Book Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

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After reading adventure stories as a child, Jim develops a heroic view of himself and goes off to sea, filled with dreams of glory, romance, and adventure. But when his courage is tested, he fails. 

Not only does Jim’s jump from the Patna end his illusions of manliness and courage, but it endangers the lives of 800 passengers and brands Jim a coward. Yet he never abandons his romanticism; instead, he maintains a heroic image of himself as he faces the inquiry and avoids the reality of his cowardly act. 

As a romantic, he sees Patusan as “something from a book,” as a place in which to redeem himself; there, after obtaining power and honor among the Bugis, he chooses a “heroic” death, thereby making himself a true hero—at least in his own mind. His heroism, however, proves to be an act of betrayal toward Jewel and the people of Patusan, for whom Jim is the heart and soul of the community. 

As on the Patna, Jim serves his own needs rather than those of other people, and his romantic views ultimately keep him from maturity and self-knowledge.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time. 

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A young British sailor commits a cowardly act that haunts him for years, but finally regains his honor when he dies for another man’s crime.

By the 1880s, England had established an empire whose influence extended through much of the Near and Far East. Trade depended on seafaring, and England controlled a large merchant marine service. Marlow and Jim, the main characters of Lord Jim, represent typical Englishmen whose marine activities led them to the Orient.

Chapters 1–4 

Jim, the novel’s hero—later called Lord Jim—is a likable, capable young man much in demand as a water-clerk during the mid-1880s in Far Eastern seaports. Years earlier, however, he committed a cowardly act that caused him a loss of personal honor and barred him from working as a sailor. (The cowardly act is described later in the novel.) 

His present job as a water- clerk consists of greeting ships as they arrive in port, and enticing the ships’ captains to purchase their supplies at the inland shops owned by his employers. The tall, powerfully built Jim never uses his last name, since he does not want people to recognize him as the coward of the Patna ship disaster. 

Wherever he goes, however, his identity eventually becomes known, and he then abruptly moves to another port, usually farther east. To date, he has worked in Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, and Penang.

As a teenager in Essex, Jim read adventure novels (“light holiday literature”) filled with romantic quests and glorious ideals. Excited by what he read, Jim developed an image of himself as a heroic, wayfaring seaman who would rescue people from sinking ships, quell mutinies on the high seas, and meet crises with determination and calmness. 

When his father, a parson, learned that Jim wanted to become a sailor, he sent Jim into training on a ship for officers of the mercantile marine. During this time, Jim fantasized himself as one who was “as unflinching as a hero in a book.” One night, however, a winter gale caused a coaster (coast vessel) to crash into a schooner on the river where Jim’s training boat was stationed, and Jim did not properly man the cutter to which he had been assigned. 

To justify his negligence, Jim concluded that “he could affront greater perils” than a mere gale and that in a future emergency, when all other men flinched, he alone would know how to handle the crisis.

Two years later, Jim went to sea, but found it boring. His gentlemanly nature and thorough knowledge of his duties led quickly to a promotion as chief mate.

But he was injured in a storm and hospitalized in Singapore, where he spent many days in bed. After his discharge, Jim became first mate on the Patna, an old, rundown steamer then carrying 800 Moslem pilgrims—”urged by faith and the hope of paradise”—to the Holy Land. The crew consisted of three engineers and a mean German captain. 

One night, while en route to the Holy Land, the Patna suddenly rammed into a drifting object—and what happened next proved to haunt Jim for the rest of his life. (Conrad keeps the reader in suspense about the details of the tragedy by revealing them gradually in Chapters 4–10, and out of the order in which they happened. The narration shifts without warning between past and present.) 

A month later, an official inquiry was held in the police court of an Eastern port, to determine what had happened that night on the Patna. Jim was the only crew member to face the inquiry, since the captain had disappeared and the engineers were in the hospital. 

The examining magistrate and his two assistants told Jim they wanted facts, and though Jim remembered the incident clearly, he was pained to discuss his actions of that night. While testifying, Jim noticed a white man in the crowd who appeared sympathetic to his plight. The man, Marlow, was a British sea captain who had “quiet eyes that glanced straight, interested, and clear.”

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Chapters 5–15 

Years later, at a dinner party given by his host, Charley, Marlow tells how he became interested in Jim. (Marlow takes over as narrator.) A cable had arrived from the seaport of Aden (at the mouth of the Red Sea), announcing the mysterious story of the Patna, which had been deserted by its crew and towed into port by a French gunboat. 

Everyone at the waterside spoke of nothing else. Ten days later, a Dale Line steamer arrived, carrying the German captain of the Patna, along with Jim and two of the Patna’s engineers.

The fat, purple-cheeked captain made a deposition at the harbor office, and the Master Attendant on duty stripped him of his certificate for deserting the Patna. The German growled that it made no difference, since he intended to become an American citizen; he then disappeared, leaving Jim and the two engineers behind. It was at this point that Marlow saw Jim for the first time. 

He immediately disliked the “unconcerned and unapproachable” youth. But after staring at Jim, Marlow decided that the sailor seemed as trustworthy and “promising a boy as ever the sun shone on”; Jim appeared at ease with himself and, in Marlow’s words, seemed to be “like one of us” (i.e., an honorable man from a good British family).

The chief engineer, suffering from delirium tremens (a violent, trembling restlessness induced by the prolonged use of alcohol), was admitted to the hospital and told Marlow—who was there visiting a friend—that the Patna had been full of reptiles and that there were millions of pink toads under his bed.

Neither he nor the other engineer, who was also in the hospital, was well enough to attend the inquiry, which began the next day.

Marlow thought Jim showed courage in facing the court alone when he could easily have avoided the inquiry; he was not legally obliged to testify, but did so in an effort to regain his honor. Captain Montague Brierly (known as Big Brierly), who led the proceedings and who “had never in his life made a mistake,” believed Jim to be “soft,” since it was clear that Jim could not redeem himself. 

Brierly, who had once met Jim’s kindly father, felt nonetheless mat too much importance was being given to the Patna affair. Anxious for an end to the disgraceful inquiry, held in a room filled with jeering spectators, he offered Marlow 200 rupees to help finance Jim’s escape. Marlow rejected the offer, since he believed that Jim’s goal in facing the inquiry was to clear his name, not to find a way of fleeing from his accusers. 

A week after the inquiry, Brierly killed himself by jumping off the ship Ossa into the sea. No one knew why, but people concluded that he was exasperated by the lack of decency shown by the spectators at the inquiry. Marlow surmises that Jim’s struggle with his loss of honor may have caused Brierly to examine his own conscience, only to find that his “perfect” life had been a “sham.”

On the second day of the inquiry, while leaving the courtroom, Marlow was confronted by an angry Jim, who mistakenly believed that Marlow had called him a cur (i.e., a mongrel dog). Marlow, determined to find out more about Jim, invited him to dinner at his suite in the Malabar House. Jim revealed that he did not know what the future held, with “certificate gone, career broken, no money to get away, and no work that he could obtain.”

As the evening progressed, Jim told Marlow what had happened on the Patna. After the ship had hit the drifting object, the captain ordered Jim not to wake the sleeping pilgrims, but to see if there was any damage. Jim discovered that the ship’s forepeak was already half filled with water, and that the ship would soon sink. 

He also knew that there were only seven lifeboats, which would not be enough to hold the 800 pilgrims. At this point, the unscrupulous captain and two of the other crew members tried to lower a lifeboat into the water for themselves.

Horrified by their cowardice, Jim attempted to stop them, but after several scuffles, they managed to get the lifeboat into the water. The men urged the third engineer, George, to join them, but George had died of a heart attack minutes before. 

Jim heard the men on the lifeboat calling, “Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!”— and, in a moment of panic, Jim jumped, abandoning ship and his dreams of heroism. The crew in the lifeboat were hostile to him because of his attempts to prevent their escape, and Jim spent the entire night with the heavy wooden tiller in his hands, ready to defend himself if they attacked. 

Marlow tells the guests at Charley’s dinner party that Jim had felt guilty about his cowardly act for years, even though “there was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair.” Marlow concluded that Jim was honorable and that anyone might have reacted the way Jim did.

The lifeboat was rescued hours later by the Avondale, a Dale Line steamer. Jim had concluded that the pilgrims had drowned, but when the Avondale reached the Eastern port, he heard that the French gunboat had towed the Patna and its passengers to safety in Aden.

Marlow announces to Charley’s dinner guests that three years after the inquiry, he met an old French lieutenant who had helped save the Patna. The lieutenant did not blame Jim for his fear, since fear is a common human emotion, but he saw that Jim had lost his honor by abandoning ship. In the same period, Marlow had seen Jim, who was working as a water-clerk in Samarang for an acquaintance of Marlows named De Jongh. 

Though the inquiry had ended three years earlier, Jim was still obsessed with guilt and a desire to regain his lost honor. He was unable, however, to face up to the truth of his cowardice. On the third day of the inquiry, the judge revoked Jim’s seaman’s certificate, thereby barring him from working aboard ships. 

Feeling somehow responsible for Jim, Marlow resolved to help him. When an exploitative West Australian entrepreneur named Chester asked Marlow to make Jim a job offer for him, Marlow indignantly refused. Chester had discovered a guano island (“guano” is seabird manure that is prized as a rich fertilizer) located in the middle of the treacherous Walpole Reefs. It would later be discovered that if Jim had accepted the job as foreman on the project, he would have lost his life in a storm.

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Chapters 16–24 

Immediately after the inquiry, Jim was depressed. But when Marlow offered to send him to work with a friend of his who owned a rice mill, Jim accepted gratefully. Six months later, Marlow heard that his friend loved Jim like a father—until Jim left town abruptly when the Patna’s second engineer took a job at the mill. 

Jim became a water-clerk 700 miles south of Hong Kong, but left suddenly again when the events of his past threatened to become known. Marlow was worried that Jim was becoming demoralized, so he consulted his friend Stein about ways he could help Jim. Stein, who collected beetles and butterflies as a hobby, was a wealthy, respected merchant who owned trading posts throughout the Orient. 

Stein saw Jim as a romantic who had an image of himself as being “so fine as he can never be,” and whose romantic heroism was good when it led Jim to pursue his dreams, but bad when it prevented him from confronting life’s painful realities. For Stein, the only remedy for this problem of romanticism was to follow one’s dream, even though it may be destructive.

As a favor to Marlow, Stein hired Jim to handle one of his unsuccessful trading posts in Patusan, a remote province of Sumatra deep in the jungles of Malaya (Southeast Asia). It was run by a devious man, Cornelius, whom Jim would replace. Jim was deeply grateful and eager to be forgotten by the outside world. 

Stein gave him a silver ring as a token of introduction to the powerful Doramin, an important (and monumentally fat) chieftain in Patusan. When Marlow visited him two years later in Patusan, he saw that Jim was very happy there.

Chapters 25–35 

During Marlow’s visit to Patusan, Jim told Marlow that when he arrived, he was immediately taken prisoner by the local rajah, Tunku Allang.

After three days of imprisonment, he decided to escape. He jumped the fence and crossed a creek, then reached Doramin, the rajah’s chief rival. Jim learned that the political situation in Patusan was explosive, since Doramin and the rajah—each with his own tribe of supporters—were in conflict over trade. 

Moreover, a bandit, Sherif Ali, was harassing both tribes, and Jim saw that Ali needed to be eliminated quickly. With the help of Doramin, Tamb’ Itam (who became Jim’s personal servant), and the distinguished Dain Waris, Doramin’s only son (and eventually Jim’s best friend), Jim fortified a hill, then conquered Ali in a victory that became legendary among the Bugis (people of Patusan). 

When Ali fled the country and Tunku Allang surrendered, Jim was seen as a man of supernatural powers. By the time of Marlow’s visit, Jim’s word was law throughout the land.

When Marlow saw Jim standing above the “brooding gloom” of the landscape, he finally realized that he had been fascinated by Jim because the latter was a symbol of youth, power, and glory. After years of suffering and despair, Jim was now being taken seriously, and the people called him “Tuanjim”—or Lord Jim.

Jim decided to stay in Patusan permanently. He had fallen in love with Jewel, a part-white woman who grew up in Patusan with her mother (now dead) and her stepfather, the degenerate Cornelius, whom Jim replaced. 

After Jim escaped from the rajah, he lived with Cornelius (the only other white man in Patusan) and spent much time with Jewel. Rumors had spread throughout Patusan that a white man (i.e., Jim) had discovered “an extraordinary gem—namely, an emerald.” The gem, in reality, was Jewel. One night she woke him to say that four men were coming to kill him. Jim defeated his attackers, and from that night he felt great joy at being loved and needed by another human being. 

But despite Jewel’s love, Jim was still haunted by the past. He told Jewel about the Patna incident, but she did not believe him. Yet when Marlow visited, Jewel feared that Jim would leave with him, even though Marlow reassured her that Jim would not do so. When Marlow left Patusan, he thought Jim seemed as happy as anyone could be, but he wondered if the happiness was genuine. It was the last time he saw Jim.

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Chapters 36–40 

Two years later, Marlow writes a letter to one of the guests who had been at Charley’s dinner party, telling him of Jim’s unusual death and the events that led to it. He has pieced together the story of Jim’s romantic fate from the deathbed confession of a pirate, Gentleman Brown, and from the accounts of Jewel and Tamb’ Itam, now living with Stein. 

It seems that the hot-tempered Brown and his pirates had raided Patusan for food and money one day while Jim was away from the fort. Dain Waris and Jewel organized the villagers to oppose Brown, and Brown’s men were trapped holding a hill near town.

Doramin, hoping to keep Dain Waris safe, ordered him to guard the river entrance to Patusan 10 miles below the settlement; this would keep him out of danger since it was unlikely that fighting would take place there. 

Kassim, the rajah’s devious representative, disliked Doramin but “hated the new order of things still more.” He enlisted Cornelius’s support in a plot to overthrow Jim and Doramin’s followers; the two of them then approached Brown with the idea of forming a three-way coalition to fight Jim. Kassim’s plan seemed at first to offer Brown a means of escape, but after thinking about it, he saw the overthrow as a way of “stealing the whole country.” 

By the time Jim returned several days later, Kassim had engaged in much double-dealing and had betrayed Doramin by pretending to prepare for an attack against Brown. When Brown came face-to-face with Jim, he immediately disliked the young, confident leader. Brown had come to Patusan to steal food but sudenly found himself enmeshed in danger.

Chapters 41–45 

When Brown realized that Jim was not a pirate exploiting Patusan, like himself, his only hope was to get out alive. He appealed to Jim, claiming that he could not abandon his men, and that he was tired of being plagued by his fears of prison. 

Jim identified with Brown’s plight of being haunted by an obsession; he persuaded the Bugis to let the pirates go, and sent Tamb’ Itam with Doramin’s ring to tell Dain Waris to let the pirates escape. 

But the evil Cornelius told the cutthroat Brown where Dain Waris’s men were waiting, and in revenge for their suffering in Patusan the pirates killed many of the unsuspecting Bugis, including Dain Waris. Tamb’ Itam, who witnessed the murders, killed Cornelius himself. But Tamb’ Itam and Jewel instantly understood that Jim would be blamed for the slaughter since he had agreed to the pirates’ release. 

They urged him to stay barricaded in his fort, but Jim chose to face Doramin to accept blame for the murders. Griefstricken over the loss of his son, Doramin shot Jim to death. In the act of dying for another man’s crime, Jim had finally found what he considered to be a noble way of redeeming his lost honor—even though, in the process, he had abandoned his lover (Jewel), deprived the Bugis of a powerful leader, and caused others (such as Marlow) to wonder if he had truly resolved his guilt.

Lord Jim Review

“Lord Jim” explores the themes of honor, disgrace, and the darker side of human nature. Joseph Conrad, one of the most pessimistic writers of his time, sends his characters into the “interior,” where they are free to release their primal and savage selves. In this novel, the character Jim struggles to be honorable and kind after he is disgraced as an English officer. The relationship between Jim and Marlowe, the storyteller in the novel, is the most fascinating element in the work.

The characters in “Lord Jim” are far from honorable. Conrad skillfully parades before the reader a flotsam of humanity, such as the merchant Chester, who offers Jim extremely dubious work once he is in disgrace, or Chester’s right-hand man, Captain “Holly Terror” Robinson, who is notorious for smuggling opium and bagging seals. Yet, there remains something that makes Marlowe care about Jim, something he is at pains to understand himself.

The fascinating thing about “Lord Jim” is the evolution of the phrase “he was one of us.” At first, it means primarily white, English, and of a certain class. As the novel progresses, the phrase begins to take on a much broader meaning, touching something fundamental in all living men. 

Overall, Lord Jim is a novel that presents a complex exploration of human nature and the struggle to restore one’s honor. The relationship between the two main characters provides a fascinating element to the work, and Conrad skillfully parades before the reader the flotsam of humanity. The novel is a great example of Conrad’s pessimistic view of human nature, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this theme.

About The Author

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) was born in Ukraine, of Polish ancestry. He is a realistic, symbolic fiction writer. He learned English as a second language. 

Conrad sailed the sea for the first time at age 17; he followed the sea for years, including a trip to the Congo which had a tremendous impact on him: “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal.” The Congo showed him the vulgarity of colonial conquests and influenced his writing of Heart of Darkness. 

His other important works include Almayer’s Folly (1895), Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). Concerned with “the ideal value of things, events, people.” 

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