Study Guide

Lord Jim Guilt and Blame

By Joseph Conrad

Guilt and Blame

"He stood elevated in the witness-box, with burning cheeks in a cool lofty room [...]" (4.1)

This brief physical detail about Jim's red cheeks tells us practically all we need to know about him at the trial. He's exposed, in an unwelcoming place, and he's totally humiliated. If he's looking for redemption, he won't find it here. In the trial, he'll find nothing but shame.

"I wanted to see him overwhelmed, confounded, pierced through and through, squirming like an impaled beetle – and I was half-afraid to see it too – if you understand what I mean. Nothing more awful than to watch a man who has been found out [...]" (5.9)

Watching Jim up there on the stand is a cringeworthy moment for Marlow. He is both ashamed for Jim and embarrassed on his behalf.

"No wonder Jim's case bored him, and while I thought with something akin to fear of the immensity of his contempt for the young man under examination, he was probably holding silent inquiry into his own case. The verdict must have been unmitigated guilt, and he took the secret of the evidence with him in that leap into the sea." (6.4)

Here we get two trials for the price of one, as Brierly holds his own private inquiry as he sits in judgment of Jim. His verdict? Guilty of course. Brierly is one tough judge.

"'His uneasy eyes fastened upon mine, questioned, begged, challenged, entreated. For the life of me I couldn't help murmuring 'You've been tried.'" (10.24)

Jim's waiting for Marlow's own private verdict, and he's hoping it's a good one. He wants forgiveness, or at least understanding, from the man who is fast becoming his mentor. But Marlow doesn't want to play judge, probably because he's not sure he has all the facts yet.

"And a word carries far – very far – deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space. I said nothing; and he, out there with his back to the light, as if bound and gagged by all the invisible foes of man, made no stir and made no sound." (15.2)

Regardless of the verdict and sentence of Jim's official inquiry, the dude is punished more than enough when it comes to his future life. He is publicly shamed. Marlow uses a pitch-perfect metaphor here to describe the hit Jim's reputation takes. The bullets remind us of a firing squad, and the image of Jim bound and gagged reminds us of a prisoner, heading for the gallows.

"While there's life there is hope, truly; but there is fear too. I don't mean to say that I regret my action, nor will I pretend that I can't sleep o' nights in consequence; still the idea obtrudes itself that he made so much of his disgrace while it is the guilt alone that matters." (16.2)

Jim's public shame and his private guilt are two very different things to Marlow. Jim seems much more concerned with the shame side of things, but Marlow knows it's his inner guilt that matters. Do you think Marlow is worried that Jim is secretly tormenting himself? Or is he concerned that Jim does not feel guilty on the inside, which shows a lack of character in the young sailor?

"He was universally condemned for the brutal violence, so unbecoming a man in his delicate position [...]" (19.3)

Jim gets blamed for all kinds of things throughout the book. What's interesting about this episode is how people expect a "guilty" person to behave in a certain way. Jim's bar brawl is offensive because, as a guilty individual, he ought to behave better to make up for his past deeds. It's as if Jim forfeited all emotions aside from remorse after his bad choice aboard the Patna.

"[B]ut my Jim, for the most part, sulked down below as though he had been a stowaway." (19.4)

This image of Jim sulking reminds us of just how young he is, as if he's too immature to properly handle his own circumstances.

"And suddenly I heard her quiet whisper again, 'Other men had sworn the same thing.' It was like a meditative comment on some thoughts full of sadness, of awe." (33.6)

Jewel has a lot of mixed-up feelings toward men (not surprising given her wicked stepfather). She can't trust Jim, and by the novel's end she blames him for leaving her, perhaps because she doesn't quite understand the guilt Jim was carrying with him about other matters.

"What thoughts passed through his head – what memories? Who can tell. Everything was gone, and he who had been once unfaithful to his trust had lost again all men's confidence." (45.4)

The aftermath of Dain Waris's death is majorly traumatic for our poor Jim. He goes into a state of shock and then walks into his own death. And in a rare moment of what we'll call narrative humility, Marlow finally admits that he can't know what was really going on in Jim's head at this moment. His best guess, though, is that Jim might have recalled another time when he had lost "all men's confidence" – the incident on the <em>Patna</em>.