Conrad’s guilt theme in the novel Lord Jim is shown directly through the main character, Jim. “Jim’s spiritual odyssey explores the theme of guilt”(Kuehn 35). Jim is a strong character at heart, but he is overcome by the forces that guilt put on his mind. Jim is a man controlled by his fear. He dreams of becoming a hero at sea and his dreams are repeatedly shattered. He is therefore flushed with guilt.
Throughout the novel Jim’s guilt haunts him and prevents him from becoming reestablished as a clean person. Early in the novel Jim finds guilt when he is at sea. The sea engulfs a boat nearby and everyone aboard the ship Jim is on dives overboard to rescue people. Jim hesitates and is told by the captain that he is too late. Jim missed the chance of becoming a hero and is therefore struck with guilt. This incident however is a small mistake that Jim encounters. His next failure is the primary focus of guilt in the novel.
Jim is injured while at sea and has to remain in a hospital in the Middle East. After he is well enough to head out to sea he is offered a job aboard the Patna. The ship is dark, gloomy, and aged quite a bit. When out amongst the raging tides the Patna crashes into a small ship. Jim runs about the ship searching for the rest of the crew. Jim finds the mates and they tell him that the ship is sinking. Jim begins to worry about the eight hundred pilgrims that are sleeping in the cabin below.
Jim knows that there are not nearly enough small boats for all of them to fit in. The rest of the crew decides to take the boats and leave the pilgrims to sink with the ship. Jim stands by the edge of the ship where the others are jumping down to the boats. The other officers call for him to jump and abandon the pilgrims. Jim made his decision. “So, in response to a call to a dead man, Jim jumped into his “everlasting deep hole” but the call was to a part of Jim; that’s why he jumped. It was a part of himself that he feared to acknowledge”(Haugh 62).
“Jim does not choose to jump; he is a vessel that is filled with what happens to him until experience overflows and spills out, and the squall within him and the sea outside him become the same”(Ash 158). The thought of leaving eight hundred pilgrims to die greatly effected Jim. Upon jumping off the boat Jim’s entire life and future plans are influenced by the guilt that can’t be forgotten. All events associated with the Patna directly impact every aspect of the book(Ash 153). After jumping Jim hears voices of the pilgrims that torment him until later when he finds out that the Patna made it to shore and all of the pilgrims survived. Jim refuses to associate himself with the other officers.
He first denies his guilt and claims the others were guilt stricken. While in denial Jim thinks about swimming back to the ship and warning the pilgrims. He then thinks it over and starts to wish that the Patna will sink and all of the pilgrims will die. Jim tells the other officers in the Patna that they are the guilty ones and he didn’t desert the ship. He claims that the officers made him jump. The officers tell Jim that he is “one of them” and is just as guilty as they are. Jim then thinks of himself as one of the other officers and feelings of self-betrayal come over him (haugh 62). Robert Kuehn states that “ The actions happen so inevitably that it is hard to blame Jim”(Kuehn 38). The blame put on Jim shouldn’t be as much as the other officers because it did happen quickly and Jim wasn’t leading the abandoning of the ship. Jim was merely a follower that didn’t belong with the others. Although Jim is unable to account for his jump from the Patna he denies the fact that he felt fear (Saveson 102).
Jim confronts his guilt when being put on trial for abandonment of the Patna. The other officers ran away to another country so as to not be put on trial. Jim is finally done denying his mistakes. By going to court and facing the town people and the judge with the truth, Jim dissociated himself from the other officers who are seen as cowards (Kuehn 39).
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Orr, Leonard and Ted Billy. A Joseph Conrad Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Kuehn, Robert. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Lord Jim. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice hall, 1969.
Mudrick, Marvin. Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall,
Haugh, Robert F. Joseph Conrad: Discovery in Design. Norman: University of Oklahoma
Saveson, John E. Joseph Conrad: The Making of A Moralist. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1972.
Ash, Beth S. Writing In Between: Modernity and Psychosocial Dilemma in the Novels Of
Joseph Conrad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.