Study Guide

Lord Jim Memory and the Past

By Joseph Conrad

Memory and the Past

Marlow's body, extended at rest in the seat, would become very still, as though his spirit had winged its way back into the lapse of time and were speaking through his lips from the past. (4.11)

If ever anyone could pull off time travel, we think it just might be Marlow. Here he seems to slip back into the past with no effort at all. Or maybe it's that the past slips into him.

"Why I longed to go grubbing into the deplorable details of an occurrence which, after all, concerned me no more than as a member of an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct, I can't explain." (5.14)

Shmoop thinks this is a really fancy way of saying that Marlow really doesn't have any business snooping around in Jim's past. Nor does he understand why in the world he's doing it in the first place. Morbid curiosity, maybe?

"Of course the recollection of my last conversation with Brierly is tinged with the knowledge of his end that followed so close upon it. (6.13)

Talk about time warp. With these words Marlow reminds us that his conversation with Brierly is the <em>past</em> of the <em>past.</em> Brierly's suicide, which is in the past, has changed Marlow's memory of his conversation with Captain B, which happened even before his suicide, which is still in the future of the moment Marlow is describing. Yikes. If your head is spinning, just remember that the takeaway point here is that memories shape each other; Marlow's memory of Brierly's death has changed the way he remembers their chat.

"They <em>were</em> dead! Nothing could save them! There were boats enough for half of them perhaps, but there was no time. No time! No time!" (7.16)

When Jim starts getting at the heart of what happened aboard the <em>Patna</em>, funky things start happening with his tenses. Jim starts jumping forward in time and saying things had already happened before they did. Here he says the passengers were already dead before the boat had even sunk (which, of course, it never did). Jim seems to be justifying his actions here, arguing that the passengers' deaths seemed inevitable, thus outside his control. Are you buying that argument?

"He related facts which I have not forgotten, but at this distance of time I couldn't recall his very words: I only remember that he managed wonderfully to convey the brooding rancor of his mind into the bare recital of events." (9.9)

Marlow has a creepily good memory, but here he admits that it sometimes fails. At first, we take it for granted that he is reciting pages and pages of dialogue from people like Jim and Stein. But this moment pokes holes in our trust of Marlow as a narrator. Are the quotes we get from Jim actually his own words, or Marlow's interpretation of them? Whose memory can we trust?

"'I had jumped... ' He checked himself, averted his gaze... 'It seems,' he added." (9.26)

It seems? It <em>seems</em>? You have got to be kidding us, Jim. How can you not remember whether you jumped or not? You either did or you didn't dude.

"'It terrified me to see it still there,' he said. That's what he said. What terrified him was the thought that the drowning was not over yet." (10.1)

Marlow zeroes in on Jim's real fears, or at least, what he thinks are Jim's real fears. In this moment, Marlow is stepping into Jim's head, and we can't be sure that our intrepid narrator isn't just putting words in the poor guy's mouth. After all, it's Jim's memory, not Marlow's.

"'<em>Mon Dieu</em>! how the time passes!' Nothing could have been more commonplace than this remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision. It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. [...] Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of those rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much – everything – in a flash – before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence." (13.1)

Marlow thinks people sleepwalk through life, ignoring their own minds. But every once in a while, a person gets a grand old epiphany, and has a moment of true understanding. We know Marlow thinks Jim is a major sleepwalker, but do you think our young sailor will ever have an epiphany like the one Marlow is talking about? Is there hope for Jim to wake up and understand his own past?

"It would have been so much in accordance with the wisdom of life, which consists in putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, of our weakness, of our mortality; all that makes against our efficiency – the memory of our failures, the hints of our undying fears, the bodies of our dear friends." (15.2)

When Marlow says this, it brings up a huge question for us readers: Would Jim be better off just sweeping his past under the rug and moving forward? Or would he be better off doing some intensive therapy to face his past, understand it, and learn from it? For much of the novel, he seems to opt for the former choice, but he never gets very far. But if he chooses the latter, won't that mean he is not "in accordance with the wisdom of life"?

"Thus ended the first and adventurous part of his existence. What followed was so different that, but for the reality of sorrow which remained with him, this strange past must have resembled a dream." (20.4)

This idea of life going on – and yet not – is central to <em>Lord Jim</em>. What does the contradiction mean? Well, life does in fact go on, but the past is very hard to leave behind. Jim's past haunts him, even while he tries to forget about it and move forward. It's both too real for him to escape and too unreal for him to believe in.