Study Guide

Lord Jim Principles

By Joseph Conrad


He was gentlemanly, steady, tractable, with a thorough knowledge of his duties; and in time, when yet very young, he became chief mate of a fine ship, without ever having been tested by those events of the sea that show in the light of day the inner worth of a man [...] (2.1)

From the get-go, Jim sounds like a good guy. He has all the qualities you'd want in a strapping young sailor. But those qualities don't mean anything until they're tested, do they?

"I would have trusted the deck to that youngster on the strength of a single glance, and gone to sleep with both eyes – and, by Jove! it wouldn't have been safe. There are depths of horror in the thought. He looked as genuine as a new sovereign, but there was some infernal alloy in his metal." (5.11)

Marlow's horror at this scenario reveals his real issue with Jim's behavior. Marlow would have trusted Jim based on his looks alone, but that would have been a very bad idea indeed. Jim may look like a gentleman, but aboard the <em>Patna</em>, he sure didn't act like one.

"In his letter to the owners – it was left open for me to see – he said that he had always done his duty by them – up to that moment – and even now he was not betraying their confidence, since he was leaving the ship to as competent a seaman as could be found [...]" (6.8)

How telling, that Brierly tries to be dutiful even in his suicide. And how sad.

"I became positive in my mind that the inquiry was a severe punishment to that Jim, and that his facing it – practically of his own freewill – was a redeeming feature in his abominable case." (6.16)

Jim might think of his decision to stand trial as a sort of moral redemption, but we can't forget that people like Brierly seem to think that it's nothing more than a humiliating circus. What do you think? Is he standing for his principles, or is he dragging the good name of sailors through the mud?

"'I always believed in being prepared for the worst,' he commented, staring anxiously in my face. I nodded my approval of the sound principle, averting my eyes before the subtle unsoundness of the man." (8.1)

The Boy Scouts know that the one principle you can rely on is to Be Prepared. Marlow thinks that sounds like a good idea, but he has trouble buying it, coming from the lips of someone who has messed up so colossally.

"'I knew the story. Nothing they could make people believe would alter it for me.'" (10.26)

Jim's commitment to truth and honesty is one of his defining character traits, and that makes him seem like a good guy altogether. There's just one small problem: he's a master of self-deception, as Marlow frequently points out to us. So while he seems bent on telling the truth, that truth might not be so true after all, but rather what Jim wants to believe.

"'But I knew the truth, and I would live it down – alone, with myself. I wasn't going to give in to such a beastly unfair thing. What did it prove after all? I was confoundedly cut up. Sick of life – to tell you the truth, but what would have been the good to shirk it – in – in – that way?" (11.14)

Jim has a way of talking around subjects, especially painful ones. He uses vague pronouns like "it" and "thing" to describe the <em>Patna</em> incident, instead of just acknowledging what went down. How is he supposed to "live it down" if he can't even admit it to himself?

"'But the honour – the honour, monsieur!... The honour... that is real – that is!'" (13.12)

Regardless of his cynicism, the Frenchman believes in honor. That has got to count for something.

"I don't know that I blame Jim very much, but it was a truly regrettable incident. It belonged to the lamentable species of bar-room scuffles [...]." (19.3)

Jim's barroom brawl doesn't get a ton of attention in the book, but it might be one of his lowest points. He throws his principles out the window and becomes a bit of a lowlife, at least for a moment.

"His life had begun in sacrifice, in enthusiasm for generous ideas; he had travelled very far, on various ways, on strange paths, and whatever he followed it had been without faltering, and therefore without shame and without regret." (19.36)

Jim's whole adult life revolved around one shameful episode, but Marlow seems to think that his moral core ultimately absolves him from shame. As long as he keeps up the good deeds, he just might be able to live down the <em>Patna </em>scandal.

"'I whom you have tried and found always true ask you to let them go.' He turned to Doramin. The old Nakhoda made no movement. 'Then,' said Jim, 'call in Dain Waris, our son, my friend, for in this business I shall not lead.'" (42.9)

Jim really sticks by his guns here. His behavior stands out from the rest of the novel, where he often falters, hesitates and doubts himself. Here, Jim has a very clear sense of what's right and what he should do.