Lord Jim is remarkable for its elaborately woven scheme of narration, which is similar in many ways to that of The Good Soldier, a novel written by Conrad's friend and collaborator Ford Madox Ford. The narrative comes to the reader primarily through Marlow, a world-weary sea captain who identifies deeply with Jim's fallibilities. Marlow has complete control over the story, though, and he exercises his power in increasingly complicated ways. Time is broken up: in a single paragraph of narration, Marlow will reference the past, the present, and the future. By manipulating the flow of the narrative, Marlow is able to create juxtapositions and contrasts that highlight particular aspects of the story. He is a master at withholding information: Jim's final fate becomes a matter for discussion eight chapters before the reader learns what that fate actually is. This creates suspense, of course, but it also allows Marlow to shape the reader's eventual reaction when he or she does receive the relevant information. Marlow also offers the reader narrative blocks from a variety of sources, of differing degrees of reliability. Much of the story has come from Jim, but significant sections have come from other characters or have been pieced together by Marlow based on inference. Information is conveyed by letters, midnight conversations, deathbed interviews, forwarded manuscripts, and, most significantly, in the form of a tale told to an audience of listeners. The narrative occasionally breaks to show Marlow telling Jim's story to a group of acquaintances at a much later date. Temporally, this scene of storytelling takes place after Jim's arrival in Patusan but before the arrival of Gentleman Brown and Jim's eventual defeat. Marlow must thus leave the story unfinished for a time. He completes it by sending a manuscript to one member of his audience. This shift from an oral mode of storytelling to a written form of narrative is significant. A storyteller has the power to shape his material to match his audience's response; a writer, on the other hand, who works in solitude, must offer his distant reader a predetermined message.
Marlow constantly ponders the "message"--the meaning of Jim's story. His language is dense with terms like "inscrutable" and "inexplicable," words that denote imprecision and indecipherability, but which also possess a certain quality of uncertainty in themselves, as words. He struggles to name things, and is often reduced to wondering if there even is a meaning to Jim's story and his fascination with it. Sometimes he concludes that the meaning is an "enigma"; sometimes he decides there is no meaning to be found at all. Words are constantly being contested in this novel; at least three major episodes center around the misinterpretation of a single spoken word. This uncertainty about language is the key feature of Conrad's style. Conrad is the master of a high, elegiac language that seems to contain depths of profundity nearly inexpressible in words. As one who did not learn English until he was in his twenties, he must certainly have been aware of each and every word he used, and each must have been carefully chosen. His language is often deliberately difficult, and in that quality his prose shares some of the features of modernism. But his diction also matches, in its linguistic difficulty, the thematic and interpretive difficulty of his material. This synthesis between form and content is powerful, making Conrad's prose a thing of tortured beauty.
Even more tortured is the analysis of idealism and heroism that lies at the center of Lord Jim. Jim is a young man who enters the world motivated primarily by fantasies of daring and noble deeds lifted from cheap novels. His ideals break down, however, in the face of real danger; they are, in fact, untenable when applied to any form of reality. This naïve idealism seems absurd when it leads to Jim's refusal to forget the Patna incident, but it leads to real tragedy when he allows it to guide his conduct when Patusan is threatened. What is honorable behavior in this world? Captain Brierly, who is presented as the prime example of success both professionally and in terms of character, can't live with himself and commits suicide. Gentleman Brown, one of the most self-possessed and self-scrutinizing of men, is nothing but a petty bandit. All these men are connected by being what Marlow calls "one of us," but what does that term mean? Ideals are a troublesome burden, and each character reveals to some degree a fear that he will be confronted with a situation in which he must choose between ideals of conduct and a happy outcome.
Like many of Conrad's works, Lord Jim is set in a colonial world. The critique of colonialism is much less central here, however, than in a novel like Heart of Darkness. Colonialism is most important as a backdrop to the action and the moral struggles. In this world, the rules of "home" (i.e. European society) do not necessarily apply, particularly when one is dealing with men who aren't white. National affiliations are much more tenuous, too. Other allegiances--the idea of being "one of us" versus "one of them," for example--take their place, altering expectations of honorable behavior. Most of all, though, Lord Jim is a novel about storytelling, and in the confusion and convolutions of its narrative form are reflected the ambiguities of its ideals and its setting.