Tracing his indebtedness to nineteenth-century scientific thought has become a persistent subgenre in the criticism of Conrad's fiction. Redmond O'Hanlon's Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin is better than most but still suffers the common [End Page 305] malady of such studies, attempting to confirm an exactitude of reference between Conrad and his "sources" where merely suggesting a possibility of influence would be more judicious. Conrad left relatively few clues to his reading and even fewer to what he thought of what he had read. Moreover, in limiting himself to an "evolutionary" reading of Lord Jim alone, O'Hanlon hardly delivers on the implied promise of his sweeping subtitle, "The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction."
It may well be true, as O'Hanlon says in his opening chapter, that Conrad embraced the permanence of scientific law as a palliative to the insecurity he felt in the face of an indifferent and pitiless cosmos wherein human activity is doomed to conclude, as he wrote to Cunninghame Graham, "in cold, darkness and silence." Still, it seems paradoxical that Conrad should have so passionately embraced the very laws of physics that describe the inevitable process by which this entropic dissolution must occur, and a little too convenient, it seems to me, to regard Conrad's generally gloomy (and sometimes plain joshing) letters to Graham as the most reliable indicators of his temperament and philosophy. But even if one is willing to grant O'Hanlon his point, he succeeds here more in establishing Conrad's interest in modern physics than in Darwinian biological theory, and it is on the latter that he bases his reading of Lord Jim, the general tenor of which may be gathered from his opening statement that "Joseph Conrad's picture of the world, grimly framed by his knowledge of Victorian physics, is Darwinian in its overall perspective, its experimental intention and its particular details." How this framing works, either logically or in fact, is not clearly elaborated, nor is Conrad's obsession with Darwin's ideas (or Lamarck's or Nordau's or Wallace's) established—any more than it has been by others—through an extended essay on just one novel.
Nonetheless, within the framework he has set for himself (and within the context of his biases) O'Hanlon has produced a well-written and skillfully argued piece of work. One must admit that, after all, Lord Jim is filled with images and situations that suggest an archetypal struggle down amongst the muddy waters of some primeval past. For O'Hanlon, Jim is something of a degenerate, an evolutionary throwback strung out between conflicting sets of higher and lower instincts. On the one hand is the standard set of European (and therefore civilized) values, the altruistic, self-sacrificing, "one of us" sort that give rise to Jim's aspirations to glory in the service of his dream. On the other hand, however, is the drive for self-preservation, that evolutionary first principle, and it is this brutish impulse (egoism?) that has gotten hold of Jim, dragging him back down the evolutionary ladder in a "pilgrim's regress" that finds him involved in a "sinister journey" to ever more primitive contexts, eventually driving him to the appropriately degenerate Patusan. In the end, Jim is defeated by the biologically and amorally superior Gentleman Brown in a "complex duel of Darwinian natural selection."
As I say, this is plausibly argued within its evolutionary context, and it is finally not the reasonable O'Hanlon one wants to argue with so much as his narrow and reductionist set of tools. Ignored are the pressing epistemological and psychological issues along with the complex significance of the novel's frame, Marlow emerging as a sort of baffled and even voyeuristic Colonel Blimp, regarding Jim, Stein-like, as a curious specimen wriggling on a pin. All that is manifoldly suggestive in Conrad is...