Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Perceptions of Language in Lord Jim

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Perceptions of Language in Lord Jim

Article excerpt

IN THE PATUSAN SECTION of Lord Jim, Marlow is talking to a girl who has just recounted her mother's death. The tale troubles him profoundly: "It had the power to drive me out of my conception of existence, out of that shelter each of us makes for himself to creep under in moments of danger, as a tortoise withdraws within its shell" (313). It is not so much the sentimental tale itself, perhaps, as the tone of its telling that provokes a crisis: the "imperturbable monotone" more than the words reach Marlow's inner consciousness. And Marlow, totally lost out there for a moment, abandoned by words, seems in contact with the unattainable, with the primordial disorder of the world. He carries on:

But still - it was only a moment: I went back into my shell directly. One must - don't you know? - though I seemed to have lost all my words, in the chaos of dark thoughts I had contemplated for a second or two beyond the pale. These came back, too, very soon, for words also belong to the sheltering conception of light and order which is our refuge. (313)

This passage encapsulates some of the important aspects of Conrad's works. It portrays individuals as seeking refuge in various shelters, from which they may occasionally be forced out (and that need not be spectacular: an "imperturbable monotone" suffices). It draws our attention to the importance of words and stories that enable Marlow to overcome a momentary crisis. It stresses the workings of orality, the power of the spoken word, the necessity to listen. It suggests that the tale that Marlow tells is indeed the consequence of the insight that he may have gained into Jim's inner being. And there is a way in which the ideal tale would have been that given by Jim himself: "He has confided so much in me that at times it seems as though he must come in presently and tell the story in his own words, in his careless yet feeling voice, with his offhand manner, a little puzzled, a little bothered, a little hurt, but now and then by a word or a phrase giving one of these glimpses of his very own self that were never any good for purposes of orientation" (343).

Although Marlow, the storyteller, tries to turn the truth of a story into a narrative, the text of Lord Jim draws the reader's attention to the complex construction of language. The shelter of words that conceals the truth of an event, the meaning of an episode, is perhaps not to be penetrated by the reader who can only rely on the words of another, "Heart of Darkness," written in the interstices of Lord Jim, had famously suggested that there was perhaps no nut to be cracked, no kernel to be grasped, but that meaning lay outside in, as it were, a misty halo. If Conrad gets so close to the complex truth, if he approaches the elusive chaos of dark thoughts, it is through a demand placed on readers that they perceive language in its fragmentary essence.

The Ambivalence of Words

Words are first and foremost physical objects in Lord Jim. They are heard, perceived, apprehended almost independently of meaning. Their materiality seems at first to distract from understanding, as if the utterance and the modes of utterance were more important than the statement. In this sense, they are perceived like the sounds and noises that the various narrators emphasize.

Such sounds provide a background of noises, faint or otherwise, against which Marlow captures nuances in tone, the many pauses in conversations, the silences that punctuate Jim's speech. They enhance the presence of voice. When the crewman affected with DTs tells his story, "His voice sounded alarmingly strong all at once" (52). The whole scene displays an attentive recording of sounds: he whispers with extreme rapidity, he restrains a cry, asks a question with "fantastic precautions of voice and gesture" (53), draws a long breath, pants again, yells suddenly, and breaks into a steady scream (54) that ends in an "interminable and sustained howl." The violence of the crisis appears through the character's enunciation. …

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