Jeddah sailed under the British flag and was crewed largely by British officers. It was owned by the Singapore Steamship Company, whose managing director, Seyyid Muhammad al-Sagoff, came from a wealthy Arab family well established in Singapore. Seyyid Omar al-Sagoff, Muhammad’s son, was on board at the time of the incident. After terrible weather conditions in the first week of passage, the ship's boilers ‘started adrift from their seatings’ and Jeddah began taking in water. The hull sprang a large leak, the water rose rapidly, and the captain and officers abandoned the heavily listing ship, taking Seyyid Omar with them. They were picked up by another vessel and taken to Aden where they told a story of violent passengers and a foundering ship. The pilgrims were left to their fate, an apparently certain death.
However, to much astonishment, on 8 August a French steamship towed Jeddah into Aden - the pilgrims had survived. They had been abandoned by those meant to protect them and an official inquiry followed into this great scandal. It is strongly suspected that this dishonourable tale inspired Conrad, who had landed in Singapore in 1883, and he wove the main themes of Lord Jim around it, using the name S.S. Patna for his fictional pilgrim ship.
In addition to the lyricism and beauty of Conrad's descriptive writing, the novel is remarkable for its sophisticated structure. The bulk of the novel is told in the form of a story recited by the character Marlow to a group of listeners, and the conclusion is presented in the form of a letter from Marlow. Within Marlow's narration, other characters also tell their own stories in nested dialogue. Thus, events in the novel are described from several view points, and often out of chronological order.
The reader is left to form an impression of Jim's interior psychological state from these multiple external points of view. But mere facts are inadequate to explain the human condition. As Marlow remarks of the trial: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!" Ultimately, Jim remains mysterious, as seen through a mist: "that mist in which he loomed interesting if not very big, with floating outlines - a straggler yearning inconsolably for his humble place in the ranks... It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun." It is only through Marlow's recitation that Jim lives for us - the relationship between the two men incites Marlow to "tell you the story, to try to hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality - the truth disclosed in a moment of illusion."
At the trial, he meets Marlow, a sea captain, who in spite of his initial misgivings over what he sees as Jim's moral unsoundness, comes to befriend him, for he is "one of us." Marlow later finds Jim work as a ship chandler's clerk. Jim tries to remain incognito, but whenever the opprobrium of the Patna incident catches up with him, he abandons his place and moves further east.
At length, Marlow's friend Stein suggests placing Jim as his factor in Patusan, a remote inland settlement with a mixed Malay and Bugis population, where Jim's past can remain hidden. Here, Jim wins the respect of the people and becomes their leader by relieving them from the predations of the bandit Sherif Ali and protecting them from the corrupt local Malay chief, Rajah Tunku Allang. Jim wins the love of Jewel, a woman of mixed race, and is "satisfied... almost." The end comes a few years later, when the town is attacked by the marauder "Gentleman" Brown. Although Brown and his gang are driven off, Dain Waris, the son of the leader of the Bugis community, is slain. Jim continues the conflict and ultimately fulfills his heroic destiny by suffering a fatal bullet in the heart, fired by Dain Waris's father Doramin as savage retribution for the death of his son.