EN 4880B Modernism & Empire

Mid-Term Essay

Shivaranjani Subramaniam


Lord Jim, appearing just at the turn of century, can be easily glossed over, due to the novel’s maritime backdrop, as belonging to travel literature that was popular in fin de siècle England. However upon delving deeper, the novel’s modernism manifested through aspects like the different viewpoints and as such a fragmented story, its self-reflexivity and the poetic nature of the prose, rescues the novel from such a quick and unjust gloss (Klages 165). For the novel does not glorify the journeys that the West undertook in the late nineteenth century in the name of exploration or the Empire- it rather, through its modernist aesthetics, undermines them. Keeping in mind how late nineteenth century literature on the empire “was effectively a literary and visual form of pro-imperial propaganda”, Lord Jim makes a clean break from that genre precisely because Conrad juxtaposes colonialism and modernism (Levine 121). Considering what the abovementioned modernist aesthetics comment upon colonialism and how colonialism itself is complicated in the text, this paper will show how Lord Jim avoids being labeled as pro-imperial propagandistic literature.

Modernism actually does not just comment upon colonialism- it approaches the latter in a whole new way. The binarism or Manicheanism that normally holds colonialism in place and even justifies it, collapses in the face of modernism because the aesthetics of modernism allow it to present not one universal way of looking at the colonized subjects or colonial journeys, but rather a multitude of ways.

An aspect of modernism which is outstanding in Lord Jim is the fragmentary nature of the story. Seen from different points of view, including an omniscient narrator in the first four chapters, the novel offers as such, different takes on colonialism. The typical Manichean way of approaching the Other is epitomized by the omniscient narrator, as we are introduced to the pilgrims first through his omniscient standpoint, wherein they are divest of individual consciousness and appear as one large group homogenized by their religious beliefs. The description of the pilgrims starts with “they streamed in urged by faith” and after seeming to giving credit to their religious conviction, the description ends by describing them as “unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief”. The narrator thus not only reduces and ridicules their religion and, the extents to which they would go for it, but clearly displaces such faith as belonging outside Western space for the pilgrims were “coming from north and south and from the outskirts of the East”. They were, like the German skipper says, “cattle” and “human cargo” or body parts such as “a dark hand” or “a throat bared and stretched as if offering itself to the knife” for even their body parts suggested their vulnerability to the colonizer’s subjectivity.

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But as the viewpoints change, so does the portrayal of the Other and in relation, the take on colonialism and the journeys undertaken in its name and alleged good cause. Some viewpoints, like Captain Brierly’s, are still reminiscent of the narrator in the first few chapters, for he likens the pilgrims to “old rags in bales”. It is in fact, Brierly’s viewpoint that exposes the artifice of the civilizing mission behind colonialism that it was not in service of the native but rather, self-serving in nature.

We must preserve professional decency…We are trusted…We aren’t an organized body of men, ...

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