Summary and Analysis
After two years of naval training, Jim's dreams of romance seemingly became reality. While still a young man, he was assigned to be the chief mate of a fine ship, but it was soon apparent that his new job was both monotonous and barren. Yet, curiously, Jim was addicted, "enslaved," as it were, to life at sea. Jim loved the sea because he felt constantly challenged by its savage capriciousness. He felt that at any time, he could triumph over its untamed power. Ironically, he had never been tested by the sea; only once, in fact, had he glimpsed the sea's "sinister something," that power which reveals that the sea can, if it chooses, smash, destroy, and annihilate everything, including Jim's individual and unique life.
During the single time that Jim witnessed the deadly fury of the sea, he was wounded. A heavy spar from the ship's mast fell on him from high up. As he lay on his back, he felt pleased that he didn't have to be on deck during the storm. Then he was swept with guilt.
When fine weather returned, Jim was taken to a hospital in Singapore. His recovery was slow, and his ship sailed without him. At first, Jim was wary and disdainful of Singapore's "bewitching breath" which seemed to smell of softness and decay. And yet Jim was increasingly fascinated by the white men whom he saw. He realized that unlike the heroic figures of his romantic dreams, these men "did well" on a very small allowance of danger and work.
Suddenly, he decided not to go home. He accepted the position of chief mate on the Patna, an old, rusty steamer which was owned by a Chinese, chartered by an Arab, and captained by a "blood-and-iron" German, steering toward various holy places with 800 ragged, hopeful, and meek Moslem pilgrims crowded into every crevice and cranny.
The actual day-to-day routine of being first mate was "strangely barren" and dully monotonous; it contrasted significantly with Jim's romantic dreams and fantasies. Jim's injury served merely to place him in a hospital in an "Eastern port" (most probably Singapore) where he was in danger of "lounging through the days in easy chairs . . . with eternal serenity." Thus, he determined to take the first available passage out and, consequently, he signed on as first mate on the Patna, a rusty, old dilapidated steamer, "eaten with rust worse than a condemned water-tank." It was commanded by an incompetent, disreputable captain and a crew from which Jim stood out; he was too "perfect." Conrad's description of the ship and the captain portends that this ship is unsafe and that an unfortunate incident is imminent.
Reading the description of the pilgrims boarding the ship, one is reminded of cattle being blindly herded and crowded into small, unclean quarters. The German captain's view of the pilgrims as "cattle" emphasizes his disgust with them and justifies, in his mind, his later desertion of them to seemingly certain death — a view that completely separates him from Jim, who is deeply and profoundly affected by his actions. Jim's jumping from the Patna controls the rest of his life.
Concerning the episode of the Patna and the pilgrims, Conrad is basing this part of Lord Jim upon an actual event. The actual ship was named the Jeddah, and it was loaded with about 1,000 pilgrims. When it almost foundered, the ship was abandoned by the captain and the crew, who were picked up by a steamship and taken to the port of Aden, where they reported the "loss" of their ship. The next day, the Jeddah was towed into the port of Aden with all of her pilgrim/passengers still on board. This was a naval scandal, and the disgrace became widely known throughout the nautical world, causing horrendous gossip and a full inquiry. But Conrad's readers will not be informed about the events concerning the Patna until later, and even then, the facts will be only slowly revealed.