Study Guide

Lord Jim Language and Communication

By Joseph Conrad

Language and Communication

A month or so afterwards, when Jim, in answer to pointed questions, tried to tell honestly the truth of this experience, he said, speaking of the ship: 'She went over whatever it was as easy as a snake crawling over a stick.' The illustration was good [...] (4.1)

In his testimony during the official inquiry about the <em>Patna </em>incident, Jim uses a colorful simile, which seems odd, given that he's supposed to be doing nothing more than giving the facts. He's trying to tell the truth, sure, but that truth includes what has happened to him personally. He is trying to recreate the experience for the judges, so that they might better understand what went down. Perhaps he's trying to communicate a deeper truth, beyond the mere facts.

He spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. (4.6)

The audience wants facts, but Jim wants to tell a story. His memories are vivid and horrifying, and it's hard not to let those emotions creep into his retelling of the facts. But does Jim want them to understand how he felt so the judges might let him off the hook? Or is he just interested in making everyone understand, for the sake of understanding?

After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch [...] (4.6)

Apparently the reason Jim is having such a hard time telling the truth during the inquiry is that he can't possibly recreate the scene for his audience. None of them can truly know what it's like to be on a ship you think is going down. The best he can do is be as precise as possible, but even that proves difficult. After all, we wouldn't call Jim a great communicator, now would we?

He wanted to go on talking for truth's sake, perhaps for his own also [...] (4.6)

There it is again, Jim's obsession with communicating the truth. Of course his audience isn't all that interested in the truth. Nope, they're interested in the facts. This disconnect between speaker and audience happens over and over again throughout the novel, and it just goes to show that communicating effectively is no piece of cake.

For days, many days, he had spoken to no one, but had held silent, incoherent, and endless converse with himself, like a prisoner alone in his cell or like a wayfarer lost in a wilderness. (4.9)

With no one to listen, Jim has to have a chat with himself. But do you think he's really communicating? We might imagine Jim wrestling with his demons, trying to get a handle on what has happened to him and how to move forward, but he doesn't seem to be getting very far.

"Complete strangers would accost each other familiarly, just for the sake of easing their minds on the subject: every confounded loafer in the town came in for a harvest of drinks over this affair: you heard of it in the harbour office, at every ship-broker's, at your agent's, from whites, from natives, from half-castes, from the very boatmen squatting half-naked on the stone steps as you went up – by Jove!" (5.3)

Gossip makes the world go round, and brings it together, apparently. Marlow's exclamation shows us how the Patna incident is so scandalous it managed to cross social and racial boundaries. Rich people, poor people, white people, "native" people, friends, strangers – everybody knows the shameful story of the cowardly sailors. Yes, they know the story. But do they know the truth? Can they ever know the truth?

"'The head, ah! the head, of course, gone, but the curious part is there's some sort of method in his raving. I am trying to find out. Most unusual – the thread of logic in such a delirium.'" (5.16)

This passage describes the crazy crewman from the <em>Patna</em> who Marlow visits in the hospital, but it could really describe the novel itself. Jim and Marlow pretty much spend all their time narrating deliriously (and longwindedly) while Marlow (and we) try to find some threads of logic.

"A single word had stripped him of his discretion – of that discretion which is more necessary to the decencies of our inner being than clothing is to the decorum of our body." (6.24)

Speaking can be a dangerous thing in this book, especially if it means a character is revealing some sort of shameful secret, as Jim is here. Jim seems more interested in the truth than he is in discretion, or propriety, but in the stuffy British Empire, that might land him in a whole world of hot water. Here, we might imagine Marlow cringing on Jim's behalf, because the young sailor seems to have a problem with oversharing.

"The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog – bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of the country." (6.30)

Despite the fact that elsewhere, Jim doesn't quite understand that there are some things he just shouldn't share, Marlow seems to think that in general Jim plays his cards close to the vest. Jim doesn't want to communicate too much of himself to Marlow, perhaps because he's ashamed of what Marlow might uncover.

"He could not more stop telling now than he could have stopped living by the mere exertion of his will." (8.26)

In this moment, Jim is borderline possessed by his story. It's as if the story wants to tell itself, and Jim has no say in the matter. The story has taken on a life of its own.

"'I swear!... Confound it! You got me here to talk, and... You must!...You said you would believe,' 'Of course I do,' I protested, in a matter-of-fact tone which produced a calming effect." (11.11)

The contrast between Jim and Marlow's style and tone is worth noting. Jim is frantic because he has a personal stake in Marlow believing him. Marlow just wants to calm him down so he'll keep talking. In the end, their goals are the same: to understand Jim and his actions aboard the <em>Patna</em>. But that's easier said than done, as these ellipses tell us; Jim has some serious trouble finding the right words.

"'And so you cleared out – at once.'
'Jumped,' he corrected me incisively. 'Jumped – mind!' he repeated, and I wondered at the evident but obscure intention." (11.13-4)

What's the distinction between "jumped" and "cleared out," and why is it such a big deal? Maybe Jim objects to the idea of "clearing out" because it implies cowardice. But, honestly, "jumped" isn't much better, is it? For once, Jim doesn't seem at a loss for words. He knows exactly what word he wants to use. But does it do him any good?

"Indeed this affair, I may notice in passing, had an extraordinary power of defying the shortness of memories and the length of time; it seemed to live, with a sort of uncanny vitality, in the minds of men, on the tips of their tongues. I've had the questionable pleasure of meeting it often, years afterwards, thousands of miles away, emerging from the remotest possible talk, coming to the surface of the most distant allusions." (12.17)

Ah, the power of stories. Even though Jim's story is a sad, pathetic one, it nevertheless has the power to communicate over great distances, across time, space, and social boundaries. We guess everyone loves a good shame story.

"There is a weird power in a spoken word." (15.2)

Yep. That sounds about right.