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.

Jim/Marlow: Public vs Private truths

“Its extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dulness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had see, hear, understand ever so much- everything- in a flash- before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence” (110). I was drawn to this passage as I was reading the novel for I felt that while we have talking about how modernism reiterates that there is no fixity of truths; it can never really be as easy to distance ourselves from the “truths” presented to us through socialisation for they provide an order in which we live our lives. There are times where we may discover different truths for ourselves. However, society does not allow us to act on these truths for they threaten the order and form of our lives. Perhaps, this also relates to the lecture we had on modernism and empire as a crisis of politcal economy and its concern with the social contract.

Jim has to fulfil certain expectations of that as a sailor which is reinforced by Marlow’s reference to an unwritten code of conduct that sailors have to uphold regardless of their predicaments. This code of conduct serves as a form of truth for Jim. Although it is explicitly made known to us that he only endeavours to become a sailor after reading some “light literature,” and that he becomes part of the Patna crew through unforeseen circumstances, he is unable to deal with the guilt and shame arising from his violation of the expectations laid out for him because of the social responsibility he has. This is representative of the dilemma of having to choose between a public and a private truth for almost everyone who forms part of a society. The private truth is representative of freedom and the allowance of an alternative truth and perspective to things but it may be detrimental to the big “T.” As seen, Jim with his private truth wanders from job and job. He is only able to instill order in his life again when he integrates into Patusan through accepting another public truth.

This contestation between the public and private truth is evident in Marlow. With “Heart Of Darkness,” we have seen how he always takes a step back from seeing the truth every time he has a chance and with him as the narrator of Jim’s story, once again, we see instances in which he steps away from the truth. He pieces together Jim’s story, and through various retellings, he seems to be enforcing a certain truth, a big picture despite the awareness that the fragmentations may reveal differing “truths.” Yet, it is the act of retelling which entrenches the truth which Marlow wants to present because it enforces a form of order in the novel. The death of Jim is then significant for it can be viewed as the only way with which this order/ truth remains unchallenged.

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.