“Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes.”
Just wow. With lines like that, who can afford not to read “Lord Jim”? And the novel is full of them – well written and holding closely to the plot without wandering off only to come back thirty pages later after the reader is already left.
Of course that quote was not talking about Jim. How could it be?
Lord Jim is the story about one man’s bad decision at a moment of fear – and his attempt to live down that decision. At the end (spoiler alert) he atones for his actions in that most final of ways; he surrenders his life. Fear – have you ever been afraid? Panic, white and choking, shortness of breath and cold sweat? We never know what we will do in that moment of panic – oh we like to pretend we do; full of bravado and bluster we tell of our courage under stress. But we all know that there’s at least the possibility that we will panic, that we will flee, that we will humiliate ourselves. That the “muscle memory” is not well formed enough to guarantee the appropriate response.
Jim’s bad decision was to jump ship – literally; he was an officer and officers are supposed to go down with the ship. To put the charges before themselves. To surrender to the sea – that’s the covenant. But caught up in the moment, thinking the ship was going down he jumps into the dingy. Except the ship didn’t go down. Oh humiliation – to be tried for dereliction of duty; the mockery of others as stories are told of the ship un-manned found drifting in the sea; the officers all having fled. Wandering the world, looking for a place where the story of his humiliation was not on everyone’s lips Jim ends up in an out of the way atoll in the middle of the pacific. The end of the world – the only white man. There he finds respite for a time; until again the grasping reach of “progress” finds him in the form of another fight and he has a choice. Two times, to run or to stay and fight. The first time he jumped. What will he do the second?
Read this book; for it is one of the greats for a reason.