Marlow notes that the irony of Jim's "retreat" is that he becomes famous for being an eccentric "rolling stone" who mysteriously disappears from his work at a moment's notice. In Bangkok, Marlow discovers, Jim is hired by the Yucker Brothers, who charter ships and deal in teak. Schomberg, an Alsatian hotelkeeper, who was boarding Jim, informs Marlow of what has happened to Jim in the city. There was a barroom scuffle with a cross-eyed Dane who was drunk; he had made some remark that had set Jim off. No one had heard what had been said, but Jim had pushed the Dane into the water, from the verandah of the bar. Marlow expresses concern about the possible degradation of Jim's character, so he arranges for Jim to have a position as a water-clerk at De Jongh's. He asks Jim if maybe he wants to head West or go to California for a fresh start. But Jim doesn't think there is any point to that. What he wants, more than anything, is another opportunity.
This is where Marlow decides to consult with his friend Stein, a wealthy and respected merchant and head of a large inter-island business called Stein & Co. The company consists of a small fleet of schooners and native craft, and it deals in island produce on a large scale. Stein is trustworthy and intelligent, with a student's face and a spirited personality, and is a collector of butterflies. Marlow describes him as "solitary, but not misanthropic" (157). His history had been that of a romantic, as well as tragic. Born in Bavaria and then becoming a revolutionary by the age of twenty-two, Stein traveled to Tripoli, and then he assisted a Dutch naturalist, collecting insects and birds for four years. The Dutchman had gone home, and Stein eventually met a benevolent Scotsman named Alexander M'Neil. The old trader had been friends with the queen of the native court of the Wajo States, and he introduced Stein as his son, so that he would inherit the trade in the event of his death. The queen passed, and during the political intrigues that followed with regard to the succession to the throne, Stein assisted the party of the younger son, his very good friend, "my poor Mohammed Bonso." Stein married this friend's sister, "the Princess," having a daughter with her named Emma. As quickly as a flaming match is extinguished--as Stein dramatically illustrates to Marlow--his friend was assassinated, and his wife and daughter both died of an infectious fever.
In a key scene of the novel, as Stein examines a seven-inch-long butterfly in one of his glass cases, an insect with white veins and a yellow-spotted border, he offers the story of how he came upon it. One afternoon, he was ambushed, and after successfully beating the men who had tried to kill him, he saw the butterfly. It flew. This story presents Marlow with his opening to discuss, instead, a specimen of man: Jim's case. Stein, after listening, concludes: "He is romantic." The following conversation discusses the subtle questions of how to be, how to live, and the nature of the "romantic." In the end, though, Marlow concludes that no one is more romantic than Stein.
As Marlow and Stein eventually turn to the practical matter of what to do about Jim, the narrative shifts, and Marlow asks his audience if they have ever heard of Patusan, the remote place where Stein sends Jim. Stein does know the intricacies of the place, and he explains to Marlow that there was a woman there, a Dutch-Malay girl, educated, who had a tragic history. Her unfortunate marriage to Cornelius, a man for whom Stein shows evident dislike, caused sympathy in Stein. He had made Cornelius the manager of the trade post in Patusan for his wife's sake. In the end, however, the appointment had been bad for business, and the wife had died anyway. The result of telling the story is that Jim is to be sent to Patusan to relieve Cornelius of the post.
The narrative then leaps toward an ambiguous assertion of Jim's success in Patusan. Marlow goes to visit him there, and upon seeing Jim he is struck by the change that has come over him: "He appeared like a creature not only of another kind but of another essence" (173). Jim states that his first day in Patusan had almost been his last, but that the chance was his at last. He had proved himself; he had achieved for himself a dream.
When Marlow learns of Jim's barroom brawl, the implication is that Jim's obsession regarding his own failure has begun to express itself bitterly in moments of violence. This is not unlike the manner in which Jim's later foil, Brown, will be presented. In other words, at this point Jim, without prospect of another opportunity to prove his worth in the world, is in danger of slipping away from the positive category, "one of us."
Marlow, however, continually serves as Jim's ally and seeks help from his illustrious friend Stein, a colorfully romantic character who has lived a fairy tale, having been given odd opportunities that have flourished into a life where he was even married to a princess. Stein had a family, a best friend, and a high place with a native court, and the fantastical feel to his entire story is striking against the thus far relatively bleak picture of Jim's failure, life at sea, and uninspiring work. Stein, a romantic figure, is a good, solitary man, not friendless because he seems to be a close friend of Marlow. Although he has weathered tragedy, he has reemerged as a highly successful merchant. The poignancy of the scene derived from the vision of butterflies and from the look into a man's spectacular past, is offset by Stein's sorrow: despite it all, the most precious of his dreams were never realized.
The scene between Marlow and Stein is thus punctuated with a sense of illumination and beauty. Stein lights a match and then extinguishes it to illustrate the fleeting nature of his past, his family, and life itself. Fortune's wheel first spun in his favor and then just as easily reversed his luck. When the reader learns the fantastical story in which Stein defeats multiple men who tried to ambush him, the romanticism is soon replaced with the romantic flight of a mysterious and rare butterfly. That butterfly is now spread beneath a glass case, and when one considers its beauty and perfection--a perfection only the artist Nature can make--one is struck by the similarity between the specimen butterfly and the specimen man, perhaps recalling Hamlet's meditation upon the human skull in Shakespeare's play. Stein, indeed, refers to the words of "your great poet" (161). He states that the question for the romantic is not how to be cured, but rather how one is to live (161). According to Stein, the romantic seizes the opportunity, just as he had seized, in the wake of an ambush, a rare butterfly. To be cured is, in a way, to grow out of one's dreams and to set them aside, allowing for disenchantment in maturity. This is likely to be Marlow's as well as the general case, yet for Stein, in spite of his tragic experiences, the idea is to live and to remain a romantic at heart. Stein clings to the butterflies, to his dreams, fueling a merchant empire, continuing to live for his romantic vision. The question of how to live also echoes against the earlier statement by the French lieutenant that one does not die of being afraid. In conquering fear, one may die, but one may also continue to live in a higher fashion.
At the same time, Stein follows these considerations with something that takes on a maxim-like quality in the novel: "A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea" (162). Remembering the comment by Chester that Jim was a "man overboard," achieving the dream is like falling into the sea, a kind of death of the old self. At the same time, the image is not particularly hopeful; death appears inevitable.
The juxtaposition of the butterfly in the glass case as a specimen of Nature and Jim as a specimen of man is crucial, because it points to two particular artists. While Nature creates masterpieces, man, according to Stein, is not a masterpiece. Man is never perfect. The ultimate paradox of the novel, then, is that the novel functions as a masterful painting of the man Jim in all his imperfections, so intimately and delicately captured, with the fineness of detail expressed by Nature in its butterflies. In this portrait, the man achieves a kind of perfection nevertheless. The wholeness of a man, with all of his contradictions, spells the kind of truth art seeks to capture. While butterflies become increasingly fragile beneath their glass cases, indicative of the fragility of beauty and of illusion, the art of the novel, the art of language, and, ultimately, the art of life itself, impresses upon time a kind of permanence.
As Stein and Marlow discuss Jim in an abstract and idyllic way, Stein insists, in the end, on a practical solution. This refers back to the fact presented early in the novel that Jim has "Ability in the abstract." The problem is then how "Ability" is to be expressed in Jim's world. In Stein's case, the reader can assume that he has been quite successful reading his own situation, as well as expressing his abilities in the world, given his status and success. Hence, in the cyclical way that life seems to move in this novel, Stein passes an opportunity to Jim, reflecting the way that Stein himself had been visited by opportunity. Stein perceptively decides to send Jim to Patusan, a remote place where the news of his failure is unlikely to penetrate. Jim leaps at the chance. But knowing how Stein's dream had closed, readers see that the tragedy of Jim's new life in Patusan is already foreshadowed.