by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim Theme of Men and Masculinity
Women are few and far between in Lord Jim, which means we're reading a novel that's all about men being men – sailing, pirating, and fighting (okay, the ladies get in on a little of that action, too). Being a man in the British Empire was all about acting with a sense of duty and honor, and when Jim fails to do so, he runs into all kinds of problems and loses the respect of just about everyone he knows. Yet there are hints throughout the novel that Jim is not some sort of strange, unmanly anomaly. The more characters like Marlow relate to Jim, the more that calls into question the standard ideas of masculinity at the time.
Questions About Men and Masculinity
- Jim is occasionally described in feminine terms by Marlow. For instance, he notes more than once that Jim "blushes" (24.12). Why do you think he does that? Does it tell us anything about Marlow's concept of masculinity, or is it nothing more than a colorful word choice?
- How do descriptions of the men on Patusan differ from descriptions of the white men in the novel? How are these distinctions significant?
- The term gentleman gets tossed around a lot in the novel. What do Jim and Marlow seem to mean by it? What do we mean by it nowadays? Is there a difference?
- Jim is seen as unmanly by the people in his lifeboat, despite the fact that they jumped, too. Why is this, and what are they judging Jim for?
Chew on This
In Lord Jim, being manly means behaving with a sense of duty and honor. For much of the novel, Marlow sees Jim as unmanly because of his lack of duty and honor, but when Jim willingly goes to his death at the end of the novel, he regains his gentlemanly status.
We can read Lord Jim as the story of Jim's development from boyhood to manhood, which he only gains by facing his death at the end of the novel.