Lord Jim: Novel Summary
Summary – Chapters One and Two
The epigraph by Novalis introduces the reader to one of the main themes of trust in Lord Jim: ‘It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.’
The main part of the novel begins with a description of a man who is an inch or two under six feet, is ‘powerfully built’ and has a ‘fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull’. This man is dressed spotlessly in white from shoes to hat and is very popular in the Eastern ports he works in as a ship-chandler’s water clerk.
This job entails greeting newly arrived ships before the clerks of the other companies, and piloting the captain to the appropriate ship chandler. The water-clerk maintains the connection with daily visits as long as the ship is in harbor. Jim (who is the man just described) is a good employee, but is prone to suddenly resign from jobs and leave the area. He is known as just Jim; he has another name, of course, ‘but he was anxious that it should not be pronounced’. When his other name comes out, he leaves for another seaport. He is a seaman in exile and so keeps to the ports as he has ‘ability in the abstract’, ‘which is good for no other work but that of a water-clerk’. He moves from port to port, and then away from white men when he goes to live with ‘the Malays of the jungle village’. Here, he is called ‘Tuan Jim’ (which means Lord Jim).
Jim originally came from a parsonage and this type of living had been in his family for generations. He is one of five sons, though, and ‘when after a course of light holiday literature his vocation for the sea had declared itself’, he is sent to a training ship ‘for officers of the mercantile marine’.
At this time, he sees the potential for adventure in this life and, in ‘the babel of two hundred voices’ on the lower deck, he lives in his mind ‘the sea life of light literature’ and imagines himself becoming a hero. There is an accident after a gale and Jim feels afterwards that he ‘could affront greater perils’, but is a little envious of another boy’s perceived heroism. With dispassion, Jim later ‘exulted with fresh certitude in his avidity for adventure, and in a sense of many-sided courage’.
In Chapter Two, the readers are told that Jim went to sea after two years of training, ‘and after entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure’. At the beginning of that week, Jim is injured by a falling spar. His lameness persists and he has to go to hospital at an ‘Eastern port’. His recovery is slow and is left behind by his ship. He visits the local town and meets men of his calling who now prefer to work in the East: ‘They loved short passages, good deckchairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white.’ Initially, Jim sees these men as insubstantial as shadows, but gradually becomes fascinated by them. He takes a berth as a chief mate on the steamer the Patna. This is commanded by a New South Wales German who ‘brutalised all those he was not afraid of’. 800 pilgrims stream on board the ship and the German skipper refers to them as ‘cattle’. The Patna heads for the Red Sea and the five white crew members live amidships ‘isolated from the human cargo’.
Analysis – Chapters One and Two
In these introductory chapters, Jim is portrayed as one influenced by the adventure stories he has read as a child. This influence extends into adulthood as he continues to imagine himself as a hero. This theme of heroism, or rather the desire to be a hero, runs throughout the novel and may be regarded as Jim’s undoing or, conversely, as an admirable heroic quality.
Lord Jim is constructed by a fairly elaborate technique of shifting to various times in the past and this is notable in the first few pages of Chapter One. The reader is first introduced to Jim when he works as a water clerk and then sees him briefly as ‘Tuan Jim’ in a Malay jungle village. The narrative then shifts back further to explain his earlier life and the influence of adventure stories on his decision to become a seaman. This gives the novel a level of complexity as Conrad avoids using a simple linear storyline.