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Lord Jim & the Costa Concordia

January 17, 2012

Just finished reading Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, one of those novels that has long eluded me somehow.

But now that I’m retired if not in my dotage, I’m finding time to catch up on my reading somewhat.

The theme of the book, which I’d known at least vaguely for a while, was the title character’s cowardice — and redemption.

Jim, an English youth of good looks and temperament, follows his cowardly captain and mates in abandoning a sinking ship, or a ship that they all assume is sinking, in the Persian Gulf.

In Conrad’s fiction, the ship is an old scow ferrying Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia to Mecca. And the irony is that the ship does not in fact founder, it merely lists, and the captain and mates skedaddle like rats, leaving the pilgrims (read “others,” “aliens,” “savages,” “Orientals”) to their fate.

Costa Concordia

The Costa Concordia, sunk off the coast of Tuscany, January 2012.

In real life, in the news today, it’s Captain Francesco Schettino, of the Costa Concordia luxury liner, who flees and abandons ship and passengers. By now, we’ve all heard how an Italian coast guard commander reams him another nether outlet while the captain whimpers in a lifeboat nearby. You don’t want to go back to your ship? the commander queries. You want to go home because it’s dark? Get back aboard the vessel!

Schettino is under house arrest. Jim, in Conrad’s version, is dead — and lives on — because he had the courage to redeem himself for his mistakes. Not only his early cowardice, in Conrad’s book, but his inability, and unwillingness, to resort to violence to protect his adopted people (“brown people,” “Orientals,” “Indonesians,” “others” he’s become lord over, and one with, thus Lord Jim).

I suppose Lord Jim is a Christ figure, dying at the hands of the native chief whose son has been killed because of Jim’s unwillingness to use violence. Jim stands before the chieftain and offers himself up, and is shot at point-blank range and killed.

We will demand this, as society, of Schettino, I suspect. And I suspect the craven captain will not offer himself up, but deny to the end that he was responsible. (He was merely showing off, it appears, steering way too close to the coast of a tiny island in order to boast of his command of the massive ship, a command he didn’t really have.)

Conrad, a psychological writer, is far more nuanced in his dissection of guilt and innocence, fate and free will than we the people will ever be. Jim surmounts his fate, could be, in his heroic ultimate act, while most of us may prefer to whimper on while the ship (of state, commerce, justice) is sinking. We know how to point a finger, though.


From → fate, mortality, pathos

  1. Like you, my thoughts went to Conrad’s “Lord Jim” which I read maybe 30 years ago and therefore quite forgot the ending. The most memorable scene in this story for me was the impeccable master of the steamship (he had sat in judgement of Jim, but had unsuccessfully tried to persuade Jim to flee before the verdict was delivered) who quietly took his own life whilst homeward bound on his own ship, having first checked she was safely on course. It took me many years to understand that scene. But he, like you, saw in Jim that Human weakness that resides in us all. Not sure how he himself would react in such a time of trial, he escaped before Life tried him. Who knows how any of us will react given the state of self-loathing Schettino would have been in for having hit the rock in the first place? Its like cursing a man for having “selfishly” committed suicide…

  2. Captain Brierly is this character’s name, I believe.Yes, he kills himself, something Jim does only obliquely by sacrificing his life.

    I like your perception about the captain’s human weakness. How do we know how we’ll react? Each of us is the captain at most only of his own vessel. Yet as a collective we sit readily in judgment of others.

    It will be fascinating to see how the Schettino business turns out, and how we all reveal ourselves through these trying (trial) times.

    • Hugh O'Neill permalink

      Greg. I have only just discovered your comment. My apologies for the tardy response. Like Conrad, I have spent 10 years in command of sailing ships, so my interest in him informed my choice of career. My current career of marine pilot has embraced a philosophy called BRM (Bridge Resource Management) in turn, developed upon CRM (Crew Respurce Mngt) as developed by the airline industry post the Tenerife disaster of 1977
      BRM basically allows one to acknowledge one’s own Humanity and allows one to accept the Humanity of others. Thus Conrad, like Alexander Pope (To err is Human) and JC were simply reinterpreting ancient wisdom.

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