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“A Manifestation of a Deep, Inborn Inherited Instinct”: Modernist Aesthetics and the Instabilities of Inheritance in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim

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This essay explores how Joseph Conrad reworks the trope of inheritance—traditionally considered relevant for earlier nineteenth-century literature rather than Modernism—in expressing Jim’s crisis of self-making in Lord Jim. Conrad moves away from the conventional emphasis on familial inheritance of social status and wealth to focus on inherited abilities, which Jim tries to prove in building his heroic and gentlemanly status. However, there are limits to this process of self-creation: inheritance is, as the word’s root suggests, innate to oneself, yet can also be extrinsic since it still needs to be expressed to call it one’s own, and be unstable since it is open to interpretation. Such complexities in the notion of inheritance, the essay argues, contribute to a modernist aesthetics in the novel that simultaneously harbours continuity (such as gradualism, predictability, and succession) and discontinuity (such as narrative rupture and the breakdown of causality), allowing the perils of modern self-making to be more fully revealed.

Affiliations: 1: The Chinese University of Hong Kong,


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