Academic journal article Conradiana

Lord Jim's Heroic Identity

Academic journal article Conradiana

Lord Jim's Heroic Identity

Article excerpt

In Lord Jim (1900) the scene of violent death provides an opportunity to explore the ultimate moral foundations of a man's essential character. It is apparently the collapse of the "sovereign power," the hardest thing to stumble against, that draws Marlow to Jim's case as he fails the supreme moral test in the face of an imminent threat of death on board the Patna. But death and its threat do not strictly frame a moral question. As Marlow gradually recognizes in his attempt to understand Jim, the moral becomes the existential. It is not simply a question of moral identity but of self-discovery and of self-fulfillment. One's relation to death, which is the pivot on which critical actions turn, defines the self, just as the manner and act of dying are filled with value and significance, possessing implications for the culture and community with their conceptions of heroism and self-sacrifice. This crucial relationship between death and the self needs to be examined in order to grasp fully the meaning of Jim's " crime" and the significance of his death.

Robert Ducharme views Lord Jim as a defense of traditional Western cultural values and practices, with its validation of "the cultural fiction of the notion of courage by granting it moral status." (1) Courage, for Ducharme, is equivalent to a heroism based on physical fearlessness of violence and death, which he claims is no longer a major factor in British life by the late nineteenth century. (2) In a resistant reading, Ducharme argues the necessity of limiting the power of culture to absorb and subordinate the individual, a power to which Jim is completely subject, being unable to cherish a self other than the one culturally prescribed. (3) Unsurprisingly, Ducharme is critical of the heroic act of self-sacrifice that "conceals the latent suicidal nature of martyrdom." (4) In a different approach, but in one that comes to similar conclusions, Giles Mitchell also uncovers a suicidal motivation behind Jim's apparent self-sacrifice:

His ego-ideal implacably and unremittingly demands that he be heroic; his death fear says that he is not and cannot be. The problem is that he cannot frankly acknowledge that death fear is a problem. Therefore he must arrange his death without consciously admitting what he is doing, and the way to do so is to disguise his suicide as a heroic death. (5)

His death is the culmination of all the other instances in which Jim has denied his death fear while maintaining a heroic facade. Mitchell censures Jim harshly for his pretenses and his obsession with his narcissistic idealized self-image that lead him to deny his death fear. Ducharme judges Jim more sympathetically as a victim, a dupe of the culture that endorses a heroic conception of death as sacrifice. But Jim is more than simply a narcissist who flees from the admission of his death fear. Mitchell is unable to recognize the vital necessity of having and of maintaining an idealized self-image that heroically defies, and ultimately accepts, rather than denies, death. And the novel is certainly not uncritical of itself in examining the cultural assumptions of a heroism based on an eager embrace of self-sacrifice.

Mitchell admits that Jim's death fear is hardly a remarkable phobia and not to his discredit. (6) It is his refusal to countenance his fear of death, a result of his "childish fantasies," that leads to disastrous consequences. (7) Jim, however, specifically recognizes that his jump was an instinctive reflex, an unconscious physical reaction to danger and death, which is a form of fear. As he asks Marlow, "What would you do if you felt now--this minute--the house here move, just move a little under your chair? Leap! By heavens! You would take one spring from where you sit and land in that clump of bushes yonder." (8) Although Marlow refuses to be drawn into any admission, he "did, with a rapid glance, estimate the distance" (65); and he underscores the reflexive dimension of Jim's critical jump, comparing his confession to the unconscious act of living: "He could no more stop telling now than he could have stopped living by the mere exertion of will" (62). …

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