Young sailor Jim dreams about being a heroic leader, but finds living up to noble ideals is considerably harder than he imagined when that involves putting his own life at risk. He is serving as First Mate about the Patna, a ship carrying scores of pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the night it begins to sink. The captain and the rest of the crew decide to abandon their passengers to their fates and escape in the lifeboat, and though Jim has the opportunity to be the heroic leader he dreamt of, he instead makes the last-minute decision to join his crewmates in the boat.
The Patna doesn’t sink, however, and the passengers all survive to reveal the truth. Jim alone holds his hands up to what he did, and his crewmates are more than happy to let him take all the responsibility. Stripped of his rank and unable to escape the opprobrium, Jim slowly realises his dream may remain a fantasy. Every time someone makes the connection between him and the Patna incident he flees again, heading further and further east until he reaches Patusan, where nobody knows about him or the Patna. There, amongst the indigenous peoples, he can forge a new reputation, but the path to redemption is a particularly rocky one.
It was unavoidable, reading this one, not to think about Joseph Conrad’s other big novel, Heart of Darkness, and not just because they share a narrator. In a way they are two sides of the same story. Jim’s wilful disappearance to a wild, remote country, becoming a trading agent in the heart of darkness, is not too dissimilar from Mr Kurtz’s similar course. But whilst both gain a new reputation because of it, their motives are quite different. If Kurtz is the face of unapologetic colonialism, then Jim is the face of colonial guilt.
Conrad has been accused of being imperialistic, even racist, whether taken in context or out, but in neither novel can be found much positive about Europe carving up the ‘savage’ territories. The villains of Lord Jim are clearly the self-serving whites, not the people whose lands they are there to exploit.