Sailing the seas of failure: Joseph Conrad on weathering tough decisions

Before the time of air travel, when the radial boundaries of the world were ever-expanding, the sea was promise. A ship was the only way to see the world, and the wayfarer’s journey manifested a deep-seated belief that the sea was possibility — possibility being made of success and failure equally. For writer Joseph Conrad, the nature of the ocean was that it was consequential.

Conrad himself was famous for denying that he was a “writer of the sea.” And yet, each of his stories gravitate toward bodies of water, to lagoons and bays and rivers and oceans. Why?

Because decisions become radical in the openness of water: you live, or you die. Without the safety of land, our decisions are monumental. Our flotation devices are the only solid ground for thousands of miles — meaning that, in times of trouble, our decisions reveal more of us than we might know.

Joseph Conrad is a writer of choices. While we thankfully don’t live in a world where most of us are required to risk our lives on months-long journeys over the seas, the legacy of his writing asks us to search for those moments of consequence as an exercise in discovering our “true self.” Do we even have a “true self,” and is it decided by us, or the world? The only way to discover the answer is to set sail for our own oceans of discovery.

These are the questions plaguing Jim, the eponymous idealist of Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim.

Lord Jim

“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”

In 1899, the British empire has completed its colonial conquest of the world. Jim is a young British boy reading captivating literature of this newly available world and enlists in the merchant marine academy to find glory afloat the oceans.

Jim is a young idealist. While in training, he finds himself lost in his imagination, returning to his stories of daring sea-rescues over tempestuous tides. He’s a snapshot of every young person dreaming of the world’s possibility.

“At such times his thoughts would be full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements. They were the best parts of life, its secret truth, its hidden reality. They had a gorgeous virility, the charm of vagueness, they passed before him with a heroic tread; they carried his soul away with them and made it drunk with the divine philter of an unbounded confidence in itself. There was nothing he could not face.”

Yet, at the first signs of danger, Jim fails to live up to his ideals. During a training exercise, his ship crashes into another, and Jim is not aboard the rowboat sent for rescue; in another instance, after attaining the status of chief mate over a ship, he’s injured by a falling piece of spar in a storm — the first time he’s a true victim to “the anger of the sea.”

Jim is left at the next port to recover. Frustrated and seeking to again prove himself against the sea, he takes on a commission aboard a steamer-ship shuttling Muslims to Mecca for pilgrimage — the Patna. The sea is calm and supporting as they make their way out toward destiny.

Trouble arises. A great grinding sound shudders the ship awake and the crew is thrown forward. Jim goes below deck to assess the damage and sees the hold filling with water. He makes a decision as the ship drops into the sea, a lilting hourglass in the night — after some badgering from the crew, they decide to jettison and leave the 800 pilgrims aboard to drown.

Lord Jim was based on Conrad’s own seafaring experiences, and on a real-life event. The S.S. Jeddah was a British ship carrying 992 passengers on their way from Singapore to Mecca in 1880. The ship sprung a leak, and after abandoning it, the British crew took refuge in Aden, Yemen. They were sure they’d reach safety when a French steamship pulled into the harbor — with the Jeddah in tow. The crew was tried and convicted for unduly abandoning their passengers and leaving them to die.

In Conrad’s novel, one month after the Patna is abandoned, Jim and his crew are convicted for the same charges. The hull of the ship held true, the ship was discovered abandoned and pulled into harbor. In Conrad’s novelization, the Patna’s other crew members are either in the hospital or fleeing the port, leaving Jim as the only shipmate to testify of the evening in court. With his certificate to sail nullified, the dream of brave Captain Jim remains fantastical and forever out of reach.

The sea: Conrad’s compelling setting

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is sure to be noticed.” — Søren Kierkegaard

Joseph Conrad struggled to believe in himself across his life of travels and reinvention.

His parents, Polish gentry exiled by Russian invaders, died shortly after forcibly moving north of Moscow. The young Conrad, then an orphan known as Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski, faced a decision: stay in Russia-controlled Poland, or strike out for something new. He made it to France and, in 1878, signed onto a steamer headed for London — finding his first sea.

Conrad spent more than a decade navigating the world, hopping across the ports of the European continent to Istanbul and India, later shipping to Australia and the archipelagos of South East Asia, and most famously, boarding a steamer down the Congo river — his spur to write his most famous work, Heart of Darkness.

During these long stints Conrad, like Jim, would pull into ports with weeks and months between his next mercantile departure. He was alone, anonymized in the frequenting cargo of ships and sailors, and forced to confront the difficulty of living an untethered life. Aboard a ship his morals would have been questioned, his crew forced to frequently make life-defining decisions. Hopping from port to port Conrad had the freedom to be anyone he wanted as he met new people and cultures — but even with such liberties, his decisions followed him.

“Traveling is a fool’s paradise,” wrote writer and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. “…I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from… I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

For Jim, this giant is the Patna’s ghost. His dream deferred, Jim roams Asia searching for purpose. Lord Jim’s narrator and Jim’s eventual caretaker, Marlow, tells the reader of coincidental encounters with Jim in the years following the Patna’s debacle. First, in the port-town of Samarang, Marlow finds Jim working as a lowly water clerk. He secures Jim a better job, only to receive a letter shortly after explaining he’s quit the company. In the same batch of mail, Marlow hears of another job Jim has left, far off in another city. In each case the Patna was the reason — in Samarang, the ship’s engineer was employed by the same person and harangued Jim for the incident; later, a run-down steamer of pilgrims entered port and his infamous legacy was rekindled.

“…the earth wouldn’t be big enough to hold his caper,” Jim’s final employer tells Marlow.

Even though Jim finds success — one of his employer’s notes he’s “blooming like a violet” — the ghost of his past haunt him. The novel asks us to decipher the answer: is it because of Jim’s inability to see himself as more than his past, or is it the rest of the world that won’t allow Jim to move on? Should it be up to us to decide our punishment for a crime, or is it incumbent on others to hold us interminably accountable?

Without the power of the sea, in which Jim’s morals were measured by a filling hold and minutes between life and death, Jim might never have had to reconcile his actions with his fantasies. He might not have learned that in reality he wasn’t who he imagined himself to be.

Without this crisis, Jim would have never needed a reason for heroic redemption.

Finding our own seas of struggle

“Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.”

The “Joseph Conrad”, pictured here, is a renamed iron-hulled sailing ship that carried Conrad to Australian shores in 1935 (Australian National Maritime Museum/Flickr).

Jim struggles to find meaning outside of the Patna’s haunt, a clear contrast with his earlier dreams of leaping from ships to save floundering sailors. In a world of expectations and legacies, our horizon of opportunity shrinks like a morning ship sent from harbor.

By all accounts, Conrad was known to be depressed. Even as his works received acclaim, Conrad would write to friends and loved ones that he absolutely hated his writing, that he took no joy in spinning his complex nesting doll stories. Conrad dreamed of being a writer, but the expectations he set for himself were a crushing weight over his dreams.

For Jim, his inability to save the Patna told him something critical: that he was no hero, only a young idealist who allowed his own expectations to keep him from acting as a hero — a fierce cognitive dissonance. The mythical promise of renown impeded him because he felt he couldn’t be a hero, couldn’t be someone to save another’s life over his own. Jim believes he can never rise above his past, and his fixation with his guilt keeps him from taking action toward a stable future.

Without the immense, consequential nature of the ocean, would Jim have known that he was not a hero but an ordinary man? Without failing, would Jim have strived to be more than his failures?

In times of crisis, we’re forced to reconcile our morals and face who we are absent of who we wish we really were. While, in Jim’s case, this can leave long-lived consequences, it gives us a vivid definition of ourselves we might have never seen otherwise. Failure boxes us in while inviting us to break out of that box.

To Marlow, weathering our failures is a more worthwhile way of living life than to do what much of the world chooses: playing it safe. For everyday people, the safety of life is built on sheltered expectations, of seeing our heroes in books and interpreting that possibility as nothing more than fiction:

“It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts,” Marlow tells the reader. “Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome.”

For Marlow, it’s the everydayness — not the visions of heroism — that draws him to Jim, “…outwardly so typical of that good, stupid kind we like to feel marching right and left of us in life.” He’s an ordinary man who’s taken the leap. Even in failure, it’s Jim’s sense of contrition, of wishing he could be more than his failure, that separates him from everyone else living lives of quiet desperation.

Marlow questions if he himself is one such person, who finds himself the benefactor and guardian of Jim’s story, but will never live the brutal consequences of abandoning a ship and being forced to search for redemption. It’s a revelation that Marlow is normal and drawn to those who are extraordinary, who strive to live outside a quiet and riskless life. He asks himself: am I, a storyteller, drawn to telling stories because I will never be the center of one?

Jim is a failure, but for Marlow, failure is proof of a life lived and gambled for.

Redemption from failure: embracing limitations

Marlow arranges one final job for Jim at a remote trading outpost far into the Malaysian interior. Unlike the busy sea-ports Jim found refuge in previously, this outpost is at the colonial forefront, far from the expectations and reach of the Patna. This village, quite aptly, is named Patusan — a nod to Jim’s second chance for heroism aboard the infamous steamer. Marlow hopes it will be far enough for Jim to forget about his guilt.

The gamble proves successful. After deposing a local bandit chief and restoring the native royal line, Jim is given the title of “tuan Jim,” or Lord Jim. He falls in love with a mixed-race woman named Jewel, whose father is a colonial despot exploiting the locals during his terrorizing visits.

Some years after his stay in Patusan, Jim is living a comfortable and fulfilling life when he receives word that a notorious pirate named Gentleman Brown is setting up camp on the outskirts of the village. Jim leads a team of locals to negotiate Brown’s surrender and expulsion, which includes an armed escort down the river out of the interior. Doramin, Patusan’s ruler, puts the village’s faith in Jim, who now has his long-awaited status as a hero.

Jim’s story, however, takes a turn. As Patusan’s warriors (sans Jim) are watching Gentleman Brown drift down the river, an ambush of pirates strike and kill the chief’s son. It turns out Cornelius, in an act of retribution against his daughter and Jim, gave Brown crucial information of a back channel that would allow his men to surprise Patusan’s defenders. When word arrives of the turmoil, Jim and Doramin are distraught. It was Jim’s idea, against the better wishes of the locals, to negotiate with Brown instead of attacking his ship. Jim arrives at another crucial juncture, not unlike that of the Patna: does he run or take responsibility for the death of a noble and friend?

Besieged by a life of guilt, Jim decides to face his consequences. Brandishing a set of flintlock pistols, Doramin and Jim decide the only fair punishment for his son’s death is to barter it with another. He shoots Jim in the chest, marking the heroic death of the now mythical “Lord Jim.”

At the close of the novel, our hero is faced with an ultimatum: either Jim runs, or he faces his identity head-on. The result, tragically, is death. Embraced by a society free from the cultural mores of the colonial world, Jim is recreated into an individual freed from the burden of expectation. In place of running with the goal of reinventing himself yet again, Jim stands for principle and receives death — a lasting memorial to who he finally decided to become. He has embraced himself in order to overcome himself.

The moral is that, through adversity, we are given an opportunity. In the face of disaster, we are given the chance to discover ourselves — even if that discovery is further revelation of who we wish not to be. Would Jim have saved Patusan if he hadn't already experienced his failure aboard the Patna? Would he have become the hero he did if he hadn’t yet seen himself as an incapable villain? As a young man, Jim dreamed of living the life he read about in his novels, always believing himself to be capable of such heroism. When he finally reaches that moment of heroism, however, he sees that isn’t who he believes he is. His actions meet his dreams, and as a result, is forever boxed in by the world. Jim hates how society has defined and restricted him, but it’s that restriction that motivates him to be better.

So what can we learn from Lord Jim?

Grasp yourself for all your imperfections, knowing experience teaches us equally of who we aim to be as who we wish not to. Adversity and inevitable failure are a measuring stick with which we gauge the gap between our ideas and our willingness to act on them. It pulls our eyes open from their half-shut meandering and offers opportunity and teaching. Through restriction, through failure, we’re given a baseline to grow and a ceiling to break. We will have inevitable decisions that define us in ways we disagree with, but a life without chances is a life without growth.

“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns…. The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.”

We must seek our own seas, those places that ask us to make intentional decisions carrying risk. Our failures across these seas are opportunities and teaching. To run from the difficulty of the world is to ignore our place within it and drown; to submit, to embrace the weight of our decisions, is to keep ourselves afloat. We can’t avoid our seas of struggle because we fear the consequences.

While failure restricts us, it offers a chance to escape that restriction — to, in the end, redeem us from the weight of ourselves.

Happy sailing.

If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy another article I wrote on the exploration of irony, depression, and knowledge in the works of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Thank you for reading!




Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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