Call him Marlow 2.0. An adventurer and naturalist whom Marlow seeks for help in getting Jim a job, Stein is yet another European (German) man making his living out in the empire. Sounds familiar, right? He's observant, just like our man Marlow, and he likes to spin a yarn every now and then, too.
In fact, Stein, along with Marlow, is one of a series of storytellers in the novel. He has seen it all, and lived to tell the tales, which he does, with relish:
"I get hold of my revolver with my right hand – quiet – quiet. After all, there were only seven of those rascals. They get up from the grass and start running [...] I let them come as close as the door here, and then bang, bang, bang – take aim each time too." (20.10)
Wow. He is quite the adventurer, Stein. Maybe that's what gives him a unique insight into Jim. He, too, was once young, ambitious, and dreaming of some high seas escapades (although unlike Jim, he was actually lucky enough to fulfill those dreams). Because he can relate to Jim, Stein is willing to help the young sailor. He understands where Jim is coming from:
"I understand very well. He is romantic."
He had diagnosed the case for me, and at first I was quite startled to find how simple it was; and indeed our conference resembled so much a medical consultation [...] (20.27-8)
Stein's insight provides an a-ha moment for Marlow, who has been struggling to understand Jim's choices.
The fact that Stein can relate to Jim's romanticism, though, does not change the current state of affairs. Now, grown old and tired, Stein is a lonely exile, disillusioned by the empire and surrounded by ghosts. In Marlow's words:
I saw only the reality of his destiny, which he had known how to follow with unfaltering footsteps, that life begun in humble surroundings, rich in generous enthusiasms, in friendship, love, war – in all the exalted elements of romance. [...]
Though his own room was beyond mine I saw him return the way he came. He was going back to his butterflies. (20.41-2)
Stein had a heroic life in the past (a life of which Jim has been prematurely robbed), but now he's just a lonely dude with his butterflies for buddies. We can't help but wonder – even if Jim hadn't jumped ship on the Patna, wouldn't he have ended up like this eventually?
Oh, and speaking of butterflies, be sure to check out our "Symbols" section for a deeper discussion of what's up with those lovely lepidopterans.