This is a novel about a man's lifelong efforts to atone for an act of instinctive cowardice. Young Jim, chief mate of the Patna, dreams of being a hero. When the Patna threatens to sink and the cowardly officers decide to save their own skins and escape in the few lifeboats, Jim despises them. But at the last moment, dazed by horror and confusion, he joins them, deserting the eight hundred Muslim passengers to apparent death.
Tormented by this act of cowardice and desertion, Jim flees west. Living among the natives in Patusan, a remote trading post in the jungle, he is able to cease sacrificing himself on the altar of conscience. When he defends Patusan against the evil "Gentleman Brown," his efforts create order and well-being, thereby winning the respect and affection of the people for whom he becomes Tuan, or Lord Jim.