Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
A version of Gwendolen Harleth’s crisis is repeated on board the Patna, the ship on which Joseph Conrad’s protagonist Lord Jim serves as First Mate. When the bulkhead is damaged in a collision and the ship starts to take in water, Jim jumps, abandoning the several hundred Malaysian pilgrims crammed in its decks. As in Gwendolen’s case, Jim’s decisive action is crowded into an instant altogether too fast. After several moments of inner struggle, Jim reports that he discovered himself in the water, but the moment in which he jumps falls out of his narration. And yet the jump is the pivot on which everything turns.
Thus does Conrad build a novel around an instant, the instant that tells on character. In its judgment of Jim, the narrative is suspended between the unfairness of condemning a man’s entire life for a momentary lapse, and the tradition that requires unbroken resolve in a ship officer’s courage. Time, as much as action, is decisive, because no one can tell whether the momentary lapse emanates from Jim’s inner nature. Aristotle would have said yes, on the grounds that a crisis brings out a person’s true virtues. The French Lieutenant, in contrast, considers Jim’s inner landscape irrelevant to his loss of public honor. Marlow and Stein are less sure. But from all vantage points, Jim’s jump stands in evidence against him. Ineluctably, the moment bears the burden of a life.