As Brown tells his story to Marlow, Marlow writes that he is struck by his impression of "an undisguised ruthlessness of purpose, a strange vengeful attitude towards his own past, and a blind belief in the righteousness of his will against all mankind" (278). In the battle, Brown was almost paralyzed by fear. The numbers were 200 to one. Fear among the people, however, had also begun to unravel the social fabric. One of Brown's men is shot down, so Brown shoots one of the Bugis three times in the stomach. Then, sounds of joy lift in the air. Cornelius tells Brown that Jim has returned, not afraid of anything.
When Brown sees Jim, he sees a man in European clothes, all in white, with a helmet. The two meet near the very spot where Jim had taken "the second desperate leap of his life--the leap that landed him into the life of Patusan, into the trust, the love, the confidence of the people" (285). Brown hates Jim on sight--for his youth and his assurance, his self-possession, his power and neatness. They converse, and Brown yells to him that it was hunger that had driven him to Patusan. Why had Jim come? The conversation strikes Marlow as a duel, and as if Brown, like a great man, had discovered Jim's weakest spot. He says, "if it came to saving one's life in the dark, one didn't care who else went--three, thirty, three hundred people" (290). Jim says nothing in response, and he is struck by "their common blood, an assumption of common experience; a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like a bond of their minds and of their hearts" (291). With that, Jim turns away, telling Brown he will have a clear road or a clear fight (292).
The story now continues from Tamb' Itam's point of view. He describes the shock of Jim insisting that Dain Waris lead. Tamb' Itam is given the duty of sending word to Dain Waris to let Brown and his men pass. Jim includes Stein's silver ring as a sign of good faith and, at the same time, he sends Brown a note with Cornelius as messenger. The note says, "You get the clear road" (298). But, upon delivering the note, Cornelius remains with Brown and tells him that Dain Waris's party is downriver and lying in wait to lay ambush on him as they pass. Brown feels betrayed yet, strangely enough, he doesn't seem to believe it. To be safe, he takes the creek he had noticed upon his first arrival. Through the fog, he takes Cornelius with him in the longboat.
After Tamb' Itam approaches Dain Waris's camp and delivers the message with the ring, saying that all is well and that the trouble has passed, Dain Waris slips the ring onto the forefinger of his right hand. Brown's men land nearby and, though Cornelius tries to get away, force him to lead the way to the camp. No one had imagined that the white men would know of the creek. Fourteen shots ring out, and Dain Waris jumps up, running to the open shore. There, Tamb' Itam sees a bullet hit Darin Waris's forehead, and a great fear falls upon him. The white men disappear.
(A month later, the story goes, a white longboat is picked up in the Indian Ocean by a cargo-steamer. The men lie and say that their schooner had sprung a bad leak and sunk beneath their feet.)
Tamb' Itam sees Cornelius and shoots him twice, watching him die. He then hurries back to the town, knowing that it is important that he be the first bearer of the news. When he arrives, the town is festive. He seeks out the girl and reports what has happened. They go to find Jim, and he tells Jim that it is not safe for him to go out amongst the people. This is when Jim understands that it is all over: "the work of his own hands, had fallen in ruins upon his head" (306). Marlow believes it was then that Jim had tried to write to someone. He says to Jewel, "I have no life" (307). The girl insists that either he should fight, or they should run away. But he ignores her. Dain Waris's body is brought to Doramin, and as Doramin sees the wound in the forehead and then the ring on his son's forefinger, he begins to cry in fury. Jim walks to meet him: "There is nothing to fight for" (309). He tells Doramin that he has come ready and unarmed, and that is when Doramin shoots him through the chest. Jim, with a proud and unflinching look, falls dead.
The story concludes with Jewel in Stein's home, "leading a sort of soundless, inert life" (312). Stein has grown old and sorrowful. He feels himself preparing to leave "all this," and he "waves his hand sadly at his butterflies" (312).
When Brown and Jim finally meet, Brown expresses hatred. This hatred is, on some level, understandable. He hates the world for never having given him the opportunity or the "clean slate" that Jim had been given. When Brown and Jim face each other, each sees in the other a vision of what might have been. The moment is one of recognition.
Brown, the reader can surmise from subtle hints in the narrative, is a quick man. He is charismatic enough to be a leader, albeit of an outcast group. Still, his eye sees the hidden creek and, in the way that a great man senses another man's greatest weakness, Brown hits Jim in his weak spot. He rouses in their interaction a sense of challenge. Jim, now the embodiment of a mythical romantic ideal, begins to collapse. The reason is less from a worry that Brown knows who Jim than the realization (perhaps only vaguely perceived by Jim) that Jim will never be able to escape his moment of weakness on the Patna: his choice is part of his character, and his history is an integral part of his personality. This history is not knowledge that is external to him, but something that has become deeply seated in his being. Brown is a personification of that hidden and rejected self-knowledge.
Jim likewise recognizes that Brown is a man who has potential or "Ability in the abstract." In an attempt to pass along to him an opportunity in the same generous spirit with which Stein and Marlow had aided him, Jim gives Brown "the clear road"--not quite a clean slate, but a chance to achieve his goals. This is an opportunity for Brown, though it is not nearly of the same quality as the one that had been given to Jim, because the clear road does not promise a realization of the romantic ideal, the achievement of the dreams of a life of glory and honor. Instead, it is an opportunity for Brown to persist in his merely Darwinian-style struggle to survive. The lesser opportunity here, however, is perhaps not so much a result of individual potential and character as it is a product of fortune or chance.
The tragic conclusion ensues in a fog of mistrust. Cornelius presses Brown to see the possibility of betrayal, though there is something in Brown that recognizes "that there could be no treachery intended" (298). Brown is an astute judge of character. Still, in the end, he acts mistrustful all the same, choosing to be retaliatory and violent. These actions do more to reveal the true nature of his character. Up the creek, and in secret, he wreaks havoc and death among Dain Waris's camp, and then escapes quickly.
We again meet fairly clear evidence of Brown's character, should the story be true, that he is found at sea in a lifeboat telling the same story that the Patna crew had told their rescuers: the ship had sunk beneath their feet. The irony in this tale, however, is that Jim had been one of them, as well as "one of us." Can Jim exorcise from himself the negative spirit that persists in Brown? The ambiguity of character suggests that all men are mixtures of potential characters: the romantic, the hopeless, the corrupt, and the cowardly. "One of us" can refer to being one more such complex being within the company of all men.
As for Jim's fate, Dain Waris's death extinguishes the flame that had charmed the life of Patusan. This parallel to Stein's best friend being assassinated is obvious, though in Jim's case, the death comes out of a failure of judgment on his part. The ring, signifying the promise of good will from Stein to Doramin, becomes a symbol of betrayal. Additionally, the death causes Jim's reputation and secure place in Patusan society to begin to crumble. He has no place in the world beyond, and now that his work in Patusan is finished, there is nowhere for him to go, except to be extinguished himself.
Therefore, as the reader recalls the vision of Stein blowing out a flaming match with the idea that all life is fleeting, Jim is compelled to do what is logically demanded at this climax. He cannot fight in the way Brown had--struggling for his life--because to do so would liken him further to Brown. Instead, he leaps in the direction of his fate. He does not fight it.
Jewel, representing the love that the community had felt for Jim and the delight of opportunity he had known, is discarded. His final atonement requires a clean break. Jim goes to meet Doramin with a calm face, in the same way that he had arrived, in the face of possible assault. Here, the assault is certain, and Jim dies in a manner that atones for his past failure at sea. This time, he goes down with the iron ship as it sinks. He does not run. He refuses to leap for a lifeboat to share with Jewel and Tamb' Itam. Instead he remains--as George had remained--aboard, to die.
The native audience looks at Jim's body, as the Muslim pilgrims had looked upon George's, with curiosity and fascination. The mystery man of Patusan is brought to an end. Jim is, after all, a man who dies, in spite of the myths of his immortality. Nevertheless, in true Conradian fashion and poetic tradition, Jim lives on through his show of action. He remains committed to his ideal and takes responsibility for what he has done and, in this way, Marlow finishes his story. This man's story is worth finishing. The inquiry into Jim's soul has been mysterious but it also has been fruitful, revelatory, and illustrative of what is human.
The novel concludes with a final view of an aging Stein and a broken, mute Jewel. The ring has been lost, and there is no one to inherit what Stein has built (just as, perhaps, no one could inherit Marlow's friend's rice mill). For Stein, the romantic tradition comes to an end. As his hands wave at the butterflies beneath the glass, we sense that Stein, Jewel, the butterflies, everyone, all etherized in their places, will soon disintegrate into dust.