Conrad, Language, and Narrative

By Michael Greaney | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The scandals of Lord Jim

Conrad's novel of maritime scandal has left no end of scandalized readers in its wake, from the early reviewers who scoffed at the implausible length and wilful obscurity of Marlow's tale, to the more sophisticated readers who complain that the second half of Conrad's broken-backed narrative capitulates to the very romantic errors that the first half clinically diagnoses. In the primary scandal of Lord Jim, the Mecca-bound pilgrim ship Patna, dilapidated and on the point — or so it seems — of sinking, is abandoned by its white officers. Miraculously for its human cargo of 800 pilgrims (and mortifyingly for its officers), the vessel's rusty bulkhead holds out, and the shipis towed to harbour with no lives lost other than that of the engineer who suffers a heart attack in the initial panic. With two officers hospitalized, and the captain fled to America, only the chief mate Jim stays to face the official inquiry, enduring the full glare of professional disgrace, as well as the gleeful curiosity of the novel's very considerable cast of gossiping sailors. Far more than is commonly recognized, Lord Jim is a drama — and, in a particularly cruel sense, a comedy – of embarrassment. Overwhelmingly, it is embarrassment rather than guilt that Jim exhibits in the aftermath of the Patna affair; as he blushes and stammers his way through his excruciating debriefings with Marlow, it becomes clear that the only victim of Jim's criminal negligence was the narcissistic confidence in his own potential for heroism that he imbibed from popular adventure literature. In his own eyes at least, Jim's jump from the Patna thus takes on the character of an horrendous gaffe that he can never live down, rather than a morally reprehensible dereliction of duty.

As Marlow rightly suggests, the Patna incident is, in a sense, a diabolical '“practical joke”' (p. 108) that leaves its victim physically intact but his dignity in tatters. In his essay on Othello, where he views Iago as 'a practical joker of a peculiarly appalling kind', W. H. Auden discovers surprising affinities between practical-joking and experimental science. 1 Like the

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