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Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad
Plot Summary

Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1900

Plot Summary
Lord Jim is a novel by the Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad, first published serially in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1899 to 1900, and widely regarded as a major achievement of twentieth-century fiction. The novel is framed as a conversation between an unnamed narrator and a sea-captain Charles Marlow: Marlow has spent many years ruminating about an acquaintance of his, a sailor named Jim who spent his short life fleeing the disgrace of a youthful decision to abandon ship.

The son of an English parson, Jim decides at an early age to make his career at sea. While still in training, Jim reveals a streak of cowardice when he fails to assist a vessel damaged during a storm. Afterward, he rationalizes this failure by telling himself that he was not afraid but waiting for a challenge worthy of his courage.

After recovering from an injury, Jim ships out as first mate on the Patna, an elderly iron tramp steamer taking eight hundred "pilgrims of an exacting belief" to a port on the Red Sea. Several days out to sea, the ship hits some wreckage. Examining the damage, Jim concludes that the bulkhead is about to collapse. There is no possibility of saving everyone on the ship. Jim wants to do his duty and put as many passengers as possible on the lifeboats. However, the captain and the other crewmen choose to save themselves, leaving the passengers to their fate. Refusing to help them, Jim remains on the ship until he sees a squall on the horizon. At the last moment, Jim abandons ship and joins the captain in the lifeboat. Jim and the crew watch as the Patna is tossed by fierce waves. Jim imagines he can hear the screams of the dying passengers.



Some days later, the crew is picked up by another steamer and delivered to a port in the Far East. They have agreed on an alibi for their desertion, but their cover is blown when the Patna is found, still afloat, by another ship and towed to port. A magistrate’s court is convened to try the crew for their desertion, but the rest of the crew abscond, leaving Jim to face the court alone. He insists that, although he may have acted wrongly, "There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair."

Among the audience at the trial is Captain Charles Marlow. He is horrified by Jim’s conduct, but he comes to realize that the young man is wracked with guilt and shame, and he recognizes something of himself in the tortured sailor. At the end of the trial, Jim is stripped of his naval certificate, and Marlow helps him get back on his feet. However, each time Jim finds a place to live and a decent job, his equilibrium is disturbed by some reminder of the Patna affair, and he disappears to start again somewhere else.

Marlow tells Jim’s story to his friend Herr Stein. Stein concludes that Jim is a “romantic” and suggests that he might like to take over Stein’s trading station in Patusan, a remote island where no one will have heard of the Patna, and where Jim might have space and time to come to terms with himself. Marlow relays this offer to Jim, who accepts.



Jim takes over the Patusan trading post from his untrustworthy predecessor Cornelius and quickly makes a success of it. He earns the trust of the local people, the Bugis Malays, by protecting them from a bandit, Sherif Ali, and the corrupt local ruler, Rajah Tunku Allang. In these adventures, he is aided by Doramin, Stein’s Malay friend, and Doramin’s son Dain Waris, with whom Jim becomes close friends. Doramin’s people begin to call him “tuan Jim”—“Lord” Jim—and he falls in love with Jewel, a mixed-race woman of the tribe. Marlow visits Patusan and finds Jim happy, although not so happy that he is not made a little uneasy by Marlow’s visit, which reminds him of his shameful past.

While Jim is away in the island’s interior, a renegade sea captain known as “Gentleman” Brown arrives on Patusan, hoping to plunder the Bugis Malays’ village for supplies. Dain Waris leads a successful defense of the village, pinning the pirates on a defensible knoll.

When Jim returns, Dain Waris advises that the entrapped pirates be killed, but Jim decides to negotiate with Brown. Recognizing Jim’s guilty conscience, Brown manipulates Jim into letting him go. Jim promises Brown safe conduct downriver to the sea, and to the villagers, he promises that Brown’s men will not harm them, pledging his own life as security.



Cornelius, who has been waiting for an opportunity to oust Jim and resume his command of Stein’s post, tells Brown about a side-channel on the route to the sea which will allow him to bypass the village’s defenses. Brown ambushes the villagers, killing Dain Waris amongst others, and escapes.

When Jim learns of Dain Waris’s death he is horrified. Jewel and his servant Tamb’Itam urge him to flee, or else to arm himself to fight off the villagers’ vengeance. However, Jim chooses to hand himself over to Doramin, who shoots Jim through the heart, allowing him to die with pride.

Touching on themes of colonialism, heroism, and the nature of evil, Lord Jim explores the lasting effects of guilt and shame. Together with Heart of Darkness (1899) and Nostromo (1904), Lord Jim has secured Conrad’s place as one of the English language’s most influential novelists.

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