Friday, 17 May 2013

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

It has been over a week and a half since I last finished a book. This is so extremely unusual. I'm trying not to hold it against the collection of books I've been reading that week in a half, but at times it's hard. I find myself eyeing Ulysses suspiciously, poking The Reality Dysfunction every once in a while to see if it's moved, or tucking The Idiot in my purse to try to get through just a little more. (Does anyone else think it's odd that a 600+ Dostoyevsky book is the only one that will fit in my purse?)

And Lord Jim, which I've also had underway for most of that time. And is the first of the bunch I actually finished.

Studying masculinity as I do, it's hard to not see Lord Jim as a novel about what it means to be a man. Jim, as a young man, is the epitome of what a British sailor should be like. He looks reliable, he looks like "one of us," he's got the bearing and stature that should, if appearances mean anything, tell you that he is to be relied upon and trusted.

If, of course, appearances mean anything. Who can you trust if you can't trust a ruddy-cheeked, healthy Englishman?

But there is an incident in Jim's past, one that haunts him, that makes him, for a while, an outcast, and even after the point where everyone else might have forgotten what he did, his own inability to do so, his own consciousness that that at least once, his outward appearance was not matched by word or deed, drives him further and further away from white colonial society, and eventually to become the only white man in the depths of a Malay settlement, where he rises to be considered "Lord" Jim. But even that distance may not be enough.

What actually happened on that fateful day is shot through with ambiguity - we have Jim's version, of course. But there are doubts that he is telling the whole truth, or even that he knows the whole truth. Jim's story is such a threat to others and their own identities, who see a shadowy reflection of something they themselves might have done, that it causes it to be more harshly judged, more critically gossiped about, and the unease it engenders in one of his judges drives that judge to an extreme act of self-destruction.

If one upstanding young man can act that way, what does it mean for the masculinity of the rest?

As for the experience of reading the book, I found it dragged quite a bit for the first 50-100 pages. I had to pull myself through it by sheer force of will, as Conrad danced around the topic of what Jim had done without ever quite spelling it out. But then as it started to become clear, not necessarily the event itself, but what Conrad was examining, the instability of masculinity in a colonial world, and thus the need for it to be ever more vigilantly guarded, I became absolutely engrossed.

Then, halfway through, it started to drag again. But by the end, I was as caught up as ever. I'm not sure if the book ebbs and flows that way, or if some days I was in the mood for this one, and some days I certainly wasn't.

But the issues it raised about white male identity in a colonial world, and the betrayal of self and the long-lasting repercussions that had for both Jim and others, the actions to which it drove them, the judgements they made, (view spoiler)and the final action of Jim's life, where he atones for a second mistake in the only way he thinks he can and still retain who he is, they made this a book well worth reading.

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