by Joseph Conrad
Marlow the Storyteller
Marlow, Marlow, Marlow. He's a slippery fellow, isn't he? For someone who spends the whole novel talking, he sure doesn't talk a lot about himself. All we know for sure is that he is a seafarer, like Jim, and that he has a soft spot for our wayward hero. Oh, and he is more longwinded than Ferris Bueller's economics teacher.
By the way, if you're wondering how in the world Marlow managed to sit still hour after hour after hour to tell Jim's story on the verandah, you're in luck; Conrad has an answer for you:
As to the mere physical possibility we all know that some speeches in Parliament have taken nearer six than three hours in delivery; whereas all the parts of the book which is Marlow's narrative can be read through aloud, I should say, in less than three hours. Besides [...] we may presume that there must have been refreshments on that night, a glass of mineral water of some sort to help the narrator on. (Source.)
We're not convinced that we could read Jim's story aloud in three hours, but at least we (and Marlow) can take a bathroom break or two.
It's a good thing, too, because if Marlow had given up twenty minutes into it, we wouldn't have Lord Jim at all. After all, Marlow is the one telling the story. We get everything through his eyes.
Everything, that is, except for the odd moment or two like this one, where we're reminded that there is some anonymous person telling the story, and all we're doing is listening to Marlow gab:
Marlow sat up abruptly and flung away his cheroot with force. It made a darting red trail like a toy rocket fired through the drapery of creepers. Nobody stirred.
"Hey, what do you think of it?" he cried with sudden animation. (10.4-5)
With moments like this, it can be tough to keep track of who's talking. Plus there's the whole matter of sussing out when Marlow is talking and when he's quoting someone else. Add to that the fact that we don't get Marlow's backstory, and we've got a pretty confusing, unreliable narrator on our hands. Just who is this guy?
Marlow the Observer
Marlow often puts his own spin on events. The man can't help it; he's human, and he has his opinions. In fact, those opinions provide us with some of the only glimpses into his character that we get in the novel.
For example, when the French Lieutenant says, "Mon Dieu! how the time passes!" Marlow can't resist the temptation. He has spotted an opportunity to drop a little philsophy on us:
Nothing could have been more commonplace than this remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision. It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. (13.1)
Now, this "moment of vision" is hardly relevant to what's going on in the scene – the Lieutenant's relating of Jim's story. But it does tell us a little something about Marlow, something this next quote will make even more clear: "[F]or it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge." (7.6)
It seems Marlow is a man who puts a high value on self-knowledge. He thinks humans are oblivious people with "dormant thoughts," and that they choose to be blissfully unaware. Why? Because they want to escape self-knowledge. But Marlow is an observer, which means he likes to notice things. He likes to know. He likely thinks that all this obliviousness is a dangerous thing. As a storyteller, it's his job to pay attention. When you pay attention, you can't help but learn from others' mistakes (and your own, too).
The moments in which he observes and then judges Jim are the most revealing. Marlow feels both affection and disdain for Jim, and that mixture of emotions tells us quite a bit about what's going on in Marlow's mysterious noggin.
Marlow the Sailor
Our sailor-storyteller is understandably a bit upset at Jim's behavior. He has a vested interest in the behavior of seafarers, being one himself. He's desperate for his audience to understand that:
Don't you see what I mean by the solidarity of the craft? I was aggrieved against him, as though he had cheated me – me! – of a splendid opportunity to keep up the illusion of my beginnings, as though he had robbed our common life of the last spark of its glamour. (11.13)
Personally insulted by Jim's behavior, Marlow's real concern is that Jim's abandoning ship has reflected badly on sailors everywhere. It burst the bubble of illusions that Marlow had been harboring about the glory and honor of traveling the seas. The great thing about these lines is that, in addition to telling us what Marlow thinks of sailing (and Jim), they also reveal just how similar Marlow and Jim are. After all, they were both drawn to sailing because of the glamor and adventure. Now that glamor has been taken from them, all because of Jim's crucial mistake. Marlow is ticked.
Despite his misgivings, Marlow is also willing to cut Jim some slack, which demonstrates a more fatherly, forgiving fellow: "I became positive in my mind that the inquiry was a severe punishment to that Jim, and that his facing it – practically of his own freewill – was a redeeming feature in his abominable case." (6.16)
Jim's actions were "abominable," sure, but the young sailor earns some points in Marlow's book for taking responsibility for them. Part of this forgiveness might come from the fact that Marlow, like any father figure, sees a bit of himself in his young protégé. That's a frightening prospect, because it means Marlow might have to admit that he would be just as likely to abandon ship if he were in Jim's place.
Marlow is torn. The more he disparages Jim, the more he makes himself out to be a heroic sailor, who would never act in such a cowardly way. But he also wants to go easy on Jim because if he were ever to find himself in the same tough spot, we imagine he would hope people would go easy on him, too.
As much as we want to trust everything Marlow says, just for the sake of understanding the story, we have to remember that he's a player in these events, too. He literally performs the story, adding his own dramatic voices, philosophical insights, and random interjections. These add color to the story, sure, but they also obscure meaning and filter the facts. Marlow is forever getting in the way.
Marlow the Mouthpiece
It's also worth mentioning that Marlow is a narrator in several of Conrad's novels, including his most famous, Heart of Darkness. Many critics see him as an alter ego of Conrad himself, a sort of mouthpiece for the author. Through Marlow, Conrad can give us firsthand experience of the moral ambiguities of the sailor life, and subtly pass judgment on those who live it.
For more on Marlow-as-narrator, be sure to check out our "Narrator Point of View" section.Timeline