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"No joke!": the mediation of ironic humor in Conrad's Lord Jim.

Exposition of the varied and subtle ways Conrad uses irony in tandem with humor is the aim of this reading. As the humor in Lord Jim helps effect the irony, so irony works in turn to underline a theme as central to Marlow's narration of his tale as to Conrad's overall construction of the novel. As Marlow puts it, Jim's situation, and ultimately the tale, is "tragic enough and funny enough in all conscience to cry aloud for compassion." (1) Indeed, the aim of Conrad's ironic humor coincides with Marlow's intention to winnow from the muddled complications attendant on the life of an individual of ordinary ability, intelligence, and imagination the kernels of moral complexity that make any human life, fully lived, compellingly worthy of interest.

Irony is not an unusual topic of discussion in Conrad's regard. The doubling in The Secret Sharer, for instance, comes with its appropriate share, as does, in a far different context, the fall of the main character in Nostromo. Yet anyone searching for narrative use of humor among twentieth-century novelists would probably put Joseph Conrad near the bottom of the list. Conrad, though, is capable of using humor for ironic effect. In Falk: A Reminiscence, for example, the protagonist's confession of participation in an act of cannibalism provides an ironically humorous anticlimax to his highly civilized courtship. In Heart of Darkness, when the colonial station manager's secretary deflects Marlow's simple request for rivets to fix the company boat with twaddle about the embodiment of high ideals as the colonizers' true and arduous work (while that body declares the basic task of brickmaking a "physical impossibility"), Marlow mocks the secretary's substituting rhetoric for rivets: "What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, by Heaven. Rivets! To get on with the work!" Marlow returns once more to drive home the word with grimly ironic humor in a damning observation that sums up the entire choral thrust of the story: "Rivets were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted--if he had only known it." (2)

Similar instances of humor attendant upon irony are plentiful and varied enough in Lord Jim to warrant consideration. Still, as the critical thermometer continues to range between readings of Jim's odyssey as qualified success and apocalyptic failure, studies continue to bypass the collocation of humor and irony embedded in the novel. Yet just about every chapter of the text, from chapter 6 in which Marlow first meets Jim through chapter 27 in which Marlow sees Jim for the last time, contains a humorous element used for ironic effect. From sarcastic wit, to burlesque in the cause of situational irony, to social satire, Conrad uses humor not only to sustain interest in Marlow's narrative, but also to generate the irony that helps shape overall development of the theme of moral judgment in relation to its subject, heroism and honor. (3)

In fact, a tensely humorous situation occasions Marlow's making Jim's acquaintance in the first place. When the inquiry into the crew's abandonment of the Patna adjourns for the day, Marlow works his way out of the crowded courtroom alongside a companion. As they pull abreast of Jim, a stray dog momentarily trips up Marlow's companion, at which the man chances to comment "with a slow laugh, 'Look at that wretched cur'" (46). Jim assumes that Marlow, whom he has never met, passed the remark and that it was aimed at him. The "funniest part" of this misunderstanding, Marlow soon finds, is that it could easily end in a brawl with Jim, "which could not possibly be explained, and would make me ridiculous" (47). Marlow then sets Jim straight as to the actual source of the words. Later that day, Jim thanks Marlow for the fact that he "had not even laughed at him," as Jim admits to having "made a confounded ass" of himself by attributing the "wretched cur" observation to Marlow. Yet, while Jim accepts Marlow's explanation that it was Marlow's companion who made the "wretched cur" observation, Jim's unspoken appropriation of the term signals to Marlow Jim's intense vulnerability (52). Instead of laughing at Jim's mistake, the value of the ridicule latent in the situation is turned to good account when Marlow passes the anecdote on to his audience of merchant-mariners.
   It was solemn, and a little ridiculous too, as they always are,
   those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his
   idea of what his moral identity should be, this precious notion of
   a convention, only one of the rules of the game, nothing more,
   but all the same so terribly effective by its assumption of
   unlimited power over natural instincts, by the awful penalties of
   its failures. (52)

Conrad has Marlow play with the possibilities of ridicule for two reasons. The first is to occasion Marlow's characterization as the wiser, older seaman whose recollection of youth's struggles for "moral identity" arouses his compassion for Jim. The second is to have Marlow entirely reject ridicule, a purposely hurtful form of low comedy, and turn toward sarcasm instead. Unlike ridicule, sarcasm as a form of irony can make for a subtler, more humane means of communication than ridicule. Furthermore, according to the degree of wit applied, the cleverness of sarcasm can be a good deal more amusing than the bludgeon of ridicule.

That is why Conrad uses sarcasm to underpin the initial stages of Marlow's acquaintance with Jim. A long conversation between Marlow and Jim in the dining room of the Malabar House firms up that acquaintance and forms the basis of their friendship. Jim begins the conversation by telling Marlow his version of the Patna affair and soon wraps himself in a cocoon spun out of tensions between two countervailing threads: first, his notion of the power of his heroic imagination, and second, his notion of the real world's obstacles to its exercise: "Ah, what a chance missed! My God! What a chance missed!" (53). Marlow refuses "to submit meekly to any of his nonsense" (47) and turns to sarcasm to pull him out of his cocoon: "I whisked him back by saying, 'If you had stuck to the ship, you mean'!" (54). The sarcasm hits its mark: "He turned upon me ... a bewildered, startled, suffering face, as though he had tumbled from a star" (54). Then Marlow adds with even more sarcasm: "It is unfortunate you didn't know beforehand!" (54). Such is the force of Marlow's first remark, however, that Jim remains impervious to the "perfidious shaft" of Marlow's second bolt, which "dropped at his feet like a spent arrow, as it were, and he did not think of picking it up" (54).

This scenario is replayed twice more in the course of their extended dinner conversation. The following exchange occurs when Jim declares his envy of another of the Patna's mates, who escapes the ensuing shame by dying of a heart attack before he can join the rest of the crew in lowering the lifeboat. Piqued by what he sees as the bitter irony of the situation, Jim badgers Marlow. Marlow, piqued in turn by Jim's artful dodging, responds with sarcasm:
   "Why don't you laugh?" he said. "A joke hatched in hell. Weak
   heart! ... I wish sometimes mine had been."

      This irritated me [responds Marlow]. "Do you?" I exclaimed
   with deep-rooted irony. "Yes! Can't you understand?" he cried.
   "I don't know what more you could wish for," I said angrily. He
   gave me an utterly uncomprehending glance. This shaft had also
   gone wide of the mark, and he was not the man to bother about
   stray arrows (68).

Conrad makes the reader conscious of the play of humor by forcing a choice between Marlow's "deep-rooted irony" and Jim's "joke hatched in hell." The choice is clear. While Jim's sense of humor overflows with self-pity, Marlow's wit is simply apt, for it implies the obvious question: why don't you wish that you had had the heart to stay with the ship rather than wish for a heart that would have conveniently short-circuited the need to make a difficult decision?

Jim misses the irony in this instance, and others of Marlow's arrows of sarcasm fall short of their target. For example, at the end of yet another dramatic diminuendo in Jim's ongoing account of himself, he murmurs mournfully: "I had jumped.... It seems," to which Marlow responds, "Looks like it" (69). Once again he fails to respond to the jest in Marlow's gentle gibe. Instead, Jim only searches harder for an escape route. He starts to explain, "I knew nothing about it till I looked up" (70). And Marlow perceives evasion in Jim's failure to get the joke: "You had to listen to him as you would to a small boy in trouble. He didn't know. It had happened somehow. It would never happen again" (70). And when, toward the close of their evening together, Jim proclaims, "One knows a downright lie. There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and the wrong of this affair," Marlow responds, "How much more did you want?" (80). Though Jim cannot hear Marlow's remark in all the din, the sarcasm here, as in all other instances, means to shock Jim into putting some distance between himself and the part of himself left on board the still-functioning Patna.

While Marlow's astringent sarcasm fails to break through Jim's cocoon, it is strong enough to tempt Marlow to view the abandonment of the Patna as pure bathos. For instance, Marlow sees in Jim's description of the crew's graceless hurry to abandon ship the "low comedy" (64) of "knockabout clowns in a farce" (65-66), and he even perceives "an element of burlesque in his [Jim's] ordeal ... in the approach of death or dishonour" (66). Yet, in the very next breath, Marlow softens his urge to mock with one of Shakespeare's gentler comments on human fallibility, "It was funny enough to make angels weep" (64). (4)

Conrad uses ironic humor as an index both to Marlow's ability to deal with Jim and to Jim's ability to deal with his own intense chagrin. Thus Conrad allows Marlow's concern for Jim to triumph over curiosity, to repel Jim's unyielding resistance to any view of the disaster other than his own, and to counter Jim's monody of self-pity with notes of realism. Further, by way of molding narrative action and moral theme, Conrad's use of ironic humor helps shape his characterization of Jim and of Marlow. For instance, Marlow's benevolent sense of irony underpins his playing the role of a wise, experienced man of the world:
   He was there before me, ... giving me a glimpse of himself as a
   young fellow in a scrape that is the very devil of a scrape, the
   sort of scrape that graybeards wag at solemnly while they hide a
   smile. (79-80)

The irony is in the distance between the elders' solemn expression and their hidden smile. Such wry humor acts as a counterweight in balancing the scales of judgment. And Marlow never swerves from the judgment that he makes of Jim's case in his very next breath: "It was tragic enough and funny enough in all conscience to call aloud for compassion" (80).

Conrad puts arrows of sarcasm in Marlow's hands in order to move his narrative along by amusing his audience with a display of his wit--and of Jim's scattered wits. At the same time, Conrad uses sarcasm to focus his audience's attention on the imperative to moral judgment. Clearly, the task of the court of inquiry to adjudicate the abandonment of the Patna both occasions Marlow's taking up Jim's story in the first place and then motivates his call for compassion in regard to that history. But what, precisely, is to be judged? Jim's history, of course, but only in general. Specifically, it is his exercise of will--its intentions, acts, consequences--the reader is to judge. To that end, Conrad guides his audience in the workings of human will through the agency of irony. Those witty barbs push Jim and Marlow to circle that shadow which falls between intention and act, as well as to struggle with conscience's imperfect grasp of the dynamics of its own will. Marlow's wry wit exposes the contradictions arising from Jim's limited understanding of those dynamics. The fact that such exposition contains an element of humor intends to move Marlow's audience to temper judgment with compassion by exposing not only the "tragic" possibilities inherent in the exercise of personal will, but also the rather conspicuously "funny" effects of its patent contradictions and ensuing confusions.

By way of exposition of theme in relation to overall narrative structure, Conrad develops the irony in three stages, each demanding increasingly more attention both to his ironic probing of will as the seat of judgment and to the workings of humor as an element of that irony. The second stage, congruent with Marlow's account of his meetings with other merchant mariners in the East Indies, plays out situational ironies more complex than the clear-cut verbal irony of Marlow's sarcasm, which underpins the first stage. In going from the first to the second stage of irony, Conrad moves his focus from human will to the will of the world, from volition to chance. He does so, further, by using a species of farcical burlesque of the human will to heroic honor in relation to that which determines its agency, fate. In so doing, he both extends the imperative to moral judgment and mediates its sting.

The close of the court of inquiry initiates this second stage, in which Marlow's narrative of encounters with fellow merchant mariners throughout the East Indies corresponds with Jim's pursuit of his own peregrinations in ports of call along the same trade routes. Thus Marlow describes his conversation with the French lieutenant, an officer aboard the gunboat that towed the abandoned Patna to safe harbor. As he relates to Marlow the French ship's recovery of the abandoned Patna, description expands to include discussion of Jim: "And so that poor young man ran away along with the others" (89). Marlow reacts with humor to the lieutenant's choice of words because "somehow this simple statement of the matter sounded funny in French.... 'S'est enfui avec les autres'" (89). The context suggests that Marlow's anxiety for Jim begins to slacken in light of the lieutenant's easy appraisal--after all, Jim did nothing more than to run "away along with the others" (89). When the lieutenant adds, expansively, "And after all, one does not die of ... being afraid" (89), Marlow responds, "I am glad to see you taking a lenient view" (90). The lieutenant, however, refuses to provide Marlow with a comfortable judgment of Jim's behavior and hastens to qualify his previous statement: "when the honour is gone ... I can offer no opinion--because--monsieur--I know nothing of it" (91). Such a pronouncement raises the possibility of a censorious view of the Patna affair and of Jim's part in it. In point of fact, however, the French lieutenant's judgment of Jim does not come down on one side or the other because "fate," that inexplicable force beyond human ken or control, makes the lieutenant's experience of the Patna recovery so different from Jim's experience of the Patna abandonment.

Such manifestations of fate occur twice in this chapter. First, simple circumstance determines that the French crew's moral perspective differs completely from the original British crew's. Because the rescuers know they are not directly responsible for the welfare of the Patna, they ready themselves without the slightest compunction to abandon the ship just in case the listing Patna continues to sink: "mind you (notez bien), all the time of towing we had two quartermasters stationed by the hawsers with axes, to cut us clear of our tow in case she ..." (86). In fact, he stood ready for it to sink at any moment, as his gesture to Marlow, in reference to those axes poised to cut the Patna loose, makes amusingly clear: "'Two!' he repeated.... exhibiting two fingers" (86). The lieutenant was prepared to do "one's possible" as he made the "boats ready to drop over" because he recognized he was in a "delicate position" (86). Furthermore, only blind chance accounts for the French gunboat's coming upon the Patna at nine o'clock of a clear morning (85). Had it been night, the gunboat might not have seen its lights any more than the Patna crew could see their ship from the lifeboat in the dark, and the French might have sailed right past it. Jim had no such luck; those lights disappeared from his view the night his crew abandoned ship: "The lights did go! We did not see them. They were not there. If they had been, I would have swam back--I would have gone back and shouted alongside--I would have begged them to take me on board" (83). And Marlow, for once, entertains one of Jim's claims regarding the Patna affair: "It may very well be that, had they been seen, they would have had the effect of a mute appeal"; that Jim might indeed have swum back is the implication (83-84). But it did not happen that way. As Marlow notes, "she turned her back on them [the crew in the lifeboat] as if in disdain of their fate: she had swung round" in such a way as to obscure from the lifeboat's view the lights that were still on (84).

Fate allows the French lieutenant to face the same choice Jim and his mates had to make, but from an entirely different perspective; and fate facilitates the rescue itself. Luck keeps the sea still enough for the rescue to take place: "Luckily the sea was level like this table," reports the lieutenant (86). And when Marlow first makes the French lieutenant's acquaintance in Sydney "by the merest chance" (84), fate is equally at work, just as, when Marlow's tale is long over, it is the Patna's ultimate "fate to die obscurely under the blows of many hammers" rather than through a dramatic sinking at sea (84). Throughout, Conrad deftly avoids melodramatic "twists of fate"; instead, the very structure of a situation, its simple and intransigent physicality in these instances, is made to exclude and thus stymie the simplest human intention or expectation.

Conrad so folds into Marlow's tale the workings of fate that the ineluctable variable of chance must be factored into any moral equation the reader draws up. And he does so with humor as the touchstone. Thus the French lieutenant ends by viewing the recovery of the Patna as a "droll find" (87), but only because he has not been tested by fate in this instance, just as Jim sees in the abandonment a "joke hatched in hell" (68) because he has. The French lieutenant's reluctance to discuss the issue of Jim's honor resides in the function of situational irony at its most primal, in the workings of fate that put the issue of honor at the periphery of this particular rescue and recovery operation.

Since Conrad's deft hand plays subtly with the concept of fate, and since Marlow is only marginally aware of the effects of chance on the case at hand, the reader has to catch the irony on the wing. Nor does humor underpin the irony in any explicit way, although one may be willing to see the work of Conrad's hand in what amounts to an implicitly amusing contrast between Jim and the French lieutenant. The latter, though described as "dormant," "motionless," "impassive" and well into middle age, anticipates the intervention of chance and, with two axes ever ready at the hawsers, factors its workings into his modus operandi (88). On the other hand, Jim is young, intense, always on the alert for challenging adventure, and stopped cold by just such an intervention of chance never factored into his modus vivendi.

At any rate, humor is obviously in evidence in the diverting little interlude that follows hard upon the French lieutenant episode and which turns on Marlow's recollection of a now-dead fellow mariner, "Little Bob Stanton." And just as the French lieutenant episode leans far more heavily toward irony than toward humor, the Little Bob Stanton episode bubbles with laughter that contains some rather subtle irony. In fact, this heavy-handed comic interlude serves the same subtle purpose as the preceding episode: to force the reader to revisit the primal scene of the Patna abandonment and to re-consider easy notions of honor and heroism.

Here is what happens. Marlow's concern that Jim's adventurous spirit may be crushed in his tedious new job as a water clerk puts him in mind of another merchant marine officer of his acquaintance, "Little Bob Stanton," once trapped in a similar situation. Marlow then goes on to recount two anecdotes about Stanton, who returned to the merchant service with his "immortal soul shrivelled down to the size of a parched pea" after a week of boring work as an insurance salesman (92). The first anecdote describes the sinking of the Sephora with Stanton still on it, "trying to save a lady's-maid" who "held to the rail like grim death" (92). The sailor recounted the story of Stanton's demise, "hiding a smile at the recollection" (92) of the comic "wrestling-match" between Stanton, "the shortest chief mate in the merchant service," and that same lady's maid, who "stood five feet ten in her shoes and was as strong as a horse" (92). Marlow's second anecdote regarding Stanton is based on his recollection of the way Stanton's self-deprecating, comic descriptions of his former boring job as insurance canvasser amused his fellow mariners: "He used to tell us of his experiences in that line. He made us laugh till we cried, and, [he was] not altogether displeased at the effect, undersized and bearded to the waist like a gnome" (92).

Amusing, but what is the point of this recollection made up of not one but two comic anecdotes of burlesque dimension? It is clear that Marlow recollects Stanton's reaction to his dull job because he is concerned about the effects of Jim's boring job. It becomes equally apparent that he elaborates his recollection of Little Bob Stanton in order to provide his listeners with comic relief to a story otherwise filled with his anxiety for Jim. So Conrad has Marlow set up a grave situation, such as the sinking of the Sephora, only to throw a pie in its face. Yet Conrad builds in a deeper, more darkly comic irony of which Marlow is apparently unaware. Stanton's concern for the lady's maid provides in the same instance a model of an unwittingly heroic deed and a burlesque of such models. Indeed, the story of Stanton's mock-heroic demise scuttles any attempt to illustrate by example a fixed moral code--whether "of the sea" or of "the white man's burden."

Comparison of the Stanton interlude with the much earlier Brierly episode makes the point. As the asymmetry of the epithets indicates, the antithesis between the Big Brierly (38) episode and the Little Bob Stanton interlude is intentional. On the one hand, there is Brierly who, while serving as one of the ad hoc magistrates at the court of inquiry, kills himself perhaps partly to offer an alternative model to what he judges Jim's failure to "show a stiff upper lip" (45) and perhaps partly out of professional and cultural shame at that failure. "This infernal publicity' is too shocking: there he sits while all these confounded natives, serangs, lascars, quartermasters, are giving evidence that's enough to burn a man to ashes with shame" (44), rants Brierly to Marlow. Whatever his motives, his own code extends only as far as saving face, not saving others: "I don't care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia" (44). Humor never attaches itself to anything Brierly says or does, though it surfaces momentarily in his own mate's mockery of that colossal self-conceit which also plays its part in Brierly's suicide: "Yes, sir. He was second to none--if he said so himself, as I heard him once"(41). Marlow's aside constitutes his only evaluation, and its irony is complete: "Who can tell what flattering view he had induced himself to take of his own suicide" (43). Stanton, on the other hand, is so lacking in self-absorption and serf-dramatization that he yields up his life with no display of emotion, with none of the dramatic gestures, comic or otherwise, which used to amuse his fellow mariners and which occasioned Marlow's recollection in the first place. Instead, "Mr. Stanton had given up hauling at the gal, and just stood by looking at her, watchful like. We thought afterwards he must've been reckoning that, maybe, the rush of water would tear her away from the rail by-and-by and give him a show to save her" (92).

A look at character development and at narrative structure indicates that the disjuncture between the Stanton interlude and the rest of the story Conrad assigns to Marlow is purposeful. As to character development, the "Little Bob Stanton" excursus takes the form of anecdotes based on a mere recollection, in contrast to the typical episode based on a specific encounter between Marlow and a merchant mariner. Moreover, Stanton himself is a one-dimensional, cartoon-like figure and not a character, even a "flat" one, since the reader never gains insight into his state of mind. And in further contrast to the other "onlooker" mariners, Stanton perished sometime before the Patna affair took place, so Stanton has no opinion to render on Jim. But Conrad's structuring of narrative does have a place for the Stanton interlude. Just as he positions the "Little Bob Stanton" interlude at the point immediately before Marlow learns of the court's verdict (chapter 14), so Conrad places the "Big Brierly" episode just before Marlow enters that court of inquiry--and Jim's life--for the first time (chapter 6). Together, the two scenes frame Jim's experience with the court of inquiry.

It seems no accident on Conrad's part that these two scenes, each treating of seasoned seamen caught willy-nilly in life-and-death struggles with their own notions of honor, bracket Jim's trial. The Stanton interlude appears designed to recall the Brierly episode to the reader's attention, thus to create a jarring juxtaposition. Such antithetical displays of heroic honor present polar opposite responses to any officer's extraordinary call to bravery. And as an oblique burlesque of Big Brierly's ideals, Little Bob Stanton's behavior serves as implicit commentary on still another officer's response to honor's call--that of Jim aboard the Patna. Specifically, the Stanton episode's gloss on the Brierly episode generates a bitterly humorous tension that so contextualizes common notions of heroic honor as to put the very concept in question.

And if Conrad's Stanton interlude antedates Chaplin's burlesques of staid manners and morals by only a few years, his Brierly episode echoes the implacable self-deluding conceit of one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. For this reason, the Stanton interlude follows hard upon the French lieutenant's reflection on the theme of honor. Given Conrad's slapstick version of both honor and heroism here, and given its burlesque of Brierly's suicide in the name of honor, the French lieutenant's demure, "I can offer no opinion--because--monsieur--I know nothing of it" (91), means exactly what it says, and in more ways than one. Not only does he have no personal experience of the loss of his own honor, but he also knows enough not to make a final pronouncement on such a point.

Indeed, if one looks at the central moral issue of "jumping" from the three-way juxtaposition of Jim's jumping out of, say, raw instinct for survival with Brierly's jumping to his death most likely to make a protest statement and then with Stanton's apparent indifference to jumping of any sort, it becomes difficult to pass final judgment. Likewise, the role of chance in human affairs challenges ordinary notions of justice, especially if one allows for a correlative three-way juxtaposition of the fate of such a forlorn vessel as the Patna, which appears ready to sink both to its crew and to its rescuers and never does, with a sound ship such as the Sephora, which actually does sink after a "collision on a hazy morning off the Spanish coast" (92), and then with Brierly's stout vessel, which never even threatens to sink but has a captain who kills himself to show that he is more than willing to go down with it! By making the coincidence of so many incongruities entirely plausible, Conrad's exposition encourages a bemused chuckle at such palpable evidence of the absurd and at the vanity of the human drive to overcome it.

One conclusion to be clearly drawn from Conrad's exposition is that another person's motives and intentions can be as inscrutable as the play of chance, which so readily wreaks havoc even with one's best intentions. For who can say what, exactly, motivates Brierly to take his own life? Since more than one plausible motive is suggested, will any one do, or more than one, and if so, in what combination? And who can say what, exactly, keeps Stanton on board ship to the end? Is he furiously weighing his options, there at the boat rail apparently waiting patiently alongside the lady's maid, or has he suspended judgment entirely? Among other things, Conrad's juxtaposition of "Big" Brierly and "Little" Stanton challenges easy assumptions about the function of the will of another human being to the same degree that the French lieutenant episode is meant to challenge easy omissions in regard to the workings of fate, a variable so inscrutably indifferent to human intention as to appear to have a will of its own.

Taken at face value, the Stanton interlude is there to provide comic relief, not to burlesque Brierly's suicide. Yet Conrad builds into that simple burlesque a complex, oddly comic travesty, and then leaves it for the reader to deal with. Marlow's primary exercise of humor is limited to the sarcasm. But it is left to the reader, not to Marlow, to consider the bitterly humorous irony of the Brierly-Stanton juxtaposition, or the absurdly humorous ironies of fate in regard to the abandonment and recovery of the Patna. The pattern holds true in the next episode, as well, in which Marlow encounters the Australian sea captain, Chester.

Shortly after the court of inquiry punishes Jim by revoking his mate's certificate, Chester shows an interest in Jim because he hopes that as a broken man Jim will leap at the chance for a job, even a dirty one. Since Chester's dream is to mine the heaps of guano deposited on a particular atoll off Queensland, he wants to arm Jim and put him in charge of the forty coolies he plans to dump there. Chester rhapsodizes over the money to be made from excrement: "I could have wept," reports Chester to Marlow, as he describes his inspiration for the project: "It was awful to think of all that lovely stuff lying waste under the sun" (100). When Marlow next refers to Chester as "that strange idealist" (104), his sarcasm seems alive to the comical workings of such inverted idealism: "Well, well. As to an inaccessible guano deposit, that was another story altogether. One could intelligibly break one's heart over that" (105). Conrad further signals that something quite funny is going on here when he has Marlow comment on Chester's temerity with the telling phrase: "I was too amazed to laugh" (102).

The presence of humor is signaled by its absence. It is up to the reader to note the social satire implicit in Conrad's depiction of Chester, an amusing parody of the "visionary" capitalist entrepreneur single-mindedly and steadfastly devoted to exploiting human nature and nature's bounty. Further, it is for the reader, not Marlow, to view Chester's motives in terms of Jim's intentions and, further, to note how Chester's shameless display of willful greed unwittingly burlesques Jim's far higher aspirations. Seen from the perspective of moral judgment, Marlow's encounter with Chester turns into a duel over moral will. In fact, Marlow moves to protect Jim, not only from physical exploitation but also from Chester's intrusion upon Jim's desire for distinction. In terms of narrative development, Marlow's confrontation with the insouciant Chester constitutes a dress rehearsal for the clash between Tuan Jim and that placid miscreant, Gentleman Brown. More, it acts as a kind of prolepsis, anticipating objections the reader may have to Jim's clash with a character so irredeemably and purposefully malicious as Brown. For Chester is a pint-sized version of Brown. Chester's willingness to exploit others in the name of commerce finds its reflection magnified exponentially in Gentleman Brown's exercise of a malignant will to murderous rapine under the banner of that earlier form of commercial enterprise termed piracy. Further, both Brown and Chester demonstrate a spirit of adventure, look for challenges in new places, and use their respective intellects to bend to their wills the pristine worlds they enter. And so does Jim! However, while both Chester and Brown identify the spirit of adventure with their will to exploitation, Jim does not. Irony lies in the fact that Chester's intransigent will to exploit and Brown's malignant will to destroy represent graphic inversions of Jim's benign intentions. Clearly, Chester and Brown differ more in degree than in kind.

Chester's prefiguring Brown leads to consideration of the final section of Marlow's narrative, Jim's life and death on Patusan. One can begin to look at this third section of the narrative, in which Conrad's ironic humor works a final turn, with a question about Jim. Does he ever develop a sense of humor? Yes, after he becomes "Tuan Jim." That is to say, after he leads a successful battle to free the people of Patusan from the rapacious Sherif Ali, Jim himself appears liberated from the dark shadow of his own incubus, his unreflective and humorless self-absorption. Thus, when Marlow goes to visit him on site, Jim recounts "with an exasperated little laugh" the mythic exaggerations that the common folk have already woven into the saga of his military campaign (159). Jim's sense of humor began to flourish because the "people had trusted him implicitly" (160). In this regard, Jim describes for Marlow his settling of a domestic dispute over the lending of some pots that had the "making of a sanguinary shindy in the thing" (161). At every other breath, Jim punctuates his tale with such exuberant asides as "that isn't so funny as it looks," and "It's all very well to grin," "No joke!" and "a funny set out"(161). Each phrase bears witness to his appreciation of the humor available to an onlooker's eye, and he spices up the tale accordingly.

That Jim can perceive the humor well up in an otherwise serious situation points to the level of maturity he achieves in Patusan. Earlier stripped of his mate's certificate for "utter disregard" of his "plain duty" (97), Jim now finds himself with the "awful responsibility" (161) of acting as the sole arbiter of justice for an entire population: "His word decided everything" (161). When Marlow comments on his defeat of Sherif Ali with the simple observation, "You must have enjoyed it" (162), Jim responds, "[I]t was immense! Immense!" (162). As Jim gestures accordingly, "flinging his arms open" (162), Marlow feels that he has "seen him bare the secrets of his breast to the sunshine, to the brooding forests, to the steely sea," (162-63) and records Jim's next utterance: "'Immense!' he repeated for a third time, speaking in a whisper, for himself alone" (163). Comments Marlow, "[Q]ualities of his nature had brought him in such close touch with his surroundings that this isolation seemed only the effect of his power" (163). For Marlow, at least, Jim has arrived at his destination: "I had made up my mind that Jim, for whom alone I cared, had at last mastered his fate" (193). And Jim's own evaluation of his place accords with Marlow's: "I have got back my confidence in myself--my good name" (198).

However, Jim's sense of himself, of the efficacy of his own will, is bound by the limits of his own history: "'I shall hold what I've got. Can't expect anything more.' He flung his arm out towards the sea. 'Not out there anyhow.' He stamped his foot upon the sand. 'This is my limit, because nothing else will do'" (198). Jim has struggled with his own personal will, his own demons, and his newfound sense of humor is emblematic of success. Yet, as that purblind and nonhuman "will," cosmic fate, remains for the moment just beyond Jim's ken, Marlow describes its inexorable progress toward Jim in the person of Gentleman Brown: "at last, running his appointed course, he sails into Jim's history, a blind accomplice of the Dark Powers" (210, emphasis mine). Despite a sense of foreboding--or because of it--Jim draws his line in the sand and determines not to move beyond it: "I must go on, go on for ever holding up my end, to feel sure that nothing can touch me" (198). But Jim is indeed touched. That exhilarating, "immense" vista in Patusan stretching off before him into a distance filled with hard-earned self-confidence is suddenly emptied. As Marlow observes, "[H]e had seen a broad gulf that neither eye nor voice could span. I could understand this. He was overwhelmed by the inexplicable"--of which Brown is clearly the emblem (202).

The irony here is in the limits of humor. Clearly, his newfound ability to laugh is congruent with Jim's maturity, of an achieved state of responsible leadership. Yet, however sufficient as emblem or as effect of Jim's successful grappling with his own will, such good-humored self-control does not necessarily translate into mastery over external forces, certainly not over such an utterly "other" force as Gentleman Brown. The clash of these two factors, Jim's will versus Brown's force, puts Conrad's imperative to moral judgment into its sharpest focus yet as it generates the climax of the novel. Here, Conrad lays out the terms of battle. On the one side, Lord Jim, delineated through Conrad's play with verbal irony, embodies the individual's struggle with personal will; on the other side, Gentleman Brown, generated out of Conrad's exposition of situational irony, emblematizes the workings of a human variant of purblind fate. In his reflexive telescoping of intention, act, and consequence, as in his abandonment of all pretense to conscience, Brown mirrors fate's blind deflection of the ordinary function of human will. For every individual intends to act toward a good end, regardless of how selfish, wrong-headed, or limited that "good" actually is. And only a will made reflexively malevolent through the habitual exercise of pure spite, that species of malicious bitterness bent on thwarting another's intention or vexing another's deed, functions outside the arena of moral choice that forms the ground of human action. Thus, when Marlow gets to view Brown, unflinchingly malevolent even on his deathbed, he notes that Brown "writhed with malicious exaltation at the bare thought of Jim" (204) whose intention to spare others he had so effectively blighted. Marlow can do little more than reflect "how certain forms of evil are akin to madness, derived from intense egoism, inflamed by resistance, tearing the soul to pieces" (204).

Jim's sense of humor is sufficient to Jim's mastery of his own will, not of fate. If Jim's sense of humor plays its part here, it is more as the butt of irony than its vehicle or its effect. And Jim is in good company, for much the same situation obtains in Hamlet. The penultimate moment in the play as in the novel finds the main character good-humoredly on the alert and prepared to act if necessary. Yet in the event, forces bent on destroying the protagonist triumph. That the protagonist at last feels sure enough of his own good intentions as to leave the choice of weapons to the opposition, as Hamlet does in regard to the dueling swords, and as Jim does in regard to allowing Brown to negotiate his exit route out of Patusan in possession of his arms, only hastens the catastrophe.

Conrad's ironic humor creates distance as it develops character and shapes narrative, and the reader is thus urged to eschew the comfort of an "either/or" judgment and to accept the unsettling juxtaposition of the "ridiculous" and the "solemn," as indeed one does in reading Shakespeare. In fact, Marlow points to the vertiginous possibility of just such a bridge between the "tragic" and the "funny" by invoking Shakespeare at a key point in his account. Toward the end of chapter 16, Jim starts to come out of his funk. He thanks Marlow for his help and calmly announces his newfound awareness with the simple observation, "all the same, one is responsible" (109). Pleased, yet flabbergasted by Jim's moving beyond his own ego with such nonchalance, Marlow responds with a wryly amusing understatement, "And that's true, too" (109). In so doing, Marlow mimes the exact words Shakespeare's Gloucester uses to respond to Edgar's hard-won perception, "Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all" (King Lear, V, ii, 9-12). Conrad works Gloucester's unwitting litotes to the same comic effect: to so use understatement as to force us to smile in the teeth of impending tragedy. Thus, shortly after his wry quotation, Marlow pledges to use his contacts to help Jim, to make himself "unreservedly responsible" for him, with "the sole aim of saving him from the degradation, ruin, and despair that out there close so swiftly upon a friendless, homeless man" (110). What words could describe better the tragedy that awaits Gloucester on the heath at the moment of Edgar's lifesaving intervention? Conrad has Marlow mimic Gloucester for the same reason Shakespeare has Edgar pretend to be Tom-o'-Bedlam: each jests and gibes in order to rescue a companion apparently beyond the reach of humor. Note, though, that Conrad reverses Shakespeare's classic role reversal, in which son Edgar saves father Gloucester. That is, while Marlow mimes Gloucester, his intentions are more like Edgar's. And though the clarity of Jim's moral perception momentarily resembles Edgar's, his self-absorption puts him far closer to blind Gloucester wrapped in his own desperately "wounded spirit" (110). The irony, as humorous as the pathos is intense, points to Conrad's overarching design, to weave a story that is at once both "tragic enough and funny enough in all conscience to call aloud for compassion" (80).


(1) Lord Jim, 80. All subsequent parenthetical citations in the text that contain only page numbers refer to Lord Jim and in this edition.

(2) Heart of Darkness, 30-31.

(3) An interpretation of the comic element in Lord Jim that differs radically from the present reading is found in Stanton de Voren Hoffman, "'Scenes of Low Comedy': The Comic in Lord Jim," Ball State University Forum 5.2 (1964), 19-27. Specifically, that the "serious is echoed by the comic," (26) indicates moral "perplexity" and "evasion" (27) on the part of characters and novelist alike. In this reading, which echoes Henri Bergson, comedy implies "essential disorder, an essential formlessness" in which "bestial, instinctive, irrational" actions have free rein (23) and "raise doubts about certain truths and values" (26). In contrast, the present essay holds that Conrad uses humor in association with a morally purposeful irony designed to challenge received notions of honor and heroism. Based as it is on tension and resulting contradiction, a theory of comedy that more closely relates to Lord Jim can be found in Charles Baudelaire's essay, "On the Nature of Laughter" ("Du L'Essence Du Rire') in Baudelaire, OEuvres Completes (Paris: Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, Editions Gallimard, 1961). According to Baudelaire,
   laughter is in mankind the consequence of the idea of his own
   superiority; and in effect, since laughter is essentially human,
   it is essentially contradictory, which is to say that it is at one
   time sign of an infinite grandeur and of an infinite
   misery--infinite misery relative to a transcendent Being of which
   s/he possesses a conception, infinite grandeur relative to the
   animals. It is the perpetual shock of these two "infinites"
   that unlocks laughter. (982; translations here are mine)

Apropos of Conrad's pairing of the "tragic" and the "funny," Baudelaire observes that "human laughter is intimately bound up with the mishap of an ancient fall.... Laughter and tears are incapable of making their presence felt in an earthly paradise. They are equally the children of pain" (978). A further observation of Baudelaire's could serve as a gloss on Marlow's identification of the term "compassion" as the effect of the juxtaposition of the tragic and the funny: "it is with laughter that man sometimes mollifies his heart" ("c'est avec le rire qu'il adoucit quelques fois son cceur," 978).

(4) Shakespeare's original puts it this way: "But man, proud man ... / Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens / Would all themselves laugh mortal." (Measure for Measure, II.ii.117, 121-23, as noted in the Penguin edition of Lord Jim, edited by Cedric Watts and Robert Hampson [New York: Penguin, 1986], 327.)


Conrad, Joseph. The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad. 4 vols. Ed. Samuel Hynes. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1992.

--. Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. London: Dent, 1946.

--. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

-- Lord Jim. Ed. Thomas C. Moser, 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works. Gen. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.


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Author:Italia, Paul G.
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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