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Joseph Conrad

Raval, R. K., "LORD JIM: An Existential Analysis", MA, 1972, University of Agra (India)

An abstract of the paper "Lord Jim: An Existential Analysis."

The aim of this paper is to make a case for Lord Jim as an existential novel. I examine here Jim's character within the matrix provided by the word 'existence' which recurs with remarkable frequency at strategic points in the novel.

The following few existential premises are worth mentioning here since they constitute a useful framework for such a study:

(i) Existence precedes essence; (ii) the responsibility, therefore, of living a meaningful existence lies squarely on the shoulders of man; (iii) man has been granted the freedom to choose; (iv) because he is free to choose, he is likely to make a mistake and thus bring on anguish and a sense of guilt in his life;(v) this may isolate him from his fellow beings and from his own 'Being' as well, and finally, (vi) he may still commit himself to a renewed effort to rise once more to the level of an authentic existence.

Satre's statement, "Man is condemned to be free," is also of great relevance to this inquiry since, according to him, this freedom to choose may bring anguish or guilt as a result of choosing a wrong path or object. Wrong choice (Jim's jump) becomes one of the cardinal problems in the novel. The problem of choice is viewed in this paper in the light of the existential paradox of affirmative negation and negative affirmation.

In choosing a man has so to choose and act that it may become something valid for all. A wrong choice or act may be the result of a contingency of situation or any other circumstance. But existentialism admits of no alibis in a man's failure, in his betrayal to a meaningful existence. Like Camus' Sisyphus, an existential hero teaches a higher fidelity which believes in raising the rocks and negating the gods. "Man," in the words of Sartre, "becomes his own project," and even in guilt and defeat may retain his courage and will to regain his lost identity. Man alone is responsible to himself and he alone can thus make or mar his destiny. In this way he strives to become what he has decided "to be," and in doing so he confers an essence upon his existence.

Jim's life in terms of the above mentioned existential terminology like freedom to choose, anguish, guilt, isolation, commitment to the ideals of an authentic existence etc., seems to echo through the pages of the novel. It is interesting to note how these words ring through the storm-troubled life of Jim.

Jim is such an existential character, according to the present author. His jump into the sea from the "Patna" amounts to the breach of faith with the 800 pilgrims and with that he becomes a man condemned to and cut off from all and himself. Isolation fogs him and the sense of guilt haunts him wherever he goes. He has violated the code of mariners and in doing so has proved himself to be an abject coward. The fact that in spite of the contingency of situation he decides in a momentary impulse to desert the ship, doesn't make him free from the criminal weakness that he has exhibited thereby. But this is no place for a detailed analysis of the validity or otherwise of this most controversial of all the jumps perhaps in the entire world literature.

It is Jim's life after the jump that acquires existential overtones. His willingness to face the trial when the others have in a dastardly manner disappeared from the scene, strikes the first existential note in his decision to wipe out a blot and earn a name. It is his existential commitment to life in search of a lost identity that impels him to face life squarely and responsibly henceforward. He commits himself to the pursuance of an authentic existence in a renewed effort to wrench himself out of the mire of guilt and isolation that has surrounded him. The farther, therefore, he wanders from shore to shore, the nearer he reaches the essence of his self. His imaginations has been his undoing, but now for the first time the romantic shakes hands with the realist and Jim begins to act like a daredevil even as a water-clerk as if to atone for his one mistake in life.

Stein is the only one (besides Marlow) to understand Jim properly and sympathetically. Jim is no enigma to Stein, as he has been to others. To Stein Jim is a romantic and a dreamer to the core who cannot realize the essence of life till he immerses himself into the destructive waters of life, only to emerge constructively. "He who would search for pearls must dive below." (Dryden). That's why Jim is packed off to Patusan which at once becomes his isle of paradise and his battleground for resurrection. Jim of Patusan is a far cry from the Jim of the "Patna." His breach of faith with the pilgrims on the "Patna," is counterbalanced by his bridge of faith that he so assiduously builds up amongst the people of Patusan The arrival on the scene of "Gentleman" Brown, proves to be fatal for Jim in as much as it forces him to betray those who trust him. Jim by now appears to be well-adjusted to his new environment and appears to have become one with the people of Patusan. His devotion to the people has the intensity of a commitment to an existential code of ethics embodied by faith, courage and loyalty.

Brown's betrayal of Jim makes Jim in turn an unwilling and an unconscious betrayer to the people of Patusan. He allows himself to be shot by Doramin out of a heroic sense of commitment to life and as Conrad puts it, "he goes away from a living woman (Jewel) to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal to conduct." Jim wanted a quiet and dignified death and he gets one accordingly. By quietly stepping into the fabric of existence he achieves his "Being." He lived honourably and died more honourably. An honourable commitment to existence finally leads him to the still centre of essence. An existentialist's tryst with destiny is fulfilled.

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