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The novel opens with a description of Jim, who is an inch or two below six feet and employed as a water-clerk. He is powerfully built and has a deep, loud voice. The son of a clergyman, Jim decides to make a career at sea, passes examinations, and is made an officer of a ship by passing the third test. Soon he is sent on board the Patna as a first mate. The ship has eight hundred pilgrims. Jim is not very friendly with the other officers of the Patna. On a calm night in the Arabian Sea, the Patna collides with a submerged wreck and is badly damaged in its forepeak compartment. Assessing the damage, Jim knows that in no time the water will rush in and the ship will sink. Along with the ship, all the pilgrims will drown. The captain of the ship also senses the danger. At any time the bulkhead of the ship may give way.
Jim watches as the crew struggles to lower a boat. He is disgusted, but cannot shout because it will create further panic. Already one of the engineers has died of heart attack. The ship plunges. Jim does not want to desert the pilgrims, but in a moment of indecision and crisis, he jumps into "an everlasting deep hole." This fills him with guilt and affects him throughout his life. The Patna, however, survives, and the ship, along with the pilgrims, is towed into the Suez by a French warship. The four men who jumped ship are also picked up by Avondale and delivered to an eastern port. The inquiry starts. At the Court of Inquiry, Jim meets Marlow, the narrator of the story. Marlow is attracted to Jim and feels himself responsible for Jim's safety. At the inquiry, Jim is found guilty and his certificate is canceled. Marlow decides to rehabilitate Jim. He talks to Stein, a wealthy merchant, and arranges for Jim to go to Patusan. Jim is very happy with the offer and hopes that his past will be buried soon. In Patusan, as adviser and ruler of the Bugis, he wins their trust and soon becomes Tuan Jim. He finds great peace. Marlow visits him in Patusan and finds him very happy there. He is also involved with Jewel, a woman half-native and half-English. However, life does not continue in this manner. The outside world in the form of Brown, a renegade Australian, disrupts Jim's idyllic existence.