by Joseph Conrad
Jim is the first mate on a ship called the Patna. While at sea an emergency convinces all the crew to abandon the ship and all of its passengers. They decide they have no other choice because there aren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone. They leave the passengers to their fate assuming they’ll perish at sea. Soon both groups are rescued and Jim is taken to court to be held accountable to abandoning ship.
Charles Marlow, another sea captain is our narrator. He gives us a bit of perspective (interestingly he is also the narrator of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.) Marlow watches Jim’s trial and decides that he has a sense of honor that the rest of the crew, who fled, did not have. He decides to help Jim find work. As Marlow relates Jim’s story he can’t help identify with Jim’s struggle.
As Jim tells him what happened the night he abandoned the Patna he keeps asking Marlow, “What would you have done?” He knows that Marlow can’t possibly answer that question, but he wants him to understand how impossible the situation felt. He longs to be a hero, but his own flaws made him flee at the crucial moment.
As Jim tries to rebuild his life he is haunted by his past. He can’t let go of the guilt that overwhelms him and he longs to prove himself in another way. The second half of the novel became a bit muddled and convoluted. The point is that our sins and shame follow us through life. Even if we can leave and create an entirely new life, we are still the person we always were. Jim finally gets a chance to once again choose between fight and flight, but it’s still an impossibly hard decision.
One of the most fascinating parts in the book for me was a small section about Captain Brierly. His is just a tiny section of the book, but it really resonated with me. He is the presiding judge at Jim’s trial and he is a sailor beyond reproach. He is well respected and admired by his colleges, as close as you can get to perfection in the naval world. He tries to get Marlow to give Jim some money to escape so he doesn’t have to stand trial. When that does work he is truly bothered by the whole situation. A very short time after the trial he commits suicide, completely unexpectedly. There’s no major emphasis put on this plot point, but it was still startling.
BOTTOM LINE: I loved the philosophical questions this novel raised, but it was an incredibly slow read. I almost wish it was a novella that maintain the main points, but cut out a lot of the repetition. There were so many points in the middle that lagged. I enjoyed it more than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I think I can safely say he’ll never be one of my favorite authors.