What’s Up With the Ending?
This is the novel that just won't end. Conrad seemed to have some issues with wrapping things up, and his big finale draws out longer than an Academy Award acceptance speech.
There's at least one explanation for that, though: Conrad was publishing Lord Jim in serial form, a few chapters each month in Blackwood's Magazine. More chapters meant more money, both for Conrad and his publishers. Ah, so that explains it...
Financial considerations aside, the fact remains that the last part of Lord Jim, from the start of the Patusan adventure onward, is weaker. Critics over the years have either ignored that part of the novel in favor of the more psychologically complex early sections, or complained about it. Even Conrad himself, in a 1917 reissue of Lord Jim, admitted that the end of the book had some problems. "Some reviewers maintained that the work starting as a short story had got beyond the writer's control" (Oxford edition, Lord Jim). Conrad doesn't really try to justify his intentions, but he does note that he thought that the Patna episode was a "good starting-point for a free and wandering tale" (Oxford edition, Lord Jim). Whether that tale wandered too much is up for debate.
Even in his author's note, Conrad focuses mainly on the Patna sections of Lord Jim. What happens afterward feels a bit like filler. The end drags on with scheme after scheme, and Jim's death is ultimately kind of anti-climactic. Still, his death also fits in with the novel's themes. We might even consider the Patusan episode as one longwinded setup for Jim's demise. He has had a chance to form a new reputation, one that isn't tainted by the Patna scandal, and he redeems himself by going willingly to his death to atone for the loss of Dain Waris. At least that's how some folks see it.
But Conrad puts forth another idea via the Patusan episode – that life goes on. Patusan might drag on (and on) and become tiresome, but that's kind of the point. Jim's long, drawn-out downfall and death on Patusan is more of a process than an event. He found a ghostly second life thanks to Marlow, and he keeps on trucking, despite the fact that the world seems against him. And when he does die, it's on his own terms. Jim can hold his head high, and die without shame.