Lord Jim

Lord Jim Themes

Piecing Together the Story

The novel begins in a third-person, omniscient voice, with a close view of Jim's inner life, and then shifts to a clear narrator, Marlow. Marlow is then presented telling his story to a gathering. On the verandah, he tells Jim's story, and the story is pieced together by means of his own observations, Jim's direct statements, and statements by his friend, the owner of a rice mill, Egstrom, one of Jim's employers, and Schomberg the Bangkok hotelkeeper.

The narrative flits back and forth through time and concludes with an incomplete picture, ending on the note of Jim's charmed life--but also Jewel's expression to Marlow regarding some future dread. The oral storytelling concludes here, but the thread of the story is lifted again in written form. One "privileged reader" receives the story of Jim's fate and the final events, through Marlow's imaginative reconstruction, on the basis of firsthand accounts by Brown, Jewel, and Tamb' Itam. Conrad, in presenting this picture of a single man named Jim in such a manner, suggests the rough edges through which any human being must be known.

Hence, the overall picture is pieced together through a collage of accounts, observations, statements, conjectures, and rumors. The shape of the story has borders through which the storyteller, as well as the listener and even the reader, become characters themselves. The narrative ingenuity of the novel provides a window into the storymaker's process of composition.

The Romantic

Stein concludes that Jim is a romantic, and Marlow concludes that Stein is a romantic. It is implied that Marlow too had once been a romantic, and that, oftentimes, careers at sea have their beginnings in youthful, romantic aspirations.

Stein, of course, is the key representative of the type, having a romantic past that ends quite tragically: surviving ambushes, saving lives, exploring the unknown, and collecting butterflies. He was married to a Malay princess, but lost her and their daughter to an infectious fever. His best friend was assassinated. He had to start over again, and he succeeded.

In giving Jim the silver ring, which serves as the key that unlocks the archetypal romantic setting of Patusan, Jim is set upon the same quest to achieve his romantic dreams--to bring them to life. Yet Conrad suggests that such dreams often end as just what they are--fragile illusions--or are accompanied by tragedy in their ultimate realization. While Patusan had been like a place existing in a fairy tale, its characters seemingly painted by an "enchanter's wand," the entire thing comes into disrepair. Jim meets his end; Stein is left with a lingering sorrow; the ring is lost. There is no one to inherit the tradition.

The Leap

There are several occasions of leaping in Lord Jim. First, there is the leap Jim is too late in taking. This failure results in lost opportunities not only for a show of courage but also for personal glory and for respect.

The second leap is the one that he ironically does take: a leap into "a deep hole" of shame and guilt. This second leap is ambiguously presented as an action or reflex. The impending event of the sinking of the steamship flooded Jim with fear. Perhaps the leap was a reflex of individual survival. Perhaps asking someone to stay behind is asking too much. Thus the situation is painted with some sympathy by Marlow. Jim, however, takes the failure too much to heart, so the leap leads him into an exile, not only from his work at sea, but also from his father, his family in England, and his own sense of self-respect.

The final leaps, however, both the figurative leap into Patusan and the literal flying leaps over the Rajah's prison wall and the creek, show a keener precision of judgment. Jim finally wins his dreams. He lives the charmed, romantic life.

Facts vs. Experience

The official Inquiry into the facts surrounding the Patna incident occupies much of the first half of the novel. Marlow, as narrator, however, notes that the inquiry is into the superficial "how" rather than the deeper "why." An investigation of the "why" of an occurrence would lead to an inquiry, instead, into a man's soul. The official proceedings, driven by law and a collection of clear facts in order to mete proper judgment, is hence presented in contrast to Marlow's own inquiry into Jim's soul.

Marlow thus presents various facts, pictures, testimonies, observations, and other evidence to give the reader an opportunity to judge Jim's overall being. Seldom can a case, in a court of law, be known fully, since time does not permit a sufficient depth of inquiry. The same is the case in general for human relations. What one can ever know of another is, often, only an inaccurate sketch. Despite all that he can muster, Marlow tells Jim that he will forever be a mystery, unknowable, to the people of Patusan, and indeed he remains something of a mystery to Marlow, too. At least Marlow can imply some significant knowledge of the man: "He is one of us."

Thus Conrad expresses the difficulty of rendering sufficient depth to capture a single individual's private experience, not to mention the human experience more generally. It is at least through the trying, he seems to express, that human communities and friendship are built.

"He is one of us"

This statement is asserted by Marlow a number of times through the novel, gathering a different connotation with each usage. It consistently establishes a kind of solidarity. Jim is brought into the fold of good men, in sharp contrast to men of a bad lot like the German captain of the Patna, Brown, and Cornelius. Jim is "one of us" in the sense that he holds critical self-knowledge. He is aware of his shortcomings, yet he holds to his ideals.

Conversely, the statement of solidarity also functions to separate Jim from his life in Patusan where Jim, according to Marlow, will forever remain a mystery because he is not a native of the area. "He is one of us" in the sense that he is a white man and a Westerner, not someone else.

Women (and "the Eastern bride" of opportunity)

The women in Lord Jim include Stein's wife "the princess," his daughter Emma, and their reflection in the Malay-Dutch woman who is a mother to Jewel, the only woman who survives the telling of the tale. The tale ends with Jewel living the quiet life in Stein's old age.

Marlow refers in a number of instances to "the Eastern bride" of opportunity in the context of the romantic quest. The Eastern location of the tale is not enough to understand it: there seems to be something to the suggestion that the romantic force is born from the East, an exoticized locale in which Western men prove themselves worthy of some legendary foreign beauty. The figure of the bride of opportunity hints at the promise of a successful wedding of East and West. Nevertheless, the inherent difficulties of this union are apparent in some of the female characters. Jewel's mother had been born of such a union, as had Emma. Jewel mourns that the men always leave; little survives by way of the women. This theme is ambiguous, which is not unusual for Conrad, but perhaps something can be drawn from the figure regarding the fragility of peace and happiness in romantic love, in addition to the romantic aspects of the love of opportunity.

"Man is not a masterpiece"

This statement is striking, given by Stein as he studies his butterflies in Marlow's presence. The butterflies are examples of perfection rendered by the divine artist, Nature. Man, in contrast, is not a masterpiece. Yet the entire novel presents a masterful portrait of a single man, Jim: Lord Jim. Awareness of his imperfections, his weakness, and his cowardice all plague the image of Jim. His guilt over the Patna incident becomes a special point of weakness that Brown hits. Thus Jim's imperfections contribute to a picture of Jim that counts as a rough yet affecting masterpiece of a different sort. Conrad, the artist, sets himself parallel to Nature and its butterflies.


The steamship Patna, on which Jim is chief mate, is made of iron, and after the disturbance cuts a hole in its underside, Jim and the rest of the crew express little faith in iron. It is a metal, they think, that will sink silently into the sea, like a block of lead. In fact, the crew does believe that the ship sinks suddenly and soundlessly. However, it is later shown that the ship continues to float. Iron, the symbolic mettle of the human spirit, survives, regardless of weather and age and violence, even beyond reason. The implied lesson here is to have faith: in iron and in human endurance.

The Clean Slate

The image of "the clean slate" that Jim desires, upon which he can live his life free of the failure he had exhibited on the Patna, is the opportunity or chance to prove himself. At the start of the novel, such opportunities are presented as chance possibilities, but after the Patna incident, opportunity takes on the character of a space and time free of the past. In Patusan, Jim is in a place where he is free of the news of his cowardice. Therefore, it is a physically free space for him, one that marks a new period of time in which Jim can refashion himself as a new man. Still, the truth is realized in the end: the past from which he has been running has remained within Jim's own memory and heart. There is no true escape from self-knowledge.

The Patna vs. Patusan

The similarity between the names of the Patna and Patusan is striking, as well as the similarity of their respective communities. Both are isolated: the Patna by the sea; Patusan by both wilderness and the sea, since it is an island. Jim plays a key leadership role on both: on the Patna, he is the chief mate; in Patusan, he takes on the trade post established by Stein and becomes a major leader in the community, commanding respect, love, and awe. Moreover, each community suffers a crisis. Given the threat that the Patna will sink, Jim exhibits cowardice by leaping into a lifeboat and going along with the story that the ship sank beneath their feet. In Patusan, however, as Jim's place among the community unravels and the peace is broken, Jim does not run from his fate but walks to meet it with a cool face. In meeting this crisis, he atones for his failure to remain with the Patna and to some degree for failing to keep Patusan safe from violence.