The Negative Side of Literature: A Reevaluation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim
Kheirallah Helichi (M.A of English literature, Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz)
In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, the protagonist Jim is motivated by some works of literature which are charming and didactic. This didactic literature can deceive the readers and tempt them to attempt the fictional event of the narrative in their real lives. Intriguingly, presenting the fiction into reality may cause a terrible impact upon its readers. The victim of literature which this paper tries to elucidate is Jim. Jim is a young man and he makes an irrevocable decision to become a hero and embody the values of heroic deeds in real situations like the way he reads them in literature. Unaware of the practicality of these notions in literature, hapless Jim propels himself to reverse fiction and change it to reality, but he fails.
Key word: fiction, reality, didactic literature, colonialism
Deriving deeply from the opening of Conrad`s Heart of Darkness, Edward Said`s Orientalism advocates that imperialism acquisitiveness was excused through an anthropological rhetoric of geography. Interestingly anticipating this critique, in Lord Jim, Conrad explores the ramifications of such idealization both for the colonies and, more particularly, for the colonisers. The idealizing rhetoric of justification that Said ascertains has already been fully adopted by Jim so that he fails to identify its fictional root. It is precisely this problem of distorted boundaries between fictional values and the lived experience of reality that Conrad seeks to unravel in the novel. This probe occurs not only in the domain of colonialism, however, but also in that of narrative itself, so that the novel displays a certain incredulous self-reflexivity of the kind usually contested by Said to those orientalising authors he seeks to critique. What follows then is a scrutiny of Lord Jim that reveals the ethical matters that emerge from the joining of fiction and reality in the ideal of romance.
‘Literature’s ultimate aim, declares Horace, is “dulcet et utile”, to be sweet and useful.’[i]The best writings, he claims, both teach and delight. Sidney maintains that literature twists the language to provide wider and more conceptual inquiries. In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, the protagonist Jim is inspired by some works of literature which are enchanting and didactic. On the other hand, this “dulcet et utile” literature can delude the readers and entice them to try the fictional event of the narrative in their real lives. Startlingly, presenting the fiction into reality may trigger a disastrous impact upon its readers. The victim of literature which this paper tries to illustrate is Jim. Jim is a young man and he makes an irrevocable decision to become a hero and embody the values of heroic deeds in real situations like the way he reads them in literature. Unaware of the practicality of these notions in literature, hapless Jim propels himself to reverse fiction and change it to reality. This paper is an attempt to prove that literature has a negative side on Jim.
Critics frequently debate literature’s chief function. Tracing their argument, many contend that literature’s primary function is its usefulness for societal and individual purposes. For these critics, literature is a positive phenomenon. But for Joseph Conrad, literature also possesses a negative side. In order to bring a proof to the claim that literature has a negative side on Jim, a critic must analyze the main cause which ignites the desire of Jim for adventure. The beginning of Conrad’s story hinges on a specific incident: The ‘light holiday literature and its effect upon Jim. Jim’s ‘vocation for the sea’ asserts itself later ‘a course of light holiday literature’, and his merchant career subsequently is overtly plotted against the generic codes and expectations of such ‘light literature’. ‘The light holiday literature Jim reads provides the foundations for his idealization of adventure and the basis for his seafaring character.’[ii]He fails taking part in an actual adventure, caused by the collision between a coaster ‘running in for shelter’ and ‘a schooner at anchor’, for he is day-dreaming, living ‘beforehand . . . in his mind the sea-life of light literature’. What that sea-life consists of is mapped out for us: On the lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas, and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men--always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book. Jeremy Hawthorn in his book Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness maintains that Jim’s character reaffirms the substitutive power of a self-perpetuating fiction: the real nature of the world recedes before the wondrous imaginings of the mind.[iii] Conrad runs through a series of motifs from literature, but what he then provides in the novel is a counter-version of such fiction and the devastating ramifications on Jim who depends on the fictional world of literature. Jim famously does not ‘save people from sinking ships’ – he jumps overboard to save himself. Jim, ‘in a small boat upon the ocean’, does not ‘keep up the hearts of despairing men’. He spends the night awake and alert, ready to defend himself from his companions in the ‘small boat’ into which he has jumped. In other words, Conrad engineers his own collision between literature and the reality of sea-life. Marlow at one point comments: ‘In no other kind of life is the illusion more wide of reality – in no other is the beginning all illusion – the disenchantment more swift’. Conrad shows this to be the case with Jim. At the beginning of chapter two , the narrator notes: ‘After two years of training [Jim] went to sea and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure’. Instead of the romantic world he read in literature, ‘the fanciful realm of recklessly heroic aspirations’, he encounters ‘the prosaic severity of the daily taskthat gives bread’. Jim’s response is to retreat further into the world of literature with the disastrous results that then follow in the Patna. The Patna crashes into an object at sea and the water starts coming in. The problem of this failure is not simply one of categorical distinction but carries with it significant ethical implication.[iv]Here in Patna incident, it is lucid that literature has deluded Jim. What is hilarious is that were Jim as a good reader of his lived surrounding as he is of the world of literature he would recognize that there is no difference between his daydreams and his reality. In abandoning the Patna, Jim practically has violated the ethical code which he read in literature. Jim establishes his self-ideal through the images in the adventure fiction; but just as the pipedreams are mercilessly undercut the moment they are articulated, so Jim’s fantasy is interrupted by a real crisis. Prefiguring his later failure on the Patna, Jim fails to fulfill his romantic ideal. As Hampson says, he deludes himself: ‘Jim is immobilized by real danger.’[v]Jim convinces himself that his wish for determination is not the same as determination itself, however strong. Jim’s abyss is no less passable than the breadth of the ship and, as Marlow comments, need have been no thicker than ‘a sheet of paper’. Jim is baffled by his jump because he has expected that his desire for determination would be enough to hold him to the spot. Just as his fantasies of saving drowning people preclude him from doing so when on the training ship, here his ‘strange illusion of passiveness’ gets in the way of vigorously staying aboard the Patna. Besides, just as Jim had afterwards felt deluded by the very gale he dreamed for himself, so too his ‘strange illusion of passiveness’ persists, ‘as though he had not acted but had suffered himself to be handled by the infernal powers who had selected him for the victim of their practical joke.’ The episode abroad the training ship acts as a vague, because unannounced, anintroductionfor handling the event of the novel, Jim’s leap.
Charles E. Bressler, Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2007), 26.
 Linda Dryden , Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance (London: Antony Rowe Ltd, 2000), 142.
 Yael Levin, Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad’s Novels (United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 24.
 Here we notice, Said’s critique of T.E.Lawrence for portraying the events of the Arab Revolt in terms of his own experience of it: ‘All the event putatively ascribed to the historical Arab Revolt are reduced finally to Lawrence’s experience on its behalf.’Edward Said , Orientalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin,2003), 216.
 Hampson maintains the frame-narrator’s suggestion that Marlow recounts Jim’s story several time: ‘Just as [the narrative suggest that] there is an infinite number of stories [in the world of Lord Jim] beyond the stories collected in Lord Jim, there are also, in theory at least, other Marlow versions of Jim’s story that remain unrecorded.’ This multiplicity, Hampson argues, suggests ‘the endlessness of narrative and the relativity – or even futility of interpretation. Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity (London: Macmillan, 1992), 119.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. New Jersey: Pearson education, 2007.
Dryden, Linda. Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance. London: Antony Rowe Ltd, 2000.
Hampson, Robert. Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Levin, Yael. Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad’s Novels. United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Sidney, Philip. “An Apology for Poetry” The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.