Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172
Jim is an outcast and a wanderer. He works as a water clerk in seaports throughout the East, keeping each job only until his identity becomes known and then moving on. The story of Lord Jim began when he determined to leave home to go to sea. His father obtained a berth for him as an officer candidate, and he began his service. Although he loves the sea, his beginning was not heroic, for almost at once he was injured and had to be left behind in an Eastern port. When he recovered, he accepted a berth as chief mate aboard an ancient steamer, the Patna, which was carrying Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. The steamer was not seaworthy, its German captain was a gross coward, and its chief engineer was liquor-soaked. One sultry night in the Red Sea, the ship struck a floating object and the captain sent Jim to investigate.
One month later, Jim testifies in court that when he went to investigate, he found the forward hold rapidly filling with seawater. Hearing his report, the captain, declaring that the Patna would sink quickly, gave orders for the crew to abandon ship. At first, Jim was determined to stand by his post. At the last minute, however, on sudden impulse, he jumped to join the other white men in the lifeboat they had launched. The pilgrims were left aboard the sinking vessel. The Patna did not sink, however. A French gunboat overtook the vessel and towed it and the abandoned passengers into port without its chief officers aboard.
Marlow, a white man, is present at the inquiry. There is something about Jim that becomes unforgettable to Marlow, and he is compelled to recall the event and to tell the story to friends as long as he lives; it becomes a part of his own life.
Marlow’s story had begun with a cable from Aden announcing that the Patna, abandoned by its officers, had been towed into port. Two weeks later, the captain, the two engineers, and Jim had come ashore. Their boat had been picked up by a steamer of the Dale Line, and they were immediately whisked into court for the investigation. The captain lost his papers for deserting his ship, and he stormed away declaring that his disgrace did not matter; he would become an American citizen. The chief engineer went to a hospital. Raving in delirium tremens, he declared that he had seen the Patna go down and that the vessel was full of reptiles when it sank. He also stated that the space under his bed was crammed with pink toads. The second engineer had a broken arm and was also in the hospital. Neither was called to testify.
Jim, wrestling with the thoughts of his upbringing and his father’s teaching as well as his own deeply established sense of honor, becomes a marked man for the rest of his life. Marlow tells how during the trial he had dinner with the young man, who seemed of a different stamp from the other officers of the Patna. Marlow is determined to fathom the boy’s spirit, just as Jim is determined to regain his lost moral identity.
Jim tells Marlow how the disgraceful affair happened. After he had investigated the damage, he had felt that the ship could not remain afloat, for its plates were eaten through by rust and unable to stand much strain. There were eight hundred passengers and seven lifeboats, but there did not seem to be enough time to get even a few passengers into the boats. Shortly afterward, he discovered the captain and the engineers preparing to desert the ship. They insisted that he join them; the passengers were doomed anyway. The acting third engineer had a heart attack in the excitement and died. Jim never knew when—or why—he had jumped into the lifeboat the other officers had launched. Jim tells Marlow how they all agreed to tell the same story. Actually, he and his companions thought that the Patna had gone down. Jim says that he felt relief when he learned that the passengers were safe. The whole story becomes a topic of conversation among all the sailors in the ports.
After the inquiry, Marlow offers to help Jim, but the young man is determined to become a wanderer, to find out by himself what has happened to his soul. In his wanderings, Jim goes to Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), Penang, Batavia (Jakarta), and the islands of the East. For a time, he finds work with an acquaintance of Marlow, but he gives up the job when the second engineer of the Patna turns up unexpectedly. Afterward, he becomes a runner for ship chandlers, but he leaves that job when he hears one of the owners discussing the case of the Patna. He moves on, always toward the East, from job to job.
Marlow continues his efforts to help Jim. He seeks out Stein, a trader who owns a number of trading posts on the smaller islands of the East Indies. Stein makes Jim his agent at Patusan, an out-of-the-way settlement where he is sure Jim will have the opportunity to recover his balance. In that remote place, Jim tries to find an answer to his self-hatred. Determined never to leave Patusan, he associates with the natives, and through his gentleness and consideration he becomes their leader. They called him Tuan Jim—Lord Jim. Dain Waris, the son of Doramin, the old native chief, is Jim’s friend. In the ports, rumors spread that Jim discovered a valuable emerald and presented it to a native woman. Another story circulates about a native girl who loved him and warned him of danger when some jealous natives came to murder him.
Marlow follows Jim to Patusan, and when he prepares to leave, Jim accompanies him part of the way. Jim explains to Marlow that at last he feels as though his way has been justified. Somehow, because the simple natives trust him, he feels linked again to the ideals of his youth. Marlow suspects that there is a kind of desperation to his declaration.
The end comes when Gentleman Brown, a roving cutthroat, determines that he and his band of marauders will loot Lord Jim’s stronghold. They arrive while Jim is away, and the natives, led by Dain Waris, isolate Brown and his men on a hilltop but are unable to capture them. When Jim returns, he has a long talk with Brown and becomes convinced that Brown will leave peaceably if the siege is lifted. He persuades the reluctant natives to withdraw, and the vicious Brown repays Jim’s magnanimity by vengefully murdering Dain Waris. Jim goes unflinchingly to face native justice, offering himself to the stern old chieftain as the cause of Dain Waris’s death, and Doramin shoots Jim in the chest. Marlow, who has watched Jim’s life so closely, feels that Jim has at last won back his lost honor.
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