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Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
The eponymous Jim is the first mate on board the Patna, which is carrying a party of pilgrims to Mecca. When the ship looks like sinking, the officers decide to save their own skins. Jim at first resists – he wants to be a hero – but then joins the others in escaping and abandoning the pilgrims to their fate. Against all odds, however, the ship does not sink and the pilgrims are rescued. Jim stays to face a court of enquiry – the others have fled. At this point, Marlow, who is to appear in several other Conrad novels, takes up the narration. Jim is, of course, condemned by the court and loses his papers. After that he drifts from place to place, always trying to hide and always trying to redeem himself. Whenever the past catches up with him, he moves on. Finally, he is sent to a remote trading station where he becomes the quasi-ruler – the tuan in Malay – and where he is respected by the native population, after having helped drive out the evil rajah. But Gentleman Brown, a renegade Englishman, and his gang, looking for a refuge, penetrate the territory. When the gang misbehaves, Jim asks the chief to spare them, pledging his life that they will depart. But Brown breaks his word and there is a massacre, leaving the now honourable Jim left with only one alternative.
Conrad again turns to the theme of honour and doing what is right. Twice Jim faces a crisis in his life. The first time – on the Patna – he fails. The second time he does not. In between, he has tried to seek personal redemption but he has also tried to escape his past, something which he cannot really do. Many critics have been harsh on this novel, saying that it is a short story that has got out of hand or that the ending is unconvincing but I have always considered it one of Conrad’s finest, telling the story, as it does, of one man’s continual quest to expiate an early fall from the high standards he had set himself when young. Anyone who cannot identify with Jim has never failed.
First published in serial form in Blackwood’s in 1899; first published in book form by 1900 by William Blackwood and Sons