They always tell you to "write what you know," right? Well, Joseph Conrad definitely took that one to heart. He spent his early life sailing all over the world, and Lord Jim – like many of Conrad's other gems – is all about the life of a sailor. And it ain't a pretty one, that's for sure.
To top off the whole based-in-reality thing, Lord Jim is actually inspired by a real-life event during which some British sailors abandoned their damaged ship and its passengers in the South Pacific. It started as a short story, but over the course of 1899 to 1900 Conrad published Lord Jim in thirteen issues of the adventure-loving Blackwood's Magazine. Later in 1900, it was published as a novel and, well, we're still reading it today. Fancy that.
Not everyone loves them some Conrad, we know. But that's okay: that's how it was when he was alive, too. While many reviewers raved about the originality of Lord Jim, others expressed confusion or concern. A lot of reviewers were either totally befuddled by Conrad or thought he was just writing a weird, longwinded adventure novel that never quite gets on its feet.
Just look at this review from Public Opinion, published in November 1900:
Words cannot describe the weary effect of all this. The reader longs to get at some incidents, some definite plot; all he finds is some introspective criticism and analysis of motive. (Source.)
If you find yourself thinking "Amen!" you're not alone. But Conrad was all about innovation, and as a foreigner (he was Polish) he brought a unique and global perspective to the literature of the British Empire. So it's no surprise that Lord Jim explores issues that crop up in nearly all of Conrad's other novels: community and communal behavior codes, masculinity, national identity, imperial politics, life at sea, and what it means to live an exciting, romantic (and sometimes not-so-romantic) life in the empire.
Yep, this novel is chock full of goodies for you to enjoy and analyze. Lord Jim is just waiting for you to unpack it. And we're here to help.
Why Should I Care?
We are confronted with evidence of people's questionable, bad, and just plain nuts behavior every day. Entire media empires have been built on people behaving shamefully (we're looking at you, Real Housewives). And YouTube has made it so that no social faux pas or furious rant goes unnoticed.
So what does all this have to do with Lord Jim? Well, Joseph Conrad's novel is a meditation on shame, disillusionment, and what it means for the community and the individual when a disgraceful act is committed. Our 24-hour news cycle and live-blogging culture might make it harder for bad behavior to go unnoticed compared to times of yore, but the issues surrounding reputations, rumors, and secrets are nothing new. Jim may not have to combat viral videos and instant replay, but he's subject to the age-old tendency to gossip and never let a scandal die out quietly.
But Jim's behavior isn't so much offensive as it is cowardly. It goes against established ideas of what "gentlemen" (or white British men of a certain social station) should be. Lord Jim doesn't just ask us to think about the impact of bad behavior; it also asks us to consider why certain behavior is considered scandalous to begin with and what that can tell us about the society that's doing the judging.