The story starts from the meeting with our protagonist, Jim, the cherished son of an English parson. Brave and ambitious, the young man goes to the sea to earn fame and fortune for himself. We still don’t know why he is referred as “Tuan Jim” or “Lord Jim” - it is a mystery to be revealed later - but we can already suppose that he managed to achieve at least some of his goals. Jim is still a romantic dreamer, inspired by the sea itself and endless possibilities of adventures it offers to anyone who dares to explore it. He is able-bodied and intelligent, with his eyes wide opened to anything new. Jim occupies the position of a water-clerk and moves from one place to another through the Asian seas. But something in his description is bothering us: it seems that his frantic pace of life is not only the consequence of his youth and energy - it is also a way to flee from something in his own past and in his own soul.
After we learn something about Jim, we finally see the flashback about the incident he regrets so much. Once he had a perfect opportunity to prove himself and his mettle, but he “leapt” too late, missing the opportunity forever. He gets injured and has a long rehabilitation period, feeling unworthy and miserable in the hospital. Still, when he recovers back to normal, Jim refuses to admit his defeat and return to England. Instead he agrees to a position of a chief mate on Patna, the old steamboat that has seen better times long ago. Not a dream job but way better than the shameful return back home. Patna now carries eight hundred of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca with only five white men among the crew, including Jim himself and an old, fad, unpleasant and seemingly mad German captain.
The journey goes peacefully until one day, when Patna was sailing through the Arabian sea, an eerie vibration went from the depths and start to disturb the ship. No one, including the readers, understands what causes this vibration and we are not presented with the ending of the incident. The next thing we see is Jim speaking to the officials and reporting the facts to help the investigation of this encounter. Finally, we start to understand what happened in the Arabian sea: the strange vibration frightened the crew to no end. Deciding that the ship is going to fall apart, the crew members loosed a single lifeboat to save themselves and abandon the pilgrims. Their panic caused them to hallucinate that the light on the ship has gone out and she went down to the sea bottom like an enormous maw have swallowed her whole. When the rescuers came to pick the boat up, all the crew members repeated the same story: the ship has sunk under their very feet and they were just the only ones who managed to launch a lifeboat. But later, during the investigation, we realize that Patna was found by the French boat, safe, but adrift and abandoned by the crew. The crew members of the French boat escorted the ship safely to the nearest English port.
The reputation of the Jim and his crew is devastated forever. The story about Patna starts to spread from one port to another. Finally, the British captain named Marlow attends the Inquiry and becomes incredibly interested and affected by Jim’s personality. He decides to learn about his story and becomes the next narrator of the novel. We see him gathering a bunch of people around him and telling him what happened next in Jim’s story. Still, his defence doesn’t help: the judge decides that all Jim’s sea certificates are now cancelled and he loses any possibility to get a job on any ship. Seeing how devastated the young man is, Marlow has mercy on him and befriends despaired Jim, offering him his help in starting anew. To give Jim the time to regain his composure and live through his loss, Marlow sends the young man to his faithful friend’s rice mill. This friend, who has never had any family, accepts Jim like his own son, providing him with job and life. But the cruel turn is that one of the mill managers appears to be another crew member of Patna and Jim just flees, unable to bear being constantly near to another living chunk of his shameful memories. Jim takes the job of a water-clerk and the runner of boats, doing his work steadily and quietly, until some stranger mocks the crew of Patna for their cowardice. Jim bursts out and starts a fight.
Learning about it, Marlow feels very guilty, because he feels responsible for the young man he took under protection. Marlow can’t understand the reasons of Jim’s behaviour and asks another his good friend, a man named Stein for advice. Marlow is sure that Stein has a lot in common with Jim. Stein is now a successful and wealthy trader, but he also had all his life broken by the tragedy of his youth. Stein hasn’t become jaded, but preserved his romantic worldview through any hardships life threw to him. So, after hearing Marlow’s story, he makes the only true “diagnostic”, saying that Jim is a romantic like he is himself. This statement makes something in Marlow’s head click. He decides to arrange a meeting of Jim and Stein and discuss the possibility with his friend. Stein is only glad to repay his debt to the Fate and give the chance to fulfill his dreams to another young man, like he himself was given that chance in his youth. Going back to earth the plan is to offer Jim a job of a manager at Stein’s trading post in Patusan. It is situated on a secluded island of Borneo with only a small settlement nearby. There, unknown by anyone, Jim can become a tabula rasa, a clean slate and start his life anew. Excited and grateful for the chance to finally get himself free of his past, Jim departs to Patusan, carrying a precious gift from Stain - a silver ring - on his neck. This ring was given to Stein by Doramin, a native chief trader of Patusan, as the commitment of their friendship, trust and the good will. This ring shall ensure that Jim will be treated well by the natives of Patusan, as Stein’s trusted friend.
Right after arriving to Patusan, Jim is deeply immersed in the life he could only read about in some adventurous novels. He immediately becomes a part of some political intrigues and the silent war between the trading clans of the natives. He is captured by the local Rajah and taken prisoner for three days - until Jim sees the opportunity to flee by leaping over the wall and passing over the creek. He meets Doramin and befriends him like Stein before. Jim makes a commitment to become his ally and help him in any way possible. Soon the young man fulfills his promise, driving out the main opponent of Doramin (who was the Rajah’s favourite). This move strengthens his and Doramin’s position in Patusan and forces the Rajah, frightened by the raising power of such an alliance, to accept a stalemate. Jim finally receives the status and the power he deserves. He continues to visit Doramin often, but they belong to different generations, so soon Jim becomes much closer with Doramin’s only son and heir named Dain Waris.
After some time, Marlow decides to visit his protege in Patusan and is stunned with the changes that happened with Jim. From the broken young man who lost all the hope, he grew up into a mature and confident manager, happy to live and enjoy life. During a heartfelt talk Jim admits that in Patusan, he has found the love of all his life, his “Jewel”. Jewel is a daughter of a local woman who was half-Dutch and managed to get an education (and educate Jewel too). Jewel’s mother has been married to a man named Cornelius, the former manager of Patusan who also worked for Stein but has almost devastated the trading post with his stupid decisions. He was fired and Jewel’s mother soon died too. It is also revealed that Jewel isn’t the daughter of Cornelius, she was adopted by him when he married her mother - but with her death Cornelius turned into an abusive father, oppressing and humiliating Jewel in any way possible. Feeling deep love and sympathy, Jim does everything that is possible for him to protect the girl from her stepfather. Jewel, in her turn, provides him about all the information she can learn about Patusan at home from Cornelius and the locals. Marlow listens to this story, understanding how much it resembles Stein’s romantic story that ended up so tragic.
When Marlow is going to return, Jewel asks to talk to him. The girl seems extremely worried, franticly asking Marlow about Jim’s past and, particularly, about anything that can endanger him or make him leave Patusan - and her. Marlow thinks that the former failure of Jim has become history long ago, so he assures Jewel that she has nothing to worry. She accepts the answer, but the uneasy feeling of incoming tragedy is still in the air: it seems that Jewel just senses that something dreadful is going to happen. The situation gets worse with the growing hate of Cornelius towards Jim and the Rajah, who swore to take revenge at him and Doramin. The future is grim and uncertain, when Marlow finishes his story. He doesn’t know what happens next and the audience rises and goes away, dissatisfied and silent, because the fascinating tale has no end.
Later we get the last fragments of Jim’s story, reading through the written evidences and his own letters. Every paper is sent to some mysterious “privileged reader”, the person from Marlow’s audience, the only one who expressed interest in Jim’s fate and seemed to genuinely care. Marlow continues his investigation, writing to this “privileged reader” about the course of it. He says that he visited Stein’s house to find there the former servant of Jim and Jewel too. He was hoping that Jim has come together with them, but instead he learned about the tragic end of his story.
Marlow tells that he has met Brown, another man who saw the end of the story. He talked to Brown in Bangkok and learned that Brown - a man of notorious reputation, or, simply saying, a pirate and a thug - was crossing the Indian Ocean with his crew but they were lacking food and fresh water, so they decided to visit the nearest island to replenish their supplies. To their surprise, the island wasn’t so defenseless as they expected, and Dain Waris (who was the manager of Patusan while Jim was away in business) greeted the pirates with gunfire, pushing them back to the shore. But one of the men of Rajah negotiated with Brown, offering help to him and his crew for killing one particular man on the island - Jim. Cornelius joins the offer. Both he and Rajah hope to get rid of Jim by the hands of a stranger and regain the status quo, pushing Doramin back.
Soon Jim returns just to find that Brown is waiting for him to kill him. Before the fight actually happens, Jim talks to Brown to understand why he did what he did - and suddenly Jim realizes that Brown is his own distorted reflection. Jim could have been Brown if he wouldn’t have met Stein and Marlow to help him. Out of guilt, Jim gives Brown the chance to escape, hoping that he would understand and wouldn’t tempt fate anymore. But Brown is met by Cornelius, who again tempts him and persuades him to return and wreak havoc in Doramin’s settlement. Brown and his thugs sneak to Patusan at night and kill Dain Waris and his men. The worst thing was that Waris was unprepared - he has just received a family silver ring from his friend Jim with the note that the incident with Brown has been settled peacefully. In the morning Doramin sees the dead body of his only son with the silver ring on his finger and, driven mad by his grief, he declares that Jim is a traitor who allied with Brown. Jim hears the news and, despite Jewel pleads him to run away and let Doramin come back to his senses, openly goes to the father of his friend to take his judgement, feeling guilty for the death of Dain Waris. Doramin shoots Jim in the chest, killing him, but this is a (horrible and wrong) way for them to reconcile. Jim admits his guilt, is atoned for his deeds and his blood washes away the grudge. The story of Lord Jim ends with Marlow describing Stein, old and jaded, and Jewel, who has never spoken a word since Jim’s death.