Summary and Analysis Chapter 4



The narrative resumes a month or so later, and we are now in the police court of an Eastern port. An official hearing was called to investigate "the Patna incident" in an attempt to determine what struck the ship and what happened on board after the mysterious collision that night.

Standing in a box above the hot, packed courtroom, Jim was the only white member of the Patna's crew to answer to the panel of inquiry. His answers were obviously painful and difficult, and he shivered, his mind flying.

Slowly, in fragments and half-statements of memory, Jim explained to the panel that he tried to determine that night if any damage had been done to the ship; he remembered that he immediately realized that the hatch in the front of the ship was rapidly filling with water. Clearly, there was a hole in the bottom of the ship. Only one wall kept the ship from being flooded, and if that wall broke, they were doomed. In shock, yet strangely calm, he went to warn the captain, and he met the second engineer, who was complaining about a broken arm. Jim explained what had happened, and the engineer dashed toward the captain, shouting and swearing in panic. The captain silenced him and sent him below to shut off the hot engines before the icy water broke against them.

Lost in futility and frustration and wiping his damp forehead, Jim unexpectedly saw a "distinctive looking" white man in the room, sitting apart. His face was worn and clouded, but his eyes were "straight, interested, and clear." Jim had seen this man before — he was sure of it — and this man seemed "to be aware of [Jim's] hopeless difficulty."


This chapter shifts to sometime later. Here, the reader could be justifiably confused about the time, the place, the purpose of the "inquiry," and the indistinct introduction of a strange man called Marlow.

Throughout these first four chapters, we see Jim through the omniscient narrator as a magnificent physical specimen endowed with an "exquisite sensibility," a man who dreams of "valorous deeds" and who lives on an idealistic level. Later, we will realize that this view is ironic: here, for example, Jim is on trial at a court of inquiry, and he is filled with horror and shame, and yet we don't know the reason why. Jim is forced, we hear, to give facts — even though facts do not answer the essential questions: "They wanted facts. Facts. They demanded facts of him, as if facts could explain anything."

Meantime, Jim knew that "only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things." Jim's realizations, by the very nature of the language, imply that something horrible has happened, yet the reader is still essentially in the dark as to the nature of Jim's "horror" and his "shame."

In summary, the first four chapters have presented, from an omniscient view, (1) Jim's early life and training for the sea, (2) his dreams of performing acts of courage and heroism, (3) an important chance to be a hero during his sea training, (4) the voyage on the Patna until some unexplained misfortune strikes, and (5) Jim's being tried for some unknown but horrible and shameful act.