Study Guide

Lord Jim Choices

By Joseph Conrad


He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. (4.6)

You might think Jim would want to downplay the shenanigans aboard the <em>Patna </em>in order to escape the legal consequences, but then again, he wouldn't be Jim if he didn't throw us for a loop every now and then. In this case, he maximizes the significance of the <em>Patna</em> incident, which seems like a bad idea if you ask Shmoop. But we can't blame the guy for trying to justify his choices, and being absolutely clear is one of the ways he can do that.

"Who can tell what flattering view he had induced himself to take of his own suicide."
"'Why did he commit the rash act, Captain Marlow – can you think?' asked Jones, pressing his palms together. 'Why? It beats me! Why?'" (6.11-2)

Brierly's suicide is one of the most mysterious choices a character makes in the novel. Because he's not a main character, we never get a full picture of what makes this guy tick. Marlow can speculate and theorize, but in the end, "who can tell"?

"'Why are we tormenting that young chap?' he asked. This question chimed in so well to the tolling of a certain thought of mine that, with the image of the absconding renegade in my eye, I answered at once, 'Hanged if I know, unless it be that he lets you.'" (6.13)

Marlow's response to Brierly illustrates something that sheds new light on our view of Jim: some of the choices a character makes can be unconscious. Here, the sailing community is shaming Jim, but they are not making any kind of conscious choice to do so. They don't know why they're doing it, only that they have the opportunity. Could Jim's choice aboard the <em>Patna</em> be similarly unconscious?

"[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)

Ah the powers of repression. Jim is a master at hiding from himself and his demons, and he manages to avoid facing up to his choice for much of the novel. Sure, he sounds like he's facing it, what with going to trial and everything. But every time he chooses to run from his past, by quitting job after job, he shows us he's not quite ready to deal with it yet.

"'Ah! what a chance missed! My God! what a chance missed!' he blazed out, but the ring of the last 'missed' resembled a cry wrung out by pain." (7.11)

Poor Jim. The choices he does <em>not </em>make haunt him just as much as the ones he does.

"'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)

Jim is ashamed of his choice, sure, but he also thinks that his choice is perfectly understandable. Choices require some deliberation; is it his fault that he didn't have time to make a good one?

"Everything had betrayed him! He had been tricked into that sort of high-minded resignation which prevented him lifting as much as his little finger [...]." (8.15)

Finally, some insight into why Jim freezes aboard the <em>Patna</em>. The question here is, what exactly "tricked" and "betrayed" Jim? Marlow suggests that Jim himself did the betraying and tricking in his overwrought imagination.

"No doubt he was selfish too, but his selfishness had a higher origin, a more lofty aim. I discovered that, say what I would, he was eager to go through the ceremony of execution [...]." (13.15)

Jim's decision to stand trial is one that confuses and even angers people throughout the book, especially Brierly. Marlow, too, is fascinated by Jim's decision, of which he seems to both approve and disapprove. Why is everyone so torn about Jim's choice? Well, for one thing, it's a noble act for him to face up to his mistake. But it also does a disservice to the sailing profession. Such a public trial will make sailors everywhere look bad – not just Jim. Marlow calls Jim both "selfish" and "lofty" here, revealing just how much trouble he has making a decision about Jim's character.

"'I may have jumped, but I don't run away.'" (13.15)

Jim made a mistake once, but now he's staying to deal with the consequences, by golly. Or at least he thinks he is.

"'He hath taken it upon his own head,' a voice said aloud. He heard this and turned to the crowd. 'Yes. Upon my head.' [...] 'I am come in sorrow.' He waited again. 'I am come ready and unarmed,' he repeated. (45.23)

Finally, Jim's hero moment has arrived. Do you think he redeems himself at the end of the novel, when he makes the choice to walk to his own death in repayment for the loss of Dain Waris? Or is he just acting out some kind of romantic hero-fantasy?