Lord Jim is a novel by Joseph Conrad originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine from October 1899 to November 1900.
An early and primary event is the abandonment of a ship in distress by its crew including the young British seaman Jim. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past.
Lord Jim (Richard Brooks, 1965) It’s the second film adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad. The first was a silent film released in 1925 and directed by Victor Fleming. The film stars Peter O’Toole (Jim), James Mason (“Gentleman” Brown), Curt Jürgens (Cornelius), Eli Wallach (The General), Jack Hawkins (Captain Marlow), Paul Lukas (Stein), and Daliah Lavi (Jewel).
Peter O’Toole and Paul Lukas
After Jim rejects Marlow’s suggestion that he go to America, Marlow decides to consult Stein, the proprietor of a large trading company with posts in “out-of-the-way places” where Jim could more easily live in peace. Stein, according to Marlow, is extremely trustworthy and wise. We learn a little about Stein’s past: he escaped Germany as a young man after getting entangled with revolutionaries, then came to the East Indies with a Dutch naturalist. Stein remained in the area with a Scottish trader he had met, who bequeathed him his trading empire and introduced him to a Malay queen. Stein became an adviser to the queen’s son, Mohammed Bonso, who was battling several relatives for the throne. He married Bonso’s sister and had a child with her, and began to collect beetles and butterflies. Bonso was assassinated, and Stein’s wife and child died from a fever. Stein tells Marlow an anecdote about a particular butterfly specimen in his collection. One morning, he was tricked into leaving his compound by an enemy of Bonso’s and was ambushed along the road. After feigning death, he attacked and dispatched his attackers with bullets, but a few escaped. Suddenly, he saw a rare butterfly glide past him. Moving quickly, he captured it in his hat, holding a revolver in his other hand in case the bandits should reappear. Stein describes that day as one of the best of his life; he had defeated his enemy, possessed friendship and love, and acquired a butterfly he had long desired.
Stein collects butterflies, which may seem like just a passing hobby. But we think there just might be something more to it. Let’s take a look at Stein’s description of his favorite pasttime:
“When I got up I shook like a leaf with excitement, and when I opened these beautiful wings and made sure what a rare and so extraordinary perfect specimen I had, my head went round and my legs became so weak with emotion that I had to sit on the ground. I had greatly desired to possess myself of a specimen of that species […]”
He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams. (20.10-5)
Each time Stein captures a butterfly, he must kill it. He both admires and destroys these beautiful bugs, because each time he gets his hands on one, he takes away its freedom, and the beauty of the insect in flight. It’s a bit of a contradiction, right? If you love butterflies so much, Stein, perhaps you should leave the poor things alone. But he can’t. For Stein, all beauty is fleeting and all perfect moments must come to an end. His own personal history seems to confirm this: his wife and daughter were tragically killed, and live on only in his dreams and memories. He spends the aftermath of that tragedy tracking down and capturing butterflies, perhaps as an effort to recapture what he has lost.
Aside from personal considerations, Stein’s butterfly hunting is also a powerful symbol of the British Empire (and other European empires). Stein goes tromping around foreign places, capturing these things of beauty so he can study them and show off his trophies to his admirers. That sounds eerily familiar when you consider that European imperialism was all about traveling to foreign places and capturing their resources for European use. Perhaps these butterflies represent what is lost when Europeans colonized these far-flung foreign lands.