Fear and Failure in Lord Jim
The romantic view of a seamanship is that the crew keeps with the ship through all types of weather and troubles. Yet in 1880, an event happened that shook this romantic belief throughout the world. The abandonment of the steamship Jeddah, along with its approximately one thousand Moslem pilgrims, caused civilians everywhere to question the truth of this ideal. As a budding modernist writer, Conrad attempted to develop the real character of A.P. Williams, the first mate of the Jeddah, into the fictional character of Lord Jim, with hopes of shedding light on the inner conflict of a failed hero and what it means to be human.
Norman Sherry’s research on Lord Jim and the factual account of the Jeddah shows several similarities between the character of Jim and that of AP Williams. Sherry states that, “Everything I have been able to discover about him… suggests that he was Conrad’s inspiration for the whole first part of the novel… Williams’ background is, in fact, identical with that of Lord Jim” (Sherry 336). Both were raised by a parson and “it seems likely that [Williams] went to a training ship for officers of the mercantile marine, as did Lord Jim”(337). Conrad’s use of AP Williams’ background for the character of Jim was no coincidence, and would not have been overlooked at the time of publication. By using practically the same character and account of the ship’s desertion, Conrad creates a world in which he can offer a critique on the Jeddah’s fallible crew. In doing so, he is sure to offer Jim salvation by pleading his case as a man who failed to act because of fear – a natural human emotion.
At the time of the incident with the Jeddah, the press did not view this scandal as a natural fight or flight response. While Conrad believes that Jim’s actions were motivated by fear, the media were convinced that the desertion of the Jeddah shattered the sailor’s code of ethics. Initially, before the Jeddah turned up with its survivors, The Globe, published in London, reported the loss with these headlines: “DREADFUL DISASTER AT SEA. LOSS OF NEARLY 1,000 LIVES” (The Globe). After the Jeddah arrived safely at Aden, The Times, also located in London, printed “There was something very unpleasant in the facts thus stated; for, to the honour of sailors, nothing is more rare than that, in a disaster at sea, the captain and the principal officers of the vessel should be the chief or the sole survivors” (London Times). Obviously, the desertion of the Jeddah was a shock to other sailors and civilians throughout Europe. Measures clearly were not taken to save the pilgrims on board, which was appalling, and the incident went under investigation.
Nearly twenty years later, Conrad brought to the forefront this controversial story in Lord Jim to depict an individual acting through fear. Typical of a modernist writer, Conrad cared more about the moral struggle within one man than about the cultural values that sailors are measured against. Author Gustav Morf writes, “Lord Jim is more than a novel, it is a confession. As a confession of a man tortured by doubts and nightmarish fears it must be understood, if it is to be understood at all” (Morf). The character of Jim is in a lifelong battle with his conscience; his guilt accompanies him wherever he goes. Conrad portrays Jim as a failed hero, who had the chance to save the pilgrims on the fictional S.S. Patna, but fled instead. Jim is restless after the abandonment not only because he failed himself, but also because he is ashamed of what other people will think about his cowardice. Captain Brierly condemns Jim for his actions when he states, “Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales” (Conrad 42). Though this statement exhibits racist qualities that imply that the Moslems were less than human to Brierly, it does reinforce the idea that abandoning ship is wrong no matter how a seaman feels towards the cargo.
In regards to the pilgrims, the official statement from the master of the Jeddah, Captain Joseph Clark, goes as follows, “The pilgrims armed themselves with knives and clubs…I was informed of their deliberate intention to murder my wife… I got one of my officers to put her in one of the boats. Immediately after this, when starting to lower the boat, a general rush was made by the pilgrims and I was pushed into the boat during which I received several serious blows” (Sherry 310). Clark’s statement sharply contrasts with the fictional Patna account. In Conrad’s tale, Jim allowed the pilgrims to sleep peacefully; he made “no noise for fear of creating a panic” (Conrad 18). Conrad’s choice to depict the Moslems as calm and quiet proves that there was probably not a threat of violence on the Jeddah, and that the desertion was for another reason. Through Lord Jim, it appears that Conrad believes the men abandoned the ship because they were afraid to drown.
Even at the time of the trial, the popular opinion was that the crew abandoned ship due to the fear of drowning, not because of an attack. G.R. Goodfellow, the judge trying the crew of the Jeddah, provides an accurate account of why the crew was motivated through fear to desert the ship. The court ruled that the fastenings of the boilers in the Jeddah were defective, which is why they gave way and caused a leak in the bottom of the ship. The court believed that, due to the restless seas and constant rocking of the ship, the water that leaked inside appeared to be more than it was. Both the chief engineer and the captain were negligent in giving the boilers adequate attention; they instead prepared the boats. Thus, a lot of blame for the incident is placed on them. “With [the captain’s] act in ordering the boats he led the passengers to believe that the ship would probably flounder…” (Sherry 323). Up to the time when Clark got in the boat “it is evident that no violence or even a show of force had been made by the pilgrims to anyone on board” (323) until the pilgrims realized that they were being stranded. The pilgrims witnessed the crew deserting, broke into a frenzy, and tried to swarm the other boats. The pilgrims reacted as they did because the only people who could aid them in this situation were leaving them.
Much like Captain Clark of the Jeddah, Jim has trouble admitting that he deserted the ship when he thought it was sinking, because he cannot justify his actions through violence of the pilgrims. Jim’s inner turmoil is apparent when he describes these Moslems, who were so calm they seemed lifeless, “He stood… surveying the silent company of the dead. They were dead! Nothing could save them” (Conrad 53). His desperation shows a young man conflicted as to what his action should be. He wanted to be a hero, but the impossibility of the situation seemed as if it would prevent any noble action from taking place. This is when the natural fight or flight response took place. He subconsciously knew that in a battle between himself and the sea, the sea would win, so he took the anti-heroic, “every man for himself” action. Jim could not act as a hero because his human nature took over, and he reacted how any average citizen would have responded. Conrad is careful not to condemn him for that, but shows Jim’s internal response to what happened. He cannot help feeling ashamed and believing that he is a failure, which is what gives him unrest throughout the novel. His dreams of being a hero were outweighed by the desire for his own life, which is a remarkably human response.
Though Jim responded the way many would, he still had to face a public trial for his actions. Much as in the factual Jeddah account, in Conrad’s novel the captain and part of the crew were found to be incompetent. The captain yet again deserts his situation (Conrad 29) when he leaves his crew before the trial, and is never heard from again. The other two crew members were hospitalized, the second engineer for his broken arm, and the other crew member for his alcoholism. The latter also appeared to have hallucinations, rendering his testimony useless. The only crew member who was brave enough to face trial was Jim. In the novel, the Patna was found not fit for voyage on the sea. The court then canceled the certificate of the master, Jim, and most likely the other engineers, due to “abandoning in the moment of danger the lives and property confided to their charge” (Conrad 97). Jim’s real punishment came from how he viewed himself. He condemned himself to a life of vagrancy and isolation.
Conrad may be slow to offer Jim salvation, but it comes in the end. Jim becomes a leader of the islanders of Patusan, and he wins the heart of a beautiful woman. The natives look to him for guidance and respect him in a way that he has never felt before. Of his demise, critic Gustav Morf notes, “A man who, like Jim, has suffered so much, and who has paid his debt with his death, is no longer guilty. His death adds much to the poignancy of his fate, it makes him a hero” (Morf). His death at the end proves him to be a tragic hero, but finally a hero nonetheless. The novel’s end depicts Jim as much more at ease with his past failures, and he finally finds rest. In many ways this seems to be Conrad’s way of saying that it is not society that condemns a person. Instead, it is the inner struggle that one faces that causes suffering from one’s actions. Conrad casts Jim in a way that offers Jim peace from his torment, even if his life on the island ends prematurely. Jim has finally fulfilled his lifelong desire to be a hero, though his heroic acts do not come on the sea, as he had once dreamed. His validity as a hero comes from his everyday interactions with the natives of Patusan. This turn of the narrative again proves Conrad’s point: Jim wasn’t a monster for deserting the Jeddah, he was simply acting as a human. Jim was flawed and deep, a human being who was offered redemption when he stopped living in fear. Works Cited “The Abandonment of the Jeddah.” London Times [London] 14 Aug. 1880. “DREADFUL DISASTER AT SEA. LOSS OF NEARLY 1,000 LIVES.” The Globe [London] 10 Aug. 1880. Sherry, Norman. Conrad’s Eastern World. Cambridge University Press,1966. Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1968. Morf, Gustav. The Polish Heritage of Joseph Conrad. New York, NY: Haskell House, 1965.
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The romantic view of a seamanship is that the crew keeps with the ship through all types of weather and troubles. Yet in 1880, an event happened that shook this […]