- Conrad’s Lord Jim: Patusan as Psychological Landscape
“This is Nature—the balance of colossal forces.” Conrad, Lord Jim(193)
The intentional ambiguity which Conrad weaves into Lord Jim attests to his interest in changeable perspective, in subjective bias, and in the gray moral area he so often points to in his texts. While there may appear to be no clear answer to the question of whether Jim is a tragic hero, a narcissistic failure, or something in between, Conrad’s depiction of Patusan seems designed to suggest that Jim has entered a psychological landscape representing his inner struggle with the forces within him—the dichotomous desire for peace and anonymity versus the desire for power and prestige—and his ultimate succumbing to vanity and fantasy. As William James suggests in his Lecture VIII on “The Divided Self,” “The psychological basis of the twice-born character seems to be a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution” (186). Though a “true” portrait of Jim can be difficult to discern, as will be demonstrated in the first section of this essay, Conrad has constructed in Patusan a detailed psychological landscape of Jim’s mind that demonstrates that he loses his battle with his inner angels and demons because he cannot reconcile them, as I will examine in the second section. Patusan’s landscape and characters mirror Jim’s psyche in its relentless fragmentation and, in failing to reconcile the warring factions within his own mind, Jim fails to reach tragic status. Conrad’s landscape mirrors Jim’s mind and the haunting legacy of Western society that influences it.
ON JIM AS TRAGIC VERSUS PATHETIC
Conrad’s Jim reads Shakespeare, and many critics have regarded Jim as tragic, though he reads Shakespeare to “cheer” himself up (Conrad, Lord Jim 222). The Patusan section of the novel, if read as full of mirrored archetypes, suggests that it is more accurate to read Jim as a stunted narcissist who cannot grow up and [End Page 43] cannot release himself from the fantasy life which gripped him at the start of the novel. Both views have been expressed in various critical responses to the novel,1 which nurtures ambiguity, to be sure.2 Marlow’s assertion that Jim and Jewel had “mastered their fates. They were tragic” (296) is merely one opinion among many in the text regarding Jim’s final assessment. Paul Kintzele points to “Marlow’s oscillating [. . .] owning-and-disowning attitude toward Jim” (72). Jim’s own duality seems to infect Marlow and fits James’s description of those whose spirits are at war with their flesh: “[T]hey wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes” (188). And yet, readers generally tend to trust Marlow’s empathy for Jim and the anonymous omniscient narrator’s objectivity. Readers also seem to trust Stein for his guru-like wisdom which defies being put into words at crucial moments but which is somewhat sympathetic to Jim:
“The way is to the destructive element submit yourself [. . .].”
His voice leaped up extraordinarily strong, as though away there in the dusk he had been inspired by some whisper of knowledge. “I will tell you! For that too there is only one way.”
With a hasty swish swish of his slippers he loomed up in the ring of faint light, and suddenly appeared in the bright circle of the lamp. His extended hand aimed at my breast like a pistol; his deep-set eyes seemed to pierce through me, but his twitching lips uttered no word, and the austere exaltation of a certitude seen in the dusk vanished from his face.(Conrad, Lord Jim 199)
Stein’s clear understanding of Jim’s predicament is undercut by this wordless moment, which also follows multiple assertions by Jim and Marlow about the inability to put the essence of an experience into words, to capture the spirit through the flesh. Kintzele interprets this segment by suggesting that “it would seem that, for a brief moment, Stein is able...