Jim, the well-loved son of an English parson, goes to sea to make a name for himself. Just how he is to become "Tuan Jim" or "Lord Jim," however, remains to be told. With his youthful, romantic aspirations for the sea, he is physically powerful; he has "Ability in the abstract." He roams the Asian south seas as a water-clerk, moving from place to place, always trying to outrun, it seems, a particular fact of his past. The story then cuts to an early incident where Jim lost an opportunity to prove his mettle: he "leapt" too late, missing his chance. Then, after a long injury and hospital stay, instead of deciding to return to England, Jim accepts the position of chief mate of the Patna, an old local steamship carrying 800 Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. There are five white men on board, as crew, and the voyage is led by a fat, crazy, German captain.
One night, as the ship sails quietly through the Arabian sea, the crew, including Jim, feels a strange vibration disturb the underbelly of the ship. The reader is given no reason for the vibration and the eventual conclusion of the incident. Suddenly, we encounter Jim speaking at the official Inquiry, which is attempting to gather facts about the event. In time, the story grows clear, pieced together for the reader. Believing that the steamship was on the verge of sinking at any moment, and fearful of a panic, the crew of the Patna loosed a lifeboat for themselves. Though it had been only a trick of the eyes, they believed that when the light on the ship had gone out, the ship had sunk like iron to the floor of the sea. The crew had devised a story: they told their rescuers that the ship sank beneath their very feet and that they alone were able to launch a single lifeboat in time. Ironically, however, we learn that the steamship never actually sank. Iron proved to be a hardy metal. Upon its discovery by a French gunboat, the Patna is brought safely to an English port.
The story becomes notorious throughout the region. Marlow, a British captain, attends the Inquiry and is struck by some quality of Jim's character. Thus he is now telling the story of Jim. A party is gathered around him on a verandah, listening, as he explains what happened next. When the judgment was meted out and Jim's sea certificates were effectively canceled, Marlow, having befriended the poor youth, offered him help.
Thus Jim is sent to live with an old friend of Marlow's with no family, the owner of a rice mill. But when another crew member of the Patna coincidentally turns out to be the manager of the machinery at the very same mill, Jim leaves, not wanting to be near the memory of the event. He instead works as a runner of boats and then as a water-clerk, getting in a barroom brawl with a man who makes a derogatory comment regarding the Patna.
Driven by intense shame and guilt with regard to the incident, Marlow worries, what is the fate of such a man? He consults his good friend Stein, a successful merchant with a romantic and tragic life history. Stein, also a collector of fragile, beautiful butterflies, dreams and leads a solitary life. Both he and Marlow share a thoughtful conversation about Jim, where Stein concludes: "He is a romantic." This idea marks a turn in the novel. Stein (who Marlow recognizes as a romantic as well) offers Jim the chance that Stein himself had been given when he was a youth: the chance to make the dreams real. The practical solution is thus to send Jim to Stein's trade post in Patusan, a remote settlement on the island of Borneo (in what is now Indonesia). There, Jim is to manage the post. Excited by the opportunity and the chance for a "clean slate," a chance to be free of the past, Jim carries a silver ring around his neck. The ring was a token of friendship between Stein and Doramin, a chief native trader in Patusan, serving as a sign of good will and trust.
In Patusan, Jim falls into the depths of a romantically archetypal setting: political intrigues abound, and factional fighting over trade is becoming increasingly bitter. Jim is immediately taken prisoner by the Rajah, though after three days he leaps over the wall--and then the creek--into the beginning of his charmed life. He leads the defeat of Doramin's key opponent for trade, driving him out of the area completely, which establishes a sense of peaceful stalemate with the frightened Rajah. Jim thus achieves power, status, and a good name. He also becomes the best friend of Doramin's only son, Dain Waris.
Marlow, who visits him once in Patusan, is struck by some change of essence in Jim. There is now a love story, too. Jim, admits to Marlow that he loves a woman, "Jewel." Jewel's mother, an educated Dutch-Malay woman, had been married to Cornelius, the prior manager of Stein's trade post, although Cornelius had proven very bad for business, and Jewel's mother had died as well. Jewel, the natural daughter of a different, unknown man, is oppressed and hounded by Cornelius. Jim protects her, feeling deep sympathy for her position. She becomes his link to the insights needed to manage among Patusan affairs and, in the end, the entire situation comes to echo much of Stein's own romantic history.
Unstable elements in this picture remain clear. As Marlow's visit draws to a close, Jewel confronts him and asks whether there is anything in Jim's past that might take him away from her--that would cause him to leave Patusan. Marlow assures her that there is nothing and that Jim will never leave. But there is a sense of overwhelming dread in the girl's voice and manner; she thus foreshadows the tragic events to come. Cornelius's hatred for Jim, as well as the Rajah's fear for his own power, both contribute to the uncertain future. But this part of the tale, which Marlow has been telling his audience, now comes to a close. The audience rises. There is no comment. The story is incomplete.
The tale resumes later in time in the written story, along with a letter and some fragments including details from Jim's own writing. All of these enclosures are sent to a single "privileged man" or "privileged reader," the one person who had been listening to Marlow and who had expressed an interest in Jim's fate. Marlow explains to this anonymous man that he had gone to Stein's house and found Jim's servant, and then Jewel. Hoping that Jim was also present, he instead learned that the story ended.
Now cutting to another source, Marlow also explains that, on a tip, he met Brown, a man of sordid reputation, in Bangkok. Brown explained that he had stolen a schooner. Brown's band of men wanted to cross the Indian Ocean, but they realized they were running out of both food and water. Landing in Patusan in the hope of replenishing their supplies, Brown and his men were greeted by gunfire. The attack was led by Dain Waris (because Jim was away, in the interior). One of the Rajah's men took the opportunity to double-deal and to encourage Brown and his men to kill Jim in order to defeat Doramin's settlement. Cornelius encouraged him likewise.
Upon Jim's return, he and Brown have an exchange that strikes Jim in his weak spot. Recognizing that this man Brown is what he himself could have become, had Fortune given him the right opportunity, Jim gives Brown the chance to escape safely. In the end, however, with Cornelius's help, Brown and his men sneak up on Dain Waris and his men and open fire, killing Dain Waris, who just received news from Jim that all had been settled and things were stable. Jim had even sent the ring along as a sign of trust. Now, when Doramin looks upon his son's dead body and sees the silver ring on his forefinger, Doramin throws an emotional rage. Jim, hearing the news, ignores Jewel's pleas and walks resolutely to meet justice in the form of Doramin. Doramin shoots him in the chest, killing Jim. But Jim has now atoned for his failures.
The tale ends with Marlow offering his reader a last view of Stein, growing old, and a muted Jewel.