by Joseph Conrad
We've all heard the saying that actions speak louder than words. But for a novel full of talking, it's surprising how important actions are in Lord Jim.
Still, characters often have trouble communicating and speaking clearly, so we have to rely on their actions to get a clear picture of who these people are. Their actions, which are often bold and dramatic, contrast sharply with their vague, meandering words.
Brierly's suicide, for example, tells us much more about him than his pompous words ever do. And Jim, who always seems to have marbles in his mouth, tells us everything we need to know with his two boldest actions in the book: abandoning ship, and willingly facing Doramin on Patusan. Even Marlow, with his letter writing campaign on Jim's behalf, shows us that he is much more than just a storyteller.
Like any good storyteller, Marlow spends time setting up scenes and describing his characters to us. When he introduces a new face, we usually get a brief low-down on who the new guy is.
Jim, in particular, gets lots of direct characterization in the novel. Early on in the novel Marlow tells us, "[Jim] was of the right sort; he was one of us" (7.1), only to later call poor Jim, "selfish" (13.15). It's worth noting that though Jim is directly characterized throughout the novel, he still remains mysterious because so much of that characterization is downright contradictory.
Jim is one good looker:
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and […] his voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. […] He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular. (1.1)
From his physical description, Jim seems like a handsome, strapping, can-do kind of guy. But that description is hard to jive with his bad behavior. How can a guy whose looks suggest he's got everything under control be such a mess on the inside?
The disconnect between his looks and his actions tells us that appearances can be deceiving. So while our first glimpse of Jim shows him to be a capable young sailor, we soon learn that his physical appearance is a mask, hiding a scared, tortured soul.
Thoughts and Opinions
Though they may have trouble expressing them, characters' thoughts and opinions play a major role in defining who they are in Lord Jim. Of course what we're really interested in are all these characters' opinions of Jim, and we're rewarded on that front, because just about everyone we meet in the novel has something to say about our guy.
In fact, their opinions of Jim act as an easy way to differentiate minor characters in the novel. For example, Brierly's disgust with the Patna scandal tells us just how much the captain values honor and duty. The fact that the French Lieutenant seems to understand where Jim is coming from tells us that he is a pretty open-minded, realistic guy when it comes to life at sea. And Stein's relating to Jim because of what he sees as a familiar streak of romanticism in the young sailor tells us that Stein puts a high premium on adventure, romance, and Big Dreams.