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Lord Jim | Chapters 15–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15

In a while, Marlow finds Jim down at the waterside, "leaning over the parapet of the quay," staring down into the rippling depths. Startled by Marlow's sudden presence, Jim stammers, "I was looking." Sensing Jim's dangerous mood, Marlow takes him back to his room where he can fight his way clear of utter hopelessness "with all possible privacy." Marlow occupies himself with writing letters while Jim stands motionless, facing the glass door to the upstairs verandah. In the silence of the room, Marlow's own anxiety and irritation builds. He senses how deeply Jim feels the loss of his license and all it signifies.

Suddenly, Jim utters a low sound "wrung from a wracked body, from a weary soul." He pushes through the glass door and stands facing the night's darkness "on the brink of a vast obscurity, like a lonely figure by the shore of a somber and hopeless ocean." From his stillness, Marlow senses Jim has lost the battle with himself.

This scene is hard for Marlow to witness, knowing what it means. He half wishes he could be done with Jim, that the only thing left to do was to pay for his funeral. "To bury him," Marlow explains, "would have been such an easy kindness." He toys with and rejects the idea of telling Jim of Chester's offer. He knows whatever action he takes will have long-term effects, and there is nothing but himself between Jim and the dark ocean.

Chapter 16

As the chapter opens, Marlow alludes to a time in the future when Jim will be "loved, trusted, and admired" and his desires and dreams will be realized. Jim's ability to "drink deep" from life's "golden cup" will eventually earn him the honor and happiness he seeks. Still, Marlow is troubled by Jim's current fixation on his disgrace when it is his guilt that really matters. He is suffering from the consequences of his failure, not the failure itself. Marlow is certain this latter imperfection is something Jim will never fully face.

A sudden storm rolls in, and Jim retreats back into the room. Tensely, Marlow waits to hear what Jim will say. To Marlow's relief, Jim asks for a cigarette and then says simply of his struggle, "That's over." Thanking Marlow for his kindness, Jim says quietly now he is nothing but a vagabond, yet in time, he's bound to have a chance to get back what he has lost.

Needing a friend but uncertain of Marlow's feelings, Jim prepares to leave. Marlow is fearful of letting him "slip away into the darkness." Nevertheless, Jim is nearly out the door before Marlow can persuade him to stay.

Chapter 17

The violence of the rainstorm plays a helpful role in detaining Jim. He and Marlow talk as the downpour gradually subsides. Marlow questions Jim on his plans for the future, knowing how quickly poverty, ruin, and despair can close in on a man who is homeless and friendless. When Marlow states the wish to help him, Jim replies simply, "You can't," as if the kind of help he needs is beyond Marlow's ability to understand. However, Marlow persists and impresses on Jim that he is willing to trust him, which should mean a great deal. In fact, he has already prepared a letter recommending Jim in the highest terms to an old friend who might employ him. "I make myself unreservedly responsible for you," he tells Jim. Marlow then asks him to think how this action reflects on his regard for Jim.

The effect on Jim is transformative. Overwhelmed with renewed hope, Jim gratefully exclaims, "Jove! You have helped me." Marlow is almost frightened by how much significance Jim attaches to his simple act of providing "the means to carry on decently the serious business of life." Jim feels he has been handed a clean slate—a chance to make good. With the letter in hand, he walks out into the night with "the unhesitating tread of a man walking in broad daylight."

Marlow is left behind, saddened by Jim's elation. While Jim believes he's been given a clean slate upon which to write his destiny, Marlow believes the destiny is predetermined, "graven in imperishable characters upon the face of a rock."

Chapter 18

Six months later, Marlow receives a letter from his old friend, Mr. Denver, praising Jim's virtues. Owner of a rice mill, Mr. Denver is a bit of an eccentric and a recluse, but he has taken a liking to Jim and greatly enjoys his company. He also finds Jim's youthfulness refreshing and has invited him to stay in his house and join him at meals. He mentions he suspects Jim has something dark in his past, and someday he will have to ask but not too soon. He wants to benefit from Jim's presence a little longer.

Marlow is greatly pleased by the letter and the news Jim is "shaping so well." It comes as a shock some time later when another letter from Mr. Denver states Jim has abruptly left his employment and disappeared. A subsequent letter, this from Jim, explains the Patna's second engineer showed up at the mill looking for work. Jim could not bear having his secret being revealed to Mr. Denver, who had become "more like a father" to him than an employer.

A similar story comes next from the ship's chandler firm of Egström & Blake, where Jim has been working as a water clerk based on a referral from Marlow. When the Patna incident comes up in casual conversation, Jim abruptly resigns his position and disappears.

Jim is certain if his respected employers, Egström or Blake, learn of his involvement in the incident, they will not want him around. However, learning this belief later from Marlow, Egström responds, "And who the devil cares about that?"

Analysis

These chapters reveal how Marlow comes to take responsibility for Jim. They also relate Jim's struggle to accept his new status as a "seaman exiled from the sea" and establish his pattern of discovery-and-flight from port to port as the Patna scandal pursues him.

With responsibility comes concern for Jim's well-being. Something about Jim's bearing as he peers into the ocean below the quay sets off alarms for Marlow. Jim seems to be contemplating suicide. For Jim, his lost license is more than "a bit of ass's skin," as Chester describes it, and its loss is more than "an empty formality." The license represents the life Jim has dreamed of; its loss represents being stripped of his dreams as well as his honor. Jim can never regard the court's judgment with indifference as Chester would.

Sensing all of this loss, Marlow talks Jim into returning to his room, where he can come to terms with things in private. Once more, Marlow expresses mixed feelings as he witnesses the painful battle. His fear and sympathy for Jim are mixed with the wish for the whole thing to be over so he could just bury Jim.

At this point, Marlow makes his fateful decision to help Jim if he can. Once and for all, he rejects the idea of giving Jim up to a man like Chester, knowing it would confirm all is lost and put an end to him.

As if to reassure his listening audience and the reader, Marlow states a time will come when Jim is loved, trusted, and a legend. At the moment, however, Jim is on the brink of suicide. His struggle to accept "the consequences of his failure"—not his guilt, but his disgrace—is agonizing. It pushes him to the edge, but to his credit, he finds his way back from the brink. He finds something to live for in the hope of recovering all he has lost.

Even so, he feels tainted and distrusts Marlow's motives. He will allow no one to throw the shame of the court verdict back at him. Therefore, it seems best to avoid the company of those who know. This action foreshadows Jim's behavior when he tries to settle down and work in anonymity.

The rising storm gives Marlow time to talk Jim into staying. For once, the forces of the universe seem to have a benevolent purpose. Marlow then is able to throw Jim a lifeline—an offer to help him find work. With his noble dreams, aspirations, and future in shambles, Jim's life is saved literally by an idea: the idea of second chance. Jim now sets his sights on a new goal—to prove himself and to prove Marlow's help is not wasted or undeserved.

The contrast between Jim's elation and Marlow's gloomy opinion of Jim's future points to a key question explored in the novel. Who or what determines a person's fate? Judging from the consequences of Jim's conduct during the Patna incident, a person's fate is governed by commonly held beliefs and shared moral codes of behavior. In striving to adhere to those behavioral codes, the individual is driven toward a predetermined destiny. Jim's joy at being handed a second chance indicates he believes he is in control of his fate and can still attain his long desired romantic ideals.

As Jim settles into his new life, he finds he is still haunted by the Patna incident. He begins a pattern of discovery-and-flight that will continue for the next three years. However, as Mr. Denver and Mr. Egström demonstrate, Jim is far more consumed with his failure than are others. Before Jim's abrupt departure, Mr. Denver suspects some dark deed in Jim's past but wisely recognizes he, too, has "sinned" in his time, so he does not pry.

Jim is harder on himself than anyone else is likely to be. They see his worth when he cannot see it for himself. In Jim's self-judgment, being a valued employee and well-liked by others cannot cancel out the disgrace of his failure. He is certain once people know the truth they will no longer want him. In the case of Mr. Denver, an unexpected emotional attachment makes Jim's departure more difficult, painful, and necessary. Mr. Denver has become a surrogate father to Jim, treating him like a favored son. Jim cannot bear to disappoint him any more than he could bear to disappoint his real father.

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