Jim is a popular, if somewhat mysterious, young man working as a water-clerk (a merchant's agent who sells provisions to ships' captains at ports of call) in various Eastern (meaning Southeast Asian and Pacific island) seaports. He is described as assertive, attractive, and possessing "Ability in the abstract," yet he also is prone to leaving jobs without notice, and, we are told, works as a water-clerk only because he is "a seaman in exile from the sea." A brief biographical sketch is given of Jim's early life: the son of an English country parson, he is sent to a merchant marine academy after "a course of light holiday literature" leads him to declare his interest in the sea. Quickly proving his merit, he soon sets out to sea on training ships, where he spends free time lost in daydreams, "liv[ing] in his mind the sea-life of light literature." His fantasies typically involve acts of heroism: rescuing people, putting down mutinies, conquering savages. One winter's day he is aboard a training ship in port, fantasizing about becoming a hero, when a commotion arises on deck. A collision has occurred nearby, and a boat is launched from his ship to rescue survivors. Jim is not one of the rescuers aboard the ship's boat, and his disappointment is bitter. His captain consoles him, telling him to be quicker next time.
After two years of training, Jim goes to sea aboard the first of a series of merchant ships. His abilities lead to quick promotion, and he soon finds himself "chief mate of a fine ship," although he is still very young and has not yet been truly tested by the sea. His first encounter with "the anger of the sea" causes him to be injured by a falling spar. Disabled, he spends days in his bunk as the storm rages, not fantasizing about heroics but instead confronting the brutal nature of pain, fear, and physical existence. He is left behind, still lamed, at the next port of call, where he spends some time recuperating, then engages as chief mate on the Patna, a decaying steamer ferrying a boatload of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and commanded by a crazed German skipper. The Patna leaves port and turns into the open ocean. The voyage begins in a mood of eerie calm and isolation, the sea flat, the white crew "isolated from the human cargo" of pilgrims.
The opening chapters of Lord Jim make reference to three distinct moments in time: the apparent present time of Jim's employment as a water-clerk, a continuous span of years in the past from the time he leaves home to his shipping aboard the Patna, and a moment that seems to be in the future, when he will leave the seaside and venture into the Malay forest. The as-yet-unnamed narrator, whom we will meet in Chapter 4, seems to have a nearly omnipotent knowledge of Jim's story; he hints that we will see him transform from "just Jim" to "Tuan Jim," or "Lord Jim," although he offers no clues as to how this will occur. For the time being, the narrator instead invokes a series of literary paradigms within which Jim's story may or may not fit. First, the story begins in medias res, or in the middle of things, in the interlude between the two major episodes of the novel. This is the classic opening strategy of novels within the epic genre. Will Jim's story prove to be an epic, perhaps like Homer's Odyssey, another work which begins with a displaced sailor far from home? The marked interest in only one individual--Jim--and the lack of any secondary characters means that this will not be a classical epic, since classical epic is typically more interested in sweeping social events involving groups of people. The sketch of Jim's early life and education suggest that Lord Jim may share features with biography, or perhaps bildungsroman (a genre which looks at the education and maturation of an individual). The bildungsroman often seeks to trace an individual's development through his or her reading, which is certainly the case here, although Jim is reading light popular literature rather than the more serious tomes usually cited in this genre. The reiterated attention to Jim's propensity for daydreaming and the emphasis on his innate "Ability" are, in their way, tropes of Romanticism, a mode that requires imagination and inborn genius above all else in its heroes. Finally, too, there is a certain pre-modernist aspect to Jim's introduction. Like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Jim derives many of his ideas from popular literature and culture. Conrad's language, too, with its density of abstract terms (the "keen perception of the Intolerable," for example) and local allusions (Rangoon, Penang, Batavia), can be difficult in the same way as the language of Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner.
Above all, the narrator makes the suggestion that there is a fundamental void at the heart of this text. Much is left unexplained, and that which is explained is seemingly accidental; for example, Jim only ships on the Patna because he has been injured aboard another ship and left behind far from home. Conrad also invokes the problematic historical circumstances of colonialism by situating his hero in a part of the world where nearly every square foot of land has been claimed by a European power, and by putting him in the employ of men who "love. . .short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white." This section of the novel ends with the image of a small island of whiteness aboard a ship full of dark-skinned Muslims, isolated in the middle of a human ocean as well as a literal one. While Jim and the rest of the Patna's crew are placed in a position of seeming superiority as the ship's officers, they are nevertheless economically dependent on the hordes below the deck, just as many European countries were at the time economically reliant on the natural resources of their colonies.