BORN: 1857, Berdiczew, Podolia, Russia (now Poland)
DIED: 1924, Bishopsbourne, Kent, England
GENRE: Novels, short stories
Heart of Darkness (1899)
Lord Jim (1900)
The Secret Sharer (1909)
Joseph Conrad is widely regarded as one of the foremost prose stylists of English literature—no small achievement for a man who did not learn English until he was twenty. A native of what is now Poland, Conrad was a naturalized British subject famous both for his minutely described adventure tales of life on the sea (he drew on his own maritime experience for these) and his darker examinations of European imperialism in action.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in Exile Conrad's childhood was harsh. His parents were both members of families long identified with the movement for Polish independence from Russia. In 1862 Conrad's father, himself a writer and translator, was exiled to Russia for his revolutionary activities, and his wife and child shared the exile. In 1865 Conrad's mother died, and a year later he was entrusted to the care of his uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski.
In 1868 Conrad attended high school in Lemberg, Galicia; the following year he and his father moved to Cracow, where his father died. In early adolescence the future novelist began to dream of going to sea, and in 1873, while on vacation in western Europe, Conrad saw the sea for the first time. In the autumn of 1874 Conrad went to Marseilles, where he entered the French merchant-marine service. Conrad's experiences at sea would figure prominently in his writing.
A Career on the Sea For the next twenty years Conrad pursued a successful career as a ship's officer. In 1877 he probably took part in the illegal shipment of arms from France to Spain in support of the pretender to the
Spanish throne, Don Carlos. There is evidence that early in 1878 Conrad made an attempt at suicide, most likely because of a failed love affair. In June 1878 Conrad went to England for the first time. He worked as a seaman on English ships, and in 1880 he began his career as an officer in the British merchant service, rising from third mate to master. His voyages took him to Australia, India, Singapore, Java, Borneo, to those distant and exotic places which would provide the background for much of his fiction. In 1886 he was naturalized as a British subject. He received his first command in 1888.
Journey to the Congo In 1890 he made a difficult journey to the Belgian Congo that inspired his great short novel Heart of Darkness. At the time, the Belgian Congo was a corporate “state” privately controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium—in effect, he owned the country. In pursuing personal profits from the natural resources of the Congo, most notably rubber, Leopold ruthlessly exploited the Congo natives, subjecting them to slavery, rape, mutilation, and mass murder. By 1900, an international uproar over the horrors in the Congo was erupting, partly thanks to the publication of Heart of Darkness.
First Writing Efforts In the early 1890s Conrad had begun to think about writing fiction based on his experiences in the East, and in 1893 he discussed his work in progress, the novel Almayer's Folly, with a passenger, the novelist John Galsworthy. (Galsworthy was the first of a number of English and American writers who befriended this middle-aged Polish seaman who had come so late to the profession of letters.) Almayer's Folly was published in 1895, and its favorable critical reception encouraged Conrad to begin a new career as a writer. He married an Englishwoman, Jessie George in 1896, and two years later, just after the birth of Borys, the first of their two sons, they settled in Kent in the south of England, where Conrad lived for the rest of his life.
Financial Struggles Though Conrad had achieved a positive critical reputation by the early 1900s, he lacked financial security. Forever in debt to friends and his agent, James Pinker, he and his family moved to Pent Farm in Kent in 1898, renting a brick cottage from a young writer named Hueffer, later known as Ford Madox Ford. While living in Kent, Conrad and Ford collaborated on two novels, The Inheritors and Romance, and Conrad came into contact with other writers nearby, including Stephen Crane, H.G. Wells, and Henry James, whom Conrad greatly revered. Other literary friends, including John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw, loaned him money and helped further his literary career by promoting his works to publishers and critics. The birth of a second son in 1906 made an already strained financial situation even worse. Ford and Conrad fell out over rent Conrad owed, and in 1907 the Conrad family moved to Bedfordshire, and from there in 1909 to Aldington, where they occupied four rooms over a butcher shop. By 1910, Conrad's debt had grown to be more than $100,000 in late-twentieth-century values.
All the while, Conrad managed to keep writing. During these difficult years, he turned out some of his finest novels, including Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes, as well as his short-story masterpiece, “The Secret Sharer.” While the novels leave the sea behind for more political and social issues—a critique of materialism in Nostromo, an anarchist bombing in The Secret Agent, and the world of a double agent in Under Western Eyes—a love of the sea remained in Conrad's blood. It was once again the setting for “The Secret Sharer.”
Success and Security With his 1913 novel, Chance, Conrad finally achieved not only celebrity but also financial security. He carried on a lively social life, increasing his circle to include French writer André Gide. Conrad, who had been such a roamer in his youth, traveled little in his later years, though he did visit the United States in late 1922 at the request of his American publisher, Doubleday. Despite claiming he was never a man for awards— Conrad refused knighthood in May 1924—he did harbor a desire for a Nobel Prize. He never received one. On August 3, 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack, leaving unfinished the novel Suspense.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Conrad's famous contemporaries include:
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939): This Austrian neurologist founded psychoanalysis.
Stephen Crane (1871–1900): Like Conrad, this American writer (author of The Red Badge of Courage, 1895) was a master stylist who led an adventurous life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940): An American novelist, Fitzgerald is best known for his critique of high society in the 1920s, as exemplified in The Great Gatsby (1925).
Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) (1835– 1910): This American novelist, like Conrad, received much acclaim for a novel about life on a river.
Works in Literary Context
Conrad was, according to Kingsley Widmer in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, “a major figure in the transition from Victorian fiction to the more perplexed forms and values of twentieth-century literature…. He was simultaneously one of the last Victorian
writers and one of the first modernist writers. Along with writers like Mark Twain, Conrad was able to incorporate traditional story forms—such as travelogues or journey stories—into novels with a more contemporary sensibility.
Personal Quests Heart of Darkness is not so much about the enigmatic character Kurtz as it is about Marlow and his discovery of good and evil in each individual; his quest is not so much for Kurtz, but for truth within himself. As such, the novella has been compared to Virgil's Aeneid as well as Dante's Inferno and Goethe's Faust.
Reading Heart of Darkness as a journey story in which a man comes to understand his own soul will help one understand why the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola felt the novella would be a good model for his representation of the Vietnam war in Apocalypse Now. In Coppola's retelling of Heart of Darkness, an American soldier in Vietnam must face great suffering and is forced to understand the devastation wrought by the war of which he is part.
The Distanced Narrator With the invention of his character Marlow, Conrad broke new ground in literary technique, establishing the distancing effect of reported narration, a narrative frame in which the story is told at one or more removes from the actual action. To achieve this effect, Conrad employs a character within the story who relates the action after the fact. Such a technique helped Conrad avoid what would otherwise be painfully intense subjectivity.
Works in Critical Context
Conrad's work met with immediate success and praise. Not only is his skill noteworthy, but the fact that Conrad wrote in English, which was not his native language, made his use of delicate and original phrasings that much more astounding. As time progressed, however, Conrad picked up his fair share of negative critics, including novelist Chinua Achebe, who felt that Conrad's portrayal of the native Africans in Heart of Darkness is racist. Achebe noted that not one of the natives is portrayed as a fully fleshed out character, thereby, in Achebe's estimation, reducing the characters to a subhuman level. Additionally, Achebe cited Conrad's use of white symbols to represent that which is good and black symbols to represent that which is bad as further evidence for his intrinsic racism. Lord Jim is another of Conrad's books that has been deemed racist because of his associating people of color with the darker forces of chaos. However, many critics contend that Conrad was no more susceptible to racist thought than others of his time and was in fact ahead of his time in calling attention to the ravages caused by colonialism.
Heart of Darkness Contemporary reviewers praised Conrad for his insight and vivid use of language. “The art of Mr. Conrad is exquisite and very subtle,” observed a reviewer for the Athenaeum, who went on to note that Heart of Darkness cannot be read carelessly “as evening newspapers and railway novels are perused—with one mental eye closed and the other roving. Mr Conrad himself spares no pains, and from his readers he demands thoughtful attention.” A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement considered the concluding scene of the nov-ella “crisp and brief enough for Flaubert.” Conrad's nov-ella quickly entered the canon, eliciting response from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In an essay originally published in 1917, the American critic H.L. Mencken focused on the character of Kurtz, concluding that he was “at once the most abominable of rogues and the most fantastic of dreamers.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
It is difficult to read Conrad without seeing the influences of the sea on his writing and thinking. Indeed, the isolation an individual faces on a ship and pitting oneself against both nature and others on the ship, has been a common theme in literature, at least as old as Homer's Odyssey. Here are some more works that analyze the effects of the sea on humankind:
Moby-Dick (1851), by Herman Melville. This novel retells the story of Captain Ahab, who seeks Moby-Dick, a whale that has destroyed one of Ahab's ships.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), by Jules Verne. The mysterious Captain Nemo and his famous vessel the Nautilus take a fantastic journey through the world's oceans in the science-fiction classic.
Kon-Tiki (1950), by Thor Heyerdahl. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, intrigued by Polynesian folklore, sets off across the Pacific Ocean in a raft in 1947. This book tells the true story of his adventure.
As Lillian Feder noted in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, the novella has “three levels of meaning: on one level it is the story of man's adventures; on another, of his discovery of certain political and social injustices; and on a third, it is a study of his initiation into the mysteries of his own mind.” Critics still debate to what degree Marlow finds his evil double in Kurtz and how far, in fact, he identifies with him. Conrad would employ this theme of doubling in later works also, most notably in Lord Jim and “The Secret Sharer.”
Other critics have remarked about the psychological aspects of the work as well as its tone. The American novelist and critic, Albert J. Guerard, in his Conrad the Novelist, noted not only Conrad's “dramatized psychological intuitions,” but also the “impressionist method” and the “random movement of the nightmare,” which works on the “controlled level of a poem.” Guerard pointed to the contrasting use of dark and light by Conrad as a conscious symbol, and to his vegetative images, which grow to menacing proportions. “Heart of Darkness … remains one of the great dark meditations in literature,” Guerard wrote, “and one of the purest expressions of a melancholy temperament.” As Frederick R. Karl noted in his A Reader's Guide to Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness is one of the world's greatest novellas: “It asks troublesome questions, disturbs preconceptions, forces curious confrontations, and possibly changes us.” Conrad's novella is where, according to Karl, “the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.”
Lord Jim From its earliest reviews, Lord Jim has been considered perhaps Conrad's greatest novel and has been favorably compared to the best that Western literature has to offer. A reviewer in the Spectator noted that Lord Jim was “the most original, remarkable, and engrossing novel of a season by no means unfruitful of excellent fiction,” while an Academy critic pronounced that “Lord Jim is a searching study—prosecuted with patience and understanding—of a cowardice of a man who was not a coward.” A Bookman contributor acknowledged that the novel “may find various criticism.” However, the anonymous reviewer concluded that, “Judged as a document, it must be acknowledged a masterpiece.”
Political and social issues aside, Lord Jim is a fascinating case study of a romantic idealist. Some scholars take a more biographical approach to the novel. From this perspective, Jim is a representative of Conrad himself who jumped the Polish ship of state at its most difficult moment to settle in England. The Polish Nobel poet, Czeslaw Milosz, in Atlantic Monthly, pointed out that the name of Jim's ship, Patna, is intended to resonate with the Latin patria or “fatherland.” Other, more psychoanalytically minded reviewers note the fact that Lord Jim was published the same year as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, both books heralding a new century of unconscious forces at work. Still others, including Ira Sadoff in the Dalhousie Review, credit Jim with being a proto-existential hero. “Camus's greatest novel, The Stranger, written forty-two years after Lord Jim, is the epitome of the existential novel,” Sadoff noted. “Yet Meursault, the hero of the book, is not so different from Jim.” But beyond all these interpretations is the simple fact that the book presents a great yarn. As G.S. Fraser commented in Critical Quarterly, “It is, in fact, part of the interest and range of Conrad that he appeals not only to the sort of reader who enjoys, say George Eliot or Henry James but to the sort who enjoys Robert Louis Stevenson, Rider Haggard, or Conan Doyle.”
Responses to Literature
- Chinua Achebe criticized Conrad's portrayal of the native Africans in Heart of Darkness as being racist. Read several passages from Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, taking note of the ways Achebe characterizes Africans. Based on your readings of both authors' works, do you think Conrad's novel is, either overtly or subtly, a racist text? Why or why not?
- After reading Heart of Darkness, watch Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Compose an interview with Coppola in which he answers a reporter's questions about the conception and making of the movie.
- Read Lord Jim. In your opinion, is Jim portrayed as a courageous man? Why or why not?
Gordan, John. Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Howe, Irving. Politics and the Novel. New York: Horizon, 1957.
Kimbrough, Robert, ed. Heart of Darkness: Norton Critical Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.
Page, Norman. A Conrad Companion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Said, Edward. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Sherry, Norman. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
Nationality: British. Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdyczów (now Berdichev), Podolia, Ukrainian Province of Poland, 3 December 1857; became British citizen, 1886. Education: Schools in Cracow, 1868-73. Family: Married Jessie George in 1896; two sons. Career: Moved to Marseilles, 1874; merchant seaman from 1874, which included sailing on a number of French merchant ships to the West Indies, 1874-76; qualified as an able seaman in England, 1878, and sailed in British ships in the Orient trade from 1879; received Master's Certificate in the British Merchant Service, 1886; received first command, 1888; first mate on the Torrens, 1892-93; retired from the Merchant Service and moved to England, 1894. Lived in Ashford, Kent, from 1896. Died: 3 August 1924.
Works (revised by Conrad). 22 vols., 1920-25.
Complete Short Stories. 1933.
The Portable Conrad, edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel. 1947; revised edition, edited by Frederick R. Karl, 1969.
The Complete Short Fiction, edited by Samuel Hynes. 2 vols., 1992.
Selected Short Stories,. 1997.
Tales of Unrest. 1898.
Youth: A Narrative, with Two Other Stories (includes "Heart of Darkness" and "The End of the Tether"). 1902; edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel, 1959; "Heart of Darkness," edited by Robert Kimbrough, 1971, revised, 1988.
Typhoon and Other Stories. 1903.
A Set of Six. 1908.
'Twixt Land and Sea: Tales. 1912; The Secret Sharer, edited by Robert Kimbrough, 1963.
Within the Tides: Tales. 1915.
Tales of Hearsay. 1925.
Almayer's Folly: A Story of the Eastern River. 1895.
An Outcast of the Islands. 1896.
The Children of the Sea. 1897; as The Nigger of the Narcissus: A Tale of the Sea, 1898; edited by Robert Kimbrough, 1979.
Lord Jim. 1900; edited by John Batchelor, 1983.
The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story, with Ford Madox Ford. 1901.
Romance, with Ford Madox Ford. 1903.
Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904; edited by KeithCarabine, 1984.
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. 1907; edited by Bruce Harkness and S.W. Reid, 1990.
Under Western Eyes. 1911; edited by Jeremy Hawthorn, 1983.
Chance. 1913; edited by Martin Ray, 1988.
Victory: An Island Tale. 1915; edited by John Batchelor, 1986.
The Shadow-Line: A Confession. 1917; edited by Jeremy Hawthorn, 1985.
The Arrow of Gold: A Story Between Two Notes. 1919.
The Tale. 1919.
Prince Roman. 1920.
The Warrior's Soul. 1920.
The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows. 1920.
The Black Mate: A Story. 1922.
The Rover. 1923.
The Nature of a Crime, with Ford Madox Ford. 1924.
Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel. 1925.
The Sisters (unfinished). 1928.
One Day More, from his own story "Tomorrow" (produced 1905; revised version produced 1918). 1917.
The Secret Agent, from his own novel (produced 1922). 1921.
Laughing Anne, from his own story "Because of the Dollars." 1923.
The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions. 1906; with A Personal Record, edited by Zdzislaw Najder, 1988.
Some Reminiscences. 1912; as A Personal Record, 1912; with The Mirror of the Sea, edited by Zdzislaw Najder, 1988.
Notes on Life and Letters. 1921.
Notes on My Books. 1921; as Prefaces to His Works, edited by Edward Garnett, 1937.
Last Essays, edited by Richard Curle. 1926.
Letters to His Wife. 1927.
Letters 1895-1924, edited by Edward Garnett. 1928.
Conrad to a Friend: 150 Selected Letters to Richard Curle, edited by Curle. 1928.
Lettres Françaises, edited by Gerard Jean-Aubry. 1930.
Letters to Marguerite Poradowska 1890-1920, edited and translated by John A. Gee and Paul A. Sturm. 1940; edited by R. Rapin (in French), 1966.
Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum, edited by William Blackburn. 1958.
Conrad's Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends, edited by Zdzislaw Najder. 1964.
Conrad and Warrington Dawson: The Record of a Friendship, edited by D.B.J. Randall. 1968.
Letters to R.B. Cunninghame Graham, edited by C.T. Watts. 1969.
Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces, edited by ZdzislawNajder. 1978.
Conrad: Under Familial Eyes, edited by Zdzislaw Najder. 1983.
Collected Letters, edited by Frederick R. Karl and LaurenceDavies. 1983-96.
Selected Literary Criticism and The Shadow-Line, edited by AllanIngram. 1986.
Translator, The Book of Job: A Satirical Comedy, by BrunoWinawer. 1931.*
Conrad: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him by Bruce E. Teets and Helmut E. Gerber, 1971, and Conrad: An Annotated Bibliography by Teets, 1990; An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Conrad by Owen Knowles, 1992.
Conrad: A Personal Remembrance by Ford Madox Ford, 1924; Conrad: Life and Letters, 2 vols., 1927, and The Sea-Dreamer: A Definitive Biography of Conrad, 1957, both by Gerard Jean-Aubry; Conrad and His Circle by Jessie Conrad, 1935; Conrad: Some Aspects of the Art of the Novel by Edward Crankshaw, 1936; Conrad: The Making of a Novelist by J.D. Gordan, 1940; Conrad: Poland's English Genius by M.C. Bradbrook, 1941; The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad by F.R. Leavis, 1948; Conrad's Measure of Man by Paul L. Wiley, 1955; Conrad and His Characters: A Study of Six Novels by Richard Curle, 1957; Conrad: Achievement and Decline by Thomas Moser, 1957; Conrad the Novelist by Albert Guerard, 1958; The Thunder and the Sunshine: A Biography, 1958, and The Sea Years of Conrad, 1965, both by Jerry Allen; Conrad: A Critical Biography by Jocelyn Baines, 1960, revised edition, 1967; Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Critics edited by Bruce Harkness, 1960; A Reader's Guide to Conrad, 1960, and Conrad, The Three Lives: A Biography, 1979, both by Frederick R. Karl, and Conrad: A Collection of Criticism edited by Karl, 1975; Conrad, Giant in Exile, 1961, and The Two Lives of Conrad, 1965, both by Leo Gurko; Conrad: Lord Jim by Tony Tanner, 1963; The Political Novels of Conrad by E. Knapp Hay, 1963; Conrad's EasternWorld, 1966, Conrad's Western World, 1971, and Conrad and His World, 1972 (as Conrad, 1988), all by Norman Sherry, and Conrad: The Critical Heritage edited by Sherry, 1973; Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography by Bernard Meyer, 1967; Conrad's Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fictions of Conrad by Avrom Fleishman, 1967; Conrad's Short Fiction by Lawrence Graver, 1969; Conrad's Models of Mind by Bruce Johnson, 1971; Conrad: The Modern Imagination by C.B. Cox, 1974; Language and Being: Conrad and the Literature of Personality by Peter J. Glassman, 1976; Conrad by Martin Tucker, 1976; Conrad: The Way of Dispossession by H.M. Daleski, 1977; Conrad: The Major Phase by Jacques Berthoud, 1978; Conrad's Early Sea Fiction: The Novelist as Navigator by Paul Bruss, 1979; Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, 1979, and Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, 1990, both by Jeremy Hawthorn; Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, 1979, and Conrad: Nostromo, 1988, both by Ian Watt; Conrad's Later Novels by Gary Geddes, 1980; Thorns and Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction by William W. Bonney, 1980; Conrad: Almayer's Folly to Under Western Eyes, 1980, and Conrad: The Later Fiction, 1982, both by Daniel R. Schwarz; Conrad: Times Remembered by John Conrad, 1981; Kipling and Conrad: The Colonial Fiction by John A. McClure, 1981; Conrad by Gillon Adam, 1982; A Preface to Conrad, 1982, and Conrad: A Literary Life, 1989, both by Cedric Watts; Heart of Darkness: A Critical Commentary by Hena Maes-Jelinek, 1982; Conrad: A Chronicle by Zdzislaw Najder, 1983, and Conrad under Familial Eyes edited by Najder, 1983; Conrad and Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers by Benita Parry, 1983; Conrad and the Paradox of Plot by Stephen K. Land, 1984, as Paradox and Polarity in the Fiction of Conrad, 1984; Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction by Redmond O'Hanlon, 1984; Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties edited by Ross C. Murfin, 1985; Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and the Making of Romance by Raymond Brebach, 1985; Coercion to Speak: Conrad's Poetics of Dialogue by Aaron Fogel, 1985; A Conrad Companion by Norman Page, 1986; Critical Essays on Conrad edited by Ted Billy, 1987; Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious by Gary Adelman, 1987; Conrad: Consciousness and Integrity by Steve Ressler, 1988; Interweaving Patterns in the Works of Conrad by Gail Fraser, 1988; Lord Jim by John Batchelor, 1988; Conrad's Narrative Method by Jakob Lothe, 1989; A Conrad Chronology by Owen Knowles, 1990; Conrad: Interviews and Recollections edited by Martin Ray, 1990; Conrad: Third World Perspectives edited by Robert Hamner, 1990; Conrad's Lingard Trilogy: Empire, Race, and Women in the Malay Novels by Heliéna Krenn, 1990; Conrad: Beyond Culture and Background by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, 1990; Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism by Mark A. Wollaeger, 1991; Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse by Richard Ambrosini, 1991; Conrad's Existentialism by Otto Bohlmann, 1991; Conrad: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, 1991; Joseph Conrad: Sources and Traditions by Robert Wilson, 1995; Joseph Conrad and the Anthropological Dilemma: Bewildered Traveller by John W. Griffith, 1995; Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire by Christopher Lloyd GoGwilt, 1995; One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, 1996; Conrad in Perspective: Essays on Art and Fidelity by Zdzislaw Najder, 1997; A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction by Theodore Billy, 1997; Who Paid for Modernism: Art, Money, and the Fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence by Joyce Piell Wexler, 1997.* * *
When Joseph Conrad came to England in 1878 he was a double exile; he had left Poland, the land of his birth, in 1874 to join the French Merchant Navy. Four years later, desperately in debt and perhaps disappointed in love, he attempted suicide. When he was recovered he left France and joined the British Merchant Navy, though according to his biographer Jocelyn Baines he knew at the time "no more than a few words of the language." Despite this, however, he became one of the most significant English fiction writers of the early twentieth century, publishing 26 separate volumes between 1895 and 1928, the last four of these being posthumous publications.
His best-known and most significant works are "Heart of Darkness" and Nostromo, the former a long story, the latter a powerful novel, both published early in the century. All his fiction draws to some extent on his own experience. In particular, the exotic settings are reminiscent of his own life as son of a dissident Polish aristocrat during a time of Russian domination, as exile from his fatherland, as merchant seaman traveling to many parts of the world.
Though he wrote short stories throughout his life, most of Conrad's best tales were written around about the turn of the century. A number of them were first published in magazines and afterwards collected into a volume. "Youth" was first published in Blackwood's Magazine for September 1898, and later in 1902 in a volume together with "Heart of Darkness" and "The End of the Tether"; the first and last of these are seafaring tales.
One of Conrad's favorite narrative devices is that of the "double narrator"; "Youth" is an excellent illustration of this device. In this story Conrad introduces for the first time his best-known narrator, Marlow, though both here and in "Heart of Darkness" Marlow is the central character as well. Marlow is not, however, the first narrator; another, unnamed narrator sets the scene—a reunion of five sea-faring friends who have gathered to drink and to reminisce. We learn nothing of Marlow but his name until he takes over the narration; what he tells is a sailor's yarn of his own youth. It is a tale of Conrad's own youth, based directly on his own experiences.
The sea, which is so often the backcloth for Conrad's fiction, is here, as in Typhoon, a main contender; the plot of "Youth" revolves around a man's battle with the elements but, in battling against the sea, Marlow seeks to prove his manhood. The romance and adventure is merely the starting point; Conrad's concern is with the nature of the man himself and with the man's relationship to other men. Placed on a ship at sea, Marlow is isolated from ordinary life and has to come to terms with himself and his own identity; in the trials and disasters that he and his shipmates endure on the voyage he learns that he does not lack courage and is able to endure hardship. At the end of the voyage he is "weary beyond expression" but at the same time "exulting like a conqueror." Not only has he performed his duty, however, but every man on the ship has been shown to have done his best. Conrad is especially concerned with loyalty and "Youth" illustrates his belief that life on board ship relies on the loyalty of every man and on the acceptance of a hierarchy that creates essential order.
Particularly in the sea stories Conrad is hardly concerned with women; here, the only woman character is Mrs. Beard, the captain's wife, who appears briefly at the beginning to perform in the conventional wifely duties of darning and sewing; she then is escorted from the ship and put on a train for home.
To some extent, "Youth" may be seen as unique in Conrad's work in its exuberance and in its happy ending; Conrad rarely recaptures the unalloyed joy expressed by Marlow during the trials the Judea undergoes: "I would not have given up the experience for worlds. I had moments of exultation." Yet as Marlow looks back on the adventure from the perspective of an older man, other more typically Conradian thoughts prevail, and the story ends with the regret that youth, adventure, and romance have passed from his life.
If "Youth" is an example of a directly autobiographical story, "Amy Foster" is an example of a story that, while strongly influenced by Conrad's experiences, is not autobiographical. It was first published in serial form in the Illustrated London News in 1901 and later in book form in the volume Typhoon and Other Stories in 1903. It is the only one of Conrad's stories named for a female protagonist, though its original title was "The Husband," which suggests Conrad's uncertainty as to whether Amy or her husband, Yanko Goorall, should be seen as the principal character.
The story no doubt reflects Conrad's feelings about being a foreigner in a strange land, and he enlists our sympathy for the poor rejected exile who is cast away on the shore of southern England. Amy Foster's uncomprehending pity for her husband, however, never makes him easy in his exile; her later rejection of the foreignness in him, which leads to his death in sickness and despair, is one of the most moving accounts in all of Conrad's short stories.
The pessimism of this story is much more typical of Conrad than is the joy of Marlow's tale in "Youth." "Amy Foster" is the story of exile, nostalgia, regret, the failure of relationships, and, as so often in Conrad, death. It is narrated in an indirect way; the first narrator is an unknown "I" who is told the tale by Dr. Kennedy, the local doctor, and it is through the first narrator that the story comes to the reader.
Conrad's short stories, like his novels, illustrate his consuming interest in narration. The stories use various settings, draw their characters from many nationalities, and present situations that are typical of his work overall.
—Hilda D. Spear
The Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was concerned with men under stress, deprived of the ordinary supports of civilized life and forced to confront the mystery of human individuality. He explored the technical possibilities of fiction.
Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (to use the name which Joseph Conrad later drastically simplified for his English readers) was born on Dec. 3, 1857, in Berdyczew. Conrad's childhood was harsh. His parents were both members of families long identified with the movement for Polish independence from Russia. In 1862 Conrad's father, himself a writer and translator, was exiled to Russia for his revolutionary activities, and his wife and child shared the exile. In 1865 Conrad's mother died, and a year later he was entrusted to the care of his uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski.
In 1868 Conrad attended high school in Lemberg, Galicia; the following year he and his father moved to Cracow, where his father died. In early adolescence the future novelist began to dream of going to sea, and in 1873, while on vacation in western Europe, Conrad saw the sea for the first time. In the autumn of 1874 Conrad went to Marseilles, where he entered the French marine service.
For the next 20 years Conrad led a successful career as a ship's officer. In 1877 he probably took part in the illegal shipment of arms from France to Spain in support of the pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos. At about this time Conrad seems to have fallen in love with a girl who was also implicated in the Carlist cause. The affair ended in a duel, which Conrad fought with an American named J. M. K. Blunt. There is evidence that early in 1878 Conrad made an attempt at suicide.
In June 1878 Conrad went for the first time to England. He worked as a seaman on English ships, and in 1880 he began his career as an officer in the British merchant service, rising from third mate to master. His voyages took him to Australia, India, Singapore, Java, Borneo, to those distant and exotic places which would provide the background for much of his fiction. In 1886 he was naturalized as a British citizen. He received his first command in 1888. In 1890 he made the ghastly journey to the Belgian Congo which inspired his great short novel The Heart of Darkness.
In the early 1890s Conrad had begun to think about writing fiction based on his experiences in the East, and in 1893 he discussed his work in progress, the novel Almayer's Folly, with a passenger, the novelist John Galsworthy. Although Conrad by now had a master's certificate, he was not obtaining the commands that he wanted. Almayer's Folly was published in 1895, and its favorable critical reception encouraged Conrad to begin a new career as a writer. He married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, in 1896, and 2 years later, just after the birth of Borys, the first of their two sons, they settled in Kent in the south of England, where Conrad lived for the rest of his life. John Galsworthy was the first of a number of English and American writers who befriended this middle-aged Polish seaman who had come so late to the profession of letters; others were Henry James, Arnold Bennett, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, and Ford Madox Hueffer (later known as Ford Madox Ford), with whom Conrad collaborated on two novels.
The scene of Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), is the Dutch East Indies, and its complicated plot is concerned with intrigues among Europeans, natives, and Arabs. At the center of the novel is Almayer, a trader of Dutch extraction, who is married to a Malay woman and has by her one daughter, Nina. He dreams endlessly of returning to Europe with his daughter, but he is powerless to act. Nina runs away with her young Malay lover, and her father takes refuge in opium and dies pathetically.
An Outcast of the Islands (1896) deals with the same milieu, and in fact Almayer appears again in this work. The main character is a shabby trickster, Willems, who betrays the man who gives him a chance to make something of himself and thus plays a part in Almayer's ruin. The novel ends melodramatically: Willems is shot by the beautiful native woman Aissa, for whom he has abandoned his wife.
In The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897) Conrad turns to the life of the merchant seaman and to one of his commonest themes, the ambiguities of human sympathy. Just before the Narcissus leaves on a long journey, it takes on as one of its crew a huge Black named James Watt. From the beginning Watt is marked for death, and Conrad studies the effects on the crew of his steady physical deterioration. At first, his fellow seamen are compassionate, but then Watt's recalcitrance and his ingratitude after they have heroically saved his life drive the crew to the brink of mutiny. Watt dies, as the older sailors predict he will, when the ship is finally in sight of land. The novel contains one of Conrad's great set pieces, a wonderfully sustained account of a storm at sea.
The Heart of Darkness (1899) is based on Conrad's voyage up the Congo 9 years before. Narrated by the sympathetic and experienced seaman Marlow, the novel is at once an account of 19th-century imperialist greed and a symbolic voyage into the dark potentialities of civilized man. Marlow is fascinated by the figure of Kurtz, a Belgian whose self-imposed mission is to bring civilization into the Congo. Marlow tracks him down, and he finally finds the dying Kurtz, who has been corrupted by the very natives he has set out to save. Marlow, at the conclusion, visits Kurtz's fiancée, and he cannot find the courage to tell her the truth about her dead lover.
The first phase of Conrad's career culminates in Lord Jim (1900). Marlow is again the principal narrator, although Conrad entrusts his complex story to several other voices. Like all of Conrad's mature fiction, Lord Jim is a typical work of the 20th century in that a first reading does not begin to exhaust its subtleties of design and meaning. The hero begins as an inexperienced officer on the pilgrim ship Patna. In the night the ship, crowded with pilgrims to Mecca, strikes something in the water and seems about to sink. Urged by the other officers and not really aware of what he is doing, Jim deserts the ship. But the Patna does not sink, and the officers, Jim among them, are considered cowards. Disgraced, Jim wanders from job to job, moving ever to the East.
Marlow takes a sympathetic interest in the young man and finds him a job in the remote settlement of Patusan. Jim does well and he wins the respect of the natives, who call him Tuan Jim—Lord Jim. But the past catches up with him in the person of Gentleman Brown, a scoundrel who knows about Jim's past and insists that they are brothers in crime. Jim persuades the natives to let Brown go, whereupon Brown murders their chief, Dain Waris. Jim accepts responsibility for the murder, and he is executed by the natives. Once again, Conrad is concerned with the ways in which sympathy and imagination blur the clear judgment which is essential for the life of action.
Nostromo (1904) is probably Conrad's greatest novel. It is set in Costaguana, an imaginary but vividly realized country on the north coast of South America. Symbolically and realistically the novel is dominated by the silver of the San Tomé mine and its effects on the lives of a large cast of characters. The treasure attracts greedy men, who impose on the country a succession of tyrannies, and it tests and eventually corrupts men who are devoted to high ideals of personal conduct. Nostromo is concerned with the relationship between psychology and ideology, between man's deepest needs and his public actions and decisions.
The London of The Secret Agent (1907) is a far cry from the exotic settings of Conrad's first fiction. It is a city of mean streets and shabby lives, and in his depiction of these scenes Conrad surely owes something to the works of Charles Dickens. Verloc is a fat, lazy agent provocateur who is paid by a foreign power (probably Russia) to stir up violent incidents which will encourage the British government to take repressive measures against political liberals. His wife, Winnie, married him in the hope that he will provide a safe home for herself and especially for her dim-witted, pathetic brother, Stevie. Verloc plots to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Stevie is drawn into the plot; he stumbles, carrying an explosive, and is killed. Winnie kills her husband when she learns of Stevie's death—the dying Verloc cannot understand the violence of her reaction—and then kills herself.
Under Western Eyes (1911) is Conrad's study of the Russian temperament. Razumov, who may be the illegitimate son of Prince K—-, is a solitary and devoted student. Haldin, another student, bursts into Razumov's apartment after he has assassinated an autocratic politician. Haldin turns to the Prince K—-but is immediately captured by the police. Razumov now goes to Switzerland, where he finds himself in the midst of a group of émigré revolutionaries, among them Haldin's sister, with whom Razumov falls in love. Tortured by his isolation, Razumov finally confesses his responsibility for Haldin's capture and death. He is punished by the revolutionaries and returns to Russia, where he lives out his alienated life.
Thanks to the efforts of his American publisher, Conrad's next novel, Chance (1914), was a financial success, and for the rest of his life he was without worries about money. The novel is concerned with a young girl, Flora, and her relationship with her father, an egotistical fraud who spends some time in prison, and with an idealistic sea captain with whom she finds happiness after she has freed herself from her father.
Victory (1915), Conrad's last important novel, is another study in solitude and sympathy. Warned by his father to remain aloof from the world, the hero, Heyst, is twice tempted by sympathy into the active life—with tragic results. The second temptation is offered by the girl Lena, whom Heyst rescues and carries off to his island retreat. Their solitude is invaded by three criminals on the run, and in a melodramatic finale Lena dies saving Heyst's life.
Among Conrad's last novels are The Shadow Line (1917), a somber and ultimately triumphant story of another testing sea voyage, and The Rover (1923), a historical novel set in France in the years just after the Revolution.
Although there is a valedictory quality about Conrad's last novels—and some evidence of failing powers—he received many honors. In 1923 he visited the United States with great acclaim, and the year after, he declined a knighthood. He died suddenly of a heart attack on Aug. 3, 1924, and he is buried at Canterbury. His gravestone bears these lines from Spenser: Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,/Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
Two older major biographical studies, G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (2 vols., 1927), and Jessie Conrad, Joseph Conrad and His Circle (1935; 2d ed. 1964), have been superseded by a definitive biography, Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960). Important critical studies of Conrad's work include M. C. Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland's English Genius (1941); F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1954); Paul L. Wiley, Conrad's Measure of Man (1954); Thomas Moser, Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1957); Albert Joseph Guerard, Conrad the Novelist (1958); and Eloise Knapp Hay, The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (1963). □
Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad is one of the great modern writers of England. His novels reflect his concerns with the complex individual, and how sympathy and imagination can blur clear judgment—which is essential to life. The character development in Conrad's books is engaging and powerful.
Childhood in Poland and Russia
Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) was born to Joseph Theodore Appollonius Korzeniowski and Evelina Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdyczew, Poland. His father was a writer and a translator of the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). He was also a member of a movement seeking Polish independence from Russia. In 1862 the family was forced to move to Russia because of his father's political activities. Conrad's mother died three years later in 1865. It was not until 1867 that Conrad and his father were allowed to return to Poland.
In 1868 Conrad attended high school in the Austrian province of Galicia for one year. The following year he and his father moved to Cracow, Poland, where his father died in 1869. From the time spent with his father, Conrad became a lover of literature, especially tales of the sea. After his father's death, his uncle, Thaddus Bobrowski, took Conrad in and raised him.
Merchant marine service and marriage
As a teenager the future novelist began dreaming of going to sea. In 1873, while on vacation in western Europe, Conrad saw the sea for the first time. In the autumn of 1874 Conrad went to Marseilles, France, where he entered the French marine service. For the next twenty years Conrad led a successful career as a ship's officer. In 1877 he probably took part in the illegal shipment of arms from France to Spain in support of the pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos (1788–1855). At about this time Conrad seems to have fallen in love with a girl who was also a supporter of Carlos. The affair ended in a duel with an American named J. M. K. Blunt. This was the first time Conrad thought of taking his own life.
In June 1878 Conrad went to England for the first time. He worked as a seaman on English ships, and in 1880 he began his career as an officer in the British merchant service, rising from third mate to master. His voyages took him to distant and exotic places such as Australia, India, Singapore, Java, and Borneo, which would provide the background for much of his fiction. In 1886 he became a British citizen. He received his first command in 1888. In 1890 he traveled to the Belgian Congo, Zaire, and Africa, which inspired his great short novel The Heart of Darkness.
In the early 1890s Conrad had begun to think about writing fiction based on his experiences in the East. In 1893 he discussed his work in progress, the novel Almayer's Folly, with a passenger, the novelist John Galsworthy (1867–1933). A year later he retired from the merchant marines and completed Almayer's Folly, which was published in 1895. It received favorable reviews and Conrad began a new career as a writer.
In 1896 he married Jessie George, an Englishwoman. Two years later, just after the birth of Borys, the first of their two sons, they settled in Kent in the south of England, where Conrad lived for the rest of his life. John Galsworthy was the first of a number of English and American writers who befriended Conrad. Others were Henry James (1843–1916), Arnold Bennett (1867–1931), Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), Stephen Crane (1871–1900), and Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford (1873–1939), with whom Conrad collaborated on two novels.
Early novels, political novels
From 1896 through 1904 Conrad wrote novels about places he visited as a merchant marine and he explored themes such as the uncertainties of human sympathy. His early novels included An Outcast of the Islands (1896), The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), The Heart of Darkness (1899), and Lord Jim (1900).
The next three novels reflected Conrad's political side. The theme of Nostromo (1904) was the relationship between man's deepest needs (his psychology) and his public actions and decisions. The description of London, England, in The Secret Agent (1907) was similar to Charles Dickens's works. It portrayed a city of mean streets and shabby lives. In Under Western Eyes (1911) Conrad examined the Russian temperament.
Conrad's next novel, Chance (1914), was a study of solitude and sympathy. Because of its financial success and the efforts of his American publisher, he was able to live without worrying about money for the rest of his life. Victory (1915), his last important novel, further examined the theme of solitude and sympathy.
Last novels and death
Although Conrad's last novels, The Shadow Line (1917) and The Rover (1923), were written as a farewell, he received many honors. In 1923 he visited the United States to great fanfare. The year after, he declined an offer of knighthood in England.
On August 3, 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack and was buried at Canterbury, England. His gravestone bears these lines from Edmund Spenser (1552–1599): "Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,/ Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please."
For More Information
Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1960.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
CONRAD, JOSEPH (1857–1924), Polish-born English writer.
Joseph Conrad was born as Jόzef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on 3 December 1857 at Berdichev, which was then part of Ruthenia but later became part of Ukraine. His family was part of the Polish gentry but at the time of his birth Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. It did not exist as a geographical entity but survived as a culture, a language, a literature, and a fervent patriotic force. Conrad's father, Apollo Korzeniowski, and his mother, Ewa Bobrowska, were leaders of the Polish patriotic resistance in 1863, and for this they were imprisoned by the Russians and died as a result of illtreatment. Their only child led his father's funeral procession through the streets of Krakow as part of a major public expression of patriotic Polish feeling.
By the age of eleven, the orphaned Joseph Conrad was the ward of his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. The contrast between Conrad's father, who was romantic, impulsive, and altruistic, and his uncle, who was prudent, self-interested, cautious, and circumspect, profoundly influenced the models of masculinity that occur in the mature Conrad's novels; typically, his male heroes are suffering, divided, and self-doubting.
Between 1876 and 1893, Conrad was a sailor, serving first in the French and then in the British merchant marine. Although known as a great English novelist, Conrad wrote in his third language, Polish and French being his first and second. To the end of his life, he spoke English with a heavy Polish accent, and in his early texts he habitually used French and Polish constructions (some of which were corrected by his English wife, Jessie, who typed his manuscripts).
Conrad would not have become an English novelist at all had the French and the Russians not signed a treaty in which France recognized Russia's right to hold its male citizens liable for twenty-five years of military service. It was to avoid service that Conrad joined the British merchant marine in 1878 as an ordinary seaman on the Skimmer of the Sea, a ship that carried coal between Newcastle upon Tyne and Lowestoft. His introduction to English was through the often difficult to understand dialect called Geordie, spoken in northeast England.
During his years at sea, Conrad read Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Russians such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev, the classic English authors (Conrad's father had translated Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare into Polish), and his great contemporary Henry James. By 1890 he had written his first novel and he carried the manuscript with him when he took a job in the Belgian Congo, an experience that transformed his art and by extension the whole of English literature, since it led to the writing of Heart of Darkness (published in serial form between 1899 and 1900). In 1894, after some twenty years at sea, he married and settled in the southeast of England. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, was published in 1895 and was followed in quick succession by An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897). With the publication of Lord Jim in 1900, Conrad had in effect invented the modern novel.
Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim take narrative themes familiar to the late Victorians—exploration in Africa and the Far East—and use radical narrative to transform the traditional material of the action story into an exhaustive moral and psychological exploration of the human condition. He also used a Polish narrative tradition, the gaweda, or told-tale: both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim use a frame narrator, who presents an inner narrator, Marlow, who tells the story of an elusive, enigmatic (and now dead) figure, Kurtz and Jim respectively. The narrative device forces the reader into a collaborative rather than a passive relationship with the text, attending at every point to the way the tale is being told.
These novels of personal crisis and moral tragedy lead into the next group of narratives, the political novels Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), set in South America, London, and Russia, respectively. In these, inquiry into individual predicaments coexists with the investigation of whole societies. Conrad's complex relationship with political power, already visible in Heart of Darkness's treatment of European imperialism, recurs in his South American and Russian novels; in the latter, his personal loathing of Russia takes center stage. His London novel treats the institutions and attitudes of his adopted country with withering and corrosive irony. In the same period, Conrad wrote short stories of rich psychological complexity, the most powerful of which, "The Secret Sharer," can serve as a supplement to the study of tensions within the self that was extensively explored in the Dostoyevskian figure of Razumov in Under Western Eyes.
After his major phase, which closes with Under Western Eyes, novels such as Chance (1914), Victory (1915), and The Rover (1923) were less innovative, although The Shadow-Line (1917) is a late masterpiece that fully recovers his earlier subtlety and complexity. On his death in 1924, he was the acknowledged master of the English novel.
Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Oxford, U.K., 1994.
Berthoud, Jacques. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase. New York, 1978.
Conrad, Borys. My Father: Joseph Conrad. New York, 1970.
Daphna, Erdinast-Vulcan. Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper. New York, 1991.
Hervouet, Yves. The French Face of Joseph Conrad. New York, 1990.
Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Translated by Halina Carroll-Najder. New York, 1983.
Thorburn, David. Conrad's Romanticism. New Haven, Conn., 1974.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, Calif., 1979.
Novelist; b. Berdichev, Russian Poland (now the Ukraine), Dec. 3, 1857; d. Bishopsbourne, Kent, England
Aug. 3, 1924. Conrad's unhappy Polish childhood shaped his melancholy temperament; his maritime career provided material for nearly all his novels. He was descended on both sides from Roman Catholic landed gentry. Conrad, baptized Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz, was the only child of Apollo Korzeniowski (1820–69), editor, translator, romantic poet, and revolutionary nationalist. Conrad was four years old when the family was exiled to Russia for illegal political activity. As a result, both parents died of tuberculosis, his mother, Ewa Bobrowska (1833–65), when he was seven, and his father four years later. Conrad, frequently ill himself, had little formal schooling and few companions. Before he was 17, the restless, undisciplined orphan persuaded his guardian-uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski to let him go to Marseilles and become a sailor. For three years he served as gentleman-midshipman on several voyages to the West Indies; he ran guns to revolutionaries in Spain, and was shot over a woman, either in a duel or, more probably, in attempted suicide.
In 1878 Conrad joined an English ship as able seaman, learned English quickly, and made steady progress in the British Merchant Service, passing examinations as second mate (1880), first mate (1884), and master (1886). He sailed to Eastern ports—Bombay, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney—and celebrated this life in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), "Youth" (1898), Typhoon (1902), and The Shadow-Line (1917). Voyaging among the East Indies (1887) and on the Congo River (1890), he became fascinated by the psychological and moral deterioration of isolated white traders. He wrote of them in his first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), and in such masterpieces as "Heart of Darkness" (1898), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904), as well as in An Outcast of the Islands (1896), Victory (1915), and The Rescue (1920). He abandoned the sea after the publication of Almayer's Folly. On March 24, 1896, he married Jessie George, daughter of a Roman Catholic warehouseman; they had two sons and lived for the most part in Kent. Although his fiction won immediate critical success, he lived in virtual poverty until the large sales of Chance (1913).
Conrad presents a complex world, although on the surface his ethic seems simple enough. His novels often portray heroic seamen, "men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct." In a godless universe, man's only reward comes from a perfect love of the work. Yet in his best novels Conrad is interested in moral failures, even in criminal betrayers. He condemns them; but he also feels for them a sympathy rooted in skepticism about man's ability to meet life's tests. He sees men defeated chiefly by themselves, by too-active imaginations, by lack of self-knowledge, by twin longings for power and peace, by personal loneliness and moral isolation, and by a fundamental egoism. He doubts equally man's ability to improve his lot through political activity: "In this world of men nothing can be changed." His three political novels, Nostromo, The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), are antirevolutionary despite their sympathy for certain revolutionists.
His fiction owes something to Henry James and to his collaboration with Ford Madox Ford, but Conrad devised special techniques to convey his dark view. He dramatized misunderstanding and isolation through the use of personal narrators who frequently have to rely on other people's testimony for the facts. He consistently violated normal chronology to convey a sense of complexity and to involve the reader in the moral complications. He developed a distinctive style that, through richly symbolic imagery and overly long sentences, constantly suggests complexity and emotional commitment. Conrad's technique and insights have greatly influenced modern novelists, especially William Faulkner and Graham greene (1904–1991).
Conrad was not a practicing Catholic and he sometimes explicitly attacked institutional Christianity, but he never renounced his heritage. While he rarely wrote of religion, one of his finest characters is the saintly Father Romàn in Nostromo. Furthermore, Conrad's pervasive insistence on expiation through awareness of guilt seems profoundly Christian.
Bibliography: Works. The Portable Conrad, ed. m. d. zabel (New York 1946), contains the best introduction. J. M. Dent and Sons has published two collected editions of his works, each in 22v. (London 1923–38 and 1946–55). Literature. j. baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (New York 1960). a. j. guerard, Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge, Mass. 1959). e. k. hay, The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (Chicago 1963). t. moser, Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (Cambridge, Mass. 1957). j. allen, The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad (New York 1965).
J. A. Cannon