Lord Jim

A Character in Search of a Plot

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Hong Kong katherine.baxter@northumbria.ac.uk
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Borrowing heavily from the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Edward Said’s Orientalism suggests that imperialist acquisitiveness was excused through an anthropological rhetoric of geography: ‘The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.’1 Intriguingly anticipating this critique, in Lord Jim, Conrad explores the fallout of such idealisation both for the colonies and, more particularly, for the colonisers. The idealising rhetoric of justification that Said identifies has already been fully internalised by Jim so that he fails to recognise its fictional basis. It is exactly this problem of blurred boundaries between fictional ideal and the lived experience of reality that Conrad seeks to explore in the novel. This exploration takes place not only in the realm of colonialism, however, but also in that of narrative itself, so that the novel exhibits a certain sceptical self-reflexivity of the kind usually denied by Said to those orientalising authors he seeks to critique. This narratalogical self-consciousness is more pertinently discussed by Said in his 1974 essay, ‘Conrad: The Presentation of a Narrative’, yet here his focus refrains from acknowledging the ethical import of Conrad’s narrative play.2 What follows then is an exploration of Lord Jim that, without being an overtly Saidian reading of the novel, unpacks the ethical concerns that arise from the elision of fiction and reality in the ideal of romance.

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