Jim now tells his story to Marlow, who, in turn, is telling his audience. The boats, according to Jim, were tied all along the bridge of the Patna. He knew his duty, and he was considering it when a passenger, one of the Muslims, said something about "water," again and again. Jim feared that the worst was becoming known, but he soon realized that the man was asking for water for his young, ill son. Jim gave him the water and immediately regretted his own lack, wanting a drink then himself. The skipper said to "Clear out," and Jim stood frozen, indecisive. He did not know what to do, but he insists that to do anything, "you must believe there is a chance." He held little faith in the iron of the ship.
On the second day of the proceedings, one of the men with Jim began rattling off all the names of the dead skippers and ships he had known that had been lost--lost from life, but not quite from the memories of those gathered. That was a moment that struck Marlow. The story now returns to the dining hall, where Jim begins to laugh openly and with bitterness, drawing the attention of those around them. A silence falls, and Marlow chastises Jim, who responds that they will believe he is only drunk.
Marlow continues: according to Jim, he intended to cut the lifeboats so they wouldn't sink with the steamer. The others managed to push a single boat into the water, ignoring Jim's "passive heroism" (81). He was frozen by visions of the bodies, laid out for death--he asks Marlow, "What would you have done?" (83). (The conversation between Marlow and Jim takes on a kind of sparring quality here.) The other men jumped into the boat, and they were calling for George to jump also. Jim jumped instead, almost beyond his volition. After he tells Marlow that he jumped, he adds the perfunctory, "It seems"; he was aware that there would be no going back. He jumped into a well, "an everlasting deep hole" (87).
From the sea in the little boat, the yellow gleam of the steamer's masthead looked like the last star, and then it went out. On the little boat, the men were thinking of the ship sinking with all of its passengers, without a sound--sparing them the voices of human struggle in the waters. The man named George, they realized, never made it. He apparently had turned back for something and had gone down with the ship.
As the sun rose, Jim admits, he was deliberating with himself about whether or not he would die. The captain insisted that he would die; Jim countered that he would not.
As Jim explains what happened on the night of the incident, he finds in Marlow an attentive listener. He explains, first, how the fear began to rise within him. Marlow notes that Jim does not want a judge or an "official Inquiry" but rather "an ally, a helper, an accomplice" (73). He is looking for sympathy, a sense that his reaction to the situation was a human reaction. In this way, his "testimony" to Marlow in their conversation contrasts with the testimony he gave earlier on the witness stand. This begins the more significant inquiry, the inquiry into Jim's soul, and this kind of inquiry, the novel implies, requires a kind of sympathy and understanding from the likes of "an ally" or "accomplice."
The steamship becomes a symbol, its iron metal something that Marlow refers to as being as "tough sometimes as the spirit of some men we meet now and then, worn to a shadow and breasting the weight of life" (77). In other words, the ship becomes representative of the human condition, struggling to survive, featuring both age and experience. The crew, including Jim, misjudges the steamship's ability to stay afloat, and the trick of the eye in the perception that the light of the ship was going out, together with the conclusion that the ship has sunk, stands for a series of misjudgments about human nature in the novel. When Jim leaps from the ship into the lifeboat, Marlow comments: "your ship fails you, your whole world seems to fail you; the world that made you, restrained you, taken care of you" (94). In other words, the steamer, figuring "iron" as the metal of man's endurance, as well as the world that has "taken care of you," becomes a lesson regarding the strength latent in human beings. The key point is that the ship did not actually fail Jim. To the contrary, Jim failed his ship. For the remainder of the novel, Jim will attempt to rectify this misjudgment by maintaining a faith within himself that he is, in spite of it all, capable of doing something great with his life--capable of achieving his dreams.
The situation on the Patna is unique, however, and Marlow recognizes that no man knows how he would respond in that situation. Jim asks him pointedly, "What would you have done?" but what can one really expect of oneself in the hypothetical place of another? Brierly, the narrative implies, had imagined the situation himself and had arrived at an answer that had deeply disappointed him. In being absolutely honest with himself, he possibly had perceived a deep hypocrisy. Marlow, in contrast, simply does not answer Jim's question.
Another detail to keep in mind is that Jim's "jump" into the lifeboat is an action that is described as a kind of reflex. The instinct to survive may be strong enough to counter a possible display of courage. Does such an action then truly reflect a person's character? The ambiguity here seems to be that to stay behind and risk sinking with the ship would be counter to the human impulse to struggle and survive.