What Would Lord Jim Do?

Peter O’Toole as Lord Jim and the ship he abandoned


Exam question: How would Donald Trump respond if confronted with an actual school shooting? To answer, refer to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Jim imagining himself in a crisis:

 On the lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas, and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men—always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.

 Trump imagining himself in a crisis (after calling the Douglas Stoneman officer on duty a coward for not intervening):

I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon…

Jim when he thinks his ship is sinking and the captain, already having abandoned the ship and its 800 Muslim pilgrims, urges him to join him in the lifeboat:

“It had come over pitch dark. You could see neither sky nor sea. I heard the boat alongside go bump, bump, and not another sound down there for a while, but the ship under me was full of talking noises. Suddenly the skipper howled ‘Mein Gott! The squall! The squall! Shove off!’ With the first hiss of rain, and the first gust of wind, they screamed, ‘Jump, George! We’ll catch you! Jump!’ The ship began a slow plunge; the rain swept over her like a broken sea; my cap flew off my head; my breath was driven back into my throat. I heard as if I had been on the top of a tower another wild screech, ‘Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!’ She was going down, down, head first under me….”

‘He raised his hand deliberately to his face, and made picking motions with his fingers as though he had been bothered with cobwebs, and afterwards he looked into the open palm for quite half a second before he blurted out—

‘“I had jumped . . .” He checked himself, averted his gaze. . . . “It seems,” he added.

 Trump when confronted with an actual crisis:


Extra credit: After the pilgrims are rescued by another ship, Jim is shunned by society and carries the guilt with him for the rest of his life. How would Trump respond?


Additional thought: Our first prayers must go out to the victims, their families, and the student and teacher survivors. After that, however, we should pray for the officer who did not rush in. As narrator Marlow notes more than once in Conrad’s novel, we none of us know how we would respond to a catastrophe.

America is in a bad way if relying on heroes is the only way to save people from mass shootings. The NRA’s solution of “a good guy with a gun” is a fantasy deriving from contemporary versions of Jim’s “light literature.”

Related post: 

Mass Killings, Our Most Dangerous Game

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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