Lord Jim | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Lord Jim | Chapters 3–5 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3

It is night as the Patna crosses the Arabian Sea. The ship moves steadily and serenely across the water "smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice." Beneath the roof of awnings, the pilgrims sleep. Jim, who is on duty, paces the ship's bridge, his eyes hungrily roaming along the line of the unattainable horizon. He does not see "the shadow of the coming event." He lazily stretches and checks the navigation chart that has a surface "as level and smooth as the glimmering surface of the waters." Under the spell of the night's "high peace of sea and sky," Jim entertains his much-loved dreams of gallant deeds.

At the end of Jim's watch, the German captain appears on deck in pajamas to check the chart and ship's progress. Seen through Jim's eyes, the man is obscene in his sloppy, sweating half-nakedness; "the incarnation of everything vile and base that lurks in the world we love." When the second engineer comes up from below to complain about the hellish heat down there, an ugly argument breaks out between him and the captain. Jim stands by, smugly smiling and "contemplating his own superiority." Abruptly the quarrel is interrupted by a jolt of the ship. The men's quick glances at the sea and stars tell them nothing. All looks serene, yet the ominous jolt has shattered the night's sense of safety and serenity. Then a thunderous shudder shakes the ship, and the hull seems "to rise a few inches in succession through its whole length." When the quivering stops and the thunder ceases, the ship resumes its journey across the smooth surface of the sea.

Chapter 4

A month or so later, Jim describes the Patna's collision with an underwater object as happening with the ease of "a snake crawling over a stick." He does so before an official court of inquiry in an Eastern port. Jim stands in the witness box, giving his version of events to the presiding judge and two assessors, naval officers who are assistants to the judge. Jim then describes how he discovered the ship's bow compartment was half-full of water and so determined there must be a big hole below the waterline. The second engineer in the meantime had concluded that at any minute the ship could "go down under us like a lump of lead."

Jim describes to the court how the captain kept moving here and there on the bridge, apparently calm. He wishes he could convey the sense of an unseen, malevolent force—the "directing spirit of perdition"—that seemed at work during the horrific affair.

As Jim testifies, a white man among the trial attendees draws Jim's attention. The man watches Jim attentively, seemingly aware of Jim's difficulty. The man's name is Marlow, and in the future, he will tell Jim's story "many times, in distant parts of the world."

Chapter 5

Taking over the story's narration, Marlow explains some devilish force seemed intent on bringing Jim into his life. He is speaking to a small gathering of men who, at some time in the future, have settled down after a fine dinner to hear Marlow's tale.

As Marlow continues, he describes his first encounter with Jim on the day Captain Gustav shows up in port. The captain "without a look right or left, [passes] within three feet of [Marlow]" trailed by Jim and the Patna's two engineers. A month or so has gone by since the incident aboard the pilgrim ship, and by this time, the story is well known. Public opinion has condemned what has occurred and finds the actions of the white officers shocking.

Captain Gustav heads directly for the shipmaster's office, intending to explain the events from his point of view. He meets first with Andy Ruthvel, the principal shipping master, who is so repulsed by Gustav that he refuses to hear his report and refers Gustav to Ruthvel's superior, Captain Elliot. What transpires behind closed doors is indicated by muffled roars and cursing. Captain Gustav departs in a rage, loudly rejecting the idea of answering for himself before a court of inquiry. Wedging himself into the compartment of a horse-drawn carriage, the captain disappears down the road. No one sees or hears from him again.

Throughout this performance, Marlow observes Jim, who stands apart from the two engineers, with his back to the office. Marlow notes Jim's "clean-limbed, clean-faced" appearance and his nonchalant manner, which seem to indicate a composed, dependable character. He seems "the right sort," whom Marlow labels "one of us." This impression is at odds with Jim's reported actions, and in Marlow's opinion, Jim "had no business to look so sound."

The day before the court inquiry, Marlow chances upon the chief engineer, who is recovering from a prolonged bout of heavy drinking in a hospital. Intrigued by the events surrounding the Patna case, Marlow tries to see what he can learn from the engineer. He describes his curiosity as the unconscious desire to find some redeeming feature of the story, "some merciful explanation, and some convincing shadow of an excuse." The events have raised doubts about whether or not the fixed rules governing men's conduct have the ability to control behavior and counterbalance human weakness.

The engineer tells Marlow he saw the Patna go down, which Marlow knows to be a lie. He then reveals a hidden madness, saying of the Patna, "She was full of reptiles. ... Only my eyes were good enough to see. I am famous for my eyesight." He then continues his observation, saying "Millions of pink toads. ... The ship was full of them." The man becomes increasingly agitated by memory of the toads until he breaks out howling, and Marlow quickly departs. The visit has proven the man's testimony at the inquiry would be of no value.

Analysis

In these three chapters, the event that will change Jim's life begins to unfold. Crossing the Arabian Sea, the Patna is on a steady course for Perim, an island located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Like the serenity of the parsonage in which Jim grew up, the apparent safety and peace of the sea this night lulls Jim into daydreams. Because he feels secure, he dares to imagine maritime dangers and heroic exploits. However, his books and daydreams have not prepared him for life's unpredictability. In his romantic visions, Jim has control of his fate. When manufacturing stories of his heroism, he concludes each with a triumphant outcome. Jim believes his life's "secret truth, its hidden realities" are reflected in the "success of his imaginary achievements." He falls under the illusion that he holds this same power in real life.

As he has earlier during his years on the training ship, Jim holds himself apart from the captain and engineers of the Patna. In his romantic self-image, he is morally superior to these men. The captain sums up everything vile in the world, and none of these men "belong to the world of heroic adventure." Jim is aware he rubs shoulders with them and breathes the air they breathe, but he is different, and they cannot touch him. However, he is no better prepared than they when the ship collides with something unseen in the night.

During the court of inquiry a month or so later, Jim is pained by the court's interest in hearing facts only. To fully understand the events aboard the Patna, he feels the judges must appreciate the malevolent force at work that night—"the true horror behind the appalling face of things." With the gift and curse of his imagination, Jim recalls every detail, and beyond things visible and tangible, he recalls the sense of evil directing the course of events. Facts alone are insufficient to convey this truth. Facts alone will build a case guaranteed "to cut him off from the rest of his kind." Once again, the malevolence of nature seems to play a role in Jim's woes, catching him off guard and undermining his readiness to act.

As Chapter 4 closes, Marlow appears, and the narrative switches to the after-dinner setting in which Marlow tells the rest of Jim's story. As Marlow continues the narrative, his description of Jim outside the shipping master's office reveals Jim is, in part, unchanged by his experience aboard the Patna—he still holds himself apart from the captain and two engineers. The physical aspects of the corpulent captain, sallow-faced second engineer, and lanky, mustached chief engineer paint them as likely villains in the sordid incident of the Patna.

Knowing the story, Marlow dislikes Jim intensely on sight. He feels Jim has no business looking so innocent, honest, and sure. He decides he wants to see him squirm "like an impaled beetle" for his misdeeds and for sullying the honor of his maritime profession. This image of a beetle is interesting since an entomologist named Stein later describes general humanity in terms of the common beetles—dull, clumsy, and best suited for survival. However, Jim eventually proves to be nothing like the beetle.

Once again, Conrad's deep dislike of Germans comes through in the revulsion Archie Ruthvel, Captain Elliot, and Marlow feel for Captain Gustav. The captain's subsequent refusal to face the inquiry and his disappearance from the port underscore his cowardly nature.

Finally, in Chapter 5, Marlow provides a glimpse of his past as a training ship captain. He has "turned out youngsters ... for the Red Flag"—the British merchant service's flag. He fondly remembers the boys whom he taught "the craft of the sea" and watched grow into men. Jim reminds Marlow of these youths, but Marlow also sees the dark potential for failure that threatens all men whose youthful days resemble Jim's youth. Jim's case raises uneasy doubts about the ability of traditional moral codes of conduct to safely govern men's lives. His weakness hints at "a destructive fate ready for us all." Marlow, in fact, admits his interest in Jim's case—"the secret motive of my prying"—is personal. This admission suggests he has faced a similar moment of weakness and sees in Jim the ghost of that past failure. Taken as a whole, this personal profile begins to explain why Marlow becomes so deeply involved in Jim's life.

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