Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1997

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1986 edition.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall Impression: A moving tale about a rigid code of honor and the ruin that results from failing to adhere to it.


Jim is the son of an English parson and becomes a ship's chief mate, with an ambition to do heroic and romantic things with his life. He sails on the Patna (c. 1883), a merchant ship carrying Arab pilgrims to Mecca. The Patna hits a submerged obstacle on his watch and appears to be sinking, with a rusty bulkhead threatening any moment to give way. The German captain and the ship's main and second engineers panic and abandon ship-- and Jim jumps after them. Subsequently, the ship does not sink and Jim faces an Inquiry (in Bombay?) about their cowardly actions. Captian Brierly, one of the examiners, tries to get Jim to escape & later commits suicide (because of his disillusionment over this breach of the nautical code of honor by "one of us"?) Jim loses his certification and is tormented with guilt and hypersensitivity over his cowardice therafter, drifting from job to job, quitting when his identity is known or exposure threatens. Jim meets Marlow during the Inquiry and Marlow narrates the remainder of the story, befriends him, and repeatedly tries to help him get established again in a non-seagoing position such as a ship's chandler. 

Marlow consults with his merchant friend Stein, a naturalist and butterfly collector, who identifies Jim as a romantic and offers him the head position at Patusan (inland from the NW coast of Sumatra, upriver 30 miles), for which Jim is elated and grateful-- it offers a chance to escape to complete oblivion (c. 1986). He supplants the snivelling Cornelius, whose mixed-race wife died leaving a step-daughter. Jim falls in love with her and calls her Jewel, takes her as his common-law wife. Jim encounters warring factions -- the Bugis (immigrants from Celebes) led by Doramin, the followers of the Rajah Tunku Allang, and followers of Sherif Ali. After Jewel alerts him to save his life from 4 assassins (who were aided by Cornelius), he plans with Doramin to attack Sherif Ali's stockade. After this attack, his power and authority are unchallenged and he becomes Tuan Jim ("Lord" Jim), acting as de facto governor and judge and regarded as all-wise and invincible. He is close friends with Doramin's son, Dain Waris, with whom he led the attack on Sherif Ali's stockade. Marlow visits with him two years after his arrival (c. 1988) and feels encouraged that Jim is finding a more satisfying existence for himself despite his obvious ongoing torment.

But Cornelius is resentful as is the displaced Rajah. The pirate "Gentleman Brown" arrives (c. 1889) in Patusan desperately searching for food to steal, fleeing the Spanish whose schooner he has stolen. Jim negotiates with Brown (who has a "satanic gift ... for finding out the best and the weakest spot in his victims"), and Brown implies a type of common guilt between the two-- this induces Jim to allow them safe conduct back down the river, despite his previous attack on the village and wanton killing of one villager, apparently because of Jim's need to get them out of his sight. Brown subsequently takes revenge on the villagers waiting further down river, killing many including Dian Waris. This action disillusions the villagers faith in Jim's truthfulness amd justness and, despite the pleas of his wife, he presents himself to Dormain for penance (saying "Time to finish this")--Doramin shoots and kills him, at last ending Jim's misery.