I have spent the past three weeks reading Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. About 40 years ago I saw the film that starred Peter O'Toole, James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Eli Wallach, but I couldn't remember the plot. I remember being powerfully struck by the presence of O'Toole - who is now appearing on television adverts as a wizened old man. O'Toole was then in his heyday with performances in Laurence of Arabia, Becket and The Lion in Winter. His piercing blue eyes and blond hair marked out Jim as someone special.
The story is a convoluted one, and Conrad's style, beautiful though it is, does not make the story flow. A page-turner this is not, and many readers get stuck and give up. So if you think of reading it, don't hurry. Take time to savor the prose. Don't worry that you can't work out what is going on - all will be revealed. The first third of the book is taken up by the great disaster that has befallen Jim, but it is some time before we realise what the disaster is. The book uses the literary device of having a narrator tell the story second-hand (and sometimes third-hand). This adds to the confusion since one story becomes nested inside another and sometimes it is difficult to work out who is speaking.
Eventually we discover that Jim had been Mate on a steamer taking 800 pilgrims from Malaya to Arabia. The ship hits an underwater obstruction and taken on water. With bulkheads bulging and too few lifeboats the crew decides to abandon ship, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. Jim, who though described by the narrator as 'one of us' is not at one with the crew, yet he makes no common cause with the pilgrims. Fearing shipwreck yet aware of his duty, he still jumps and gains the lifeboat.
When the crew turns up in port claiming shipwreck, their deceit is exposed by a French frigate appearing with the intact ship in tow and the pilgrims safe. At the subsequent Court of Inquiry the rest of the crew goes AWOL, leaving Jim to face the music. Despite advice to flee, he takes it (he knows he deserves it) and is admonished and loses his seaman's licence.
In the second part of the book Marlowe, the narrator, finds work for Jim in various ports and he performs it well, but always someone arrives who knows about his shame and Jim feels he must move on. Eventually he is found a place as a trading agent on a remote island where nobody goes. He with courage and honesty he begins to redeem himself. Such is his good judgement, kindness and valor that he is held in great esteem by the natives. The call him Tuan (Lord) Jim. He becomes romantically involved with a young girl. He is a close friend of the King's son. He has an ardent and loyal following of native islanders. It seems that he has found peace. There are some who hate him, including Cornelius, the former agent, and some of the bully-boys that he has deposed on the island.
In the final part of the book, comes the testing. A group of pirates led by Captain Brown (James Mason in the film) are looking for sanctuary and see the island as a place where they could displace Jim and exploit the locals. However, Jim has trained the natives well and the pirates are resisted, and end up held at bay on a small river islet. Jim, who has been on an expedition to the interior, returns and the islanders look to him to resolve the impasse. They expect him to defeat the pirates in battle. Instead Jim talks to Brown and realizes that but for a change in his luck, he too could have been a pirate. Out of compassion Jim agrees to let the pirates have free passage down river to leave the island. He pledges to the islanders on his own life that no harm will come of this act of grace. He reckons without the treachery of Cornelius, the former agent.
The king has sent his son to guard the mouth of the river, to ensure that the pirates leave, but Cornelius shows them an inlet to take that allows them to avoid the sentries at the mouth, and then to land behind them and attack them. This they do and kill the king's son.
When Jim hears what has happened, he realises that all is up for him. He goes to see the king. His life is forfeit. The kings shoots him dead.
Jim is a romantic idealist. He is the son of a country vicar, brought up in a Victorian public school to always do the right thing. Having let himself down he seeks to redeem himself. Since his offence has been against the Muslim pilgrims, he seeks to serve them. When one dies as a consequence of his decision he has to pay - a life for a life.
The story seems old fashioned - Kipling-esque - in today's climate. The brown people are very definitely the 'white man's burden'. Jim was 'one of us', not just white but an English 'officer and gentleman', expected to behave better than Germans or Portuguese. He has shamed not only himself, but his family, and race.
Marlowe, the older, more experienced narrator, realises that all men are flawed, and that Jim has set himself a standard that no-one could live up to. He has pity on Jim and gives him another chance - and not just one.
Jim does well, but grows no wiser. When he confronts Brown, he fails to recognise the degree to which Brown has fallen. He thinks that even the most depraved deserves another chance and in giving him this he hazards the lives of his followers. This time there is no further chance for Jim. His final punishment is not because he is flawed, or because he is fated; it is because he is a silly ass. He has not learned to negotiate a path in the world. He remains a romantic idealist. He has not learned that some are beyond redemption.
And that is an interesting topic to debate. I have touched on it before.