53 pages 1 hour read

Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1900

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Summary and Study Guide


Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is an iconic story about the height—and folly—of the British imperial enterprise. Published as a serialized novel between October 1899 and November 1900, it details the adventures of a sailor turned trade agent who seeks his fortune and reputation on the outskirts of empire. After an incident with the Patna, one of the ships on which he sails, Jim flees to avoid the stain on his reputation. Eventually, he arrives in Patusan, where he becomes both a pawn and a master in the conflict between warring Indigenous groups: This will lead to his downfall and death. Conrad himself was a sailor, and he penned his novels in his second language, English. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland, Conrad was one of a handful of authors who ushered in the modern age of novel writing, where realism, antiheroes, and the project of colonialism, with its moral limitations, defined the politics and art of the age. Lord Jim has been adapted as a film more than once, and Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness, inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film of the war in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now. Lord Jim addresses the isolation and fear that accompanies the failure of idealism and the hollowness of unearned authority. It remains a significant contribution to the conversation regarding the impact of the British Empire, which reverberates to this day.

All quotations in this guide come from the Thornton, CO, independently published paperback edition from 2022.

Content Warning: The novel contains outdated and offensive depictions and language regarding Indigenous peoples.

Plot Summary

Lord Jim follows the story of Jim, a sailor trained in the merchant marine. Jim performs his sea duties well, and he rises quickly to the rank of first mate. However, while sailing as first mate, Jim is injured in a storm, and his injury is severe enough that the ship captain has to leave him to recuperate in a hospital at an eastern port. This leads him to the fateful decision to ship from there as first mate on a steamer ship, named the Patna, whose “cargo” is 800 religious pilgrims to Mecca. The five white crew members, including Jim and the German captain, are housed amidships and separated from the hundreds of passengers below.

One night during its voyage, the Patna strikes an unknown object. Jim investigates and believes that a large hole has breached the ship below the water line, and the appearance of the ship’s bulging bulwarks leads all of the white crew members to believe that ship will shortly go down. The captain, along with the remainder of the white crew members, decides to abandon the ship. Jim tries to free some of the other long boats so others can escape; however, at the last moment, Jim jumps into the boat with the ship captain and other crew members, effectively abandoning the passengers. When they can no longer observe the ship’s mast-head light, they believe her gone, but the Patna does not sink. The crew in the long boat are eventually picked up, while a French gunboat hauls the rest of the passengers to safety.

Afterwards, Jim is called to testify at an inquiry regarding the events associated with the Patna. Captain Marlow, an experienced English ship captain who attends the inquiry and befriends Jim, narrates most of the remainder of the novel. The Patna’s German captain and the rest of its white crew members either refuse to participate in the inquiry or are too incapacitated to do so. Only Jim remains to give his full testimony. As a result of the inquiry, Jim loses his naval certificate.

Marlow feels sympathy for Jim and helps him get a position at a rice plant. Still, Jim fears his past will be exposed, and he abruptly leaves with only a note of apology to the owner. Marlow continues to assist Jim with employments, typically as a water-clerk who takes a boat out to meet ships coming into port and encourage the captain to buy supplies from Jim’s employers. In each employment, Jim seems to be well-liked and does his job well, but each time, Jim leaves abruptly when rumors concerning the Patna incident surface.

Marlow then consults Stein, an old friend, and Stein agrees to offer Jim a position in Patusan, a remote district far upriver from the ocean, which is ruled by warring groups of Indigenous peoples. Marlow emphasizes the obscurity of the location and how different it will be for Jim. Stein provides Jim with a silver ring for Jim to present to Doramin, a leader of the Malay Bugis, who is a prior comrade of Stein. Stein also warns Jim of the presence of warring factions, including that of the dangerous Rajah Allang, whose group guards the river.

When Jim arrives up river in Patusan, he is immediately imprisoned by Rajah Allang in a stockade. After three days in captivity, Jim escapes with great physical effort and manages to present himself with the ring to Doramin, who takes him in. Jim learns that another warring faction, led by Sherif Ali, has been raiding and generally causing alarm. Jim’s life is in constant danger, caused not only by the warring factions but also by Cornelius, a former agent of Stein’s, who is jealous of Jim. Cornelius has living in his house a young woman named Jewel, of whom Jim becomes protective, and who helps Jim thwart an attempt by Sherif Ali on Jim’s life.

Jim devises a plan whereby some large guns owned by Doramin can be positioned on a hillside in order to fire upon the fortress of Sherif Ali. With great ingenuity, Jim is able to get the guns to the top of the hill under the cover of darkness. With the guns blasting, Jim and Dain Waris—Doramin’s son—lead a successful dawn attack on the fortress, ousting Sherif Ali. Rajah Allang fears he may be the next to be attacked, but Jim is able to broker an uneasy peace between the remaining factions. These exploits gain Jim the confidence of the people and the title of Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim, and Jim retains a close circle of loyal confidantes, including Jewel, Dain Waris, and Jim’s servant, Tamb’ Itam.

Marlow visits Patusan and sees the position Jim has made for himself there. Jim remains a trusted leader until Captain Brown—a sea captain turned pirate—comes to Patusan. Brown has stolen a schooner and flown from potential capture and captivity. With he and his crew nearly starving, Brown leaves the ship anchored near the mouth of the river, guarded by two of his crew, while the remaining 13 take a small boat upriver in search of plunder and food. With Jim away inland, Dain Waris and his men fire upon Brown and his men, injuring some and forcing them to abandon their boat and take refuge on a hill, upon which they create breastworks of felled trees. When Jim returns, he and Brown meet face-to-face across a creek and Brown requests either a fair fight or free passage back to his ship. Though many in the Bugis counsel want to simply take the hillside and eliminate Brown’s threat, Jim counsels that Brown and his men may safely be given free passage back to their ship. Jim assures everyone’s safety if this course if followed, and it is so decided.

Cornelius is chosen to give the message of free passage to Brown, and Brown plans to leave according to those terms and return to his ship. Jim goes to the fort to watch for any confrontation or issues there, while Dain Waris and his men guard the river, expecting to see Brown and his men pass by on their way back to their ship. However, Cornelius tells Brown of a separate backwater route that could get the men back to the ship while also giving the opportunity for a revenge attack on Dain Waris’s men. He guides Brown and his men that way, and they attack Waris’s camp from the rear, taking them completely by surprise. Waris and many others are killed while the rest scatter in panic.

Tamb’ Itam kills Cornelius for his treachery, then hastens to get the bad news to Jim at the fort. Knowing that Jim will no longer be safe because of the anger and sorrow the news of Waris’s killing will cause, Tamb’ Itam and Jewel both urge Jim either to prepare for a fight or to fly from Patusan completely. Jim does neither. He instead goes to meet Doramin, who sits with the body of his slain son in front of him and two silver pistols in his lap. As Jim stands before him, Doramin rises with the aid of attendants, raises one of the pistols and shoots Jim in the chest, killing him. The reign of Lord Jim is over.

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