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

Tragic Adventures: Conrad's and Marlow's Conflicting Narratives in Lord Jim

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

Tragic Adventures: Conrad's and Marlow's Conflicting Narratives in Lord Jim

Article excerpt

LORD Jim (1900) and Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) marked the end of the short-lived phenomenon inaugurated by Treasure Island (1881), R. L. Stevenson's hyper-literary revisitation of Daniel Defoe's two foundational texts of the modern adventure novel: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Captain Singleton (1720), where the genre's three distinctive narrative elements - the band of brothers, the "black prince," and pirates - first appeared (Green 1979: 84-89; Ambrosini 2009: 12830, 137). To Stevenson we owe the creation of "a British and an American audience interested in the South Seas and more than willing to accept the phenomenon of a serious, psychological writer of highly pitched adventure stories" (Eigner 1966: 242), thus opening a niche in the market for Conrad - even if only as a "Kipling of the Malay Archipelago" whose novels read like "one of Mr. Stevenson's South Seas stories, grown miraculously long and miraculously tedious" (Simmons, ed. 2012: 88).

Conrad's adventures had no use for the genre's stage props: no Long John Silvers, no "Soldiers Three," Gunga Dins or Tibetan lamas in his Borneo stories. But the intertextual tension was there none the less, however submerged, until the final chapters of Tord Jim when all of a sudden the latter-day pirate Gentleman Brown bursts onto the scene and kills Patusan's "black prince," Dain Waris. As an avatar of Captain Singleton, the Doppelgänger of all white adventure heroes, Brown, of course, has no difficulty in intuiting the weak spot in that living contradiction: an anti-hero in an adventure story. Contrary to Marlow's belief that Jim and Brown stand "on the opposite poles of that conception of life which includes all mankind" (286), in literary-historical terms this ending is a return of the repressed, which is why the pirate convinces so easily Jim that he is "one of his own," albeit "not good enough" (240) for an adventure story. In Tord Jim, Conrad penned his farewell to adventure.

This essay focuses on the structure of Lord Jim where, it is suggested, we can find traces of the author's search for a literary form more suited than adventure to give representation to the contradictions in the imperial project emerging by the late 1890s. This form, it will be argued, was Greek tragedy, as will appear once we see Marlow's role as a Chorus whose interpretation of Jim's case leads to the creation of a tragic hero within the dynamic frame enclosing his narrative.

Jim first meets Marlow at a Court of Marine Inquiry where a magistrate, assisted by two nautical assessors, is called to ascertain whether, by abandoning the Patna with 900 pilgrims heading to Mecca, the AngloGerman crew have broken the Merchant Shipping Acts (Dolin 1999: 148, 158). Jim is found guilty of "utter disregard of their plain duty" and of "abandoning in the moment of danger the lives and property confided to their charge" (123). With Marlow's help, he flees eastwards in search of a hiding place where no one has heard of his crime. He finds it in Patusan, where he a community of people was willing to trust him "implicidy. Him alone! His bare word" (202), and grant him power as a lawgiver whose "word was the one truth of every passing day" (205).1

As an example of how "they had got into the habit of taking his word for anything and everything," Jim tells Marlow of how "an old fool he had never seen in his life" had travelled from afar to consult him on whether he should divorce his wife of twenty years for lending three brass pots to her sister's son's wife. Jim is a bit disgusted by the villager squatting "on the verandah chewing betel-nut, sighing and spitting all over the place for more than an hour," but he is also gratified by this "dashedest nuisance." "Could setde the deadliest quarrel in the country," Jim boasts, "by crooking his little finger," and adds: "His word decided everything - as ever since the smashing of Shérif Ali. An awful responsibility... No, really - joking apart, had it been three lives instead of three rotten brass pots it would have been the same. …

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