Read an Excerpt
From A. Michael Matin’s Introduction to Lord Jim
Explaining why he routinely drew on historical events as germinal sources for his fiction, Conrad wrote in a preface to a reissue of his first short story collection, Tales of Unrest, that “[t]he sustained invention of a really telling lie demands a talent which I do not possess” (The Works of Joseph Conrad: Tales of Unrest, p. ix). Many of the plot elements of Lord Jim, accordingly, have their origins in facts. For the first half of the novel, the most significant of the several historical sources Conrad drew on was the voyage of a ship called the Jeddah, which, in August 1880, with more than nine hundred Muslim pilgrims en route from Singapore to Jeddah (the port city west of Mecca on the Red Sea), was abandoned by its white officers, who mistakenly believed it to be sinking. The protagonist of Conrad’s novel is the first mate of such a ship who, while dreaming of glory and triumph, ironically achieves only infamy and ruin. He is an English clergyman’s son named Jim who, having become enamored of adventure literature during childhood, pursues a career in the British merchant marine. At the age of twenty-three, he takes a position on a ship called the Patna, whose voyage largely parallels that of the historical Jeddah. One night, when Jim is indulging in fantasies of his own heroism, the vessel strikes an object in the water and appears to be on the verge of foundering. The officers, including Jim (who believes there is no time to save the passengers), escape in a lifeboat and then, assuming the ship to have sunk, report this as fact when they are rescued. Upon arriving on shore, however, they learn that it has remained afloat, and they are subsequently disgraced and expelled from the service.
Although Conrad based many of the circumstances of his tale on the scandalous Jeddah episode, which was widely reported in such newspapers as the London Times and even taken up by the British Parliament, he also made some substantial changes. For example, whereas the Jeddah was, at eight years old, relatively new and in good condition, Conrad’s Patna is “as old as the hills” and “eaten up with rust,” so Jim’s assumption that it is about to sink appears reasonable. And whereas Jim is induced by the other officers to abandon ship, his historical counterpart, Augustine Podmore Williams (who, like Jim, was an English parson’s son), was determined by a court of inquiry to have been largely responsible for the desertion. Although the captain was deemed to have “shown a painful want of nerve” for having “allowed his feelings to master the sense of duty it is the pride of every British seamaster to vaunt,” it was concluded that “but for Mr Williams’s officious behaviour and unseamanlike conduct, the master would . . . have probably done his duty by remaining on the ship” (Report of the Court of Inquiry; reprinted in Sherry, Conrad’s Eastern World, pp. 299–309). Further, unlike Jim, Williams was merely censured rather than prohibited from again being employed as an officer. In fact, he went on to serve two years later as first mate of a ship called the Vidar, on which Conrad himself subsequently served as first mate. It is possible, therefore, that Conrad’s sources about the Jeddah fiasco included more than public reports.
As with the novel’s first half, the events of its second half—the exiled Jim’s glorious although ultimately tragic career in the Malay village of Patusan—are drawn from a variety of historical sources. During his years as a seaman, Conrad traveled to the Malay Archipelago a number of times, and before writing Lord Jim he had set much of his fiction there, including his first two novels, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, as well as the short stories “Karain” and “The Lagoon.” Yet he also made clear that much of his information about that part of the world was not based on firsthand experience. As he wrote in 1898, responding to a published criticism of his fiction as unauthoritative on Malay customs, “I never did set up as an authority on Malaysia”; his sources, he maintained, consisted primarily of “dull, wise books” (Collected Letters, vol. 2, p. 130). Indeed, upon analyzing Conrad’s source materials, one discovers the literal accuracy of Jim’s pronouncement that the residents of Patusan “are like people in a book.” The most notable of such books was the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), which was one of Conrad’s favorite works. Further, in depicting Jim’s transformed character in this new setting, Conrad departs from his original primary source, Augustine Podmore Williams, and turns to two other Britons, both of whom were adventurers in the Malay Archipelago who bore the name James: James Lingard, nephew of the renowned explorer and trader William Lingard (the model for Tom Lingard in the so-called Malay trilogy of Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, and The Rescue); and James Brooke, who in 1841 became rajah of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, under circumstances evoked in those of Jim’s accession to power in Patusan. Regardless of how diligently we conduct detective work on the novel’s antecedents, however, we ought to bear in mind Conrad’s admonition, in a 1917 letter to an admirer who was an enthusiastic hunter of historical backgrounds for his texts, that “I am a writer of fiction; and it is not what actually happened, but the manner of presenting it that settles the literary and even the moral value of my work” (Collected Letters, vol. 6, p. 100).