When the hero is Character itself. Rereading `Lord Jim'

WHILE campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Robert Dole urged Iowans to say, he's ``one of us.'' That phrase recurs like a leitmotif in Joseph Conrad's novel ``Lord Jim'' to designate those who uphold traditional standards of faith, virtue, and morality. But as it becomes ambiguous in the novel who really is ``one of us'' and who isn't, the distinction becomes increasingly ironic. I found myself wondering if Senator Dole was conscious of his allusion (and perhaps illusion) and if other presidential hopefuls (notably Gary Hart) had read this saga of the irredeemable mistake, the manifestation of a character flaw, that inexorably leads to self-destruction.

``Lord Jim'' was published in 1900, and Conrad all but admits in his author's note written almost 20 years later that it is his favorite of all his novels. It is vintage Conrad in that it swells with adventure, romance, and mystical evocations of the sea, but most strikingly it is the tale not only of a haunting, troubling, elusive character, but also of Character itself, its meaning in a morally ambiguous world.

Jim is no politician, but his aspirations are as heroic as those of any king or general. The son of a British parson, Jim is young, idealistic, and imaginative, an incurable romantic in the manner of those men who crave a higher level of existence than the mercenary and the mundane. Jim joins the merchant marine and sails the Far Eastern seas in search of an opportunity to prove his courage and achieve his apotheosis as a hero. Marlow, Conrad's ubiquitous narrator and mouthpiece, ambivalently accuses him of ``an exalted egoism'' and ``a selfishness of a higher order.''

Jim's chastening occurs when he is chief mate on the Patna, a decrepit vessel carrying 800 Arab pilgrims as ``human cargo.'' Jim feels himself to be superior to the slovenly captain, and the crude, drunken members of the crew and, as Marlow consistently reminds us, Jim is ``one of us'': ``I liked his appearance; I knew his appearance; he came from the right place; he was one of us. He stood there for all the parentage of his kind, for men and women by no means clever or amusing, but whose very existence is based upon honest faith, and upon the instinct of courage.... He was the kind of fellow you would, on the strength of his looks, leave in charge of the deck - figuratively and professionally speaking.''

Yet, after the Patna collides at night with a mysterious submerged object and incurs what appears to be fatal damage, it is no longer clear whether Jim is ``one of us'' or one of them. There are not nearly enough lifeboats for all the passengers, and Jim feels it is futile to rouse them to a state of panic. He also fears that panic and resolves to let the doomed ship go down quietly, himself with it. But, in the meantime, he observes with contempt that the captain and crew are frantically trying to free one of the lifeboats. They succeed, and just as they are about to push off from the ship, they urge Jim to jump. Instinctively, reflexively, impulsively, he jumps ``into a well - into an everlasting deep hole ... from a height he could never scale again.''

Jim and the men he disdained are now in the same boat, literally and figuratively. At first Jim seems almost to wallow in his dishonor and goes to great lengths to abase himself at his trial. After he is stripped of his seaman's credentials, he wanders aimlessly from place to place, propelled by any mention of the Patna, or the slightest inkling of his identity. He tells Marlow he wants only ``a clean slate,'' a second chance.

Marlow is deeply troubled by Jim. Because he has regarded him as ``one of us,'' Jim seems to symbolize a hidden weakness, a tragic flaw, a common guilt in all of ``us.'' As Marlow says at one point, ``... he is not good enough.... Nobody, nobody is good enough.'' But if that is true, does it not cast doubt not only upon standards of character but also upon ``a fixed standard of conduct''? Conrad has cut both Marlow and the reader adrift upon the murky waters of moral relativism where facts explain nothing about ``the state of a man's soul,'' and where there is no clear-cut distinction between right and wrong.

Conrad highlights the moral ambiguity of Jim's action by bringing multiple perspectives to bear. Everyone in the novel reacts differently to Jim, ranging from the extremes of one seaman's suicide because of his own unacknowledged dishonor to another's scorn because Jim took the incident too much ``to heart.'' Yet Conrad raises a deeper, subtler question as well. What is the true measure of a man? Is it his actions? If so, which actions? Or is it his feelings, his attitudes, his motives? Is it his perception of himself or the world's perception of him?

Marlow provides Jim with a second chance through the archetypal wise old man, the lepidopterist, and merchant Stein, who perceives the romantic essence of Jim's nature and counsels, ``In the destructive element immerse.'' Stein sends Jim to take over his remote trading outpost in Patusan, where no one knows him or his past. Disillusioned with himself, he can at least try to create the illusion of heroism in the minds of others and perhaps make it real. He says to Marlow, ``I must feel - every day, every time I open my eyes - that I am trusted ...'' And the people of Patusan trust him. He becomes their Lord Jim.

But is he ``Lord Jim,'' or will his character always be defined by that moment when he jumped ship? The inconclusive answer that Conrad gives us is that character is destiny. Even though Jim has repeatedly shown responsibility and readiness to face death, the Patna incident set in motion an ineluctable chain of events from which there is no escape. When the villainous Gentleman Brown and his band of cutthroats threaten the people of Patusan, Jim lets them go instead of killing them because in his mind his failure on the Patna identifies him with the corruption of Brown's life. He is still ``one of them,'' and he still cannot be trusted. Yet he still cannot be judged either, even though people in his care do die this time and he dies too - a hero's death.

Jim is such a poignant character because he epitomizes the idealism of youth disillusioned by its own limitations. An anachronism with his quaint notions of courage, trust, and dishonor, Jim seems all the more touching in our time when no one seems to know or care what a hero is. Paradoxically, he is also one of our most modern characters because of his depth and complexity. He eludes definition, classification, and judgment, and suggests that standards of character, while real and necessary, are also slippery and circumstantial. It is easy, for example, to condemn a politician for a weakness on the basis that it mirrors a flaw in his character, but Jim's spiritual odyssey instructs us that such a judgment may be superficial and even unfair.

Diana Loercher Pazicky is a free-lance writer.

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