“He knew the monotony of existence between sky and water . . . without ever having been tested by those events of the sea that show . . . the inner worth of a man, the edge of his temper, and the fibre of his stuff; that reveal the quality of his resistance and the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to others, but also to himself.”
Jim begins, as most youth will, with a high regard for his own courage coupled with a vivid imagination. He turns his back on his small country parsonage roots, and sets his face to the adventurous sea and the big ships manned by giants. But the reality does not quite measure up to the dream, as Jim discovers soon after embarking upon his chosen vocation:
“After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well-known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure . . . Yet he could not go back, because there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.”
Lord Jim is the story of a young man of promise who rises too quickly only to be knocked down in a single blow. Now he must live with a shame he cannot face. The first four chapters of Lord Jim wraps the reader up in the terrible twist of fate that publicly strips the young seaman of his living and his self-worth. It is that “secret truth” of his own manhood and worthiness that Jim seeks even as he runs from it. It is this truth that pursues him to the nether regions of the world; it is this truth that he must finally stand and deliver at all costs.
The problem I had in reading Lord Jim is that, beginning with the fifth chapter, the story switches from third person to a first person narrative, known as the “observer-viewpoint” narrative. Marlow, the narrator, is a sympathetic character so drawn to Jim’s plight that he uses his connections to get him established as ship’s chandler far from the scene of his disgrace. Nothing wrong with that. The tale loses me, however, as Marlow relates the story to some of the “old boy” loiterers in deep chairs on a wide veranda. Smoking endless cigars on this warm, starry night, they listen and Marlow talks, till nearly dawn. But long before then, I’m yawning. I long for the story to go back to where it left off in the fourth chapter. I keep wondering when this guy is going to shut up and if the author is ever going to get us back on track.
The problem with Marlow’s narration is that he has to ruminate over EVERYthing. There is not one single piece of action, whether it be the lift of an eyebrow, the set of a mouth, or a simple silence, that he doesn’t have to chew it to death for several endless pages. This is not to say that there are not some great passages between the fifth chapter and the climax. Conrad’s writing ability is not, by any means, in question. In fact, so much of it is quotable I finally grabbed a notebook to jot down passages I particularly wanted to remember.
But the action of the story, the wheels that move the story along, get so bogged down in the mire of Marlow’s munchings it almost stopped altogether as far as I was concerned. At one time, I missed entirely a crucial point in the story and had to go back and re-read several paragraphs. That’s because the points were couched in so much rhetoric about the whys and wherefores, I thought it was just one more lofty what-if. It’s as if the author couldn’t make up his mind whether to tell a tale or stop periodically and write an essay.
Believe me, I can read and enjoy good literature (except maybe Moby Dick). So maybe this is just a personal thing. Someone else may really get into Marlow’s midnight filibuster. However, even Joseph Conrad, in his “author’s notes” written in 1917, says that, “Some reviewers maintained that the work starting as a short story had got beyond the writer’s control.” Conrad went on to disagree, but . . .
In conclusion, Lord Jim has it’s really high points and it’s really LONG low points. I made it through to the last page, but this book is not for the faint of heart when it comes to wordiness.