We are introduced to Jim (later, Lord Jim) at a time when he was working as a water-clerk for a ship-chandler firm in the Far East. It was menial work, but Jim seemed fairly happy, and everyone liked him. They knew him simply as "Jim." Yet, as the plot unfolds, with Conrad's skillful analysis of Jim's character, we gradually realize that Jim was not "merely" Jim; he was "one of us."
Jim was born and raised in an English parson's home, and when he was still a young lad, he decided to make the sea his career; thus, he enrolled on a training ship for officers of the merchant marine. He did well and advanced to third place in navigation. While still aboard the training ship, he met his first test of courage.
But during that test of courage, Jim held back in fear when he was called upon to assist a vessel injured in a fierce storm. Afterward, he justified himself and rationalized that he was not really afraid; he was simply waiting for a challenge that would be equal to his heroism. Next time, he would be heroic. He was convinced that he would have another chance.
Sometime later, an injury from a falling spar put Jim in the hospital, and after recovering, he shipped out as first mate on the Patna, an old iron tramp steamer bound for holy places with 800 Moslem religious pilgrims. The other four officers of the Patna were riff-raff. Accordingly, Jim held himself aloof from them.
On a calm, dark night in the Arabian Sea, the Patna ran over some floating wreckage and got badly damaged in her forepeak compartment. Jim discovered the damage and saw that the sea was pressing in on the bulkhead, which walled in the hold, where hundreds of the pilgrims were asleep. The bulkhead bulged. It could not possibly withstand the pressure. Jim was convinced that within minutes the sea would rush in and the pilgrims would all be drowned. With too few lifeboats and no time, there was no possible salvation for everybody on board.
Meanwhile, the skipper and the other officers struggled to lower a lifeboat. Jim despised their cowardice and refused to help them. Then he spotted a squall bearing down on the Patna, and he knew that the lightest shudder would burst the bulkhead. It might be a matter of seconds.
The officers got the boat over the side, while the squall closed in with dark, tumbling clouds. The first gust of wind hit the Patna, and she plunged. Jim was sure that it was her last tremor. He jumped.
Hours of horror followed. The other officers resented Jim's presence in the lifeboat. They watched as the lights of the Patna seemed to go out, and meanwhile, Jim listened and seemed to hear the hysterical screams of the helpless passengers. Once, he even considered throwing himself over the lifeboat and swimming back.
Before sundown of the following day, the ship Avondale picked up the four men, and ten days later, it delivered them to an Eastern port.
The story which the Patna's skipper invented as their alibi for desertion was immediately useless when they heard the news that a French man-o-war had discovered the Patna listing badly, deserted by her officers, and towed it into Aden.
At this news, the skipper vanished, and the two engineers drank themselves into a hospital. Jim faced the official inquiry panel alone. He defended himself doggedly and insisted that there hadn't been a chance in a million that the Patna could have survived. "There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair."
At the inquiry, a man named Marlow entered the scene, and throughout most of the novel, the reader will see Jim through Marlow's sympathetic eyes and emotions.
Deeply interested in the young, wholesome-looking Englishman who seemed so "doomed," Marlow attended the inquiry and tried to discover why Jim deserted the Patna.
Then, a strange and dramatic circumstance brought Marlow and Jim together. Jim confronted Marlow and accused him of calling him a "wretched cur." Marlow convinced Jim that another person had made the remark and was referring not to Jim, but to an actual dog. Jim realized that he had exposed his low opinion of himself to Marlow.
Nevertheless, Marlow found himself even more drawn to Jim, and so he invited the young man to have dinner with him at Malabar House. There, Jim related the story of what happened that night aboard the Patna. Marlow was puzzled by the young man's attitude toward himself, and, despite himself, he caught glimpses of his own tormented soul within Jim.
The inquiry ended, Jim lost his naval certificate, and Marlow invited him to his hotel room, where the reader sees the agony of the promising young officer who now regarded himself as "no better than a vagabond."
Marlow found a job for Jim, and the young man did well and pleased his employer. But suddenly, Jim disappeared. Someone had mentioned the Patna affair and Jim could not endure it. Under such circumstances, Jim left job after job until every waterfront character throughout the Orient knew Jim's story.
Marlow finally confided Jim's story to a Herr Stein, a philosophical old trader with a fabulous butterfly collection. Stein, who had never seen Jim, labeled him a "romantic" and suggested that Jim go to Patusan, an isolated island community in a Malay state where three warring factions were contending for supremacy. In Patusan, Stein had an unprofitable trading post under the direction of a slimy Portuguese, Cornelius. Jim could take over the trading post and begin a new life; no one would know him in Patusan.
Stein's offer delighted Jim. He felt that he could now bury his past completely and no one would ever find out about it. Stein also gave Jim a silver ring, a symbol of eternal friendship between Stein and Doramin, chief of the Bugis Malays in Patusan.
Alone, Jim traveled upriver to Patusan, but he was soon captured by Rajah Allang's men. He did, however, manage to leap over the stockade and escape to Doramin's village, where he showed him Stein's silver ring, symbolic of eternal friendship between Stein and Doramin. Afterward, Jim was warmly welcomed and was protected.
Jim's hopes seemed about to be realized. Doramin's son, Dain Waris, was a strong, intelligent youth about Jim's age, and the two worked together to put down the vandalism of Sherif Ali and to bring Rajah Allang under control.
Jim felt secure in the love and trust of all the Malays. He had a noble and beloved friend in Dain Waris, and he fell in love with a girl, Jewel, who shared his life.
After two years, Marlow visited Jim at Patusan, but it wasn't a completely successful visit; Marlow felt that even his temporary intrusion into this idyllic existence upset Jim and those who were close to him. He resolved never again to visit Patusan.
The outside world also reentered Jim's sanctuary in the person of "Gentleman Brown," a renegade Australian who stole a ship and, with a band of desperate seamen, traveled upriver to Patusan. He intended to plunder the settlement and supply his ship for a voyage to Madagascar.
When the bandits arrived, Jim was away, but the village people under Dain Waris repulsed the invaders and drove them to a knoll, where the white men were able to throw up a temporary defense.
When Jim returned, Doramin, Dain Waris, and all of the villagers urged immediate annihilation for the robbers, but Jim decided to talk to Brown.
Brown did not really know anything about Jim's past, but he knew enough of his own vile history, and so he judged Jim by himself; thus, Jim's old fears and shame returned. Brown was able to see that Jim had a guilty conscience about something.
Jim did not want bloodshed, so he promised Brown and his men safe conduct down the river. Then he made a persuasive speech to the Bugis in which he pledged his own life as security — should any harm come to any of the villagers as a result of his letting Brown's party go free.
Brown, advised and guided by the slimy Cornelius, left as planned, but he treacherously ambushed a party of Malays under Dain Waris on the way downriver. The chief's son and many of his soldiers were killed.
Survivors brought Dain Waris' body to his father, Doramin. On the young man's hand was the silver ring which Jim had sent to him as a pledge of Brown's good faith. Someone took the ring and held it up for Doramin to see. The old chief let out "one fierce cry, deep from the chest, a cry of pain and fury."
Meanwhile, the awful news reached Jim. His new life had fallen into ruins. The Malays would never again trust him. He had three choices. He could run; he could fight (he had an arsenal); or he could give himself up according to Malay custom. Jewel and Tamb' Itam, Jim's servant, urged him to fight or, at least, flee, but Jim deliberately crossed the creek and climbed the hill to Doramin's village. Stooping down, he lifted the sheet from Dain Waris' face. Then, alone and unarmed, he faced Doramin.
As the old chief rose up, the silver ring fell from his lap and rolled to Jim's feet. Doramin shot Jim through the chest, and as he did so, Lord Jim flashed a proud and unflinching look toward all of the assembled Malays. Then he fell at Doramin's feet, a hero in death.