Matthew Arnold under Conrad's Eyes: Lord Jim as Literary Criticism

By DiSanto, Michael | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Matthew Arnold under Conrad's Eyes: Lord Jim as Literary Criticism


DiSanto, Michael, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The essay grows out of the author's PhD thesis in which he argues that Joseph Conrad's novels should be read as critiques of major nineteenth-century authors including Carlyle, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. This essay continues the exploration of Conrad's dialogues or conversations with writers of the period. The author demonstrates that Conrad was preoccupied with Matthew Arnold's ideas about the thing in itself and the free play of mind. Lord Jim is a reconsideration of Arnold's ideas. Conrad explores the complexities of Arnold's thought through the art of his novel.

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In Chapter XIV of Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad invokes the presence of Matthew Arnold through one of his "little jokes" (100), displaying a kind of humor that is not sufficiently recognized in his work, but to which I have slowly become accustomed. (1) Just moments after the court pronounces judgment on Jim, Marlow is accosted in the street by "a fellow I knew slightly, a West Australian; Chester was his name" (98). Although Chester has been "anything and everything a man may be at sea, but a pirate" (98), his significance in the novel has less to do with his experience as a mariner than with his role as the voice of one of Arnold's most important axioms. With a characteristic mix of humor and seriousness, Conrad uses Chester to deliver a lecture to Marlow as well as to readers of the novel, just as Arnold had delivered lessons to shake the complacency of his Philistine audiences. Yet here, Chester's presence in the novel couldn't be more at odds with Arnold's role as, arguably, the "most influential" literary and cultural critic of nineteenth-century England (Trilling 190). (2) Instead of the disinterested critic who keeps himself at a careful distance from political concerns, Chester is the very exemplification of Arnold's Philistine, a man who is, above all, interested in the money to be made from a "guano island" he has discovered (98). So the lecture that Chester delivers comes as something of a surprise: "You must see things exactly as they are--if you don't, you may just as well give in at once" (99). Throughout the chapter, Conrad produces a number of variations on the phrase, including "I could see the matter just as it was" and "look at the thing as it is" (100). Through repetition, Conrad does his best to tell readers that this idea, which is central to Arnold's thought, is very important for the novel as a whole. To ensure we don't miss the significance of this strange dialogue, Conrad drives the point home when Chester argues that, "in this world you've got to see a thing first, before you can make use of it. Got to see it through and through at that, neither more nor less," to which Marlow responds, "and get others to see it too" (103). Evidently, Conrad knows that he must get readers to see the presence of this characteristically Arnoldian idea in his fiction before he can show what "use" he has made of it.

Looking at Lord Jim as it is means recognizing that Conrad's masterpiece is a sustained meditation on Arnold's thought. The novel exemplifies Arnold's idea of literature being a criticism of life: one of the questions with which Conrad is preoccupied is the significance of Arnold's thought. (3) The emphasis placed on Arnold's axiom in the representation of Chester is the most obvious signal to readers that Conrad is interested in Arnold's arguments about literary criticism. Within Conrad's novel, the primary "object" is Jim, whose life and actions are repeatedly commented upon from various perspectives, with each view manifesting some impulse to see this questionable sailor as he really is. Conrad raises questions about the relationship between some ideas that are central to Arnold's conception of criticism, including seeing the object as it really is, allowing "a free play of mind on all subjects" (3, 268), and the importance of "living by ideas" (3, 265). (4) In effect, the dialogue between Chester and Marlow reflects upon Lord Jim as a whole, as Conrad challenges readers to think about what the novel as a genre really is. …

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