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.

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.

Wallace and his exoticization of Malay Archipelago

Reading Wallace’s writing got me thinking of his detailed description of the sights and observations in his travel to Borneo and Java and whether it is exoticized like Conrad’s writing. I think it is difficult to avoid writing in an ethnocentric way because Wallace got to know of and was attracted to the Malay archipelago by similar travel writings from Englishmen like Raffles. I guess, like any other modern travellers of today, the sights we observed and take note of are those measured through our lens of understanding and knowledge (like travel guides etc). He is obviously doing the very same thing, observing and measuring the accuracy of what he has saw with what he has read from his compatriots’ accounts. But, one thing that caught my attention is the similarity in the way in which he describes the Dyaks and other natives with that of the animal specimens he had collected.

If we look at the detailed description of the Dyaks that focuses largely on the superficial features like skin colour and unique bodily features that make the Dyaks stand out – “The Dyak … are characterized by a reddish-brown or yellowish-brown skin of various shades…by the rather small and broad nose…” (67). Similarly, his take on the exotic insects – “the superb Papilio arjuna, whose wings seem powdered with grains of golden green, condensed into bands and moon-shaped spots” (87). Obviously, there seems to be this urge for Wallace to categorize everyone and everything neatly. Furthermore, even though Wallace does not obliquely exoticize the natives like Conrad, his act of having a picture of a Javanese Chief (84) displayed, creates a juxtaposition with all the other exotic pictures of insects, plants etc., what does this suggest about how Wallace views his world?

The illusion/delusion of the colonialist

Researching for my EN4223 class, I came across a book in which the writer pointed out how for the English colonialists in India, an illusion was a major part of coloniser-colonised relations. This illusion was that the English thought that the natives thought of them as some kind of gods, due to their incredible ability to fight and administrate. They would then play into that type, acting a little like gods.

Wurgaft underscores that the English were aware that they were putting on an act. What is more interesting for me, though, is that it is perhaps a DELUSION, more than an illusion – was it really true that the Indians treated them like gods? Or was it the colonialists’ self-deception, self-aggrandisation? It seemed to me that this was another instance of the whites imputing to the natives a tendency towards believing the supernatural. In any case, it does sort of explain why Kipling came up with his notorious term of the  ‘white man’s burden’.

Reading Wallace, it became a lot clearer. The reason why the colonialists thought the natives treated them like gods was because they did behave like gods, from the outset — the very act of colonisation, when they took to domineering them and deciding right and wrong – ‘Equal justice was awarded to Malay, Chinaman, and Dyak.’ (p.71) – is an act of a race that saw themselves in a sense like gods. Thus, the delusion preceded colonialism.

Who were the ones with the tendency towards supernaturalism now, then?