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"All So Morbid": the Gothic in Conrad's Lord Jim.

In his June 1917 "Author's Note" to Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad claimed to be "puzzled and surprised" by a woman's complaint that his book was "all so morbid" (vii, ix). While Conrad admitted that her judgment provided "food for an hour's anxious thought," he dismissed the woman's perception, by denying "anything morbid in the acute consciousness of lost honour" and assuring his readers that Jim was "not the product of coldly perverted thinking," nor "a figure of Northern Mists either" ("Author's" ix). He stated that Jim was a man he'd seen "pass by" on a roadstead, "appealing," "one of us" ("Author's" ix). But these arguments surely do not answer the woman's charge. For throughout Lord Jim, Conrad persistently juxtaposes Jim's solid, healthy good looks with his elusive mind and untrustworthy behavior. Charlie Marlow even once declares that it was precisely Jim's familiar, wholesome appearance which made his internal weakness "a thing of mystery and terror" (Lord 46): to then appeal to Jim's appearance as re-assuring proof of his sound nature--much less the sound nature of the novel--rings hollow. In truth, Conrad's rebuttals were bound to lack substance. Whatever morbid was intended to suggest--gloom, melancholy, disease, disturbance, death--Lord Jim is "all so morbid" by any definition ("Morbid"; "Author's" ix). The novel offers a dark vision of a world rife with horror and death, a broad observation to which Conrad's "Author's Note" offers no rebuttal. That an hour's anxious consideration from Conrad on the possibly morbid nature of Lord Jim produced only these tenuous and myopic arguments against such a reading suggests that just such a reading is in order.

Late in Lord Jim, Marlow abruptly interrupts his narration of events on Patusan to pose a dark question: "How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?" (Lord 296). By the time this anguished question breaks through the surface of the tale, Marlows audiences have become so used to the Gothic strains of Conrad's prose that this chilling supernatural metaphor may entirely escape notice. Just more Marlovian melodramatics, perhaps. But the darkness of the question is quickly surpassed by the gloom of Marlow's answer. He says of killing this specter,

[i]t is an enterprise you rush into while you dream, and are glad to make your escape with wet hair and every limb shaking. The bullet is not run, the blade not forged, the man not born; even the winged words of truth drop at your feet like lumps of lead. You require for such a desperate encounter an enchanted and poisoned shaft dipped in a lie too subtle to be found on earth. (Lord 296)

In this passage, at least, the aforementioned specter is fear, not a literal ghost. Jewel is afraid because of what she can't know about Jim, what Marlow calls her "invincible ignorance," and she is looking to Marlow to "exorcise" her anxiety with words (Lord 296).

This brief interaction with Jewel mirrors Marlow's basic project in all of Lord Jim. The novel's compiled narrative details and enacts Marlow's "desperate encounter" with fear and uncertainty (Lord 296). The oft-told story Marlow brandishes is his attempt at managing the fears and uncertainty arising from the events of Jim's life. Hoping to "exorcise" these haunting doubts, he imbues his tale with unearthly elements, subtle fictions (Lord 296). This doubt is figured throughout the narrative by pervasive Gothic elements such as the specter. Conrad's language in this passage, mixing as it does metaphors of dreams and ghosts, is indicative of his utilization of the Gothic and the liminal--together, the liminoid, as explained below--to express this uncertainty and its accompanying horror. Lord Jim should be read as a liminoid Gothic novel, trappings and all: hauntings; dark sins against humanity; deserted, sinister, enchanted locations; rituals; and, most importantly, the Un-Dead. (1) All are characteristic of the liminal and the Gothic, and all contribute to Conrad's primary argument: the closest humanity can come to resolving uncertainty is by utilizing "lies too subtle to be found on earth" (Lord 296). Lord Jim acts as a reflection on the nature and utility of these "lies."

Two recent articles in Conradiana have located elements of the Gothic and the liminal in Heart of Darkness, while within the same recent issues discussions of Lord Jim have focused on communal integration and "intersubjective exchange" (Boes 114; Hannah 39). Though not immediately obvious, there is an important confluence of ideas here. Each of the four readings--by Tobias Boes, Daniel Hannah, Fred Solinger, and Jennifer Lipka--brings out Conrad's creative and de-stabilizing use of spaces between and conflated binaries: in essence, liminality. It is in these liminal moments and spaces that the crucial work of the novels occurs, according to each reader: Boes suggests that Conrads greatness actually depends upon the failure of his own endeavor in Lord Jim (114); Hannah focuses upon "Conradian silence, in which doubt and the exigency of interpretation go hand in hand" (40); Solinger's overtly liminal reading of Heart of Darkness says that through Conrads delayed decoding, "the narrative occupies a transitional space between recognition and understanding" (66); in Lipka's Gothic reading of Heart of Darkness she declares that Conrads ironic use of language "puts the so-called rational world in question" (30). Given that Conrad actually interrupted his writing of Lord Jim to produce Heart of Darkness, this critical entwining of the two novels should not be surprising. Conrad had a marked propensity for rehashing his themes and techniques, a prescient example of the latter being his spliced narrative structures, and thus it is only natural to expect that Heart of Darkness's liminal and Gothic tones and patterns would have found their place in Lord Jim, as they in fact do. Shedding light on these elements of Lord Jim brings into sharp relief Conrads view of community, societal convention, and narrative as chiefly "sheltering conceptions" (Lord 293).

These sheltering conceptions rest at the heart of Victor Turners study of liminality, because liminal rituals are fundamentally attempts to reveal and cope with indeterminacy. Turner actually describes three such liminal activities, each containing the essential critical, de-constructive stage: rites of passage, social dramas, and liminoid rituals. Turner conceives of the social drama as ubiquitous, indicating that liminality and liminal processes occur in every society (78). But he more strictly construes what should be termed a liminal ritual, only applying this label to a rite of passage or social drama occurring within tribal and agrarian ritual and myth. When a product of industrial leisure such as a novel or play enacts a social drama, that product should instead be labeled liminoid. The readings performed by the audiences of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are then more properly termed liminoid rituals, those performed by the leisure classes, even as the characteristic elements, modes, stages, and events occurring within the novels can still be described as liminal.

Fred Solinger exemplifies the common usage by reading Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness as a doubled rite of passage through which colonialism is unveiled and problematized. He describes Marlow and his journey in rite-of-passage terms, but he more interestingly does the same with the narrative journey taken by Conrads readers. Solinger explains that through Conrads narrative and his strategy of delayed decoding the reader is forced to reflect and adjust: "Again and again, the readers assumptions are undermined; again and again, the reader is asked to consider what other things he or she takes as a given are not quite what they seem to be" (Solinger 67). Solinger points out that not only are generally-held social assumptions like the benevolence of colonialism undermined through Conrads liminal ritual, but also language itself comes under fire. Marlow is consistently unable to adequately express himself and his experience, and "[i]n stumbling over these obstacles, the reader is jarred into discovering 'the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern'" (Solinger 68).

Solinger takes Conrads "philanthropic pretence," fairly, to be describing the hypocrisy of colonialism (qtd. in Solinger 68). But the truth is that for Conrad all language and all narratives are chiefly philanthropic pretense. Colonialism's narrative is doubly false. It presents itself as acting philanthropically towards Africa, while its actual "philanthropy" lies in its neutralizing Europe's fear, guilt, and ignorance by presenting itself as acting philanthropically towards Africa. The twist on "philanthropic pretence" is the foundational practice of the liminal ritual and the reason why Conrad returns to liminal and Gothic conventions repeatedly in his works for its expression (qtd. in Solinger 68).

In doing so, Conrad creates novels that act as liminoid rituals, fictitiously enacting social dramas. According to Turner, in a social drama, a breach is opened up in a community through some sort of communal violation--from failure of manners to murder--and the community enters into a liminal redressive procedure, a time "set apart from the ongoing business of quotidian life, when an interpretation (Bedeutung) is constructed to give the appearance of sense and order to the events leading up to and constituting a crisis" (75). So through the liminal ritual, the community creates a story of the events that gives the "appearance of sense and order" to the breach and ensuing crisis, and this construction restores community and enables a return to daily life (Turner 75). In this way storytelling, whether symbolic or linguistic, takes on its philanthropic aspect: it covers breaches and constructs structures by which participants organize and cope with a disordered world.

But it is a philanthropic pretence, as the phrase "appearance of sense and order" indicates (Turner 75). The social drama and the narrative it constructs both establish social order and make plain its artificial nature, in the root sense of the word artifice, because the community has participated in its construction. Liminality is, therefore, "both more creative and more destructive than the structural norm. [...] it raises basic problems for social structural man, invites him to speculation and criticism" (Turner 46-7). The liminal is unsettling and raises speculation because it demonstrates the artificial, constructed character of the social world and social identity. Through this disorienting experience of destruction and creation, Turner says, participants come to realize that
   'Determining' and 'fixing' are indeed processes, not permanent
   states or givens [...] From this point of view social being is
   finitude, limitation, constraint. [...] Ritual and legal procedures
   mediate between the formed and the indeterminate. As Moore [Sally
   Falk] argues, 'ritual is a declaration of form against
   indeterminacy, therefore indeterminacy is always present in the
   background of any analysis of ritual.' (77)

The constructions of liminality, then, whether the products of liminal ritual or the narratives of liminoid novels, are intentionally philanthropic pretences, fictions that reveal themselves as false even as they construct means of coping with the uncertainty they have created.

Turner's social drama ritual is social, which raises important questions: what is the community for a Gothic novel or other liminoid ritual, and how do the individuals of such a community participate in a liminoid ritual, performed textually? The answer, which Solinger's reading of Heart of Darkness indicates, is that if the novel is to be liminoid, the reading community must take the place of the agrarian community of liminal ritual, and readers, rather than tribespersons, must become Turner's "social structural man" invited to speculation and criticism (Turner 46). This might help to explain to the reader or listener who recurs as framing device in so many Gothic novels--in Melmoth the Wanderer, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights, or Heart of Darkness, to name a few. All create a fictional audience that both participates in the framing story--as characters--and yet remains outside the story--as listeners. These fictional audiences and their liminal relation to the narrative highlight the liminal participant position of the actual reader of a Gothic novel.

By placing doubles for the reader within the text--listening, judging doubles such as Henry James's fireside audience as well as more actively constructing doubles such as James Hogg's editor, Gabriel John Utterson in Jekyll and Hyde, and even Horace Walpole's "translator" William Marshall--Gothic authors make us as readers aware of our own desire to construct a coherent story from the perplexities of the "facts". Just like those fictional audiences who frame, border, or limit the Gothic narratives from within, we readers are attempting to determine--limit--the meaning of the text we are reading from without. This is the natural activity of most readers upon reading a text: to attempt to determine it, to give it meaning and coherence. It is in this way that readers can participate in the liminoid ritual of the Gothic novel. As Wolfgang Iser has pointed out in The Act of Reading, "[i]t is the elements of indeterminacy that enable the text to communicate' with the reader, in the sense that they induce him to participate both in the production and the comprehension of the work's intention" (24). A text which offers indications of coherence but also regularly invalidates those illusions of order--as Conrad's text does, and as do many conventionally Gothic works--will force the readers to work to constantly adjust their conceptions of the elements of the text, making readers aware of the contingency of their constructions. (2)

The conventional nineteenth-century Gothic novel, one could then argue, is a liminoid exercise in exploring and tenuously resolving the uncertainties it creates. This essential process is enacted by Gothic readers, mirrored by the fictional audience within the novel, and mirrored again by the characters of the novel. The characters must be included because 18th and 19th century Gothic tales revolve around mysteries: from Walpoles Otranto to Ann Radcliffe's Udolpho and from thence to Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and finally to James's The Turn of the Screw in 1897, the novels whirl crazily around a vacant center, the unknown whose force drives the characters and the plot. But eventually most Gothic authors, including Walpole, Radcliffe, Charlotte Bronte, and even Robert Louis Stevenson, took pains to give their mysteries a familiar shape and color. These novels exemplify the unveiling and solving convention of early Gothic tales. In more proper liminoid fashion, however, some authors such as Hogg and James eschewed resolution in their Gothic novels. Who or what was Gil-Martin? Did Peter Quint and Miss Jessel really return to haunt or possess Miles and Flora? Was the governess fearfully guilty, or subject to fearful hallucinations?

Conrads novels function in much the same way as The Turn of the Screw. A central void drives the action of Heart of Darkness and its almost compulsive re-telling. As Jennifer Lipka reminds readers (and Marlow warned auditors), in Heart of Darkness "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (qtd. in Lipka 26). Kurtz's brief and curiously impotent appearance in the novel only furthers my conviction that he is most powerful as an absence, rather than a presence. In much the same way, Lord Jim's mystery is not an obscured event or a supernatural appearance: the mystery of Lord Jim, is Jim. If Marlow had found Jim penetrable or knowable, his interest in the story would have ceased long before the occasion of the story's telling. But Jim is as much an irresolvable mystery to himself as he is to others, and this is the novel's most powerful insight. We learn from Jim, who is after all "one of us," that our knowledge of ourselves is necessarily constructed, contingent, and socially dependent ("Author's" xxi). We are mysteries to ourselves and to others, and this eternal uncertainty is one of Conrad's favorite loci of horror. Both Jim and the novel, because they are expressions of this horror, take on decidedly Gothic characteristics.

Lord Jim unfolds as characters enact numerous liminal rituals in an attempt to resolve, by means of one philanthropic pretense or another, the fundamental uncertainties and consequent horrors that Jim has aroused. Conrad makes it clear that Jim's crime is communal and fearfully significant--precisely the initiatory crime of Turners social drama--when Marlow uses the words "breach," "community," and "traitor" while walking to Jim's sentencing (Lord 145). Marlow states, "The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind, and from that point of view he [Jim] was no mean traitor" (Lord 145). Specifically, Jim's failure has endangered the professional sailing community and its ability to "hold together"--Marlow calls the merchant marine "an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct" (Lord 45). Captain Montague Brierly explains his anger towards Jim in near-parallel terms: "We aren't an organized body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency" (Lord 62). By decency, Brierly is referring to the code of honor Jim has broken by abandoning his ship and its passengers when in danger. But it is not even "decency," but the name for the decency which is the tenuous thread holding together the sailing community (Lord 62). Buried in the language here is a gesture at the narrated, verbal, constructed nature of community: the community hangs upon a single word, "the name for that kind of decency" (Lord 62).

Whether "the name" refers to the maritime community's reputation, or an agreed-upon conception of decency held within the community, Jim's action has destabilized the community and thereby the identity of its members (Lord 62). Identity and belief, as Conrad's epigram from Novalis makes clear, are social, and who we are--even for a "superior" man such as Brierly--is only clear in its relation to the societies and individuals with whom we identify (Lord 52). Jacques Berthoud's introduction to the novel suggests this, saying that "[i]n Lord Jim Conrad invites us to regard [the self] as a collaborative, even a social, concept" (xxv). So Marlow and Brierly take Jim's failure personally because the community and its individuals are dependent for their sense of identity upon the adherence of each member to a consensual (and named) structure of regulated behavior, what the French lieutenant calls "the honour" (Lord 137). Marlow suggests this understanding of Jim's behavior, and does so in the gloomiest of language:

I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible--the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man's creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death--the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good quiet little villainies; it's the true shadow of calamity, [...] [Jim's] appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness--made it a thing of mystery and terror--like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth [...] had resembled his youth. (Lord 46)

Marlow gothically describes "the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct" as "the most obstinate ghost of man's creation" and "more chilling than death" (Lord 46). In other words, Jim's action, by introducing doubt about social structures into the lives of men like Brierly, Marlow, and the sailing community at large, introduces liminality into the sailing community. Those doubts find expression in Conrad through Gothic forms--liminal locations, haunting, entrapment, ghosts, vampires, and things "more chilling than," and "worse than," death--the Un-Dead (Lord 46).

In both the liminal generally and the Gothic specifically, humans take on aspects of the supernatural, the inhuman, or the asocial. This characterization is indicative that identity, as socially constructed, is imperiled by the community's fracture. Turner frequently describes liminality in terms of death and opposition: liminality and liminal individuals are "associated with such general oppositions as life and death"--"at once dying from or dead [...] and being born"--"in close connection with [...] powers of life and death"--"ghosts"--and the point around which the rest develop, "They are dead to the social world, but alive to the asocial world" (27). The foregrounded characteristic of the socially liminal individual, then, is his simultaneous association with life and death. In the Gothic, we find this liminal characteristic expressed best in the Un-Dead, and this is the key to Lord Jim's Gothic and liminoid nature. It can be convincingly asserted that precisely because Jim is the central mystery of Conrad's Gothic novel and the most liminal of its figures, he is persistently characterized as Un-Dead. The horror that his destabilizing actions have evoked can only be adequately expressed in Gothic language. So Jim's unresolved liminality, its Un-Dead manifestation, and the consequent attempts to resolve the uncertainty he creates represent the philosophical, as well as narrative, center of Conrad's liminoid novel.

In one sense, Jim dies in the moment of his failure on the Patna. Marlow says that the Patna incident was as "a tale of black magic at work upon a corpse" (Lord 101). And this is true because the moment that Jim makes the fearful choice--his first "breach of faith with mankind"--to not wake the sleeping passengers, he imaginatively dies (Lord 145). Standing in the cavernous gloom of a nautical hell, Jim finds himself vividly drowning along with the passengers, helpless, on the brink of annihilation, in the foaming and churning waters of his own imagination. (3) He experiences the tragedy "to the very last harrowing detail" (Lord 79-80). This imagining is vivid enough that Jim still hears the cries of the drowned pilgrims in his ears days after the event.

So it is a dead man who jumps from the ship--this is, in fact, the perspective of the officers in the lifeboat. In jumping, Jim actually becomes George to those in the boat, seemingly a simple matter of misidentification. But it is also reminiscent of Gothic novels, so that we might argue a diabolical merging of identities--Jim's and the dead man's--has been perpetrated through the misnaming by those in the lifeboat, leaving Jim somewhere between life and death. As noted above, at the re-telling, Marlow says he is listening "as if to a tale of black magic at work upon a corpse," then Jim's story tells how he ran suddenly against the legs of the dead George, who appeared to be "picking himself up," followed by voice crying "George" (Lord 101). At this point in recounting the story, Jim stands from his chair in such a way that Marlow "beheld him rise slowly as if a steady hand from above had been pulling him out of the chair by his hair [...] when he said, "'They shouted'" (Lord 102). Returning to the narrative, Jim says he heard "another wild screech, 'Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!' She was going down, down, head first under me" and next, "'I had jumped'" (Lord 102, 103). Jim says that he "knew nothing about it" until he looked up (Lord 103). The thrice-repeated imagery of possession--Marlow's simile, George's "movement," Jim's performance at the retelling--suggestively combine so that the gap in Jim's narrative might actually be bridged by recalling the possession of numerous horror stories such as Hogg's Confessions or Richard Marsh's The Beetle.

But however he gets into the lifeboat, Jim is dead upon arrival. He explains that when he jumped into "the everlasting deep hole," " [everything was gone and--all was over [...] with me" (Lord 103, 83). The imagery of Jim's leap into the abyss, followed by the lifeboat ride enveloped in stillness and darkness, is veritably swollen with death. The lifeboat represents the first liminal location of the novel, one outside of the accepted social structure. As Marlow muses, layering liminal and Gothic concepts indiscriminately, this liminal location reflects the horror of finding the organized world overthrown by uncertainty, chaos, even absurdity.

There is something peculiar in a small boat upon the wide sea. Over the lives borne from under the shadow of death there seems to fall the shadow of madness. When your ship fails you, your whole world seems to fail you; the world that made you, restrained you, had taken care of you. It is as if the souls of men floating on an abyss and in touch with immensity had been set free for any excess heroism, absurdity, or abomination. [...] Trust a boat on the high seas to bring out the Irrational that lurks at the bottom of every thought, sentiment, sensation, emotion. (Lord 112)

This liminal location, full of the Irrational and empty of social constraint, is the proper place for the first attempt at redress to occur. Victor Turner writes that the purpose of the liminal phase is to allow a location outside of everyday life in which a narrative can be constructed to cover the breach and enable reintegration (75). The deserters take advantage of their liminal hours in the lifeboat to construct a narrative with which to protect themselves, both from the law and from their own consciences. One officer even "remembers" that he watched the light of the ship disappear, confirming their false story (Lord 104). Jim does not take part in their story-making, but we see the deserters and their narrative through his eyes: "They called me to know if I understood--wasn't it true, every word of it? It was true, by God! after their fashion" (Lord 116). Jim repeats this sentiment of the story's relative truth a few pages later: "It was not a lie--but it wasn't truth all the same. It was something.... One knows a downright lie" (Lord 120). This is chronologically one of the first gestures of the novel towards creating Conrad's subtle lie, the poisoned shaft which can allay fears and uncertainty, but Jim remains Un-Dead even as an attempt at redress is made. In fact, instead of the relief of an exorcism Jim begins to find himself haunted. Marlow envisions Jim living "surrounded by deceitful ghosts and austere shapes"--"the disastrous familiars of his youth" (Lord 143,145). These familiars, the adventure novels Jim read in his childhood, accompany and reproach him for his failure. Clearly, the simple liminal ritual of collaborative narrative construction has proven insufficient.

Jim's behavior has set a breach between himself and the community with which he identifies, and he is beginning to recognize the irreparable, inescapable nature of this breach. Still, rather than suicide and its peculiar quality of resignation, Jim chooses to persist in the proper course for a social drama in which "breach" is followed by the liminal stage of crisis and redress, so he submits himself to a grueling trial even while the other officers flee (Lord 145). Jim submits to the trial for the same reason that members of the maritime community attend the trial: all are looking for a narrative that reassures the community and allows the breach to close--allows the community to "hold together" (Lord 45).

So Jim sets out to tell the story his way, anticipating "that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things" (Lord 26). Jim believes, entering the court, that here he will be able to explain, for "the facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses," but the story had "something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body" (Lord 26). He wants to make clear and thereby exorcise horror--the invisible "something"--by telling all the facts, slowly and individually, but Marlow declares the futility of this approach: "They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" (Lord 24). The narrative which the trial draws from Jim does not enable him to escape from horror, his haunting, or liminality. Instead, the words of his story begin to circle around him, creating a container for Jim, one created entirely from the surface of the narrative.

While his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding himself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape. (Lord 27)

Jims enclosure by "the serried circle of facts" isolates him from "the rest of his kind" and not only calls to mind Gothic conventions of entrapment and escape but also prefigures Jim's later entrapment in the Rajah's compound (Lord 27). Thus the court's construction of the narrative (it is the court's construction, because its questions shape and direct Jim's telling) fails even as it succeeds. It closes the breach, but only by misrepresentation. Philanthropically, the court's ritual of story and punishment has provided the community at large with resolution. But the ritual has succeeded only by pretence: the story that the ritual constructs offers resolution primarily because it does not represent Jim or his experience in any meaningful way. The construction is true--after a fashion, as Jim describes the deserters' tale in the boat. Jim realizes this when he realizes that "truthful" speech is of "no use": "The sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer" (Lord 29). Regardless of this conviction, Jim will speak again, to Marlow, because as he says, "I would like to explain--I would like somebody to understand--somebody--one person at least! You! Why not you?" (Lord 74-5). But Jim's narrative, even when he chooses his own words and his own tale, fails. Marlow never becomes certain of Jim: instead, he eventually determines that Jim "upon the whole" is misleading, and he doesn't "pretend [he] understood him" (Lord 70). Once again we are reminded that Jim's primary function in their relationship (paralleling his relation to the entire novel, and the novel's relation to its readers) is to undermine certainty.

In a disconcerting moment while visiting Patusan, Marlow considers the precise nature of those social and linguistic pretences that hold the community--and thus identity--together. Jewel's own narrative and her impassive telling of it, Marlow says,

[h]ad the power to drive me out of my conception of existence, out of that shelter each of us makes for himself to creep under in moments of danger, as a tortoise withdraws into its shell. For a moment I had a view of a world that seemed to wear a vast and dismal aspect of disorder, while, in truth, thanks to our unwearied efforts, it is as sunny an arrangement of small conveniences as the mind of man can conceive. But still--it was only a moment: I went back into my shell directly. One must--don't you know?--though I seemed to have lost all my words in the chaos of dark thoughts I had contemplated for a second or two beyond the pale. These came back too, very soon, for words also belong to the sheltering conception of light and order which is our refuge. (Lord 293)

So words--Jewel's narrative--are capable of driving us "beyond the pale" (Lord 293). But words also act as our shelter, shielding us from disorder. This paradox is at the heart of all liminal tales and at the heart of Lord Jim's telling: through Jim, Marlow is made to feel both the necessity and inefficacy of language. As Marlow explains, "I was made to look at the convention that lurks in all truth and on the essential sincerity of falsehood" (Lord 86). Throughout his experiences in Jim's liminal world, listening to Jim's, his own, and others' attempts at narrative redress, Marlow is faced with this unsettling realization that language use is a matter of "conventional truths and essentially sincere falsehoods." But in the most liminoid of fashions, armed with this knowledge Marlow returns to telling his story and utilizing its "sheltering conception of light and order" (Lord 293).

Despite Marlow's dogged persistence, Lord Jim makes it indelibly clear that no narrative or narrator--no matter how eloquent, nor how "subtle," as Marlow's auditor describes him--can do more than artificially resolve the mysteries and horrible uncertainties of life's disorder (Lord 87). In fact, Marlow explains that Jim's case is so terrible that it is "one of these cases which no solemn deception can palliate" (Lord 89). And so, all deceptions failing, Jim remains Un-Dead.

The clearest statement (though it is one of possibly a hundred such implications) of Jim's Un-Dead state comes from Marlow on his way to the trial. Marlow describes Jim's legal expulsion from the maritime community as somehow equivalent to an execution. Jim is not just being sentenced: he is going to "the block," and Marlow finds himself "irresistibly impelled to go and see his head roll off" (Lord 145). In a casual way which almost escapes notice, Marlow says that Jim's "execution was a hole-and-corner affair" (Lord 145). And in describing the event, Marlow exclaims,

By Jove! For all my foolishness about scaffolds and heads rolling off--I assure you it was infinitely worse than a beheading. A heavy sense of finality brooded over all this, unrelieved by the hope of rest and safety following the fall of the axe. These proceedings had all the cold vengefulness of a death-sentence, and the cruelty of a sentence of exile. (Lord 147)

Here then, in the equation of "death-sentence" and "exile," the connection between social liminality and death--in actuality, between social liminality and Un-Death leading to monstrosity--is explicit: Jim has been executed without the "rest and safety following the axe," and so is Un-Dead, to follow the metaphor (Lord 147). Even the exile is not literal: Jim has not been ejected from a geographical space, but from a social community. But Jim is both exiled and executed in a very real sense, even if not in a physical sense, because he is no longer a recognized member of the community with which he identifies himself, and by which he is identified.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has observed that in the Gothic, personal identity is a matter of "seeing as" (157). Conrads epigraph from Novalis suggests a similar perspective: "It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it" (Tale 1). These quotations suggest that our identity and belief lean heavily upon what we see in the mirror of others' eyes. So the perceptions of the merchant marine community--Jim's doubles strewn throughout the novel--must inform our understanding of Jim's identity. Several reflections of Jim from within the maritime community corroborate an Un-Dead reading of Jim.

First to pronounce upon Jim from within his community is Marlow himself, followed by Brierly, Chester, Stein, the half-caste croaker, and finally Gentleman Brown, who claims Jim for his community. Each reflects Jim through language--but several also act as Gothic doubles, providing a richer mirror for observation of Jim. Observing Jim from a position somewhere between loathing and pity, Captain Brierly offers a particularly Gothic recommendation, live burial--"[l]et him creep twenty feet underground and stay there" (Lord 61). In sending Jim to Patusan, Marlow and Stein are taking heed of that advice. Indeed, Marlow guesses that "once before Patusan had been used as a grave for some sin, transgression, or misfortune," implying by "once before" that this is again to be Patusan's use (Lord 204). Jim, then, has become a corpse in need of burying--but who, according to Brierly, can bury himself. Later, Brierly takes his own advice, burying himself in the ocean as punishment for some unnamed, undiscovered, or possibly imagined crime.

Brierly and Marlow are not the only sailing men to notice Jim's deathlike state. While Brierly pronounces the sentence and proposes a burial, it is another man with whom Marlow discusses Jim's plight who makes the most ironic diagnosis: "Man overboard" (Lord 149). This is from Chester. And while Brierly pronounces sentence and then leaps himself, Marlow takes the time to tell the readers that Chester himself probably goes overboard when his ship is caught in a hurricane (Lord 163).

Late in the novel, Gentleman Brown loses his health at sea, starving in a lifeboat, shortly after declaring Jim "a dead man" (Lord 358). All three die in some way parallel to Jim's Patna circumstances--Brierly in a leap from a ship, Chester overboard in a storm, Brown in an illness gotten while fleeing in a lifeboat. If, as some argue, each is a double--a very Gothic convention--for Jim, providing a fuller picture of him, then it should be informative that the three men who recognize Jim's "death" die in strangely parallel incidents within months of their interaction with Jim. But this is not surprising when placed within the Gothic tradition of the Un-Dead, particularly of vampires.

As Allan Pritchard points out, part of the vampire tradition is "that the victim, drained of blood, becomes a predatory vampire himself" (443). Vampires actually re-enact their own moment of suffering, as well as recreating themselves--doubling themselves--with each victim. Jim and the Patna are wounded by one of those "terrors of the sea" which can "fasten upon one like a vampire till all the strength and the spirit and even hope are gone, and one feels like the empty shell of a man" (Lord 148). The incident, indeed, "seemed to take all the life out of [Jim's] limbs" (Lord 80). In accordance with vampiric tradition, then, it is proper that nearly everyone who interacts with the Un-Dead Jim suffers from the experience. In our last visions of many who have been close to him, we understand the full impact of Jim's interaction with them. Our last image of Doramin's wife is of a crouching figure with disheveled gray hair, far from her earlier "light, delicate," "witch-like" motherliness (Lord 390, 188). Jewel, already a ghost, now leads a "soundless, inert life" in Stein's graveyard of a home (Lord 392). And Stein, "aged greatly," prepares to die, waving ineffectually at his butterflies (Lord 392). Dain Waris's corpse is described as like that of Lucy Westenra, victim of a vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Dain Waris "whom they often called the white lord's friend was disclosed lying unchanged with his eyelids a little open as if about to wake" (Lord 386); Lucy, the unwitting lover of another sort of "white lord," is so beautiful in death that Dr. Seward proclaims, "positively I could not believe my eyes that I was looking at a corpse" (Stoker 198). This is also in a less literal sense true of Jim himself, who after his "execution" is yet described as "blooming" and who "kept his freshness" at the tropical home of Marlow's reclusive friend (Lord 173). In the same vein, according to "that half-caste croaker" whose ship takes Jim to Patusan, Jim is "already 'in the similitude of a corpse'" when he leaves for Patusan (Lord 224). Here, interestingly, Conrad conflates death and exile through the shipmaster's slip of the tongue: he says Jim is "'[a]lready like the body of one deported'" (Lord 224). And though Marlow disputes these claims, he only protests that "no man could have appeared less 'in the similitude of a corpse"' (Lord 226).

The recognition that Jim is in fact Un-Dead is actually at the heart of Marlows choice of Stein as counselor. Stein is an appropriate advisor because of his own liminality and Un-Dead existence--he is, after all, "the shadow prowling amongst the graves of butterflies"--a man whose hobby and home hover between death and life (Lord 199). This has also been noted in some sense by Frederick Karl and John Peters. (4) Consider Stein's home: His attendant is like "a ghost only momentarily embodied," and his garden is possessed of a "canalized stream," "ornamental pond" and "waterfowl with clipped wings," all the hollow forms of a fuller life (Lord 189, 327). More directly, Marlow describes Stein's hobby in terms of "the clashing claims of life and death" (Lord 201): "His collection of Bupestridae and Longicorns--beetles all--horrible miniature monsters, looking malevolent in death and immobility, and his cabinet of butterflies, beautiful and hovering under the glass of cases on lifeless wings had spread his fame far over the earth" (Lord 188-9).

Marlow's claim that he had come to Stein "to describe a specimen" demonstrates that Stein's symbolic occupation with the insects, not any other aspect of his life, qualifies him to diagnose Jim (Lord 197). Reinforcing this, Stein brings out from the cavernous gloom of his graveyard his own specimen, whose description bears marked similarities to Jim. Stein "looked at a butterfly, as though on the bronze sheen of these frail wings, in the white tracings, in the gorgeous markings, he could see other things, an image of something as perishable and defying destruction as these delicate and lifeless tissues displaying a splendour unmarred by death" (Lord 193). Like Jim, the butterflies paradoxically and deceptively represent something "defying destruction" even while they are irrevocably "lifeless" (Lord 193). We do well to remember the description of Jim in Patusan: "He was like a figure set up on a pedestal, to represent in his persistent youth the power, and perhaps the virtues, of races that never grow old, that have emerged from the gloom" (Lord 247). Like Jim in Marlow's vision, Stein's butterflies retain every appearance of life. Their frail appearance and blooming colors suggest a beautiful and glorious life, but conceal the reality and horror of death. In his last hours Jim declares himself "perishable" even as he "[defies] destruction," asserting the parallel (Lord 193). Jim affirms that he has "no life" that there is "nothing lost," for, like the butterfly, life has been lost long ago (Lord 384-5, 387); but at the same time, "in a last flicker of superb egoism," Jim declares, "Nothing can touch me" (Lord 388). Perishable, perished even, but yet defying destruction. Stein is, indeed, then, the proper man to consult in Jim's case. But this is obviously not because he is an expert on butterflies as such. He is the proper man to consult because the butterflies and Stein himself mirror Jim's own liminal and Un-Dead existence.

Steins advice, "[i]n the destructive element immerse" may, like Jim and many of his actions, be interpreted in many ways (Lord 199). But the actual result of Steins diagnosis and recommended cure is plain: death. George Waddington even seems to consider Stein a murderer. This extreme stance is justified because on the combined advice of Marlow and Stein, Jim moves to a markedly Gothic location, the "destructive element" of Patusan, so that he may "creep twenty feet underground" (Lord 199, 61). And here Jim does manage to get himself buried--in fact, in Patusan Jim relentlessly pursues death. Jim pursues his "Eastern bride," an opportunity to imaginatively refigure a life-event into a re-enactment of his "death" on the Patna and his incomplete execution at the trial (Lord 391, ?). This re-enactment, the ritualized sacrifice of his life at the hands of Doramin--judge, jury, executioner--culminates in Jim's actual death and is linked by Marlow with a marriage ritual in which the lifting of the veil reveals only death, yet another Gothic convention. So Stein may have intended many things, but Jim's interpretation is a descent into the fullest liminal location available--the ghostly Patusan--and the performance of a liminal ritual that resolves for Jim his own horror and mystery by constructing a performed, rather than spoken, narrative that ends in a ritualistic death.

So Jim heads for Patusan, and it is here that Jim finds the bottom of his abyss--"the light fell on it as if into an abyss"--a veritable world of the walking dead, liminality embodied (Lord 247). I am not alone in this Gothic vision of Patusan. Other readers such as Padmini Mongia have noted that Marlow finds nothing there but specters and immobility. Joanne Gass calls Jim's move to Patusan a "living death in the grave that Patusan has become" (254). Frederick Karl notes,
   The jungle which surrounds Jim is not an earthly Eden; it is,
   instead, filled with fatal temptations, with the 'stumps of felled
   trees', with flowers destined for 'the use of the dead alone', with
   'smells like that of incense in the house of the dead', with 'white
   coral that shone like a chaplet of bleached skulls', and over all
   is a silence 'as if the earth had been one grave.' (167)

The forests are "immovable" and "everlasting," the houses crowding the river are "like a spectral herd of shapeless creatures pressing forward to drink in a spectral and lifeless stream" (Lord 227-28, 230). Even the moon rises over the island "like an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended, cold and pale, like the ghost of a dead sunlight" (Lord 230). Arriving in Patusan, Jim is like "an apparition, a wraith, a portent," and the "ghostly figure" of his beloved Jewel, "some apparition, some unearthly being, all in white," appears "to glide without touching the earth" (Lord 235, 288, 276, 283). When the two profess their love by a river that "[rolls] silent and as black as Styx," "they [come] together under the shadow of a life's disaster, like knight and maiden meeting to exchange vows amongst haunted ruins" (Lord 292).

The juridical ritual of the trial and the more simple liminal ritual in the lifeboat, with their corresponding verbal constructions, have neither restored Jim to the community nor resolved the uncertainty he creates. So when he enters Patusan's liminality, his final opportunity to perform a redressive and constructive ritual, Jim leaves language behind and instead performs a curious blend of two forms of ritual common to liminality and the Gothic: a reenactment and a marriage. We first get a sense that Jim intends some form of reenactment when he begins speaking of a second chance. Aboard the Patna, an opportunity has been missed, in both Stein and Jim's words. That opportunity to gallantly go down with the ship is what Jim intends to find once more. As Jim determines early, "[t]he proper thing was to [...] wait for another chance" (Lord 123). Watching carefully, Jim will find the perfect vehicle for grasping his opportunity this time, returning to and re-enacting earlier events in order to bring about resolution. So while traveling to Patusan Jim begins his dramatic re-enactment of the Patna: small boats, a massive chief to replace a massive captain, leaps in which time becomes distorted, Eastern villagers roughly approximating the Indian pilgrims of the Patna, and finally an opportunity to remain, to stand, and to die.

The trip up the river finds Jim seated precisely as he had been once before, leaving the Patna. While fleeing the Patna, Jim remained rigid all night long with a spar across his legs; this time he repeats the ritual with a gun, though significantly an empty gun. Marlow describes Jim's courageous journey up the river and his opportunity in matrimonial language: "his opportunity sat veiled by his side like an Eastern bride waiting to be uncovered by the hand of the master" (Lord 228). Later, after taking the requisite leap (this time from the Rajah Allang's stockade), Jim digs himself from the mud into which he has leapt with such great courage while "the opportunity ran by his side, leaped over the gap, floundered in the mud ... still veiled" (Lord 235). She remains veiled, because resolution is not to be found in any proofs of physical courage, but in the completion of the performative ritual.

Even Jewel's love cannot deter Jim from his object. In the end, Jewel bitterly complains that Jim flew from her as if she "had been worse than death"--the same phrase Marlow uses in describing the experience of doubt and liminality (Lord 327). Indeed she is almost right. But it is not Jewel--though she, too, exhibits the characteristics of liminality--it is the ghostly intermediary life represented by everything on Jewel's side of the river that is intolerable to Jim. Despite everything, even here Jim cannot fully rest or belong, because in the land of forgetful shades, Jim's identity still depends upon the maritime community whose ranks he can no longer join. His liminality remains, and he continues to suffer from his execution without the rest and safety which follow the ax. So he outraces the ferryman and begins paddling himself across his river Styx, where his re-enactment can be completed and where Jim believes he can find his "peace" in a final death--a ritualized suicide (Lord 384).

Jim's ritual suicide is, in fact, momentarily portrayed by Marlow as a successful reassimilation into the community which had earlier rejected him. Marlow asks, while still in the shadow of Jim's death, "Is he satisfied--quite, now I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us" (Lord 391). In his honorable and even heroic death, then, Jim would appear to have achieved resolution by destroying the Un-Dead state separating him from the community. (5) Marlow suggests that Jim has regained the affirmation and faith of the larger community by submitting to the social code of honor in such a spectacular way--"he is one of us" (Lord 391). So Jim's gaze in death is proud and unflinching, in keeping with a Gothic tradition that allowed even Dracula peace at his death ("I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there" [Stoker 449]). Jim finds peace, safety, and communal reconciliation in his re-enactment and ritualized death, full immersion in the destructive element.

But given Conrad's--and the liminoid's--penchant for uncertainty, it should not be surprising that no such neat and tidy ending is provided: only the appearance (form) of one. This follows the pattern of Conrad's friend, Henry James. The Turn of the Screw, like Lord Jim, appears quite explicit in its equation of death with redemption. In the moment of dispossession, little Miles's heart simply stops beating, according to the governess's dubious construction of the event, read at second-hand and delivered to readers at third-hand. But at his death Miles is "a creature hurled over an abyss" (Turn 88). Moreover, we cannot be sure that the governess in a delusional state has not smothered or crushed the child and then constructed this narrative to cover over her own breach, rather than the child's. Twenty years later, she remains close to the event, as testified by the man to whom she apparently feels compelled to recite her narrative. What becomes of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? And, even more striking, what becomes of Flora, who has been similarly "possessed"? As Conrad himself explained, " [o]ne is never set at rest by Mr. Henry James's novels. His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on" (qtd. in Watt 166). Ian Watt affirms that Henry James provided, not certainty and resolution, but only the appearance of such in his novels:

Conrad was surely right in assuming that Henry James had denied his readers the satisfying illusion that the conflicts of life could ever be completely or finally resolved; on the other hand, James had nevertheless regarded it as part of the task of art to produce out of life's continuing conflicts and endless bewilderments the appearance of resolution and finality. (Watt 166)

This, of course, is a nearly perfect embodiment of the philosophy underlying liminoid rituals: we recognize Turner at once in James's belief in the responsibility of "art" to produce from "life's [...] endless bewilderments the appearance of resolution and finality" (Watt 166).

Conrad, in Lord Jim, follows James's lead. While Jim appears to have achieved peace for himself, the last several paragraphs of the novel are anything but triumphant or redemptive in their tone. Jim's sacrifice brings him peace: but in so doing, Conrad's novel makes clear, he destroys his love, Jewel, and hastens the death of his benefactor, Stein. Even the last image is vague: Steins uncertainly gesturing hand (Lord 392). In death Jim looks down upon Stein's discarded ring, that which has been both token of social connectedness and indicator of identity. One can imagine Jim's thoughts as he looks down upon the ring, for he has told Marlow "how much importance he attached to that token. It meant a friend; and it is a good thing to have a friend" (Lord 219). The ring has not only made Jim recognizable to Doramin and his community; it has meant that Jim belonged. Viewed in light of the cast-off token, Jim's death actually enacts a final relinquishing of any social integration previously achieved.

In an appropriately liminoid and Gothic ending, Conrad refuses to offer anyone but Jim the fixed ending they desire: even Marlow, as we see, is left retelling the tale, enacting his own liminoid ritual. In his telling statement, Stein has warned Marlow that while one can live by submerging oneself in the destructive element, there is only one cure: death. Having fallen into the sea, into the abyss, floating offers a respite, not a solution. In the same way, the metaphors and imagery of liminality and its constructed narratives offer a respite, a necessary salve for the pain of uncertainty and instability. They offer, as Marlow points out, "the sheltering conception of light and order which is our refuge"--the illusions with which we can live (Lord 293). But only death offers the cure: finality and fixity. But in Lord Jim, even death is figured as one final ritual of dubious result: Jim's marriage to his Eastern bride. Marlow admits, "it may very well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side" (Lord 391). It may be: but a moment later, this Eastern bride has become a Gothic figure of shadows, something, perhaps, from The Monk. Jim "goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied--quite, now, I wonder?" (Lord 391). Marlow wonders: and so he keeps telling the story, telling it, he admits, now from his own liminal position, "like an evoked ghost" (Lord 391).


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Conrad, Joseph. "Author's Note." Lord Jim: A Romance. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1921. vii-ix.

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(1.) Rather than "undead," I have chosen to follow Bram Stoker's less conventional spelling, "Un-Dead," because of my placement of Lord Jim within the late nineteenth century Gothic Un-Dead tradition to which Stoker's Dracula belongs. See Dracula, page 382.

(2.) In Gothic Reflections, Peter K. Garrett puts it this way: "The troubling refusal of a narrative to stay still in the mind is an instance of forces at work whenever we read, amplified in shifting and competing readings produced over time like the contending interpretations of The Turn of the Screw and leading us to sense the contingency of apparently intrinsic formal features, meanings, and values" (17).

(3.) For more on this, see Brad Jackel, "Re-painting Hell: Conrad's Infernal Imagery."

(4.) Karl, for instance, argues that Stein is the destructive element (168).

(5.) Jim's death is interpreted in various ways, but may most frequently be read within the adventure tradition in which critics often place the work as a whole. Enumerating and exemplifying this critical trend, Sung Ryol Kim summarizes a number of heroic readings of Jim's death, and then promotes a new one. Even Padmini Mongia, who constructs Jim as Gothic feminine in Patusan, determines that he returns to a masculine, adventurous role in his death.
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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