Joseph Conrad was born in the Ukraine in 1857. His father was a Polish revolutionary, so Joseph spent his youth with several different relatives in several different places. In 1874, he first went to sea. For the next twenty years he made his living as a sailor, joining the English merchant service in 1878 and eventually becoming a ship captain. In his twenties, after joining the English fleet, Conrad anglicized his Slavic name and learned English. He did not begin to write until he was in his forties. Lord Jim is the first of his major novels. It appeared in 1900, the year after Heart of Darkness, which is perhaps his best-known work. Conrad was only moderately successful during his lifetime, although he moved in prominent literary circles and was friends with people like Henry James and Ford Madox Ford; with the latter he coauthored several works.
Conrad was writing at the very moment when the Victorian Age was disappearing and the modern era was emerging. Victorian moral codes still influenced the plots of novels, but such principles were no longer absolute. Novelists and poets were beginning to experiment with form. The jumbled time sequence and elaborate narrative frames of Lord Jim are part of this movement. As Conrad wrote in the preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', another of his novels, fiction wanted to "strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music." Lord Jim, with its insistence on the frequent inability of language to communicate straightforwardly, opens itself to new ways of using words. A term as elusive as "inscrutable" may contain within itself the immediately comprehensible essence of the novel's protagonist, while a simple word like "water" may fracture into a multiplicity of meanings, each one available to only a single individual.
The sun hadn't set yet on Victoria's empire, however; in fact, it was at its zenith. While this is one of Conrad's novels least involved in the set of issues surrounding colonialism, Lord Jim nevertheless situates itself in a world where national differences are often reduced to the dichotomy of "us" and "them," where the term "us" can encompass a surprisingly heterogeneous group. Both economic and racial versions of the colonial dynamic come into play in this novel.
When Conrad died in 1924, the first World War had come and gone, and modernism dominated literature. The new world was one in which a novel like Lord Jim, in which an older set of ideals about heroism do combat with a modern sense of troubled personal identity, could no longer be written with serious intent. Works like The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury, which feature the same sort of conflict, present the struggle as absurd and futile, and no longer profound. Lord Jim comes out of a unique and very specific moment in time.
Take a Study Break!