forster uses the idea of the quest only to debunk it in A Passage to India. Similarly, Conrad has shown in Heart of Darkness that his work is a mixture of (what we now perceive as) modernist and non-modernist elements, as well as being both (possibly) racist and anti-imperialist. It is therefore not surprising that in Lord Jim, he both relies on and departs from the romantic tradition. The modernist movement does not come out of a vacuum but breaks new literary ground by reacting to something before it.

Doubly removed from natives

In both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Lord Jim’, Conrad employs the framed narrative to describe the colonists’ experience in the colony. The character, Marlow reappears in ‘Lord Jim’ and this time he describes Lord Jim, much like how he describes Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness.

Many studies are concerned with Conrad’s use of framed narrative and how it creates a sense of distance between the author and Marlow; between the reader and Marlow and also Kurtz. The reader’s perspective of Marlow is always limited by the narrator. And his perspective of Kurtz is further limited by Marlow’s narration.

What is often not emphasized is that the reader’s perspective on the natives is always limited by the narrator’s, Marlow’s and possibly even Kurtz’s perspective. In Conrad’s novel, the emphasis is often on the white man’s experience (perspective) of the native and never on the natives themselves. Achebe’s reading of Conrad seems to fit in here (that Conrad is a thorough racist). While we can never be sure if Conrad’s description of natives are part of his modernist tendencies, but what is quite clear is that Conrad does not seem very interested in the natives. In his evaluation, the experience of the white man is put above the experience of the natives. To me, this is a subtle yet powerful form of racism.

Oh Humanity!

“This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable” -Joseph Conrad to William Lyon Phelps, 1923

This sentiment is evident in all of Conrad’s works so far, first in Heart of Darkness and now in Lord Jim. Both narratives have a protagonist who is a member of the colonizing class, and both protagonists are incredibly flawed human beings who have committed “inhuman” crimes. The fact that these narratives were largely accepted to be based on real events shows us how far away the gap between “inhuman” and “human” are, and how the “human” can easily slip into the ranks of “inhuman”. Here lies a major issue that modernists were preoccupied with- the issue of humanity. What is humanity? Is there a universal recipe for humanity? What differentiates humans from each other and everybody else?

On another note, I have a huge problem with both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim– they are both so intrinsically biased towards the colonializer that when I read them I do not know whether Conrad is trying to comment on colonialism or is he just trying to tell a story. It disturbs me that Conrad places colonizers in colonialized settings, then has him commit heinous crimes and expect us to feel sympathy for him. Most of all, I hate the monstrous silence that is attributed to the subaltern.

In my opinion, Conrad was right. What was considered humanity then was indeed unimprovable because of the “humans” inability to look beyond themselves and the idea that humanity is universal. Only until people began subscribing to the idea that humanity could be told from an individuals personal perspective, regardless of race, language or religion, could humans then move beyond themselves and not strive to improve, but to understand.

Thank God for revolution and progress.

Reading Conrad (gives me a headache!)

When I was reading Lord Jim, what really struck me most was, again, how ambiguous and un-concrete everything in the story felt. Perhaps it’s because of the large amount of time I spent thinking about ‘truth’ in Heart of Darkness, but when I read Lord Jim, the complexity of the novel and the way so much is left to the reader to judge, really brought this point home to me.

The fact that Conrad creates an explicit audience in the text makes it hard for me not to think about my responses to the text, and in that area, I found Lord Jim rather disturbing to read. Its close similarities with Heart of Darkness, combined with a setting that is much closer to home, made me continuously question my reading of the text, and, in particular, my responses to it. I found myself asking even more questions than perhaps Conrad had intended the reader to do. By the end of the story, I simply did not know what to make of everything—even Jim’s death struck me as rather anti-climatic, because I had become quite confused as to my feelings towards him as a character. Conrad seems to deliberately create an audience in the text (by positioning Marlow as a storyteller), to draw the reader in and destabilise the assumptions and norms we have. The more I read Conrad, the more I think he’s more postmodernist than modernist—I can easily imagine a David Lynch Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim movie.  Now that’s a scary thought.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

Like A Passage to India, Lord Jim can be read through The Trial as a quest for knowing the Truth. A trial embodies an investigation into a case, not just for the “fundamental why, but the superficial how, of [the] affair” (45).

Jim is fully aware of the trial’s objective, trying “to tell honestly the truth of this experience” (23), and to “go on talking for truth’s sake” (26). He knows the trial seeks facts, but more importantly, he realizes that facts cannot explain everything, that these “questions did not matter though they had a purpose” (45). The sailors are precisely looking for something beyond facts, “the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions” (45), which Jim understands he is unable to ever provide a satisfactory explanation for regardless of his truthfulness.

When Jim recounts “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer” (27), it reflects the realization of the inadequacy of language to accurately express emotional truth. This is similar to how Brierly’s only response is not via copious explanations which would ultimately fail him, but by committing suicide and bringing the secrets with him into the sea. In A Passage to India, Aziz’s trial may have revealed the truth of his innocence, but it can never articulate the truth behind the caves and echo that caused such a profound psychological and emotional impact on Adela, resulting in her accusation of him.

The Trial thus symbolizes how humans seek to find meaning on two levels: the first as that of tangible facts. But facts do not satisfy and humans still seek meaning on a deeper level, i.e. the Truth, the emotions beyond the facts, or the real meaning of the caves and echo. The Trial represents how ultimately, it is difficult to reach this Truth and reflects instead the failure of language in attempting to articulate the Truth.

Oral tradition of Storytelling

I think the way that Jim is portrayed in the novel is very much like that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where both characters occupy a central vacuum upon which stories of them are told, inter-woven and re-appropriated constantly. They do not really exist in and of themselves; rather, they exist through the stories that are formed around and about them, quite like the heroes of traditional oral storytelling in non-European cultures. And I would like to suggest that the oral tradition of storytelling in both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness not only cements the mystique of perceivably more-“primitive” cultures, but it also provides an alternative method of attaining some kind of understanding of a human being.

To me, I believe that the oral tradition is one that places emphasis on a communal understanding of the world – a world-view that is shared by and participated in by all its listeners because everyone is an author in some way or another. Hence, this is how cultures create heroes that are important to every household, because their legend becomes a part of the community narrative; and in the passing down of such stories from person to person, the hero’s characteristics/actions get aggrandized and cemented as heroic eternally. What this does is to immortalize the hero in the given culture and make his heroic qualities forever desirable to the community.

Yet on another level, I want to suggest that this is also Conrad’s way of returning to a more coherent narrative of a world that is highly chaotic and unpredictable, where human nature is not kind and when human failure is abound, especially in certain moments of weaknesses (like Jim did when he jumped ship). I want to suggest that oral storytelling may not be the more accurate depiction of an event, but its combination of various versions can help us build up a more coherent understanding of the highly arbitrary and failure-ridden world.


Having read Heart Of Darkness before Lord Jim certainly made the latter more digestible, even though it seems highly unlikely that one man can go on talking for so long and have the undivided attention of the people around him. I’ve never had that privilege. What I do find believable in both works by Conrad is how the search for truth in its various forms (moral, ethical, reality, self-discovery for example) can never be separated from the circumstances that surround that quest. It’s as if Conrad is suggesting that truth can never be found in antiseptic, sterile, laboratory-style environments with people in white coats performing thought experiments ad nauseum, and instead a person needs to delve into the seedy, sordid, brutal and horrifying as a test for himself and to the beliefs that he adheres to. So the colonized landscape forms the perfect backdrop for this quest; Marlow and Jim, with their ideals and beliefs, set off in the respective stories for a little-known alien land and culture, to see how far their truths will take them. The modernists likewise with their art works, dreams and philosophies venture into an age they thought man had control over, but tough luck:

It’s a proverbial jungle out there.

On an Errand of Faith: Portrayal of the Pilgrims on the Patna

In the spirit of Ramadan, I thought I’d have a look at the passage in which the Muslim pilgrims board the Patna, headed for Mecca. One of the concerns of Lord Jim is the “one of us” attitude that Marlow takes when relating Jim’s story. Apart from the practical uses in making a connection with the reader by situating himself and his “hero” Jim on the same side as the reader, this attitude also highlights the presence of the colonial mindset present in the context of Marlow’s tale.

When the 800 pilgrims board the Patna, the captain remarks, “Look at dese cattle” (11). Although one might think of the sea of white-linen-clad pilgrims moving in unison as reminiscent of cattle, the actual description Conrad gives appears to give the pilgrims some sense of purpose (in other words, a sense of humanity, distinguishing them from the skipper’s “cattle”).  That is not to say that he does not posit them as inferior: they “stream” on board from their jungles and campongs, covered in dust, sweat, grime and rags (11). However, the pilgrims’ strong “faith and hope of paradise” makes them relatable, understandable and harmless.

The way in which the pilgrims board the ship, filling it up like water, and are said to have come from all walks of life (from “their prosperity, their poverty”) captures them not as a savage people or as an isolated other. These Muslims are captured instead as an indifferent “them” with the allowances of humanity that are allowed of “us.”

Marlow’s account (technically, Jim’s account) of the “human cargo” of the Patna proved a refreshing change (improvement?) from some of the previous “others” we have come across in our readings.

Marlow and morality

While the text itself is titled Lord Jim and that it chronicles Jim’s fall and “rise” in the Patna and Patusan episodes, what is most interesting is Marlow’s struggle at representing Jim. Conrad in choosing to introduce Marlow as a the narrator in Chapter 5 instead of having the omniscient narrator throughout introduces a human dimension in looking at Jim and in effect introduces the notion of the difficulty in representing someone through narration. Even though he was “one of us”, in Marlow’s words, he seems to grapple in telling the story of Jim. This is perhaps due to the fact that he finds himself moralizing Jim and his actions and thus unable to present Jim as he is, but instead a moral Jim.

Marlow’s moralizing ways probably arises from the fact that he finds himself trying to find excuses for Jim’s moral fallibility in the Patna episode and thereby he seems all the more eager to recount the romance that is the Patusan episode. It almost seems that in telling the story, Marlow is projecting his own anxieties on Jim, which I feel is reflected in his opening in Chapter 5 where he addresses the fact that “each of us has a familiar devil as well.” (26) Even though Marlow with his own set of moral ideals seems morally infallible, unlike Kurtz or Jim, he acknowledges that he too might eventually fall in a moment of weakness and therefore he found it necessary for him to “straighten” Jim out. Moreover, even though the Patusan episode seems rather disparate from the Patna episode in that there is totally different feel to the narration, that the Patusan episode was described almost as a romance, this disparateness was necessary for Marlow to quiet his moral anxieties.

Marlow the Ancient Mariner

I would like to depart from the tendency in looking through Marlow to Conrad rather than at Marlow as an object of interest in his own right.  Reading Marlow’s behavior as inwardly motivated (as a character in the book rather than a mouthpiece offering little more than narrative distance for Conrad), would lend a pyschological dimension to his narrative machinations.

A note-worthy observation regarding Marlow would be his obsessive need for narration and categorization.  He has an obsession for “the idea of Kurtz” in Heart of Darkness, just as Jim’s story haunts him in Lord Jim.  This obsession acts as a lubricant in the narrative motion of the texts in question and also highlights the subjective nature of narration and truth-telling (little ‘t’) in modern texts.

In Lord Jim, Marlow becomes a “receptacle of confessions,” fascinated (to the point of obsession) with Jim’s story as seen by his collecting of various narrative sources.  Marlow becomes a kind of Ancient Mariner figure, whose role is to compulsively record and repeat what, by extension, haunts him.  He sees this obsession as a curse (“diabolical”) for which he admits “is a weakness of (his)”.  This motif runs through the text with Marlow’s compulsion to narrate (or rather, form narrative threads) is likened to debauchery and addiction (drink, women) repeatedly.

If we are to see Marlow as a cursed Ancient Mariner-type figure, then we could see the act of narration (the framing of the little ‘t’) being one born out of an unknown compulsion.  Just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner told his tale as a for redemption (out of guilt), Marlow’s “diabolical” compulsion may be one spawned from the basic human desire for the capital ‘T’ Truth, while the narrative itself is framed through the subjective (hence unreliable) view-point of Marlow, and as such can only take the form of the little ‘t’.  Perhaps what is diabolical is not so much the compulsion to narrate, but the inadequacy of the human frame of reference to fulfil the desire for the Truth in its limited form of representation.

Marlow’s Medium, Conrad’s Message

The use of dubious and mixed narrative perspectives in Lord Jim, as I see it, does more than having epitomized the high aesthetics of modernism. I would argue, indeed, that this very maxim intricately anticipates the foundation of today’s ‘post-modern’ media industry, that which has the distinguishing characteristic whereby “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964: 7).


I shall begin with a condensed explanation of McLuhan’s thesis. He was then critiquing how modernity has customized our response to the ‘content’ of any medium (including literature) as our focal-point de facto to the extent of becoming ‘blind’ towards the character of that medium. Literally speaking, therefore, a twentieth-century writer (such as Conrad himself) has to deliberately engage ‘potent’ techniques such as temporal fragmentation and narrative ambiguity in order to procure the reader’s contemplation on the meaning behind the text. This, in a nutshell, is the very message per se.


With this, one can consequentially ask: what does Conrad want us to see from the narrations of Marlow and the other unnamed, third-person narrator in Lord Jim? It is quite obvious that any plausible answer to this would not be found in the text. To me, this endearing enigma serves to provoke a retrospective reflection on the literatures that preceded itself, with a concurrent view about the treatment of contemporary issues – be they imperialistic or otherwise.

Jim: The man chasing his ideals

After reading Lord Jim, the title of the novel becomes a site of questioning for me. I had picked up a book and had expected it to be about the adventures about an respectable man who has impacted on the world. But it became a story about a young man struggling to make sense of himself, in a world that he tries to fit into as he has a very idealised view of the world. But the question is – is the idealised world view that Jim has essentially wrong?

I think we can examine this by looking at Stein’s diagnosis of Jim as a romantic. Even though this seems to oversimplify Jim’s situation, his additional observation that eventually became a postulation of a paradox , that Jim is “very bad … very good too” (158) greatly influenced how I went on to see Jim. Just like the very notion of good and bad, Jim’s ideals are needed, for example, his belief in his inherent superiority as a white man gave him the confidence to take charge in Patusan. However, at the same time, his ideals lock him within Patusan, subjecting him to continually reassert his whiteness. We eventually saw him resorting to wearing imperial uniforms. In other words, in his pursuit of the ideal, he might sink deeper and deeper in his own selfish desires and eventually lose himself and sacrifice others for himself (as we come to see when he decides to set Brown free).

Ultimately, I think Conrad is not trying to give us an answer to what ideals are correct and wrong, but he tries to illuminate the possibilities in the real world by taking an equivocal position –  just like the title of the book. Whether we see Jim as Lord Jim or the multi-faceted white man, it’s really up to us and dependent on our values to decide.

Lord Jim: “Millions of pink toads”

It struck me how one may similarly apply the centrality of Achebe’s arguments in “An Image of Africa” onto the reading of Lord Jim – the way in which Conrad’s metaphysical mulling about the strengths and failings of the human soul may be perceived as Eurocentric, as well as several racist elements that may be sieved from the novel.

Fragments of Jim’s character are pieced together in a non-linear fashion like an incomplete puzzle through Conrad’s dense modernist art of multiple narrators, but there is a sense that the real story is never really told – where is the narrative of the eight hundred pilgrims who were cast away and obliterated to the margins as such? Is it only heard through Marlow from the French captain? Jim as the focal character provides the basis for an insight into European-conceived notions of gentility or what is the sailor code – morality, honesty, honor, etc and his –along with the others’- defilement serves to rupture the constructedness/moral conceptions of such ideals to render a complex depiction of human nature. Yet Marlow’s sympathy with Jim raises the issue of complicity as he tries to defend the latter countless times. This excessive preoccupation and obsession with the need to side Jim as “one of us” renders the other narrative of the “masses”, being the eight hundred pilgrims, obsolete.

Secondly, deep racist sentiments may similarly be sieved from various incidents in the text. Jim in his moment of blind panic on board the Patna hit out at the man asking for water, the racial hierarchy which spatially segregates the pilgrims on the deck with the other white sailors, and the mad engineer’s oblique references to the pilgrims as “Millions of pink toads” are but a few examples. Similarly, Chester’s plan to make Jim the “supreme boss over the coolies” despite his earlier moral condemnation of Jim’s character being “no good” again reflects the unchallenged and assumed sentiments of European superiority over their inferior Others.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Guilt and the production of discourse

In Lord Jim, the character Jim seems unable to admit that he made a decision to jump at the very last minute and does not take responsibility for his actions despite appearing to confess his crime to the narrator by telling his supposedly true version of the events.  Each time he appears to admit to his mistake, he actually subtly tries to downplay the responsibility which he must take for his actions by qualifying it saying ” I had jumped… It seems,” ‘I knew nothing about it till I looked up”.  And with each reference to his guilt, it shifts subtly further and further away from his fault to the fault of others as he goes on to say he was “driven to do a thing like that” and later starts to blame others for the “abhorrent opportunity”, even going as far as to accuse them saying “It was their doing as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat hook and pulled (him) over.” 

This is may be juxtaposed with his insisting that he is different from the men who have planned to jump ship from the very onset and ” there was nothing in common between him and these men.” Unlike those men who “made up” a story that “was not a lie” but “wasn’t truth all the same,” he tells the truth of events and attempts to confess to the narrator in the hope of some form of absolution.  However we soon see that with each supposed honest admission of jumping, he goes further and further away from the truth, which shows him to be making up stories about himself like the other men.

It is interesting to see that the narrator initially appears to align himself with Jim by repeatedly mentioning that he is “one of us” while telling another person’s story. Much talk is generated by this event and everyone seemed to be unable to stop talking about it. It seems strange that the narrator feels the need to talk to others about this event and try and gather information about the event to piece it together when he isn’t the main character and there is no apparent relationship between him and Jim. Perhaps, I would suggest that the narrator is somewhat like the ancient mariner who feels compelled to tell a story due to guilt and Jim’s story is very much his as well because what happened was significant enough ” to affect mankind’s conception of itself”.

Thus, just like Jim, the narrator is compelled to tell the story in a way which tries to distance himself from the events by a form of sublimation- making it into yet another form of discourse. However, when he tells the story, what he actually reveals, like Jim,  by the way in which he shapes his version of the events is his guilt and complicity in the unspeakable crime.  It is significant that Jim never actually manages to articulate the exact moment of his transgression thus his confession, like the narrator’s exists in the gap between discourse and the truth.