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Lord Jim (1900)
Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (85)
Jim, a British seaman, ships aboard the Patna, taking 800 pilgrims to Mecca. When the ship rams a derelict and is holed, Jim and the other officers abandon ship, leaving the passengers to the mercy of the sea. But the ship is rescued and towed to port and the officers brought to trial. At the trial, Jim meets Marlow (our narrator in Heart of Darkness) and tells his story. He reveals that he refused to leave the boat, or help those abandoning it, but tripped during a swell and stumbled into a departing lifeboat. He knows it must appear that he too was a coward and, in fact, by not revealing the truth before the ship was towed into port, he has participated in their crime. Jim's seaman certificate is canceled, but he tells Marlow that he feels proud of standing & accepting his punishment like a man.
The story picks up several years later, Jim has wandered from port to port, always moving on when the story of the Patna catches up with him. Finally, he is sent as a water clerk to the Malaysian village of Patusan. Three groups vie for power in this region: Rajah Allang & the native Malays are at war with the Doramin and his men, immigrants from the island of Celebes known as Bugis, and Sherif Ali leads a band of armed natives. Jim convinces Doramin and the Bugis to attack Sherif Ali before he can join up with the Rajah. When the attack is successful & Sherif Ali is driven off, Jim becomes a hero & is thenceforth known as "Tuan Jim", Lord Jim.
His honor restored and his life redeemed, Jim vows never to leave Patusan. He falls in love with Jewel, a native woman, and finds a loyal servant, Tamb' Itam. Eventually Ali rebuilds his strength & allies with the Rajah and as a result, Patusan comes under attack more frequently. Then, one day while Jim is away, a European pirate named Brown shows up and he and his men are attacked by Doramin and the Bugis. When Jim returns, he negotiates a free passage down river for Brown, who sees in Jim's naiveté the opportunity to take over Patusan. Brown and his men double back to attack a band of Bugis, including Doramin's heir who is killed. Jim goes to face Doramin, knowing that he is responsible for the death after guaranteeing Brown would leave peacefully, and Doramin shoots him.
My grandfather gave me this book when I was a kid and I loved it as an adventure story. But I also loved the way that Jim, who had committed the cardinal sin of cowardice, was able to redeem himself later in life. When you're young and filled with self-doubt, what message could be more powerful than the opportunity for second chances in life, even if you make horrible mistakes along the way? Now rereading it as an adult, the wonderful nuances of Conrad's portrait of Jim emerge. This novel is a great one at any age.
See also:Joseph Conrad (4 books reviewed)
Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century
New York Public Library's Books of the Century