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Lord Jim | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Lord Jim | Symbols


Jim's Jump

The ship Patna, sailing along on a perfectly calm sea, suddenly collides with and scrapes over submerged debris. The captain and crew fear the ship is in imminent danger of sinking, and with only seven lifeboats to serve them and the 800 passengers, the situation seems hopeless. Jim is the last of these men to abandon the ship in a leap he later describes as jumping "into a well—into an everlasting deep hole." To Jim this leap is both a physical descent and a fall from grace. He has "tumbled from a height he [can] never scale again," and his life will never be the same.

Jim tries to explain his disgraceful behavior to Marlow. With a squall descending on the damaged ship, his shipmates' panicked cries to "Jump! ... Jump! Oh, jump!" were overwhelming. Jim claims his mindless leap is the fault of these fellow officers "as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat hook and pulled me over." Nevertheless, in the view of the court and in Jim's own secret judgment, his jump is "a breach of faith with the community of mankind." Furthermore, its cowardice flies in the face of Jim's heroic self-image, violates his inflexible code of ethics, and leaves him a social outcast. Jim later confides to Marlow, "I had jumped, hadn't I?" and adds, "That's what I had to live down."

Jim's leap symbolizes his loss of honor and the collapse of his self-aggrandizing, heroic fantasies. At the same time, it alters the course of his life forever. The undeniable fact of the jump and its consequences follow Jim from port to port, driving him eventually to remote Patusan. Though Jim for a while will believe himself free of its shadow, eventually the shame of the incident will overtake him one last time.


Stein is Marlow's friend and a successful merchant-adventurer. He is also well known for his study of insects, specifically butterflies and beetles. In Stein's judgment, the butterfly is a flawless creature; a "masterpiece of Nature" that lives in harmony with its world. He likens the capture of his prize butterfly specimen to the capture of a dream he at last held in his hands. For Stein, butterflies are the embodiment of idealism, a dream made real. Stein enshrines his prize butterfly—"the splendor of motionless wings"—in a glass case.

Stein draws a comparison between man and butterfly, stating "man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece." Unlike the butterfly, he can never be the fine specimen he envisions when he dreams. Furthermore, he is at odds with the world, going "where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him" and running about "making a great noise about himself ... disturbing the blades of grass." For Stein, the butterfly represents an ideal state man can never achieve.

In an effort to help Jim, Marlow turns to Stein for advice. Stein quickly recognizes Jim's idealistic nature and concludes it is best he pursue his romantic yet impractical dreams. Though he recognizes the inherent futility of this pursuit, he also believes "it is not good for you to find you cannot make your dreams come true." Like Stein's prize specimen, preserved in its perfection by death, Jim ultimately will be transfigured by death into the romantic perfection he pursues. His heroic dream will become real.

Brierly's Gold Chronometer

Captain Montague Brierly is one of two nautical magistrates overseeing the inquiry concerning the Patna's abandonment. His record of service is unblemished; he "had never in his life made a mistake, never had an accident, never a mishap." To Marlow he seems to possess a "complacent soul" that nothing can disturb and presents to the world "a surface as hard as granite." However, within days following the inquiry, Brierly commits suicide.

In a leap not unlike Jim's leap from the Patna, Brierly jumps over the side of his ship. However, the act is not impulsive. He makes careful preparations to ensure the ship remains safely on course and his dog is safe in the chart room. Then he goes aft (to the rear of the ship) and jumps. Before jumping, he carefully hangs his gold chronometer—a highly accurate, pocket watch-sized timepiece—under the rail by its chain.

The chronometer represents an enormous technological leap forward in European navigation—the ability to determine longitude at sea. No longer were ships on long voyages at the mercy of errant ocean currents, unfavorable winds, and navigational errors. With the chronometer, navigators could figure precisely where the ship was in its course. In this way, the chronometer symbolizes progress, order, precision, and European dominance over the capricious natural world. Brierly's gold chronometer was awarded to him for saving lives at sea and rescuing ships in distress—the very actions Jim dreams of doing. The device also represents an ordered world in which events like desertion of a ship do not happen, and men like Jim—"one of us"—do not fail in their duty. Therefore, it becomes a fitting symbol for Brierly's departure.

Brierly is deeply disturbed by Jim's case, particularly when Jim, deserted by his fellow officers, accepts all blame and abuse for abandoning the Patna. In general, he finds "the infernal publicity is too shocking" and "enough to burn a man to ashes with shame." Regarding the case, he tells Marlow "a decent man would not have behaved like this to a cargo full of old rags in bales. ... Such an affair destroys one's confidence."

Following Brierly's death, Marlow surmises Jim's case had touched a secret nerve, that when Brierly exclaimed, "Why are we tormenting that young chap?" he was thinking of himself. He surmises Brierly may have been "holding silent inquiry into his own case," found the verdict to be "unmitigated guilt," and is unable to live with that.

The chronometer represents the civilized virtues that order Brierly's life—virtues denied by Jim's actions aboard the Patna. If Brierly also has had an undisclosed "jump" in his past, Jim's case has raised its specter, and Brierly's illusion of an ordered, civilized life can no longer exist. He cannot reconcile the reality of what he is with the ideal he has tried to embody. Figuratively speaking, he is "at sea" and no longer knows his place in the world.

The Ship Patna

The Patna carries 800 Muslims from an East Indies island port to the Red Sea and a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Their journey is described as the "path of souls [toward] the holy place, the promise of salvation, the reward of eternal life." The Patna itself is compared to "a crowded planet speeding through the dark spaces of ether." The ship's passage is free of storm; the sea appears serene. However, beneath the water's still surface, danger is lurking. Lulled by appearances, the passengers and crew sleep or, like Jim, drowsily daydream, while occasionally checking the ship's course against navigational charts.

Viewed as a "crowded planet" filled with souls on a journey toward "the reward of eternal life," the Patna becomes more than a ship on a voyage. It becomes symbolic of the world teeming with humanity, and its voyage represents the pilgrimage of all souls through life. The dangers and uncertainties of this physical and spiritual journey are represented by the sunken debris that damages the Patna and, in the blink of an eye, transforms the serenity of the voyage into panic. As in all situations in life, response to the crisis by everyone aboard reflects the strengths and weaknesses of their individual characters.

Using this symbolism, the voyage of the Patna mirrors Jim's spiritual odyssey through life. Like the pilgrims, his journey begins with "the call of an idea" leading him far from home and all he knows. As first mate on the Patna, Jim views himself as separate and superior to the passengers and crew. He may rub shoulders with them, but they cannot touch him. He may share the air they breathe, but he is different. This lofty self-image assures him he is a better man than any among them, which reflects Jim's view of his place in the world at large. He fails to see that in life, as on the ship, he is on the same journey as the rest of humanity and just as subject to its lurking dangers. The crisis aboard the Patna mirrors the crisis in Jim's life. He tries to save himself by jumping just as he tries to escape his shame by running. His behavior, while morally disgraceful, is understandable in its humanness. He is afraid. When Jim jumps to save his life, he joins the men he has scorned, becoming one of them in nature and action. He will spend the rest of his journey through life as a tormented soul, striving to prove this place in the world is not so.

Stein's Silver Ring

Stein is a successful German trader and head of the trading post Stein & Co. He is also Marlow's friend and offers Jim a fresh start as manager of his Patusan outpost. To help Jim work his way into society on the island and gain the trust of Doramin, chief of the Bugis people, Stein gives Jim a ring. It is a long-ago gift from Doramin, a Bugis chief Stein calls a "war-comrade." The ring represents a promise of eternal friendship. In Jim's hands, the ring becomes "a sort of credential," much like a letter of introduction to his new post. It is also a symbol of trust. Stein's trust in Jim assures Doramin that he, too, should trust the man and "do his best for him."

This trust is violated by the death of Doramin's son, Dain Waris, a result of Jim's foolish decision to let the vile buccaneer Brown and his crew exit safely from Patusan. By way of a messenger, Jim sends the well-known ring to the encampment guarding the river. It accompanies his order to let Brown and his men pass. Dain Waris, in charge of the camp, receives the message and slips the ring on his finger. When Brown launches a vicious, surprise attack on the camp, Waris is killed. For Doramin, the ring on the hand of his dead son becomes a symbol of unforgivable treachery.

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