Lord Jim begins with the powerful physical description of a man "an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built." He has a deep voice and immaculate dress, being white "from shoes to hat," and he makes his living as a water-clerk in "various Eastern ports." He is "very popular." This image is layered with attributes that arise in a consideration of what is required to be a water-clerk of quality. Thus the reader learns that the man has "Ability in the abstract" and that he is able to apply it "practically." The man is called "Jim."
Jim comes to be known as "Tuan Jim" or "Lord Jim" among the Malays of the jungle village where he lives "incognito." Answering just how he becomes "Lord Jim" and just why he is "incognito" is the project of the tale. Jim is rootless, moving farther and farther east, escaping whatever fact of his history that seems to be following him. Born the son of a parson, he is answering the call of the sea. He is smart, physically fit, and a dreamer of danger and success.
The reader, however, now learns of a collision at sea where Jim leapt to his feet but was beaten. "Too late, youngster," the captain of the ship tells him, as the glory of the rescue falls like a wreath over the bowman, who jumped first, "a boy with a face like a girl's and big grey eyes." Jim is angry and frustrated with his missed opportunity to be a hero.
Two years of training and life on the sea pass, and Jim feels let down by the humdrum nature of his experiences. The sea, he feels, is not so full of the adventures he once imagined. Jim is "chief mate of a fine ship, without ever having been tested" (12). He spends some time on his back because of an injury and is left at a hospital in an "Eastern port." When able, Jim descends into the nearby port town and studies the nature of men and life around him, all sharing the same calling of the sea. In time, he discards the idea of returning to England and chooses, instead, to become chief mate of the Patna, an old local steamer, manned by a vastly overweight New South Wales German captain. The steamer is headed for Mecca with eight hundred pilgrims led by an Arab leader in white, who offers a prayer. There are only five white men on board.
At night, as Jim contemplates the Arabian Sea from the bridge of the steamer, the speed steady, and the human landscape of passengers asleep, fathers and sons, beneath him, he considers his romantic dreams--"the success of his imaginary achievements" (18). The German captain appears with too little clothing; the second engineer complains. A conversation takes place regarding drink and being drunk, and then fear and courage, but "those men did not belong to the world of heroic adventure" (23). Suddenly, the three of them are lurched by the force of a disturbance beneath the boat. The sound is like the "faint noise of thunder ... hardly more than a vibration" (24).
Lord Jim begins with a direct, close-up view of its subject: Jim. His physical description is at first powerfully impressed upon the reader, and then the reader encounters the mysterious manner in which he drifts through the world. He is a clean-cut, well-liked young man, but the mystery is that he is constantly trying to outrun or escape a fact of his past. The reader is brought into a state of curiosity. Who is this young man? Why is he trying to maintain himself incognito? Why is he a water-clerk, when he appears to be gifted with intelligence and talent? And, most importantly, what is the fact from which he is so energetically trying to escape?
The reference to Jim as having "Ability in the abstract" is crucial to the construction of his character in the novel. He is gifted with a kind of genius, but it only exists in an abstract way. The effort is then to realize this "ability" in the real world, to take action, to create change, and to realize the potential of such an "ability." It is further important to note that Jim is never given a surname throughout the narrative. In this way, the lone "Jim" strikes the reader as intimately present yet anonymous, illustrating precisely the kind of ambiguity for which Conrad is famous. When the reader is then told that Jim becomes "Tuan Jim" or "Lord Jim," Conrad drives the dramatic motion of the novel by causing curiosity regarding how Jim will attain this title.
The view in the narrative then cuts to a significant moment in his personal history, the occasion when he was too late in seizing the opportunity to rescue a person at sea. Angry with the lost opportunity, Jim expresses his romantic temperament; this part of the tale also allows us to see his motivations for pursuing a life at sea in the first place. He is a dreamer, and he seems to be confident of some aspect of his self as being more than capable of achieving his dreams. This dreaming quality is characteristic of much of the driving force for young men to pursue a life at sea, and in this way Jim becomes a quintessential example of youthful aspiration. A question is then immediately suggested: how will Jim mature? How will he move from being a dreaming young man to the man running from his past and then a man with the title "Lord Jim"?
One night, Jim observes his fellow crew members, thinking that they are not part of the world of "heroic adventure." Thus Jim differentiates himself: "he shared the air they breathed, but he was different" (23). Now, as the sudden and strange vibration occurs beneath the ship, the situation leads us to ask: will Jim be able to prove his difference?