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Joseph Conrad

At first a stranger to, and within, the British literary world, Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness (1899) earned the author a central role in the canon of English literature. Joseph Conrad was a Polish-British writer who drew on his experiences as a sailor to write hauntingly dark and complexly woven tales that defined the modern English novel at the turn of the 20th century.

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Joseph Conrad

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At first a stranger to, and within, the British literary world, Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness (1899) earned the author a central role in the canon of English literature. Joseph Conrad was a Polish-British writer who drew on his experiences as a sailor to write hauntingly dark and complexly woven tales that defined the modern English novel at the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1920s, Conrad was considered a leading Modernist writer. It wasn’t until after his death that he would be labelled one of the greatest writers in the English language by the literary critic M. C. Bradbrook, who revived critical interest in Conrad’s works.

Joseph Conrad's Biography

Early Life

Joseph Conrad was born to Polish parents in Russian-dominated Ukraine in 1857. Conrad was the son of political exiles, who were pushed out of Ukraine and into Vologda, Russia after his Polish nationalist father, Apollo Nalęcz Korzeniowski, was arrested for organising a Polish insurrection against Russian rule.

Conrad became an orphan at age 11 and was taken into the care of his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. Conrad was not a successful student except in his favourite subject, Geography.

With a generous monthly allowance from his uncle, Conrad abandoned his studies at the age of 16 and began pursuing a career as a seafarer, setting off for Marseilles in 1874.

Sailor Years

Conrad spent 20 years as a seafarer. In 1886, he was granted British citizenship but continued his life at sea, becoming first mate of the Highland Forest barque in 1887, and master of the barque Otago in 1888.

The voyage Conrad most longed to take - and the one that would have the strongest influence on Heart of Darkness - was his voyage to the Congo in 1890. He was employed with the trading company ‘Société pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo’ as second in command of a river steamer going up the Congo river to retrieve a sick company agent. When the captain fell ill, Conrad briefly took over as captain.

In the Congo, Conrad gained an insider’s perspective on the activity of Europeans in the region, witnessing first-hand some of the atrocities of colonialism.

Literary career

Conrad was a prolific writer. He began writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895) in 1889 before he set off for the Congo.

Conrad wrote in English, his third language, which he had only learned in his 20s. Almayer’s Folly was shortly followed by numerous other novels, most notably Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911).

Conrad also wrote a series of autobiographical essays published under the title of The Mirror of the Sea (1906).

Writing didn’t become lucrative for Conrad until the commercial success of the novel Chance (1913). By the 1920s, Conrad was considered a leading Modernist writer.

Modernism

Modernism was an experimental artistic movement that took place from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Modernist writers believed traditional modes of literary expression were unsuitable for the modern age. Modernists rebelled against plot-driven Victorian realist novels by foregrounding the rich inner lives of characters instead.

Conrad also wrote three plays. He wrote his first play in 1904 titled One Day More, with his second a dramatisation of his novel The Secret Agent which became The Secret Agent: A Drama in Four Acts (published in 1921).

Joseph Conrad's Death

In April 1924 he refused a knighthood from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Conrad kept writing until his death on 3 August 1924, publishing his last completed work The Rover in 1923.

Conrad died from heart failure in Bishopsbourne, Canterbury. He is buried in Canterbury Cemetery in Canterbury, Kent.

Joseph Conrad Novels

Let’s take a closer look at three of Joseph Conrad’s most famous novels: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent.

Heart of Darkness (1899)

Conrad’s most famous novella, Heart of Darkness, is a psychological exploration of the horrors of empire set in the Congo. It is told by a sailor, Charlie Marlow, who recounts his nightmarish journey into the Congo - Africa’s geographical ‘heart of darkness’- where he meets the deranged ivory trader, Kurtz, with whom he becomes obsessed.

This dark tale suggests that the violence of colonialism poisons the moral characters of those involved. The novella’s exploration of the corrupting force of the European Imperialist project is both illuminating and limited, which led to a lot of debate in the field of 'postcolonial studies'.

Lord Jim (1900)

In Lord Jim, the reader encounters the narrator of Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow, who tells the story of Jim. Conrad again takes up a nautical theme to focus on the question of cowardice. Jim abandons a sinking ship, Patna, and its passengers. Jim is then subjected to an official inquiry and this is where he meets Marlow.

The novel is a fragmented hybrid of genres: adventure story, fictional biography, bildungsroman (a 'coming of age' story). As narrator, Marlow adopts a multitude of perspectives and a non-chronological narrative structure to introduce a deliberate difficulty into the story, which places the novel strongly in the early-Modernist tradition.

The Secret Agent (1907)

In its overtly political subject matter of anarchy and terrorism, The Secret Agent is very different from Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. The novel is set in 1886 London and tracks the double life of secret agent Adolph Verloc, who must prove his devotion to the anarchist cause of a foreign government by blowing up the Greenwich Observatory. The plot of the novel is based on the Greenwich Park bombing, where an anarchist's bomb exploded prematurely and killed him.

The novel combines elements of spy story, dark mystery, romance and family drama, blending the private and domestic with the public and political.

Conrad continues to explore psychology and questions of morality in The Secret Agent. If Heart of Darkness tackles the question of human corruptibility and evil, and Lord Jim tackles cowardice, then The Secret Agent tackles the vice of laziness.

Joseph Conrad Quotes

‘We live as we dream – alone.’

- Joseph Conrad, Part I, Heart of Darkness.

Conrad was concerned with alienation and the loneliness of the human condition.

‘Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.’

- Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (1911).

Fidelity, or loyalty, was one of Conrad’s core values and he explored it in his fiction, such as in Marlow’s loyalty to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Jim’s infidelity to the ship he abandons in Lord Jim.

‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’

- Joseph Conrad, Part I, Heart of Darkness.

Conrad was critical of the racist biases that justified the exploitative practices of Imperialism.

Joseph Conrad's significance

Let’s take a deeper dive into the importance of Conrad’s work and how his innovations made him a forerunner of Modernism.

Conrad's major works inspired several adaptations, such as the critically-acclaimed film Apocalypse Now (1979). Director Francis Ford Coppola adapted key elements from Heart of Darkness and set them in Vietnam, criticizing the US involvement in the Vietnam War.

The theme of alienation

Alienation is a prominent theme in Joseph Conrad's books. Conrad's outsiders are commentaries on the societies they are alienated by, bringing into question their value systems and exploitative practices. Conrad’s fiction often follows isolated protagonists in alien settings.

In Lord Jim, the protagonist runs away from the shame and guilt of his actions by taking up a job in a remote region on the island of Borneo. The setting of The Secret Agent is the bleak and unfriendly urban landscape of London that makes the immigrant protagonist, Mr Verloc, and his wife, feel isolated. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow is a wanderer without family or friends save for an aunt and a strange, short-lived friendship with Kurtz, who is himself isolated in the Congo jungle. Marlow's outsider status allows him to critique the exploitative colonial practices he witnesses in the Congo.

Conrad is an early modernist: his innovation and influence

Conrad is considered an Early Modernist writer as his writing style moved away from Edwardian writing conventions and towards the experimentations associated with the Modernist movement. Conrad had connections with Modernists, such as Henry James, who is credited with re-inventing the modern novel and Ford Madox Ford, with whom he collaborated on several novels, such as The Inheritors (1901).

As with other Modernists, Conrad’s writing style reflects his distrust in traditional ways of writing to communicate the complexities of modern life. Conrad structured his narratives around the psychology of his characters: the stream of characters' consciousnesses leads the way, and the plot follows along.

Stream of consciousness

'Stream of consciousness' is a narrative mode that represents the natural flow of a character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The irony and inconclusiveness of Conrad’s plots are present in the narratives of other Modernists, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. This tone reflected the sense that modern life was full of contradictions. Conrad and other Modernists believed these should be explored not just in the content of stories, but in the way they are told through experimental literary forms and structures.

Joseph Conrad - Key takeaways

  • Joseph Conrad was born in Ukraine and had to move to northern Russia when his father was arrested for an anti-Russian conspiracy plot. He spent his teenage years and early adult life as a sailor, which culminated in a trip to the Congo in 1890, where he manned a steamboat up the Congo River.
  • Joseph Conrad became a British citizen in 1886. He wrote in his third language, English.
  • Conrad was a prolific writer, and his most notable works are Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904) and The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911).

  • He struggled financially as a writer until the publication of Chance (1913).

  • Conrad is considered an Early Modernist who was highly influential on other Modernist writers.

  • Conrad’s main theme is alienation; his works are populated by outsider protagonists.

Frequently Asked Questions about Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s writing style is early-Modernist, as he writes from multiple perspectives, in a non-linear structure. His writing style is psychological and deliberately complicated.

The main theme of Joseph Conrad’s novels is alienation. Conrad’s novels explore alienation from the sea, from land, from one’s homeland, and the alienating effects of Imperialism. Conrad also explores a deeper alienation at the heart of the human condition, from the self and language. In Heart of Darkness he wrote, 'We live as we dream - alone.'

Joseph Conrad wrote in English because English is a universal language. English was Conrad’s third language, and he only learned it in his 20s. He became a British citizen in 1886 and settled in England in 1894, so it is likely that he also wanted to carve out a space for himself within the country’s rich literary tradition. 

Joseph Conrad is best known for his novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Heart of Darkness is a psychological exploration of Imperial horrors set in the African Congo.

Joseph Conrad is buried in Canterbury Cemetery in Canterbury, Kent. Joseph Conrad died on 3, August 1924.

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