Recovered from an injury, Jim seeks a position on the Patna, a steamer whose journey is to carry 800 "pilgrims of an exacting faith" to a Red Sea port. He is hired as first mate. After some days of smooth sailing, the ship hits something in the night and begins taking on water. The captain thinks the ship will sink, and Jim agrees, but wants to put the passengers on the few boats before that can happen. The captain and two other crewmen think only to save themselves, freeing a boat. The helmsmen remain, as no order has been given to do otherwise. In a crucial moment, Jim jumps into the boat with the captain. A few days later, they are picked up by an outbound steamer. When they reach port, it is well known that the Patna and its passengers were brought in safely by a crew from a French gun ship. The action of the captain is against the code of seamen, abandoning both ship and passengers. The others on the small boat leave before the magistrate's court is convened; Jim is left to testify. All lose their certificates to sail. Brierly is on the panel of the court, a captain of perfect reputation, who commits suicide days after this trial.
Captain Marlow attends the trial and meets Jim, whose behavior he condemns, but the young man intrigues him. Marlow listens to Jim, then finds him a place to live, in the home of a friend. Jim is accepted there, but leaves abruptly when an engineer who also abandoned ship appears to work at the house. Jim works as a ship chandler's clerk in ports of the East, always succeeding in the job, then leaving abruptly when the Patna is mentioned. In Bangkok, he gets in a fight. Marlow realises that Jim needs a new situation. Marlow consults his friend Stein. Stein sees that Jim is a romantic and considers his situation. Stein offers Jim to be his trade representative or factor in Patusan, shut off from most commerce, which Jim finds to be exactly what he needs.
After his initial challenge of entering the remote settlement of Malay and Bugis, Jim finds success. He overcomes Sherif Ali, befriends the downtrodden fishing village, and builds a solid link with Doramin, the Bugis friend of Stein, and his son Dain Waris. For his leadership, they call him tuan Jim, or Lord Jim. Jim wins this respect by relieving them of the depredations of the bandit Sherif Ali and protecting them from the corrupt local Malay chief, Rajah Tunku Allang. Jim wins the love of Jewel, a young woman of mixed race, and is "satisfied... nearly". Marlow visits Patusan once, two years after Jim arrived there. He sees the success. Jewel will not believe that Jim will stay, as her father left her mother, men always leave, and she is not reassured that Marlow or any other will not arrive to take him from her. Her mother married Cornelius, previously given the role of factor by Stein for her benefit. Cornelius is displaced by Jim and resents it, though he treats his stepdaughter cruelly and stole the supplies Stein sent for sale. He is a lazy, jealous, brutal man. When the marauder arrives, Cornelius sees his chance to get rid of Jim. The marauder Captain "Gentleman" Brown, short on food and evil in his ways arrives in Patusan. The local defence led by Dain Waris holds Brown in place while Jim is off on a trip inland. Jim negotiates that Brown will leave Patusan free of attack, though the long passage down river to the sea is guarded by armed men. Cornelius tells Brown of a side channel, which Brown uses, and stops briefly to attack the group he finds, killing Dain Waris among others, and sails on, leaving Cornelius behind; Tamb' Itam kills Cornelius for what he did. Jewel had wanted Jim to attack Brown and his ship, not let them sail away unharmed. Neither considers the motives of Cornelius. Upon receiving word of the death of his good friend, Jim goes directly to Doramin, who uses his gun, given him by Stein, to shoot Jim in the chest, his response to the death of his only son.
On his regular route, Marlow arrives at Stein's house a few days after this event, finding Jewel and Jim's man, Tamb' Itam there, trying to make sense of what happened. Jewel stays in Stein's house.Marlow: Sea captain in the merchant service of the British Empire who helps Jim after his fall from grace, trying to understand how "one of us" could lack the bravery and judgment expected of seamen.
Jim: Young parson's son who takes to the sea, training for the merchant service as steam ships mix with sailing ships. He dreams of heroic deeds. He is a strong, tall, blond Englishman whose life is the story told by Marlow.
Captain Gustav: Captain of the Patna, an Australian born in Germany, who is interested in the money made from this ship, with no concern for his honour as a captain. He is a man of huge girth. He orders the engineers to free a boat for them to leave the ship. After learning ashore that the ship came in ahead of them, he knows his certificate will be cancelled and he leaves, never seen again.
Ship's engineers: Three men who keep the steam boiler working; one is George, who dies of a heart attack on the Patna as the others leave the ship. Another shows up later by chance at the same place where Jim is living, driving Jim away. The third becomes completely drunk, left in the hospital.
Montague Brierly: Captain in the merchant service with a perfect reputation. He sits in the court that hears the case of the Patna crew, telling Marlow that Jim ought to hide somewhere, as he can never work as a seaman again. A few days after the trial, this superior man ("indeed, had you been Emperor of East and West, you could not have ignored your inferiority in his presence", Chapter 6) kills himself by jumping off his ship at sea, leaving no explanation.
Stein: Head of Stein & Co., friend of Marlow, and a man with a long interesting life. He has success in trade in the East, collecting produce from various ports in the Dutch colonial areas, settling far from his native Bavaria after losing in the uprisings of 1848. He learned botany and natural philosophy, which became his passionate hobby, gaining him a reputation for all the specimens he sent to contacts in Europe in this age of scientific discovery. He was married and had a child, both lost to him by disease. He understands Jim's temperament instantly.
Jewel: Daughter of a Dutch-Malay woman and a white European man, never named, who deserted them. Her stepfather is Cornelius. Her mother died a year or two before she meets Jim.
Cornelius: Factor for Stein & Co., on account of his wife, whom Stein admired. He is a lazy man of no morals, and brutal. He is Malacca Portuguese. When replaced by Jim, he does not leave the area, nor does he find any useful occupation for himself. He connives with the marauder Brown to kill Jim, which happens indirectly when Brown randomly kills Dain Waris. Cornelius is killed by Tamb' Itam, who sees him after the attack and realizes the role Cornelius played.
De Jongh: Friend to Marlow, and the last of the ship's chandlers who accepts Jim on Marlow's recommendation. Marlow then seeks Stein's advice for Jim, who carries the ring from Stein.
Doramin: Old chief of the Bugis people in Patusan, father of Dain Waris, his only son. He was a friend to Stein, and the two exchanged gifts on parting: Doramin gave a ring to Stein, and Stein gave pistols to Doramin. He becomes an ally to Jim.
Dain Waris: The young and strong son of Doramin, who becomes fast friends with Jim.
Sherif Ali: Local bandit who is a trial to all others in Patusan, extracting fees, stealing crops and resources from others. He is defeated by Jim, but not killed.
Rajah Tunku Allang: Malay chief in Patusan who took Jim prisoner on his first entry to Patusan. Jim escapes, starting life there on his own terms.
Tamb' Itam: Malay servant to Jim, who watched over him in every way.
Captain Brown: A cruel captain who is a latter day pirate, who kills because he can, and is not a success in life. He has a ship in poor condition and a crew of men similar to him when he runs short of food near Patusan. He goes up the river to the town, which staves him off. On leaving, Brown kills Dain Waris, which leads to the end of Jim's life. Marlow meets Brown in a hospital just before his death, and hears the story of the encounter from Brown's viewpoint.
Marlow is the narrator of three of Conrad's other works: Heart of Darkness, Youth, and Chance.
The crucial event in Lord Jim may have been based in part on an actual abandonment of a ship. On 17 July 1880, S.S. Jeddah sailed from Singapore bound for Penang and Jeddah, with 778 men, 147 women and 67 children on board. The passengers were Muslims from the Malay states, travelling to Mecca for the hajj (holy pilgrimage). Jeddah sailed under the British flag and was crewed largely by British officers. After rough weather conditions, the Jeddah began taking in water. The hull sprang a large leak, the water rose rapidly, and the captain and officers abandoned the heavily listing ship. They were picked up by another vessel and taken to Aden where they told a story of violent passengers and a foundering ship. The pilgrims were left to their fate, and apparently certain death. However, on 8 August 1880 a French steamship towed Jeddah into Aden – the pilgrims had survived. An official inquiry followed, as it does in the novel. Conrad may also have been influenced by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's 1869 account of his travels and of the native peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago, and the character Stein is based on Wallace.
The inspiration for the character of Jim was the Chief Mate of the Jeddah, 'Austin' Podmore Williams, whose grave was tracked down to Singapore's Bidadari Cemetery by Gavin Young in his book, In Search of Conrad. As in the novel, Williams created a new life for himself, returning to Singapore and becoming a successful ship's chandler.
The second part of the novel is based in some part on the life of James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was an Indian-born English adventurer who in the 1840s managed to gain power and set up an independent state in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Some critics, however, think that the fictional Patusan is to be found not in Borneo but in Sumatra.
In 1998, the Modern Library Board ranked Lord Jim 85th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1999, the French newspaper Le Monde conducted a contest among readers to rank which of 200 novels of the 20th century from France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Belgium, Austria, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sweden, Italy, USSR, Czechoslovakia, that they remembered best. Seventeen thousand responses yielded the final list, which placed Lord Jim at number 75. The complete list is found in Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century in English, and also in French Wikipedia.
The novel is in two main parts, firstly Jim's lapse aboard the Patna and his consequent fall, and secondly an adventure story about Jim's rise and the tale's denouement in the fictional country of Patusan, presumed a part of the Indonesian archipelago. The main themes surround young Jim's potential ("he was one of us", says Marlow, the narrator) thus sharpening the drama and tragedy of his fall, his subsequent struggle to redeem himself, and Conrad's further hints that personal character flaws will almost certainly emerge given an appropriate catalyst. “...even though Marlow has not revealed his true intention while calling Jim ‘one of us’, we have to agree with all the points... All the senses seem to be applicable to Jim- it is Marlow who may have intrinsic racism since he possibly starts helping Jim because he is a white man; besides, Jim has a shameful past like most others; furthermore, he deserves our sympathy and respect because he is trustworthy and a man of honour; perhaps, Jim is not homosexual but perhaps Marlow is and the latter has mistakenly [or correctly] thought that the former is homosexual; he is a man of courage and faces the hurdles of life with positivity; Jim is universal in the sense that he represents ‘everyman’; anyone regardless of the geographical frontiers can relate to his emotions and mental sufferings.” Conrad, speaking through his character Stein, called Jim a romantic figure, and indeed Lord Jim is arguably Conrad's most romantic novel.
In addition to the lyricism and beauty of Conrad's descriptive writing, the novel is remarkable for its sophisticated structure. The bulk of the novel is told in the form of a story recited by the character Marlow to a group of listeners, and the conclusion is presented in the form of a letter from Marlow. Within Marlow's narration, other characters also tell their own stories in nested dialogue. Thus, events in the novel are described from several viewpoints, and often out of chronological order.
The reader is left to form an impression of Jim's interior psychological state from these multiple external points of view. Some critics (using deconstruction) contend that this is impossible and that Jim must forever remain an enigma, whereas others argue that there is an absolute reality the reader can perceive and that Jim's actions may be ethically judged.
However, there is an analysis that shows in the novel a fixed pattern of meaning and an implicit unity that Conrad said the novel has. As he wrote to his publisher four days after completing Lord Jim, it is "the development of one situation, only one really, from beginning to end." A metaphysical question pervades the novel and helps unify it: whether the "destructive element" that is the "spirit" of the Universe has intention—and, beyond that, malevolent intention—toward any particular individual or is, instead, indiscriminate, impartial, and indifferent. Depending (as a corollary) on the answer to that question is the degree to which the particular individual can be judged responsible for what he does or does not do; and various responses to the question or its corollary are provided by the several characters and voices in the novel.
The omniscient narrator of the first part remarks of the trial: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" Ultimately, Jim remains mysterious, as seen through a mist: "that mist in which he loomed interesting if not very big, with floating outlines – a straggler yearning inconsolably for his humble place in the ranks... It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun." It is only through Marlow's recitation that Jim lives for us – the relationship between the two men incites Marlow to "tell you the story, to try to hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality – the truth disclosed in a moment of illusion."
Postcolonial interpretation of the novel, while not as intensive as that of Heart of Darkness, points to similar themes in the two novels – its protagonist sees himself as part of a 'civilising mission', and the story involves a 'heroic adventure' at the height of the British Empire's hegemony. Conrad's use of a protagonist with a dubious history has been interpreted as an expression of increasing doubts with regard to the Empire's mission; literary critic Elleke Boehmer sees the novel, along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as part of a growing suspicion that 'a primitive and demoralising other' is present within the governing order.
To put Jim's anguish into perspective, one must have committed in his past some crime morally or legally. Anyone who has not done so will never fully understand what Jim must do for redemption. Jim longs for his chance to restore what he lost by one single misstep (literally and figuratively). He believes and in the end it is a "debt" that can only be paid in his death.
The book has twice been adapted into film:Lord Jim (1925), directed by Victor Fleming.
Lord Jim (1965), directed by Richard Brooks and starring Peter O'Toole as Lord Jim.