This is one of the earliest of experimental modernist novels, and brought Conrad to the attention of his contemporary critics. It uses different narrative voices and is chronologically complex. The hero is dealt with ambivalently and with consistent irony.
Jim takes up a career as a young officer in the merchant marine, after a course of 'light holiday literature', believing he is destined to shine heroically. He begins to live in a world of his own delusions as to his abilities and bravery.
He is tested and fails, abandoning the Patna on which he is first mate along with the rest of the disreputable crew, leaving the hundreds of Muslim pilgrims on board to their almost certain fate. The ship does not sink and is rescued and Jim later faces complete shame and the loss of his license and rank.
Marlowe, an experienced sea captain, befriends him, and it is he who narrates the story, with much personal reflection, digression and discussion, with other men of the sea.
Jim's 'case' is reflected on from many points of view, ranging from those who see him as someone who has lost his honour to those who believe he should have another chance. Marlowe's own position is intelligently ambivalent and critical, though generally sympathetic.
Jim eventually gets a second chance when he is offered the chance to run a remote trading station in Patusan (in the interior of Borneo). It seems that through a number of clearly heroic and decisive acts Jim redeems himself and becomes 'Lord Jim' among the natives whom he protects. All seems well until the final showdown with 'Gentleman Brown', when the reader is asked to reevaluate his/her position once again.
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