Jim was an impressive young man — about six feet tall and powerfully built — extremely intense, self-assertive, and lways dressed in spotless white. He was a popular and successful water-clerk — that is, he competed against all the other water-clerks in port to be the very first man to greet a newly docked sea captain and steer him to a vast supply store (a "ship's chandler") filled with all the items that a ship would need for its next voyage.
While the ship remained docked, Jim had to court, cajole, and serve the captain as a loyal friend and as a patient, good-natured companion so that the captain would spend a great deal of money at the ship-chandler's.
Jim always drew good wages, but he never stayed at one port for very long; he had "something of the unknown" about him, something that set him apart, something which Conrad calls "an exquisite sensibility."
We are also told that for many years, Jim went by only one name — Jim — because he wanted to hide a "fact" about himself and when that "fact" surfaced in seaport gossip, Jim would leave town very suddenly, always traveling "farther east," toward the rising sun.
It was while Jim was working among the Malays (the Bugis) that he acquired the other half of the name by which men would know him. The natives dubbed him "Tuan Jim," or Lord Jim.
Seemingly, Jim became interested in sailing and adventure as a young boy, because one day, after reading some "light holiday literature," presumably about sailing, he immediately decided that the sea would be his vocation. Not long afterward, he was sent to a "training ship for officers." He was generally well-liked at the school; he was cool-headed, clever, and had an enviable physique. His job stationed him at the ship's fore-top, from which he could scan the surroundings and look down at the other boys, as if from a very privileged distance. From his high post, Jim daydreamed that he was being readied for a heroic "role"; he romantically envisioned himself rescuing people from hurricanes and then surviving half-naked on a deserted island. He saw himself quelling tempers and putting down inflamed mutinies. In his dreams, he was always the essence of fidelity and duty.
One winter's day at dusk, Jim heard a call to help a coaster which had crashed into a schooner. He stopped and held his breath in awe while the other boys clamored over the rails and were lowered away. Jim was half-ready to leap overboard when the captain unexpectedly gripped his shoulder. "Too late, youngster," he said. "Better luck next time."
Later the other boys, particularly one boy with "a face like a girl's," loudly celebrated their successful rescue of the victims of the collision. The pretty young boy — and not Jim — was the hero of the evening. Jim pondered over his failure to act, his hesitating too long. Why hadn't he acted? Next time, he vowed to himself, he would act faster and better than anyone, but this time, why should he have risked life and limb for such a trivial "rescue effort"? He breathed deeply, eager for a new challenge that would be worthy of him.
Our first view of Lord Jim, the protagonist of the novel, is that of a dedicated and moral person; consequently, we are immediately aware that this novel will deal with moral and ethical issues.
Many critics refer to this novel as an "impressionistic" novel because we are given the impression of a man who, at three critical times in his life, is faced with a difficult choice, and, each time, he chooses incorrectly. First, he must choose whether, as a cadet, he will join in rescuing a sinking ship; he doesn't. Second, he must choose whether or not to jump from the sinking Patna, leaving 800 pilgrims to drown; he jumps. Third, he must choose whether or not to have Gentleman Brown killed; he chooses not to. In each case, because of his romantic illusions, Lord Jim makes the wrong decision and we see how these wrong decisions affect him.
Throughout this novel, we are constantly reminded that Jim is "one of us" — that what Lord Jim does is probably what most of us would do under the same circumstances, and until we are confronted with a similar situation, we do not know whether or not we also would "Jump." As the critic Albert Guerard states, "The universality of Lord Jim is even more obvious, since nearly everyone has jumped off some Patna and most of us have been compelled to live on, desperately or quietly engaged in reconciling what we are with what we would like to be."
The first four chapters of the novel offer a view of Jim from the omniscient author's (Conrad's) point-of-view. The rest of the novel presents views of Jim from Marlow's point-of-view, as well as additional points-of-view from Jim's father's letter, from documents, and from Gentleman Brown's account of Jim.
Significantly, also, these first four chapters show us Jim's early life and the influence of "light holiday reading" on him, his heroic dreams, a key incident in his sea training, his accident, the voyage of the Patna up until the moment when the ship strikes a submerged wreck, and a portion of the courtroom scene where the accused is being questioned.
In Chapter 1, we are given a physical description of Jim; he is an ideal specimen of humanity — tall, handsome, powerfully built, clean cut, and apparently popular. Then Conrad offers us the first incongruity — Jim, as a water-clerk for a ship-chandler, is outstanding in this position (and others) until unexpectedly "he would throw up the job and depart." Likewise, if anyone found out his last name, he would leave immediately. Already, then, Conrad lets us know that there is "something unknown" about Jim's past which caused him to act mysteriously and erratically.
Later, Jim will be seen, by Stein and others, as a romantic, and Conrad lets us know that Jim's love of the sea was a result of "light holiday reading." Even in training, Jim tried to see "himself saving people from sinking ships. . . . in a hurricane swimming through a surf," and performing all sorts of heroic and romantic deeds, living more in the world of fantasy than in reality.
Reality intruded into Jim's dreams, however, when he failed his first test of courage. All the other cadets rushed to the aid of a sinking ship, but Jim remained aboard ship — almost paralyzed. Too late, he tried to join the others. After the others returned, Jim fantasized that next time he would perform greater feats of heroism. Thus, Jim failed his first test and resorted again to dreaming about acts of courage.