Joseph Conrad (December 3, 1857 – August 3, 1924) was a Polish-born British novelist, one of the most important and respected writers of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. Conrad's works emerge out of the confluence of three literary currents prominent in the Europe of Conrad's time: Romanticism, particularly in the works of Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz; realism, which flowered in Russia in the works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky; and modernism, which emerged as the dominant literary aesthetic of the twentieth century.
Conrad's works draw on the symbolism of the Romantics and the psychological acuity of the realist and modernist schools. Despite these affinities, Conrad defies easy categorization. Conrad saw in Western colonialism the failure of the "civilized world" to fulfill its moral responsibilities. He witnessed and then documented through his fiction how the "white man's burden," or the West's responsibility to the rest of the world, became clouded by selfish ambition through its quest for colonial domination.
Born and raised in Poland, Conrad spent part of his youth in France and the majority of his early life at sea; only in his mid-thirties would he settle down, in England, to start a career as a writer, writing not in Polish or French, but in English, his adopted third language. Like the Russian émigré Vladamir Nabokov, Conrad is regarded as a master prose stylist among authors in the English literary canon. His knowledge of languages and cultures, gleaned not only from his European experiences but also from his decades spent as a sailor at sea, can be seen in the haunting style of his prose and the enormity of the themes which he constantly brings to the surface. His works inspired writers throughout the twentieth century.
Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (of the Nałęcz coat-of-arms) in Berdyczów (now Berdychiv, Ukraine) into a highly patriotic landowning noble family. Conrad's father, a writer of patriotic tragedies and a translator from French and English, was arrested by the Russian authorities in Warsaw for his activities in support of the January Uprising, and was exiled to Siberia. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1865, as did his father four years later in Kraków, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven.
He was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, in Kraków—a more cautious figure than either of his parents. Bobrowski nevertheless allowed Conrad to travel to Marseille and begin a career as a seaman at the age of 17, after the failure to secure Conrad Austro-Hungarian citizenship made him liable for a 25-year conscription into the Russian army. During these early years Conrad learned English by reading the London Times and the works of Thomas Carlyle and William Shakespeare.
In the mid-1870s Conrad joined the French merchant marines as an apprentice, and made three voyages to the West Indies. In 1878, after being wounded in what may have been a failed suicide attempt, Conrad took service in the British merchant navy, where rose through the ranks over the next 16 years. In 1886 he gained both his Master Mariner's certificate and British citizenship and officially changed his name to Joseph Conrad. In the same year he took command of his own ship, the Otago.
Conrad called on ports in Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, various stations throughout the Indian Ocean, South America, and the South Pacific. In 1890 he journeyed up the Congo River in west Africa, a journey that provided much material for his novella Heart of Darkness. However, the fabled East Indies particularly attracted Conrad and it became the setting of many of his stories.
During these long years at sea Conrad began to write, and many of his greatest works, including Lord Jim, Nostromo, "Typhoon," "The Nigger of the Narcissus,"and "The Secret Sharer," drew directly from his maritime travels. Elemental nature profoundly impressed Conrad, and his experience of loneliness at sea, of the corruption inherent in intimate human relations in the microcosm of ship life, forged a coherent, if bleak, vision of the world. Like Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, Conrad's fiction explores the relentless progress of character flaws within the matrix of social relationships. Conrad expressed his deterministic view of the world in an 1897 letter: "What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well-but soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife. The tragedy begins."
Conrad left the sea at the age of 36 and settled in England, married, and devoted himself to writing. Always a keen observer of social landscapes, he absorbed the sights and scenes of London, from the docks to the slums to the drawing rooms of the literary elite, which included G.K. Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells. Financial security was a serious problem for Conrad until the 1920s, when he began to obtain substantial serial contracts and sell in large numbers.
Conrad was an Anglophile, who regarded Britain as a land which respected individual liberties. He continued to write prolifically, although he largely wrote in obscurity until late in his career, when the publication of the novel Chance finally brought him fame and success. Ironically, scholars generally agree that the novels written after Chance's publication in 1913 are lesser works than the dark novels Conrad wrote in his earlier years. Conrad continued to write and publish up until his death from a heart attack in 1924, aged 66.
Conrad's first novels, Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), were sea tales that drew from Conrad's experiences. The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'a novella published in 1897, demonstrated a development of Conrad's psychological powers, and utilized a device he would return to in "the Secret Sharer" as well as his major novels: the introduction of an enigmatic figure who serves as a touchstone for society's values as well as a dramatic foil. The novella Heart of Darkness (1899), perhaps Conrad's best-known work, and Lord Jim (1900), both narrated by the shadowy sailor Marlow, are set in remote and exotic regions—the upper Congo River and the Indonesian archipelago respectively—and explore the psychic fortunes of Europeans cast into near oblivion.
Youth (1902) recalled Conrad's experiences in Palestine, while the critically acclaimed Nostromo(1904) again explored the theme of vulnerability and corruptibility, with the Italian Nostromo rising in influence like Kurtz and Lord Jim, but set in a fictional country in South America. In The Secret Agent (1907), dedicated to H.G. Wells, and Under Western Eyes Conrad explored revolutionary and Utopian politics with a skeptical eye in tightly plotted mystery novels set in turn-of-the-century-England and Russia.
Conrad also collaborated with Ford Madox Ford in The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). Interestingly, Conrad despised Dostoevsky, another Slavic writer and master of psychology often cited as marking the transition between realist and modern fiction. Conrad despised Russian writers as a rule, due to his parents' deaths at the hands of the Russian authorities, making an exception only for Ivan Turgenev.
Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, is arguably Conrad's most widely known work. It was originally serialized in three parts in Blackwood's Magazine (1899). The highly symbolic tale is actually a story within a story. The narrator, a man whose name we never learn, is traveling up the Thames in the middle of the night with a group of passengers, among them a mysterious traveler named Marlow. With almost no prompting, recalling Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Marlow recounts a mesmerizing story of his adventures to the other passengers. Marlow relates how he was hired by a Belgian trading company to travel up what presumably is the Congo River (although the name of the country Marlow is visiting is never specified in the text) to investigate the work of Kurtz, a Belgian trader in ivory who apparently has gone insane.
As Marlow travels upriver, he witnesses more and more savagery, both among the African natives and the imperialist Belgians who have employed him. These fictionalized accounts almost certainly draw on Conrad's own experiences. Eight years before he had served as a captain aboard a Congo steamer; on a single trip up the river, he witnessed so many atrocities that he quit on the spot. The Belgian Congo of that time, under the rule of the tyrannical King Leopold, was notorious even among imperial colonies for its brutality and oppression. Marlow's travel up the river follows a similar descent, and by the time Marlow reaches Kurtz—who has installed himself as a tyrannical god-king among the natives—he is no longer sure whether fulfilling his mission of bringing Kurtz to the authorities would do any justice at all in such a lawless place. Kurtz's moment of illumination comes just before his death. His emotive last words, "The horror, the horror!' came to symbolize the corrupting influence of the racist imperialist enterprise and, further, the modernist sense of alienation and meaninglessness at the heart of "civilization."
Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" alludes superficially to the unknown and the barbarous, contrasted with the "light of civilization." But the contrast of barbarity and civilization cuts both ways. Perhaps the most apt (and vexing) image for this muddling of light and darkness can be found in the painting of the traditional figure of the blindfolded goddess of Justice that Marlow discovers along his journey; instead of holding a scale, she carries a torch, and is painted on a background of dense darkness. Marlow, holding a candle, moves closer to the painting, to try to make sense of it; but at the moment the candle goes out. The painting, as it turns out, was done by none other than Kurtz a year before he departed for the Congo. The irony and peculiarity of the scene—with an image of blind justice bringing light to darkness, and Marlow bringing a light to the image, only to have it go out at the moment he thinks he can discern the meaning of the picture—reflect on the manifold levels of lightness and darkness as they ripple throughout the text. More tellingly, the novella explores Europe's, and civilization's, "heart of darkness"; Marlow's journey leads deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of imperialist Europe until at journey's end he is confronted by the depraved Kurtz.
Elsewhere, early in the novella, the narrator recounts how London—the largest, most populous and wealthiest city in the world, where Conrad wrote and where a large part of his audience lived—was itself in Roman times a dark part of the world much like the Congo is now.
in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Conrad famously defined his aims as a novelist: "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence."
Writing in what was the age of symbolism in poetry and impressionism in the visual arts, Conrad showed himself in many of his works a prose poet of the highest order: thus, for instance, in the evocative Patna and courtroom scenes of Lord Jim; in the "melancholy-mad elephant" and gunboat scenes of Heart of Darkness; in the doubled protagonists of The Secret Sharer; Conrad created a style that was at the same time deliberate and measured while at the same time nebulous. Hence, one might suggest that Conrad was perhaps a sort of prose impressionist, in that, like the painters of France with whom he was familiar, he strived to create works that duplicated the sense of impressionisme—that sense, as he articulates above, of seeing, ever so briefly, a glimpse of the sudden, ephemeral truth.
"In Conrad's writing generally," says English novelist Giles Foden, "the grandiloquent Edwardian temper shades into something hesitantly modern, as the forthrightness of imperialist subject matter is undercut by the obliquities of narrative form. All this leaves his works unclassifiable, … as the critic Frederic Jameson has put it, 'floating uncertainly between Proust and Robert Louis Stevenson.' "
Chinua Achebe has argued that Conrad's language and imagery is inescapably racist, probably in large part on account of his first few novels, which show little insight into the natives he describes. Conrad associated the wild with despair, death, and savage, inhuman acts; nevertheless, in his depiction of London and industrial man he paints a similarly gloomy picture. He uses this symbolism in many of his novels, but most powerfully in Heart of Darkness, where he shows that the racist imperialism of the Europeans made them into worse savages than any of those they colonized.
Europeans and Africans are portrayed as being at different stages in their cultural development, which does not necessarily suggest that Conrad felt Africans to be inferior. Readers of Conrad's other works will know how critical he is of modern civilization. Indeed, African tribalism is presented as no worse than modern European civilization, personified by Kurtz. Conrad seems to imply that what Imperial Rome once did to northern Europe, Europe was doing to its worldwide colonial empire.
Writing at the apex of European colonialism, Conrad examined the inner psychology of both colonial overseers and subjects. Primarily seen in his own time as a writer of adventure stories, Conrad is now recognized as a master of narrative technique and English prose (astonishing given that English was his third language), whose work displays a deep moral consciousness. Conrad's penetrating insight, intricate plotting, and dramatization of human character under conditions of extreme danger and difficulty were identified by the influential critic F.R. Leavis as forming a chapter of the "Great Tradition" of English novelists he traced from Jane Austen through George Eliot and Henry James.
Conrad's literary work bridges the gap between the realist literary tradition of writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the emergent modernist schools of writing. Although Conrad deploys some of the modernist techniques (most notably, the interior monologue), unlike modernists such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, or the late Henry James, he still retains forms of a standard, realistic narrative. Nevertheless, his works, like those of other modernists, possess a symbolic resonance and layers of meaning that go beyond the level of the plot.
Conrad has broadly influenced twentieth-century literature, specifically in the works of Graham Greene, André Malraux, and Ernest Hemingway. Several of Conrad's stories have been filmed. The most famous adaptations include Alfred Hitchcock's The Sabotage (1936), based on The Secret Agent, Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1964), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness famously served as the basis for Francis Ford Coppola's film about the American experience in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now. The film portrays an officer, (played by Martin Sheen), sent up the Mekong River to kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz, (played by Marlon Brando) who had lost his soul in his effort to beat the Viet Cong at their own style of war, which included terror and torture.
|1896||An Outcast of the Islands|
|1897||The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'|
|1899||Heart of Darkness|
|1901||The Inheritors (with Ford Madox Ford)|
|1902||Typhoon (begun 1899)|
|1903||Romance (with Ford Madox Ford)|
|1907||The Secret Agent|
|1911||Under Western Eyes|
|1917||The Shadow Line|
|1919||The Arrow of Gold|
|1923||The Nature of a Crime (with Ford Madox Ford)|
|1925||Suspense (unfinished, published posthumously)|
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