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  • Orientalism in Lord Jim:The East under Western Eyes1
  • Nic Panagopoulos (bio)

Such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other

(Orientalism 5)

Someone as well-traveled and read as Conrad would have had little difficulty in distinguishing between the real inhabitants of exotic locales and the idealized products of the Romantic imagination, what he called those “charming and graceful phantoms that move about in our mind . . . but, being phantoms, possess no heart” (AF lxi). Nevertheless, as he confessed to Christopher Sanderson, a “dash of Orientalism on white is very fascinating, at least for me” (CLVI 45). This suggests that the author of such imperial romances as Lord Jim (1900) is working within an Orientalist tradition which he knows to be an artificial Western construct. Although the question of the preferential critical reception of Conrad’s works is the subject for another essay,2 a basic premise of the present study is that Lord Jim invites a more forthright postcolonialist critique than Said himself seems to have undertaken in Culture and Imperialism (1993). Thus, while Heart of Darkness (1899) is the text that provokes Chinua Achebe’s invective for the way it systematically stereotypes and marginalizes Africans and African culture, the novel which framed its composition may arguably provide more evidence for the existence of racial bias in Conrad’s work. The reason is that, while both texts tell the story of white men who establish personal colonies in the tropics, Lord Jim consistently focuses on the psychology of the colonist. This serves to elide political questions related to empire which Heart of Darkness obtusely raises by outlining the commercial context in which the man to whom “all Europe contributed” (HD 86) became a demigod in the Congo. [End Page 55]

On the other hand, to conclude from this that Conrad is personally committed to the Western imperial project may raise more problems than it solves. For one thing, it depends on one’s readiness to identify not only author with text, but even more problematically, author with narrator, thereby, in the words of one critic, “flatter[ing] literary narrative into sociological and historical document and naively reproduc[ing] the intentional fallacy” (Lane 403). Moreover, as for every narrative that one finds in Conrad, there is often a latent counter-narrative subverting the former’s ideological ground and undermining its assumptions. As Amar Acheraïou writes, “Conrad sets Orientalist and Occidentalist discourses in a productive dialectical relationship, using irony and derision to unsettle essentialist assumptions about identity and culture” (153). What cannot be disputed, however, is the backgrounding of the East in Conrad’s work. For example, we are first invited to imagine Jim in the “commonplace surroundings of an Eastern roadstead . . . appealing-significant-under a cloud” (LJ 44), implying that the Orient constitutes little more than an exotic yet unremarkable frame for the European hero’s edifying adventures. As David Spurr observes:

[There exists] an entire tradition of Western writing which makes the experience of the non-Western world into an inner journey, and in so doing, renders that world as insubstantial, as a backdrop of baseless fabric against which is played the drama of the writer’s self.


The critical consensus seems to be that, while narratives such as Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness perform a differential construction of East and West along broadly Orientalist lines, Conrad is employing modernist tropes to challenge the conventions of the imperial romance, thereby interrogating the idea of Eurocentrism which these literary conventions served to promote for the reader back home. However, not all agree. Sarah Cole has argued that, rather than subverting colonial discourse, “Conrad’s modernism grows directly out of his conflicted relation to imperial conventions” (252), while even more polemically, Stephen Donovan has remarked that, “a remarkable critical consensus favours [the] contradictory and implausible finding that for some reason, despite his patriotic approval...


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pp. 55-82
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