BY JOSEPH CONRAD
When this novel first appeared in book form a notion got about that I
had been bolted away with. Some reviewers maintained that the work
starting as a short story had got beyond the writer's control. One
or two discovered internal evidence of the fact, which seemed to amuse
them. They pointed out the limitations of the narrative form. They
argued that no man could have been expected to talk all that time,
and other men to listen so long. It was not, they said, very credible.
After thinking it over for something like sixteen years, I am not
so sure about that. Men have been known, both in the tropics and
in the temperate zone, to sit up half the night 'swapping yarns'.
This, however, is but one yarn, yet with interruptions affording
some measure of relief; and in regard to the listeners' endurance,
the postulate must be accepted that the story was interesting. It is
the necessary preliminary assumption. If I hadn't believed that it
was interesting I could never have begun to write it. As to the mere
physical possibility we all know that some speeches in Parliament
have taken nearer six than three hours in delivery; whereas all that
part of the book which is Marlow's narrative can be read through
aloud, I should say, in less than three hours. Besides--though I
have kept strictly all such insignificant details out of the tale--we
may presume that there must have been refreshments on that night,
a glass of mineral water of some sort to help the narrator on.
But, seriously, the truth of the matter is, that my first thought
was of a short story, concerned only with the pilgrim ship episode;
nothing more. And that was a legitimate conception. After writing
a few pages, however, I became for some reason discontented and
I laid them aside for a time. I didn't take them out of the drawer
till the late Mr. William Blackwood suggested I should give something
again to his magazine.
It was only then that I perceived that the pilgrim ship episode
was a good starting-point for a free and wandering tale; that it was
an event, too, which could conceivably colour the whole 'sentiment
of existence' in a simple and sensitive character. But all these
preliminary moods and stirrings of spirit were rather obscure at the
time, and they do not appear clearer to me now after the lapse of so
The few pages I had laid aside were not without their weight in
the choice of subject. But the whole was re-written deliberately.
When I sat down to it I knew it would be a long book, though I
didn't foresee that it would spread itself over thirteen numbers
I have been asked at times whether this was not the book of mine
I liked best. I am a great foe to favouritism in public life, in private
life, and even in the delicate relationship of an author to his works.
As a matter of principle I will have no favourites; but I don't go so
far as to feel grieved and annoyed by the preference some people
give to my Lord Jim. I won't even say that I 'fail to understand . . .'
No! But once I had occasion to be puzzled and surprised.
A friend of mine returning from Italy had talked with a lady there
who did not like the book. I regretted that, of course, but what
surprised me was the ground of her dislike. 'You know,' she said,
'it is all so morbid.'
The pronouncement gave me food for an hour's anxious thought. Finally
I arrived at the conclusion that, making due allowances for the subject
itself being rather foreign to women's normal sensibilities, the lady
could not have been an Italian. I wonder whether she was European at
all? In any case, no Latin temperament would have perceived anything
morbid in the acute consciousness of lost honour. Such a consciousness
may be wrong, or it may be right, or it may be condemned as artificial;
and, perhaps, my Jim is not a type of wide commonness. But I can safely
assure my readers that he is not the product of coldly perverted thinking.
He's not a figure of Northern Mists either. One sunny morning, in the
commonplace surroundings of an Eastern roadstead, I saw his form pass
by--appealing--significant--under a cloud--perfectly silent. Which
is as it should be. It was for me, with all the sympathy of which I was
capable, to seek fit words for his meaning. He was 'one of us'.
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. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed
a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It
seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself
as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate
white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got
his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular.
A water-clerk need not pass an examination in anything under the sun,
but he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically.
His work consists in racing under sail, steam, or oars against other
water-clerks for any ship about to anchor, greeting her captain cheerily,
forcing upon him a card--the business card of the ship-chandler--and
on his first visit on shore piloting him firmly but without ostentation
to a vast, cavern-like shop which is full of things that are eaten and
drunk on board ship; where you can get everything to make her seaworthy
and beautiful, from a set of chain-hooks for her cable to a book of
gold-leaf for the carvings of her stern; and where her commander is
received like a brother by a ship-chandler he has never seen before.
There is a cool parlour, easy-chairs, bottles, cigars, writing implements,
a copy of harbour regulations, and a warmth of welcome that melts the
salt of a three months' passage out of a seaman's heart. The connection
thus begun is kept up, as long as the ship remains in harbour, by the
daily visits of the water-clerk. To the captain he is faithful like a
friend and attentive like a son, with the patience of Job, the unselfish
devotion of a woman, and the jollity of a boon companion. Later on the bill
is sent in. It is a beautiful and humane occupation. Therefore good
water-clerks are scarce. When a water-clerk who possesses Ability
in the abstract has also the advantage of having been brought up
to the sea, he is worth to his employer a lot of money and some
humouring. Jim had always good wages and as much humouring
as would have bought the fidelity of a fiend. Nevertheless, with
black ingratitude he would throw up the job suddenly and depart.
To his employers the reasons he gave were obviously inadequate.
They said 'Confounded fool!' as soon as his back was turned. This
was their criticism on his exquisite sensibility.
To the white men in the waterside business and to the captains
of ships he was just Jim--nothing more. He had, of course, another
name, but he was anxious that it should not be pronounced. His
incognito, which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to
hide a personality but a fact. When the fact broke through the
incognito he would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened
to be at the time and go to another--generally farther east. He kept
to seaports because he was a seaman in exile from the sea, and had
Ability in the abstract, which is good for no other work but that of
a water-clerk. He retreated in good order towards the rising sun,
and the fact followed him casually but inevitably. Thus in the
course of years he was known successively in Bombay, in Calcutta, in
Rangoon, in Penang, in Batavia--and in each of these halting-places
was just Jim the water-clerk. Afterwards, when his keen perception of
the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men,
even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where
he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the
monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might
Originally he came from a parsonage. Many commanders of fine
merchant-ships come from these abodes of piety and peace. Jim's
father possessed such certain knowledge of the Unknowable as
made for the righteousness of people in cottages without disturbing
the ease of mind of those whom an unerring Providence enables to
live in mansions. The little church on a hill had the mossy greyness
of a rock seen through a ragged screen of leaves. It had stood there
for centuries, but the trees around probably remembered the laying
of the first stone. Below, the red front of the rectory gleamed with
a warm tint in the midst of grass-plots, flower-beds, and fir-trees,
with an orchard at the back, a paved stable-yard to the left, and
the sloping glass of greenhouses tacked along a wall of bricks. The
living had belonged to the family for generations; but Jim was one
of five sons, and when after a course of light holiday literature his
vocation for the sea had declared itself, he was sent at once to a
'training-ship for officers of the mercantile marine.'
He learned there a little trigonometry and how to cross top-gallant
yards. He was generally liked. He had the third place in navigation
and pulled stroke in the first cutter. Having a steady head with an
excellent physique, he was very smart aloft. His station was in the
fore-top, and often from there he looked down, with the contempt
of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers, at the peaceful
multitude of roofs cut in two by the brown tide of the stream,
while scattered on the outskirts of the surrounding plain the factory
chimneys rose perpendicular against a grimy sky, each slender like
a pencil, and belching out smoke like a volcano. He could see the
big ships departing, the broad-beamed ferries constantly on the
move, the little boats floating far below his feet, with the hazy
splendour of the sea in the distance, and the hope of a stirring life
in the world of adventure.
On the lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would
forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light
literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting
away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line;
or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on
uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He
confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high
seas, and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of
despairing men--always an example of devotion to duty, and as
unflinching as a hero in a book.
'Something's up. Come along.'
He leaped to his feet. The boys were streaming up the ladders.
Above could be heard a great scurrying about and shouting, and
when he got through the hatchway he stood still--as if confounded.
It was the dusk of a winter's day. The gale had freshened since
noon, stopping the traffic on the river, and now blew with the
strength of a hurricane in fitful bursts that boomed like salvoes of
great guns firing over the ocean. The rain slanted in sheets that
flicked and subsided, and between whiles Jim had threatening
glimpses of the tumbling tide, the small craft jumbled and tossing
along the shore, the motionless buildings in the driving mist, the broad
ferry-boats pitching ponderously at anchor, the vast landing-stages
heaving up and down and smothered in sprays. The next gust seemed to
blow all this away. The air was full of flying water. There was a
fierce purpose in the gale, a furious earnestness in the screech of
the wind, in the brutal tumult of earth and sky, that seemed directed
at him, and made him hold his breath in awe. He stood still. It seemed
to him he was whirled around.
He was jostled. 'Man the cutter!' Boys rushed past him. A coaster
running in for shelter had crashed through a schooner at anchor,
and one of the ship's instructors had seen the accident. A mob of
boys clambered on the rails, clustered round the davits. 'Collision.
Just ahead of us. Mr. Symons saw it.' A push made him stagger
against the mizzen-mast, and he caught hold of a rope. The old
training-ship chained to her moorings quivered all over, bowing
gently head to wind, and with her scanty rigging humming in a
deep bass the breathless song of her youth at sea. 'Lower away!' He
saw the boat, manned, drop swiftly below the rail, and rushed after
her. He heard a splash. 'Let go; clear the falls!' He leaned over.
The river alongside seethed in frothy streaks. The cutter could be
seen in the falling darkness under the spell of tide and wind, that
for a moment held her bound, and tossing abreast of the ship. A
yelling voice in her reached him faintly: 'Keep stroke, you young
whelps, if you want to save anybody! Keep stroke!' And suddenly
she lifted high her bow, and, leaping with raised oars over a wave,
broke the spell cast upon her by the wind and tide.
Jim felt his shoulder gripped firmly. 'Too late, youngster.' The
captain of the ship laid a restraining hand on that boy, who seemed
on the point of leaping overboard, and Jim looked up with the pain
of conscious defeat in his eyes. The captain smiled sympathetically.
'Better luck next time. This will teach you to be smart.'
A shrill cheer greeted the cutter. She came dancing back half full
of water, and with two exhausted men washing about on her bottom
boards. The tumult and the menace of wind and sea now appeared
very contemptible to Jim, increasing the regret of his awe at their
inefficient menace. Now he knew what to think of it. It seemed to
him he cared nothing for the gale. He could affront greater perils.
He would do so--better than anybody. Not a particle of fear was
left. Nevertheless he brooded apart that evening while the bowman
of the cutter--a boy with a face like a girl's and big grey eyes--was
the hero of the lower deck. Eager questioners crowded round him.
He narrated: 'I just saw his head bobbing, and I dashed my boat-hook
in the water. It caught in his breeches and I nearly went overboard,
as I thought I would, only old Symons let go the tiller and grabbed my
legs--the boat nearly swamped. Old Symons is a fine old chap. I don't
mind a bit him being grumpy with us. He swore at me all the time he
held my leg, but that was only his way of telling me to stick to the
boat-hook. Old Symons is awfully excitable--isn't he? No--not the
little fair chap--the other, the big one with a beard. When we pulled
him in he groaned, "Oh, my leg! oh, my leg!" and turned up his eyes.
Fancy such a big chap fainting like a girl. Would any of you fellows
faint for a jab with a boat-hook?--I wouldn't. It went into his leg so
far.' He showed the boat-hook, which he had carried below for the purpose,
and produced a sensation. 'No, silly! It was not his flesh that held
him--his breeches did. Lots of blood, of course.'
Jim thought it a pitiful display of vanity. The gale had ministered
to a heroism as spurious as its own pretence of terror. He felt angry
with the brutal tumult of earth and sky for taking him unawares
and checking unfairly a generous readiness for narrow escapes.
Otherwise he was rather glad he had not gone into the cutter, since
a lower achievement had served the turn. He had enlarged his
knowledge more than those who had done the work. When all men
flinched, then--he felt sure--he alone would know how to deal
with the spurious menace of wind and seas. He knew what to think
of it. Seen dispassionately, it seemed contemptible. He could detect
no trace of emotion in himself, and the final effect of a staggering
event was that, unnoticed and apart from the noisy crowd of boys,
he exulted with fresh certitude in his avidity for adventure, and in
a sense of many-sided courage.