Lord Jim by Conrad: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson presents a summary and overview of one of Joseph Conrad's most famous novels, ''Lord Jim''. Read on to discover a brief analysis of the novel's meaning and its significance.

The Darker Side of Man

They say we never really know ourselves until a crisis comes, that it is in those split-second, life-or-death decisions that we discover who we really are. Are we brave? Are we cowardly? Something better, or maybe worse? These are the questions upon which Joseph Conrad's novel, Lord Jim, center.

Considered to be one of the most important novels in all of English literature, Lord Jim tackles those dark questions that haunt the human spirit, questions we dare not admit to ourselves, let alone to others. It explores the nature of courage, the enduring impact of mistakes made in an instant, the indifference of the universe, the complexities of speaking one's truth, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing oneself or another.

Novel Summary

Set at the height of the British Empire, Lord Jim is the story of a young sailor and the mistake that he makes in a moment of terror, a mistake that reverberates throughout the remainder of his life.

Early in his career, Jim dreams of a life of heroic adventure, and his rapid success at sea seems to assure the fulfillment of all his naïve dreams. That is, until one day when the ship on which he is chief mate, the Patna, strikes an underwater object and begins to sink. Rather than playing the hero as he had always dreamt, however, Jim makes the split-second decision to abandon ship, leaving the passengers onboard, pilgrims en route to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, to their fate.

The ship does not sink, however, and the passengers survive, but Jim and the rest of the crew are tried for dereliction of duty. Jim is formally censured, stripped of his officer's certifications. This formal punishment, though, is nothing compared to Jim's own self-recrimination, his feeling that his actions have revealed himself to be that which he hates most--a coward.

At trial, Jim meets Marlow, who also narrates Conrad's most famous work, the novella, Heart of Darkness. Jim and Marlow forge an uneasy friendship, born above all of Marlow's empathy for the young man. After all, who better to understand the terrors of the sea and the haunting memories of one's own worst moments -- one's moments of weakness -- than someone who has been there? For Marlow, it takes a sailor to understand a sailor, and he understands Jim.

Marlow secures Jim a series of jobs, but Jim, haunted by his failure on the Patna, quickly abandons each one, as if he can outrun the memory of his own cowardice. It is only when Marlow secures Jim a position as a post manager at a remote colonial territory known as Patusan that hope of Jim's recovery seems assured. Safely ensconced in this far-flung region of the world, Jim for a time feels that the memory of his past failures can be forgotten. Jim forges a new identity at Patusan, and soon becomes a leader of great renown. The inhabitants revere him as a spiritual and political force, a sort of father/protector of the people.

Unfortunately, the peace and fame Jim cultivates in Patusan are short-lived. An insurrection is mounted against Jim, led by an avaricious pirate, Gentleman Brown, a disaffected faction of Patusan natives, and Cornelius, the former post manager whom Jim replaced and the father of Jim's beautiful fiancée, Jewel. Unaware of the secret rebellion underway against him, Jim grants Gentleman Brown and his factions passage through the area. Rather than leaving peacefully, though, the rebels attack the camp of Dain Waris, the son of Jim's most important friend and ally, Doramin. Dain Waris is killed and Jim is grief-stricken.

Haunted once again by the memory of the Patna, Jim blames himself for the death of his friend's son, finding in his failure to detect and put down the rebellion yet more evidence of his own cowardice, poor judgment, and inability to lead. To atone for the life that has been taken, Jim presents himself at Doramin's compound, offering his life as a sort of blood debt owed to Dain Waris' grieving father, who shoots Jim dead.

Why Lord Jim Matters

Conrad's novel examines all of the big questions: how can we ever truly know ourselves or others? Can we ever really escape the memory of our own worst moments? How long will we pay for our mistakes -- and do we ever truly pay alone, or must be bring our failings down upon the heads of those we love?

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