According to Parker, “Conrad reminds us that irony in particular, and fiction in general, are both forms of sham; and that while irony may be an effective strategy to perpetuate doubt, it is equally effective in promoting deception and exploitation.” While earlier generations found it easier to appreciate as a tale of a flawed hero who ultimately finds moral redemption in a tragic and suicidal death, latter-day critics have paid closer attention to the gaps and inconsistencies in Marlow’s narrative, and nowadays tend to regard the novel not only as a complex masterpiece of high modernism but also as an ironic revelation of the human cost of white colonial sovereignty.
The difference between “us” and “them” is central not only to Conrad’s novel but also to the political theories of Richard Rorty – as Jay Thomas Parker notes in a recent essay arguing that – because it “engages political ideas and ideals and pushes them to their limits”.
Parker interprets the novel’s ironic narrative voice as a critique of Rorty’s idea of “liberal ethnocentrism” and the mutual “redescription” that enables us to overcome the differences between “us” and “them”.
It remains unclear to which of these two groups Jim ultimately belongs, but the temptations of ease and privilege may help to explain his sudden decision to join the disreputable crew of the have challenged a number of common assumptions about the novel, especially with regard to racism and the morality of colonialism.
For example, Sir James Brooke, an English subject who founded a dynasty of “white rajahs” in Sarawak that lasted a hundred years, has long been considered a positive model of colonial success; but in a 2012 essay entitled “White Rajas, Native Princes and Savage Pirates”, Andrea Rehn argues, citing the work of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, that the actions of the historical Brooke and of Conrad’s Jim are indistinguishable from acts of piracy in the name of “white sovereignty.” This issue is brought into sharp and ironic relief at the end of Conrad’s novel, when Jim’s sovereignty is threatened by a white rival in the form of the pirate Gentleman Brown.
Marlow’s fascinations and frustrations with Jim involve the reader in a similar effort to comprehend the full psychological, historical and cultural implications of Jim’s “case”.
Like Marlow’s description of the demeanour of the French lieutenant, the novel has “had that mysterious, almost miraculous, power of producing striking effects by means impossible of detection which is the last word of the highest art”.
Jim’s abandonment of the has undergone Freudian analyses (Gustav Morf, Bernard C.
Meyer) and also generated excellent historical and biographical research (Zdzisław Najder, Norman Sherry, Ian Watt), studies of sources and influences (Yves Hervouet, Andrea White), archetypal and ethical criticism (Jacques Berthoud, Tony Tanner), narratological and deconstructionist studies (Jeremy Hawthorn, J.
Jim’s own servant, Tamb’ Itam, is a dark and bilious Malay “from the north, a stranger.” As a Polish orphan, whose childhood was similarly marked by exile and statelessness, Conrad had an acute and sympathetic eye for the plight of the dispossessed, and as a mariner in the East Indies he had witnessed first-hand the effects of centuries of territorial rivalry among the colonial powers – the Dutch based in Java, the Spanish in the Philippines and the English in Singapore and parts of Borneo – which resulted in prolonged wars and displacements throughout the islands.
The refugee settlements on the remote margins of the empire provide unstable and provisional settings for Conrad’s Malay fictions.