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Lord Jim | Plot Summary

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Summary

Life at Sea

As a boy, Jim dreams of a life at sea full of romantic adventures such as he has read about in books. The son of a parson, Jim grows up in the idyllic setting of an English country parsonage and then goes to a training camp for officers of the mercantile marine. Along the way, Jim adopts strict, idealized notions of moral behavior and shapes a noble, heroic self-image. While in training, however, Jim fails the first test of his courage, hesitating in a moment of crisis and missing the opportunity to act. Though he struggles with this failure, Jim eventually concludes he was simply caught off guard and will know what to do in the future.

Following his training, Jim becomes first mate on a fine ship. During this time at sea, his heroic self-image goes untested by any further crisis. Jim is free to cultivate his romantic fantasies and to daydream of performing valorous deeds, like the heroes in his books.

The Patna

A leg injury lands Jim in a hospital in an Eastern seaport far from home. Upon recovery, he signs on as first mate aboard the Patna, a decaying ship carrying 800 Muslims on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The voyage is uneventful until one night the ship collides with something below the waterline. The lower compartments begin to fill with water, and the Patna begins to list ominously. As if dark forces in the universe have conspired to worsen the situation, a squall starts. Captain Gustav judges the Patna is in imminent danger of sinking. With only seven lifeboats for 800 passengers, the chances of everyone surviving are slim. In a panic, he orders his crew of four to lower a single boat without waking or alarming the pilgrims.

Jim refuses to help, determined to do his duty and stay with the ship. The others curse him as they frantically struggle with the craft, and one crew member dies from fear and exertion. Then the boat hits the water, and the men leap in. In some manner Jim cannot explain, he finds he, too, has jumped—betraying his own heroic expectations and the trust of the sleeping passengers.

When the ship Avondale picks up the deserters, Captain Gustav falsely claims that the damaged Patna sank like lead during the storm. Later on shore, however, the deserters learn the Patna was towed safely to the port of Aden. Only Jim remains to face the ensuing court of inquiry held in an Eastern port. His actions are deemed unbecoming of an officer, and he is stripped of his license. He becomes "a seaman in exile from the sea." Worse still, his reputation is ruined, and he is a social outcast. Jim's self-aggrandizing illusions shatter.

Meeting Marlow

In the meantime, Jim has met Marlow, a middle-aged, widely experienced, courageous English sea captain who takes an interest in Jim's fate. He has trained young seamen like Jim. Jim's youth, fundamental innocence, and romantic ideals appeal to Marlow as they remind him of his own youthful days and illusions. After the inquiry, Marlow senses how close Jim is to despair. He uses his influence to get Jim work, but Jim never stays long in one place. Try as he might to escape his past, the facts of the Patna scandal "follow [Jim] casually and inevitably." At the first hint of his history coming to light, Jim quits his job and moves on.

Realizing he is failing to truly help Jim, Marlow turns to his friend Stein, a merchant-adventurer with trading posts scattered throughout the East Indies. Hearing Jim's story, Stein perceives the young man is a romantic who must have a chance to live out his dreams if he is going live at all. Stein suggests sending Jim to manage an outpost on Patusan, an island so remote "it would be for the outside world as though he had never existed." Here, Jim will have a fresh start and "a totally new set of conditions for his imaginative faculty to work upon."

Fresh Start

In Patusan, Jim is unknown and believes his past cannot find him. However, settling into his new post is no easy task. On the island, three forceful individuals struggle for domination: the corrupt Rajah Allang, the predatory Sherif (honorable or noble) Ali, and Doramin, chief of the Bugis tribe and Stein's old "war comrade." With the help of Jim and an audaciously clever plan, Doramin and his warriors drive Sherif Ali from the island and subdue Rajah Allang. Jim becomes a legend and earns the title "Tuan," or "Lord." More importantly for Jim, he gains the people's trust. He works tirelessly to restore order and peace on Patusan. Early on, he meets Jewel, a European-Asian woman who becomes his wife. It seems the chasm between Jim's illusions and reality has narrowed to a crack.

Then a vile buccaneer, who calls himself Gentleman Brown, "sails into Jim's history," intending to raid Patusan. He and his crew meet resistance, and the villagers corner them. Brown pleads with Jim to allow him a fair fight or safe passage from the island. On the promise that Brown will leave peacefully, Jim arranges for him and his men to retreat. To satisfy Doramin, Jim offers up his own life should any villager be harmed.

Brown betrays Jim's trust and launches a farewell attack, killing many villagers, including Doramin's son. True to his word, Jim forfeits his life bravely without flinching. In this final courageous sacrifice, he lives up to his moral identity; illusion and reality become one. He seems to prove himself worthy of the outside world that once judged and found him wanting.

Lord Jim Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Adventure tales spark young Jim's dreams of a life at sea.

Rising Action

2 Jim is sent off to a training ship for officers.

3 Jim signs on as first mate on the pilgrim ship Patna.

4 Jim and others abandon the sinking Patna and 800 pilgrims.

5 Jim alone stands trial for actions unbecoming an officer.

6 To escape his past and shame, Jim moves from job to job.

7 Jim finds refuge at an island trading post on Patusan.

8 Jim brings order, peace, and prosperity to Patusan.

9 Pirate Brown and his criminal crew invade the island.

10 Jim urges Doramin to let the raiders leave unharmed.

Climax

11 Brown launches a surprise attack, killing Doramin's son.

Falling Action

12 Jim's life is now forfeit; he refuses to fight or flee.

13 Jim presents himself to Doramin and is shot dead.

14 Jim realizes his boyish vision to meet death unflinchingly.

Resolution

15 Jim's wife and loyal servant flee Patusan to live in exile.

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