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Study Questions

Is this Jim's story or Marlow's? In other words, is this a novel about actions, or a novel about storytelling? Which aspect of the text is privileged?

Marlow has an extraordinary amount of control over the text, which suggests that Conrad may be more interested in the act of storytelling than in Jim's actual deeds. Marlow also has the last word, which he uses to declare Jim "inscrutable," thereby seeming to deny any definite meaning to Jim's life. Yet the connection between the two, the idea that Jim, like Marlow, is "one of us," indicates that the two levels of the story are somehow inextricably linked. Jim's struggle to realize his fantasies of heroism is similar to Marlow's struggle to explain to himself his fascination with Jim, and to determine what the quality is that makes Jim "one of us." Both are concerned with forging an identity for themselves. The process by which they seek to accomplish this is the major difference between the two: Jim acts, while Marlow writes (or speaks). Both fail, however; Jim goes to his death, Marlow finally throws up his hands and calls the whole thing indecipherable. The sheer technical brilliance of Conrad's narrative structure, though, dwarfs any valor in Jim's acts. Additionally, Marlow's oral storytelling is intimately entangled with the act of writing and narrative construction, suggesting that Conrad, sitting at his desk writing this novel, may after all be more interested in Marlow's struggle to express himself verbally than he is in Jim's struggle to express himself actively.

Discuss the women in this novel. What role do they play symbolically? Literally? Why are there so few of them? Why do Jewel, her mother, and Gentleman Brown's late mistress have such similar stories?

Conrad's is a male world, one of sea-faring and economic conquest. Women represent domesticity--home--and as such represent the repository of basic cultural values. There aren't many women here because they're all back in Europe. The women who do appear in this story are natives, not white. Thus they could be considered outside the normal paradigm of gender relations, since men don't have to treat them like they would white women. This does not turn out to be the case, though. For one thing, Gentleman Brown's mistress is white. And her fate is quite similar to those of the native women. The Dutch-Malay woman and Gentleman Brown's late mistress both die as a direct or indirect result of their lovers' misbehavior. Jewel is also disappointed, but, like Marlow, she is left alive at the end of the story. While she is initially associated with romanticism (Marlow says that Jim's association with her is his first true encounter with the romantic), in the end she seems to stand for a principle of pragmatism. It is she, after all, who encourages Jim to fight for his life, and it is she who, like the other two women, suffers for his folly. The women represent "normality"--family and home--and it is this that is damaged by men playing hero. They are the implicit normative ideological grounding in this novel. The three women have such similar stories because most of the key male figures are variations on the same type--driven by fantasies and concerned mostly with their own identities rather than any collateral damage that may result from their actions.

Does Conrad offer a critique of colonialism in this novel? Is he in support of it? Or does it just provide a setting? How does the history of colonialism affect the plot of this novel?

Colonialism is a problematic subject in this novel. Patusan is not actually a colonial possession; it is a territory that has been raided for material goods and then forgotten. It is significant, though, that, as a place populated by non-Europeans and not subject to the white man's law because it's not actually a colony, Patusan serves as a dumping ground for white society's rejects. Cornelius and the Dutch-Malay woman are sent there in ignominy, and Jim too is dispatched there to escape the reputation he has received among Europeans. The natives of Patusan are all too aware that the entry of white men can mean only one of two things: either they are about to be colonized, or the white man has something fatally wrong with him. This is why Doramin's wife, Jewel, and others keep approaching Marlow with questions about Jim's past.

Conrad plays with stereotypes of the colonial subject, too. Many of those around Jim in Patusan approach caricature in their extreme traits: the taciturn yet loyal Tamb'Itam, the beautiful and amorous Jewel, the noble Doramin, the blood brother Dain Waris. Some of these figures are meant to contrast with Jim. Dain Waris, for example, is a better leader, who displays more common sense and doesn't need to rely on a mystical reputation. In general, though, the setting is meant to obscure the ideals under questioning in this novel. What does it mean to be a hero among "savages" rather than Europeans, for example? Why does it matter if Jim fails to save Dain Waris from Brown? Ideals are inseparable from societal norms, and it is difficult to ascertain what one's ideals should be when one is not at home.

What does Marlow mean when he says that Jim is "one of us"? Why does he take such an interest in Jim?

What kind of hero is Jim? A Romantic hero? A modern hero? A moral hero? An anti-hero? What are the ideals that he upholds or fails to uphold?

What is the relationship between the episode of the Patna and the episode in Patusan? Wouldn't it have been enough to have Jim go through one or the other?

This is a novel that is, to a certain extent, about colonialism. Is national identity important? Does it matter that Jim is British? Or is one's identity as a member of the maritime community more important?

Why does Jim let Gentleman Brown go? After what happened on the Patna, does he have any choice?

What kind of language does Conrad use? What kinds of imagery? Does he use metaphor? Allegory? Symbolism? What kinds of things does he describe in most detail? In least detail? Why?

What is the meaning of honor, or ideals, in this novel? Where do these ideas come from?

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