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.