” …there are as many shipwrecks as there are men …”
Imagine, for a moment, that it was Brown’s sunken schooner which makes its way back to the beginning of the novel and becomes the wreckage that caves in the Patna’s bulkhead (“as though the ship had steamed across a narrow belt of vibrating water and of humming air”), thus setting the events in motion all over again. This novel would then be a wholly contained circle of doomed fate and circumstance destined to play out the same way over and over, time after time. Perhaps this is why Conrad chose to not only describe Jim as “inscrutable” but also to tell the story through Marlow – a story within a story so that Jim, in essence, more easily becomes us (“one of us” and, truly, “any of us”) and Marlow becomes a sort of God who dispassionately watches us folly.
The nested storytelling, the subtle wordplay, the idea that “three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines, the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination” creates an unreality that speaks to a truth of our own being better than if we were given an exact replica of Jim. Conrad gives us something infinitely better than an anatomically perfect recreation of a man who, for all the reasons and complexities that make a person a person, fails in his honor and shipwrecks his future – we get “the exact description of the form of a cloud” – a cloud in which we each see something different but is just simply a cloud – just simply us.
Ultimately, for me, the novel was about chances, specifically the chances that are missed in life; the missed chances we always remember and can never let go of and forgive ourselves for. And Jim could have easily asked for forgiveness, too – his father, a parson, seemed a very thin analogy with God himself, a God who will forgive if only you truly believe in him, but Jim couldn’t even forgive himself for the missed chance and for how he ruined his life.
And I kept wondering about his father. Jim kept that letter all those years so you knew it pained him to turn his back on his family and even though he ‘knew’ he could never go back, he also knew that he didn’t actually know that – he still held onto a sliver of hope, even if it was only a hopelessly romantic and boyishly nostalgic one.
I wonder if what Conrad was also trying to say is that man is always doomed? There really are no heroes in the novel, in fact the best man we come across, the most successful man, Captain Brierly, just up and decides one day to jump off his ship and drown himself. Did Brierly see his fate clearly to know that he too was doomed, like Jim? Or did he know that if push came to shove he would be just as cowardly as Jim and he couldn’t face it, not like Jim could? And how come the biggest bastard in the novel, Captain Brown, is most able to act ‘heroically’? Is Conrad trying to say that heroism is born only from selfishness? From wanting to fill one’s belly?
While I don’t know what Conrad actually thought, it seems clear to me that he felt it important to write an entire novel that makes you question the definition of morality, of honor, and of character. That’s why Conrad created the ‘character’ of Jim because he could be any of us, he could be all of us, he represents every one of our individual failures and missed chances and misunderstandings. Jim is like the inner doll of a Russian nesting doll and each character in the novel is one doll larger until we get to the outer doll, us.
However, I’m still unsure of what I think the novel was all about. Conrad plays such a literary master game with us that by the end I feel like my head is spinning. The language is beautiful but nonspecific (as Conrad always writes), and the “point” is unclear and open to really any interpretation – I have more questions than answers, but I love that he got me thinking about so many ideas.
And this has been the most difficult review of a novel I’ve ever had to write because it would be like trying to recreate one of Steins perfect butterflies from far away based off of just the verbal description given to us through multiple sources handed out from the jungle 300 miles in and pieced together over a life time. I could spend my life getting caught up in this beautiful novel, constantly going around and around, like Jim, or like fate, or like all of mankind.