‘I Affirm Nothing’: Lord Jim and the Uses of Textual Recalcitrance; Jim’s Character and Experience as an Instance of the Stubborn

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Author: James Phelan
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,936 words

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[(essay date 2008) In the following essay, Phelan discusses the novel’s “recalcitrance,” the difficulty it poses for the would-be interpreter. Phelan identifies this as a product of Conrad’s engagement with “the stubborn,” a form of ambiguity that “will not yield to our efforts at interpretive mastery but that nevertheless functions intelligibly within a larger artistic design.”]

Lord Jim is justly famous for both its artistic achievement and the difficulty it presents to interpreters. These two qualities of the novel have attracted many astute commentators who have offered significant insights into many of its techniques and strategies (e.g., Watt and Lothe). The novel’s difficulty has also meant that critical consensus about some central issues of the novel has never been achieved. Two very astute commentators in the 1980s nicely represent the spectrum along which most critical opinion falls. At one end of the spectrum, J. Hillis Miller argues that the novel is ultimately indeterminate: “The indeterminacy lies in the multiplicity of possible incompatible explanations given by the novel and in the lack of evidence justifying a choice of one over the others. The reader cannot logically have them all, and yet nothing he is given determines a choice among them. The possibilities, moreover, are not just given side by side as entirely separate hypotheses. They are related to one another in a system of mutual implication and mutual contradiction. Each calls up the others, but it does not make sense to have more than one of them” (1982, 40). At the other end of the spectrum, Ralph Rader sees the novel as determinate but built on a principle of “unambiguous ambiguity,” by which he means that Conrad incorporates what Marlow calls “the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct” (1989, 37) into the representation of Jim’s movement toward his eventual fate. In Rader’s view, the novel traces Jim’s development within the frame of both the fixed standard and the inescapable doubt. Rader argues that Conrad both endorses Jim’s final decision to take the death of Dain Waris on his own head (in that decision Jim is living up to the fixed standard) but stops short of making that decision heroic because the doubt about the rightness of that standard persists.

In this essay, I want to say “yes, but” to both Miller’s and Rader’s accounts of the novel, and in so doing, to advance the conversation about the relation between the novel’s artistic achievement and its difficulty. Indeed, I want to link those two elements even more tightly than Miller’s and Rader’s analyses do. If we were to accept fully Miller’s view of the ultimate indeterminacy of the novel, we would have to significantly revise most of our claims for the novel’s artistic achievement. Within Miller’s deconstructive view the novel’s achievement is not finally in its representation of Jim’s struggles and Marlow’s efforts to comprehend them but rather in the way literary language inevitably immerses its readers into the deconstructive element. On the other hand,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420117612