LORD JIM / Joseph Conrad. 1900 (363 pgs)
First Sentence: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: A focused, but somewhat distant third person, past-tense voice. This narrator is unlike most of the other third person voices I am familiar with, as he (yes, I experience it as male) is connected to the main character and yet never feels as if he is actually in the same location as the main character, Jim. This narrator is the classic storyteller who, in these early pages, draws the reader / listener into what will, most likely, be a long, satisfying tale.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: LORD JIM begins unlike the majority of stories presented on this blog, and unlike most contemporary novels I have read. LORD JIM begins with a brief physical description of an unnamed man and then continues to describe a type of man by the work he does, in this case a ship-chandler’s water-clerk. In the first paragraph we are told that this unnamed man is tall, powerful, and slightly stoop shouldered in the manner of a charging bull. We also learn that his voice is deep and loud, that he wears white and is immaculately dressed. The only hint of location is a vague reference to “various Eastern ports.” Following paragraphs continue with a job description and the type of man who would hold it. The reader is clearly not given much specific information about Jim or where Jim is because Jim does not want to be discovered.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Jim is constantly on the move. When his past catches up to him he moves to another of the “various Eastern ports”. In fact the narrator discloses Jim’s behavior as “incognito”, the object of the sentence, as if it is a piece of clothing. In the opening chapter (6 pages) the narrator gives a hasty overview of Jim’s early life and his love of the sea. The narrator acknowledges an event that changed the course of Jim’s life and then teases the reader with Jim’s gradual Eastward retreat from white men to the Malayan jungles where he is eventually given the name Lord Jim. Very few distinguishing facts of Jim’s early life are disclosed, no towns are named, and his mates and teachers are referred to by their rank and title. One curious exception is a story the narrator yields to illustrate the life of adventure Jim expects from the sea.
The second chapter (6 pages) continues at a much more stately pace. The story settles down to more detail. The reader is hooked. The storyteller will offer more information if the reader is willing to wait for it. In chapter two the unnamed narrator (similarly to the scantily detailed “Lord Jim”) becomes more than an unseen third person device, he begins to allow a sense of perspective into the story. This prompts the reader to accept that whatever the tragedy that has kept Jim running to “various Eastern ports” include mitigating circumstances that might require the reader’s consideration. In chapter two Jim begins a journey (from where, we don’t know) on a third-class vessel called the Patna, which is transporting 800+ “souls” from one part of the world to another, led by “an Arab”, their pious leader. Aside from the Patna the only other detail with a proper name is the Red Sea.
Character: Jim is a mystery, as is the storyteller narrating Jim’s story. The reader is given few identifying details of where the story takes place or the characters in it. Jim’s desire to prevent his past from catching up to him is masterfully illustrated in the method that the narrator gives out very little identifying information, as if he is saying this story will stay just between us. In lieu of character the reader is given a description of the type of man who would love the sea and hold certain jobs. The reader is given the description of a boy who witnesses a river rescue and asserts that a life on the sea would offer the same kind of excitement in every foreign port.
Jim’s incognito drives the mystery. The undisclosed provides the storyteller’s hold over the reader. In a more journalistic telling of Jim’s story, a narrator would know all the events and that narrator would be able to fill in the blanks with material from the conclusion of Jim’s story. The narrator’s hold over the reader is that he is able to parse out the story in a somewhat chronological fashion, throwing tidbits of information into the mix that promote what the narrator really knows, baiting the reader to continue.
Setting: “Various Eastern ports.” This so goes against the theory I presented in the previous blog about how 85% of the time an author locates his main character in a specific place within the first several sentences of the story. With LORD JIM this is just not so. LORD JIM is a character driven story. The reader is given enough information to deduce that the story takes place in the Middle and Far East. Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, and Batavia are named as some of the last cities Jim visits, but by the telling, Jim is long gone.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: I expect Jim’s life story told by a distinguished storyteller. The reader is aware that Jim has done something he is ashamed of. Guilt keeps him running. I expect the narrator to offer evidence to exonerate Jim enough to make him a sympathetic figure. I would expect to get much more deeply into Jim’s psyche and personality, as well as the places he is going. If these things remain secret for a significant portion of the book, this reader will lose interest.
Random Comments: I found this copy of LORD JIM in a garage sale box and am so glad I did. Reprinted in 1957, it includes several biographical articles and author’s notes that I found very interesting. For instance, born December 3, 1857, Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad), one of the major English novelists, knew no English before he was twenty-one. From the landlocked Ukraine, a son of landed gentry, he developed a passion for the sea and didn’t begin novel writing until he was thirty-eight. He did not achieve any measure of recognition for his stories until he was well over fifty.