by Joseph Conrad
Oh Jim. We want to like you, we really do. After all, you are the star of the show, and the whole novel revolves around you and your story. But you make it so hard by mucking things up all the time. Plus, it can get pretty confusing for us readers to suss out just who you are. How are we supposed to know the real you, when this Marlow guy keeps meddling?
Jim in Jim's Words
Let's turn to the man himself.
Early in the novel, we meet Jim, a young sailor with dreams of maritime adventures and heroism-at-sea. He had a humble start in life, and because he's a second son, he can't inherit his dad's wealth, so he opts to join the navy instead. We learn that "He was gentlemanly, steady, tractable, with a thorough knowledge of his duties; and in time, when yet very young, he became chief mate of a fine ship, without ever having been tested by those events of the sea that show in the light of day the inner worth of a man […]." (2.1) Uh oh. Do we sense a little foreshadowing?
A promising young upstart, his hopes and dreams are promptly dashed when he proves himself to be a big fat scaredy cat. Hate it when that happens. When he abandons ship on the Patna, it becomes the defining moment of his life. Just about everything he does from this moment on is somehow in response to that moment, as if he feels he needs to make up for his huge mistake.
That doesn't mean, though, that he isn't full of excuses, like this one:
"They were dead! Nothing could save them! There were boats enough for half of them perhaps, but there was no time. No time! No time!" (7.16)
The way Jim tells it, abandoning ship wasn't a choice, but a necessity. If you buy that argument, it means that our Jim isn't a coward. He's just a sailor who got caught in a dicey situation and did the best he could. But if Jim truly believes that, then why does he let the whole thing bug him so much?
He seems preoccupied with his public reputation. It's not about his inner guilt; it's how people perceive him that matters (and for the whole first half of the novel, people don't perceive him well). Even though he acknowledges that his actions were less than honorable, he is desperate for Marlow to understand them, so that Marlow, and others might think a little more of the guy. He tells his friend, "You think me a cur for standing there, but what would you have done? What! You can't tell – nobody can tell. One must have time to turn round. What would you have me do?" (8.8)
Well, Jim, we'd probably have you stick with the ship, but hey, that's just us. At the same time, we're not immune to Jim's fear. Neither is Marlow, for that matter.
It's Marlow's opinion that seems to matter most of all in creating our understanding of Jim. Because Marlow is the one narrating the story, many of our impressions of Jim are colored by Marlow's many opinions. And boy does Marlow like sharing them.
Let's take a peek at the moment Marlow first meets Jim:
This was my first view of Jim. He looked as unconcerned and unapproachable as only the young can look. There he stood, clean-limbed, clean-faced, firm on his feet, as promising a boy as the sun ever shone on; and, looking at him […] I was as angry as though I had detected him trying to get something out of me by false pretenses. He had no business to look so sound. (5.8)
At this point Marlow already knows about what Jim has done aboard the Patna, so he has already made up his mind about Jim. He's a deserter and a coward. But then Jim shows up looking oh so "sound" and Marlow doesn't quite know what to make of him. Maybe Jim is more than just a wimp who's out to save his own neck.
Marlow even says, "I would have trusted the deck to that youngster on the strength of a single glance, and gone to sleep with both eyes – and, by Jove! it wouldn't have been safe. There are depths of horror in the thought. He looked as genuine as a new sovereign, but there was some infernal alloy in his metal." (5.11)
Marlow is just as torn as we are about this Jim character. He looks like a stand-up guy, but there is clearly some internal turmoil going on. In addition to the fact that Jim is not who Marlow thought he would be, he's a bit hard for Marlow to figure out in general. As Marlow tells us, "The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog – bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of the country." (6.30)
Given the fact that Marlow has chosen Jim to be the star of his story, he sure is having a hard time pinning this kid down. In fact, for the most part, Marlow seems torn between writing Jim off as a loser and his inexplicable, growing fondness for the guy. And why shouldn't he be fond of Jim? After all, "He was of the right sort; he was one of us." (7.1)
The Jim Marlow knows is beginning to take shape. He is more than just a coward and a runaway – he's a noble guy who got caught in a terrible situation. It has to be worth something that he wants to stand trial, right? He is willing to take responsibility for his actions, and the fact that he is a sailor at all makes Marlow more inclined to like the guy.
Marlow likes him, and we do, too (perhaps in spite of ourselves). That's all well and good, but it doesn't answer the real question, you know, the one that's at the heart of Jim's character: does Jim manage to redeem himself for his cowardice aboard the Patna? Can a man ever bounce back from something like that?
Marlow seems to think so, and he tells us, "The time was coming when I should see him loved, trusted, admired, with a legend of strength and prowess forming round his name as though he had been the stuff of a hero." (16.1)
In Patusan, Jim finally escapes his dark past and becomes a hero and a leader. Job well done, Jimmy. But his true redemption doesn't come until the end of the novel, when he pays the price for Dain Waris' death:
I believe that in that very moment he had decided to defy the disaster in the only way it occurred to him such a disaster could be defied; but all I know is that, without a word, he came out of his room and sat before the long table, at the head of which he was accustomed to regulate the affairs of his world, proclaiming daily the truth that surely lived in his heart. The dark powers should not rob him twice of his peace.
Jim feels responsible for Dain Waris' death, and he knows that this is his moment to make things right. So what does he do? He allows Doramin to shoot him in retaliation. That seems a bit extreme, but Jim is resigned to his fate:
Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success! For it may very well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side.
Extraordinary success? Really? In a way, this is a moment of success for Jim. He has spent most of his life ashamed, trying to hide from or overcome the cowardly deeds of his past. It could be that Jim sees this moment as a final opportunity to prove his mettle. Do you think he does?Timeline