Symbolism in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Mir Hassan

Symbolism in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Symbolism in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Symbols in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad | Symbolic Elements Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim| Lord Jim a Symbolic Novel The Symbolism of Darkness and Light in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim  Lord Jim Symbols | What are the major symbols in Lord Jim 


Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is a complex novel filled with symbolism. The novel follows the story of Jim, a young British sailor whose life is fraught with moral dilemmas and struggles. Throughout the novel, Conrad uses a variety of symbols to illustrate Jim’s journey, as well as the themes of morality, redemption, and self-discovery.

Meaning and Importance of Symbols

A symbol is a sign, mark, or object, etc. looked upon as representing something. For example, the 'Cross' is the symbol of Christianity. In literature, for example, the word 'lily symbolizes beauty, innocence, and suffering. So symbolism has come to mean "representation of ideas by the use of symbols." Symbolism has been very much in vogue in the twentieth century. The poetry of Pound, Hopkins, Eliot, and Yeats, the plays of Yeats, Synge, Eliot, Fry, O'Neill, and the novels of Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Conrad are full of symbolism. Through symbols a writer can express much more than by the use of ordinary words; symbols make the language rich and expressive. Modern writers use symbols widely in order to convey complex mental states.


Types of Symbolism in 'Lord Jim'

The symbols used in Lord Jim may be broadly divided into two categories: Symbolic Characters, and Symbolic Events and Situations There are evil and wicked characters like Chester. Cornelius, and Brown who symbolize both the evil that is inherent in nature, as well the evil within Jim himself. Marlow and Stein, on the other hand, represent the basic human values of life. Stein represents the ideal blend of idealism, reflection, and contemplation, and practical ability. Marlow is symbolic of practical idealism, the all-seeing eye, the penetrating mind that judges, interprets and illuminates Jim, the central personage, is the most important symbolic figure. He symbolizes the lofty idealist and dreamer in pursuit of unattainable ideals. He is a symbol of our best illusions, those exercises of the imagination which we allow to guide our behaviour, motif, conduct, and desires. He represents human dignity, honour, and glamour. Jim further symbolizes the erring humanity.


Beetles and Butterflies

According to Tony Tanner, the two varieties of insects-beetles and butterflies-symbolize two types of human beings; the butterfly stands for such a man who "every time shuts his eyes; he sees himself as a very fine fellow so fine as he can never be," a man who lives in an imaginary world of ideals, a world of illusion, a man who hates common people as low and base. The beetles suggest, "ugly earth- preservation at all costs; but gifted with a hard shell which serves them well in their unscrupulous will to live--to live on any terms and capable of great malevolence when that life is threatened."

Brown, Cornelius, and the white officers of the Patna are the more important beetles in the novel. Jim is a butterfly. He is a pure, conscientious man. He is innocent like the butterfly. the novel he tries to escape from the beetles which cross his path, and the tragedy of his life is caused by the worst and most depraved of the beetles Brown.


Light and Shade

Light and shade are two important symbols in Lord Jim. “The major symbol in Lord Jim is light and by contrast, darkness. Light is the source of vision and anything which obstructs vision form of darkness including fog, rain, water, jungle, etc. Light suggests intelligence, rational knowledge, self-control, awareness, divinity, and so on. Darkness is of course opposed and means obscurity, ignorance, lack of control, mystery, the subconscious and so on. The serene voyage of Patna is full of sunlight an moonlight symbolizes the absence of mystery and threatening circumstances, until the moment of collision. Soon after striking the underwater obstruction, The Patna is swept by rain, darkening the moon, and Jim jumps into darkness suggesting that Jim was in the control of his subconscious or some mystical force that compelled him, drove him, pushed him over the side into the lifeboat. Fear could be one of the ark powers that obscure the intelligence.” (Eric J. Solibakhe)


Symbolism in the Patna Voyage

Jim's fall from the Patna ship is symbolic of man's fall from Paradise and his murder or martyrdom is symbolic of man's redemption from evil or sin. The Patna –voyage itself symbolizes life, going or rationally, calmly, and securely, until sudden an encounter with Truth, sensed but not seen, destroys all order, all control, and prompts uncalculated actions and reactions. In this case, Jim is unable to control them and he jumps in the lifeboat.

Critics take the submerged wreck to symbolize evil-the dark powers which is always lying to wait to cause harm, death, and destruction. Similarly, the rogues in the book symbolize evil, inherent in nature, the dark powers, as well as the various facets of the personality of Jim. The exotic sea background is also similarly symbolic. The image of corruption and decay used throughout the Patusan-section symbolizes evil, as well as the approaching catastrophe.

Fog and Mist

"Later on in the book, Jim is compared to a "tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in the darkened world."  Jim has achieved some sort of divinity, some sort of awareness and self-control in the face of the dense, dark jungle. Marlow never fails to mention how dark and savage the jungle is, and to contrast Jim, always dressed in impeccable white, to the darkness around him. Still later, Brown travels through a fog to reach the island where he kills Dain Waris. They have passed through a symbolic (and actual) fog into the subconscious where they become like animals, and commit their irrational, vengeful "slaughter."


The Patusan : The Moon: The Hills

If the incidents in the Patna symbolize Paradise Lost, the incidents on the Patusan symbolize Paradise Regained. The moon in Patusan symbolizes the inner world of Jim, and the fissure between the hills is symbolic of the split in Jim's personality. Jim and Marlow watch "the moon float away above the chasm between the hills, like an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended cold and pale, like the ghost of a dead sunlight." The moon above the chasm between the hills is Jim's illusion, the symbol of his ideal values.



The chasm between the hills symbolizes the split in Jim's personality. The comparison of the moon with "an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended, cold and pale, like the ghost of a dead sunlight" symbolizes the inevitable end of Jim’s illusion. Explaining the symbolic meaning of this scene, Dorothy Van Ghent remarks "Carried to the mind by the image of the fissured hill, with the suspiciously ghost-like moon floating out of the chasm, is the relentless solitude of Jim's fate. He is not only an outcast from his kind but he is also an outcast from himself, cloven spiritually, unable to recognize his own identity, separated from himself as the two halves of the hills are separated,"

The Symbolism of the Ring

The ring which Stein gives to Jim is also symbolic of friendship and confidence. As suggested by Eric J. Solibakhe, the ring has a wider religious significance.It is later given by Jim to Tamb Itam as  an angel and Dain Waris as a Christ figure. When the ring is presented by an angel to Christ, it begins to acquire symbolic meaning. After Dain Waris's death, the ring finds its way to Doramin's lap. When he rises to execute Jim, the ring falls and rolls to Jim's feet. The ring is now a symbol that unites Dain Waris and Jim, both Christ figures and excludes Doramin from the divine hierarchy. Doramin at that moment is making animal-like sounds, a description which insures his exclusion from a divine hierarchy." The ring also suggests spiritual perfection.


Significance of the Jump in the Life-Boat

In its largest implication, the jump from the Patna ship implies the fall of man. It also signifies the idealist's fall into the base real world. The lights of the Patna ---- the lights which would have shown Jim that the ship was not sinking, the lights which would have illuminated the implications of his conduct --- they went out. And what they represent are the clues to ethical conduct that the external world gives us, those signs which prompt us to action, irresistible reminders, and claims from the world of men. It is when all lights are out when the moral eye has nothing to focus on, when the material world is invisible and the human world is blind --- it is then that Conrad wants to know how a man behaves.

Sea  the most prominent symbols

  One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the Sea. From the very beginning, the Sea is used to represent the uncertainty and danger of life. Jim is constantly being thrown into unpredictable situations, and the Sea is a metaphor for the unpredictable nature of life. In addition, the Sea is also a symbol of freedom and exploration. Jim is constantly searching for something, and the Sea serves as a reminder of the endless possibilities that lie ahead.


The White Man's Burden  also symblo in Lord Jim

This phrase is used throughout the novel to represent the idea of imperialism and colonialism and the supposed duty of the white man to civilize and educate the "uncivilized" people of the world. It is a symbol of the arrogance and superiority complex of the European colonizers, and the harm and oppression they inflicted on the native peoples.


The Water: also symbol in Lord Jim

Water is a recurring symbol in the novel, representing both life and death. It is a symbol of the dangers and uncertainties of the sea, but also the cleansing and purifying power of nature.


"Conrad is again a forerunner of the twentieth century novelists in his careful creation of symbolic significance”(Elizabeth Dew). Dr. N. Dasgupta has also observed, "Of the twentieth century novelists, Conrad is perhaps the first writer to make use of symbols. In Lord Jim, symbols are used both extensively and intensively. There are certain symbols like mist, sunshine, sea, river, light, shadow, and darkness which run through the novel. His descriptions of natural scenes are mostly symbolic. They have something to do with human life whose emotional and spiritual elements are enlivened and deepened by them.” One of the finest pieces of symbolic writing in Lord Jim is the opening of the third chapter, the description of the Panta Ship immediately before its accident.


Modern fiction is especially characterized by symbolism and imagery. The modern novelist aims at "the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music- By the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you fell-before all, to make you see." The greatest achievement of modern art and literature is the technique of indirection, irony, and suggestiveness in contrast to the traditional technique of the deliberate attempt at Ideation. This new technique keeps the artist and his art separate from each other: those who go to their works do not feel any sort of encroachment upon their receptive mind and sensibilities. They find themselves freely moving in a world of imaginatively recreated visions of the realities of life which they apprehend according to their own artistic sensibility. The artist tries his best to establish an equivalence between his vision of reality and artistic characters, events, and situations. For this purpose, he makes use of symbols. "A symbol is a verbal or visual equivalence of the subjective vision of reality envisaged by an artist.


Like other modern novelists, Conrad also uses symbols and images. According to Maupassant, a great artist sees the essentials in everything. Conrad follows this view and he is concerned with the symbolic qualities of experience. He makes use not only of colour, form, and movement but also shifts of perspective, stylistic and tonal variations and many other devices. In fact, Conrad wants his readers to beyond the merely illusive reality.


 Symbolism in ‘victory’

The triumvirate of evil is the main symbolic element in the novel Victory. The apparition of Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro ---- “specter, a cat, an ape , introduces lines of imagery that are to be  developed and magnified as the novel progresses. By the end of the novel, these villains have been developed sufficiently so that even the detached. Heyst is able to articulate some of their significance: "Here they are, the envoys of the outer world. Here they are before you------evil intelligence , instinctive savagery, arm in arm.”When Mr. Jones  and company arrive at Samburan,  victory becomes like one of “those myths of amazing strangers who arrive at an island, gods or demons, bringing good or evil to the innocence of the inhabitants" and the novel  becomes an allegory as it moves toward Samburan and the final conflict with Mr. Jones. Ricardo’s final spring at Lena is  the sex –symbolism of the novel. Ricardo leers more, undulates  more, purrs and rubs himself more, and finally springs at Lena in a direct sexual attack.


The drifting log in the swollen river is a significant symbol, Almayer has been dreaming about his future in Europe with his daughter. But the log transfers our thoughts to Almayer himself, a man without direction and at the mercy of events; the "brutal violence" of the river suggests that life has dealt him some hard blows, and the glimpse of the log's future course becomes Almayer's ultimate fate. There cannot be much doubt that Conrad intended something of this because he shows us the floating tree through Almayer's eyes. Almayer, we are told, "envied the lot of that inanimate thing," and this implies a comparison between them.


Symbolism in The Heart of Darkness"

The Heart of Darkness is highly a symbolic story. Almost all the characters are symbolic. Kurtz, the main character, is the symbol of the greed for gold, callousness, materialism, and savagery of the colonizers. Kurtz also symbolizes the instinctive, the irrational, and the evil hidden in the subconscious of Marlow. He is Marlow's evil self, what Marlow could have become had he stayed longer in the heart of darkness, or had he been without that devotion to duty  that helps him to maintain his place. In the words of W. F Wright  "the tragedy of Kurtz and the education of Marlow fuse into one story,  since for Marlow that tragedy represents his furthest penetration into the heart of darkness." The five female characters are symbolic figures.The aunt of Marlow, who asks him to carry the light of progress and civilization to the savages of Africa, symbolizes the dream world, the world of  illusion and ideality of most white men regarding their civilizing missions. They have no idea of the reality of what is happening in the heart of Africa. The two women, knitting black wool outside the gates of the company in Brussels, symbolize blind Fate working to cause ruin and disaster to mankind. They symbolize their unconscious fears of Marlow regarding his expedition to the unknown and mysterious heart of Africa. The mysterious native woman, tall and majestic who loves Kurtz and is unwilling to leave him, symbolizes strong and violent passions. The fiancĂ©e of Kurtz symbolizes silent, strong, and self-sacrificing love. She also symbolizes perfect faith and innocence. Besides this in the story, darkness symbolizes the darkness of barbarism, ignorance, and evil which characterizes the earth of darkness in Africa. The rivers Thames and Congo symbolize the flow of civilization and culture from England to Africa. The city of London symbolizes the heart of light, civilization, and culture, just as Congo symbolizes the dark heart of ignorance and barbarism. The Buddha posture of Marlow is symbolic of his desire for self-knowledge. It symbolizes the inner illumination and insight that he gains through his Congo voyage.


Symbolism in 'Lord Jim'

Lord Jim is also a symbolic novel. Above all, Jim himself is the most important symbolical figure. He is the symbol of man's craving for the fulfilment of his noble lofty ideals and high principles of life which are not attainable at all. He, thus, becomes a symbol of "our best illusions, those exercises of the imagination which we allow to guide our conduct in order to give it purpose, dignity and, in Conrad's words, glamour. It is our illusion, our ideals, which give "us gorgeous markings" and "aspiring wings." There are other things that symbolize the inner working of Jim's mind. For example, Jim's sense of security and his tendency to escape into a world of illusions is represented by the calm atmosphere of the sea, the perfect serenity of the night on which the ship Patna strikes against a derelict and the belief of the crew that they are safe. All these aspects of the external world are the objectification of one level of Jim's consciousness of ideals. There are also many images that combine together and create a difficult setting which is symbolical of discordance and disharmony. Such images are the black smoke from the tunnel, the discordant grinding of the wheel chains and the fragmentary light from the binnacle. Similarly, the intermittent glimpses of the black fingers of the steers-man, alternately letting go and catching hold of the revolving spokes" suggest the wheel of the fate of Jim and other members of the crew. There are many other instances of symbolism that have been taken up in a separate question.


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