Failure of the Quests in the Sea Novel ‘Lord Jim’

Novels about sailors and novels set in the sea are often adventure tales. Challenges are posed to the protagonist and in overcoming them, the protagonist displays his virtues and becomes a hero. Jessica had presented the notion of The Quest in Fielding’s A Passage, but I think this theme/ motif becomes more apparent in Lord Jim than in the previous two novels we have studied. In many ways, Lord Jim departs from the traditional ‘sea novel’ and does this by complicating our idea of the quest, as well as the chronology and the narrative structure of the text. I feel that this particular ‘sea novel’ is more about the failure/ impossibility of the quest than it is about heroism/ redemption (as shown in the second part of the novel when Jim suffers a bullet in his heart and gets called ‘Tuan Jim’ by the natives).

For one, most sea adventurers like Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe return home after completing their quest and proving themselves. However, Jim keeps moving East. His tale has less fixity, and more of a nomadic quality to it. The novel begins in media res, and the first adventure of the text (the accident of Patna) gets ‘chopped up’ and ends rather abruptly in chapter 4. The nature of the adventure/challenge is itself called into question. The collision of Patna with ‘something floating awash’ (rendered ambiguous) is hardly noticeable. It generated ‘less than a sound, hardly more than a vibration’, which lends the whole event a slightly comical light.  It is only much later that we know that the passengers did not die at sea- a deliberate withholding of truth/ information on Conrad’s part that only serves to undermine the adventure even further.

The subtitle of Lord Jim is ‘A Romance’. We can definitely start another thread about how we can consider the tale ‘Romantic’. But in some ways, it is ironic that Jim only redeems himself and fulfills his romantic, heroic destiny on land. However, I would like to suggest that there is another challenge going on in the text and that is the reader’s quest to find out the identity of Jim, of who Jim really is. The need to reconcile the division/ fragmentation of the protagonist is already hinted at from the start when we read about Jim’s other name. This last, particular epistemological challenge can never be fully met by the readers for the novel ends with a question that is unanswerable: ‘Who knows?’ On that note, the Romantic figure of the dark, brooding over-reacher (someone who attempts to exceeds his own limits) is somewhat present in Marlow and the reader. The connection between Jim, Marlow and the reader is also an interesting aspect that we could look into.

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