Study Guide

Lord Jim Exile

By Joseph Conrad


His incognito, which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact. When the fact broke through the incognito he would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened to be at the time and go to another – generally further east. He kept to seaports because he was a seaman in exile from the sea [...] (1.3)

Jim's exile is as fluid as water. He flows from one place to the next whenever he meets resistance along the way. And we can't help but note the cruel irony that Jim, who has made his life and living on the water, is now cooped up on land, never able to sail again. Oh, and for more on water, check out our "Symbols" section.

They had now a horror of the home service, with its harder conditions, severer view of duty, and the hazard of stormy oceans. (2.6)

The notion of "home" versus "foreign" service is pretty interesting, as is the idea of willingly exiling oneself from home, which Jim does throughout the novel.

"'He has seen it all in the home papers by this time,' said Jim. 'I can never face the poor old chap.' I did not dare to lift my eyes at this till I heard him add, 'I could never explain. He wouldn't understand.'" (7.6)

Jim's self-imposed exile after the <em>Patna</em> incident is painful for him to discuss, mainly because he can never see his old man again. Of course he could if he wanted to, but what keeps him away is his own shame, his wounded pride.

"'What is it you're running away from?' I ask. 'Who has been getting at you? What scared you? You haven't as much sense as a rat; they don't clear out from a good ship.'" (18.9)

Egstrom, of Blake and Egstrom, really lets Jim have it after Jim decides to hightail it out of town again. The emphasis here seems to be on Jim's irrationality. Jim thinks he's just trying to survive, but Egstrom points out that he is actually threatening his survival because he doesn't know a good thing when he has it.

"To fling away your daily bread so as to get your hands free for a grapple with a ghost may be an act of prosaic heroism. Men had done it before (though we who have lived know full well that it is not the haunted soul but the hungry body that makes an outcast) [...]" (19.1)

There are physical outcasts, such as the poor and the hungry. But there are also spiritual and psychological outcasts, people who are "haunted." Jim seems to straddle both definitions.

"I think it is the lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit – it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience." (21.6)

Oh, so that's what home is. A "disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit." Marlow's description of England here makes us worry for Jim, who doesn't seem to be showing his homeland, England, any "fidelity" or "obedience."

"Woe to the stragglers! We exist only in so far as we hang together. He had straggled in a way; he had not hung on [...]" (21.6)

There are different kinds of exile in the book, and here Marlow emphasizes how Jim is exiled from the "group" or community, which is probably the most painful kind of exile. He simply doesn't belong anymore.

"I can't with mere words convey to you the impression of his total and utter isolation." (27.7)

Jim's isolation is a concept we have some trouble grasping, given that he's always surrounded by other people (Marlow, Stein, the folks on Patusan, etc.). Jim's true isolation feels more like alienation – from his community, from himself, and from his former livelihood as a sailor.

"But do you notice how, three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines, the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination, that have the futility, the charm, and sometimes the deep hidden truthfulness, of works of art?" (29.1)

There is a sense for Jim on Patusan that if he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere. He's practically on the edge of the world, living in exile from civilization on an island that is exiled from the world, too. If he can't escape his past here, well, then we think he never will.

"'I've only been two years here, and now, upon my word, I can't conceive being able to live anywhere else. The very thought of the world outside is enough to give me a fright [...]" (32.5)

Hmm. It seems like Jim hasn't gotten past his past after all. Otherwise, why would he be so afraid of the outside world? In a way, Jim gives us another possible definition of home; it's the place where you can't imagine living anywhere else. That sounds romantic, but for Jim it's an odd case of imprisonment, too.

"'Will you be going home again soon?' asked Jim, just as I swung my leg over the gunwale. 'In a year or so if I live,' I said. [...] Jim, at the water's edge, raised his voice, 'Tell them...' he began. I signed to the men to cease rowing, and waited in wonder. Tell who? The half-submerged sun faced him; I could see its red gleam in his eyes that looked dumbly at me... 'No – nothing,' he said [...]" (35.16)

At a loss for words, dear Jim? He seems torn, doesn't he? He misses home and wants to send word, but then he seems to hope that everyone has simply forgotten him. How sad.