Authors: Joseph Conrad

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Polish-born English novelist

December 3, 1857

Near Berdyczów, Russian Empire (now Berdychiv, Ukraine)

August 3, 1924

Bishopsbourne, England


Born Jósef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski, the son of a Polish nobleman, writer, and militant nationalist, this great English novelist adopted the name of Joseph Conrad after many years of adventure at sea. He settled in England and became a naturalized British subject in 1886, only eight years after he had learned to speak and write English. Considered to be one of the supreme stylists in English, his third language (he had mastered French earlier), Conrad revealed in his letters that writing was an enormous struggle for him and a calling at which he worked strenuously and with all his heart. He left Poland in 1874, attracted to the life of the sea but also downhearted about the fate of his native land, which had been burdened by Russian dominance for so long. In his early years he sailed to the Caribbean, the Indies, and the Congo. Much of Conrad’s fiction, particularly his political trilogy, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes, reflects his fatalistic view of history and his skepticism about the possibilities of progress in human affairs. {$I[AN]9810001221} {$I[A]Conrad, Joseph} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Conrad, Joseph} {$I[geo]POLAND;Conrad, Joseph} {$I[tim]1857;Conrad, Joseph}

Joseph Conrad

(Library of Congress)

No consideration of Conrad’s genius can leave out a discussion of Heart of Darkness, a brooding, agonizing, and penetrating exploration of the human heart. Narrated by Marlow, who appears in some of Conrad’s other great work as his fictional alter ego, Heart of Darkness questions whether human beings have really learned how to govern themselves, to civilize the raw, primordial conflicts that threaten the very concept of humanity. Set in the context of an imperial world—Conrad begins with passages on Rome’s conquering of Britain—in which European powers have invaded Africa, Heart of Darkness becomes Marlow’s quest to find Kurtz, a European who has become a kind of god to the natives but who ends his life exclaiming of “the horror” that has attended his domination of these people, of the human sacrifices that are the result of his rule. Although perhaps intended as anti-imperialist because of the corrupting effects of colonization on the colonizer, Heart of Darkness later proved to be a catalyst for anticolonial African responses from such acclaimed novelists as Chinua Achebe.

Conrad lived during the heyday of the British Empire, at a time when it was still possible to presume that England would rule its far-flung colonies forever. Conrad admired the humanity of the British but implied that their seeming superiority was as illusory as that of any empire. Lord Jim, for example, concentrates on a sailor’s heroic image of himself and his tormented conscience once he fails the first test of the hero: the opportunity to stay with his sinking ship and save lives. Jim’s shame at jumping ship is admirable in the sense that he calls himself to account, but it is also unrealistic. His remorse is an index of his romantic view of himself and of the individual’s power over his own impulses.

In Nostromo, one of Conrad’s most impressive novels, he creates a South American country, Costaguana, shaken by revolution and corrupted by European investors. The country becomes a metaphor for history, in which changes of regime are received as signs of progress but are actually emblematic of a repetitive pattern that is futile. Conrad’s bitter experience in Poland led him to distrust all solutions that were merely political or economic. His later novels such as The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are prescient studies of twentieth-century political violence and revolutions.

With his Polish background, Conrad brought a sophistication and worldview to English fiction that it sorely lacked. That he succeeded so well is a tribute not only to the soundness of his ideas but also to his fictional technique. Many of his novels are experimental and innovative. He uses multiple narrators and bold shifts in time and perspective to create a dense and complex sense of history. At the same time, he generally does not loses sight of the humanity of his characters. There is much humor in novels such as The Secret Agent, and the feel for the rhythms of the sea in his early short fiction shows the pleasure he took in life. For all his philosophy, Conrad remains a sensory writer, creating fictional worlds to which generations of readers have reacted in a visceral way.

One of the few British subjects to turn down knighthood, Conrad died on August 3, 1924.

Author Works Long Fiction: Almayer’s Folly, 1895 An Outcast of the Islands, 1896 The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, 1897 (republished as The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: A Tale of the Sea, 1898) Heart of Darkness, 1899 (serial), 1902 (book) Lord Jim, 1900 The Inheritors, 1901 (with Ford Madox Ford) Romance, 1903 (with Ford) Nostromo, 1904 The Secret Agent, 1907 The Nature of a Crime, 1909 (serial), 1924 (book; with Ford) Under Western Eyes, 1911 Chance, 1913 Victory, 1915 The Shadow-Line, 1917 The Arrow of Gold, 1919 The Rescue, 1920 The Rover, 1923 Suspense, 1925 (incomplete) Short Fiction: Tales of Unrest, 1898 Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories, 1902 Typhoon, and Other Stories, 1903 A Set of Six, 1908 ’Twixt Land and Sea, 1912 Within the Tides, 1915 Tales of Hearsay, 1925 The Sisters, 1928 The Complete Short Stories of Joseph Conrad, 1933 Drama: One Day More: A Play in One Act, pr. 1905 The Secret Agent: A Drama in Four Acts, pb. 1921 Laughing Anne: A Play, pb. 1923 Nonfiction: The Mirror of the Sea, 1906 Some Reminiscences, 1912 (pb. in U.S. as A Personal Record) Notes on Life and Letters, 1921 Joseph Conrad’s Diary of His Journey Up the Valley of the Congo in 1890, 1926 Last Essays, 1926 Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters, 1927 (Gérard Jean-Aubry, editor) Joseph Conrad’s Letters to His Wife, 1927 Conrad to a Friend, 1928 (Richard Curle, editor) Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924, 1928 (Edward Garnett, editor) Lettres françaises de Joseph Conrad, 1929 (Jean-Aubry, editor) Letters of Joseph Conrad to Marguerite Doradowska, 1940 (John A. Gee and Paul J. Sturm, editors) The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, 1983-1996 (5 volumes; Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, editors) Bibliography Billy, Ted. A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad’s Short Fiction. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997. In this study of Conrad’s linguistic skepticism, Billy emphasizes endings in Conrad’s short fiction and how they either harmonize or clash with other narrative elements in nineteen of Conrad’s short novels and tales. Argues that Conrad presents knowledge of the world as fundamentally illusory. Bohlmann, Otto. Conrad’s Existentialism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Bohlmann interprets six of Conrad’s major works in the light of the philosophical musings of theoreticians such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and practitioners such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Davis, Laura L., ed. Conrad’s Century: The Past and Future Splendour. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Examines Conrad and his times. Includes bibliographical references and an index. DeKoven, Marianne. “Conrad’s Unrest.” Journal of Modern Literature 21 (Winter, 1997/1998): 241-249. Argues that in Conrad’s Tales of Unrest the concept of unrest is linked to modes of spirituality at odds with Western reason. Claims that the Enlightenment rationalism that freed the West from superstition did so by repressing spiritual and psychic forces; contends that the force of unrest in Conrad’s stories is the force of modernism. Gibson, Andrew, and Robert Hampson, eds. Conrad and Theory. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. Essays include “Conrad and the Politics of the Sublime,” “The Dialogue of Lord Jim,” and “Conrad, Theory and Value.” Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A solid introduction to Conrad’s life and art, written by a native Pole. Provides relatively brief but insightful analysis of the more significant shorter works. Gordon, John Dozier. Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940. The discussion of Conrad’s early novels is excellent, in this classic of Conrad scholarship. Serious Conrad scholarship began with this work, which was especially important in the revival of interest in Conrad’s work in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Graver, Lawrence. Conrad’s Short Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. This study of Conrad’s stories is grouped chronologically and displays the linkages between the shorter fictions and individual stories, and between them as a group and the novels. Since it covers the lesser-known stories as well as the more famous ones, it is essential for placing Conrad’s development of themes and styles within a larger artistic context. Hawthorn, Jeremy. Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. New York: Continuum, 2007. Although Conrad’s works are usually thought to be lacking in sexuality, this book opens his writing up to new interpretations by citing passages from Conrad’s texts that support erotic interpretations. Johnson, A. James M. “Victorian Anthropology, Racism, and Heart of Darkness.” Ariel 28 (October, 1997): 111-131. Argues that Conrad uncritically accepted racist assumptions of Victorian anthropology in Heart of Darkness. Jordan, Elaine, ed. Joseph Conrad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An excellent introductory study of Conrad and his works. Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. This book is, and will remain, the definitive Conrad biography, elucidating as it does Conrad’s life in Poland, on the seas, and in England. The well-documented study is also replete with generously thorough analyses of Conrad’s major works, as well as of his artistic development and political orientation. Karl tends at times to be stiltedly (and quite needlessly) insistent upon where and how his views differ from those of other interpreters of Conrad’s life and work, especially with regard to Gerard Jean-Aubry’s biography. Karl, Frederick Robert. A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. Rev. ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997. A good handbook for students. Provides bibliographical references and an index. Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘Infinities of Absolution’: Reason, Rumor, and Duty in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Tale.’” Modern Fiction Studies 44 (Fall, 1998): 715-729. Argues that because the narrator is lost in the wild illogic of rumor he commits a reprehensible act he believes to be demanded by duty. Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus, 1948. Leavis, one of the most distinguished of modern English literary critics, places Conrad within the scope of the English literary world, showing how he drew from, and added to, that heritage. An invaluable study for those trying to understand what Conrad might have been attempting in his writing and how he could have perceived his place within a wider literary context. Lewis, Pericles. “‘His Sympathies Were in the Right Place’: Heart of Darkness and the Discourse of National Character.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 53 (September, 1998): 211-244. Shows how Conrad contributed to modernist literary technique by structuring conflict between the “ethical” and the “sociological” in Marlow’s decision to align himself with Kurtz over the Company. Lothe, Jakob, Jeremy Hawthorn, and James Phelan. Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre. Columbus: Ohio State, 2008. This collection of commentaries about Conrad’s narrative techniques covers a range of his works and presents several critical perspectives. Includes an introduction that discusses these essays as well as earlier criticism about Conrad’s writing. Meyer, Bernard. Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. An important and indispensable reading of Conrad’s life and work, giving special attention to the writer’s mother worship, illnesses, and fetishes. Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Bibliography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A briskly moving, no-nonsense biography that surveys the key points and themes of the major works. Very good at placing Conrad within the social and intellectual milieu of his day and offering good insights from other literary figures, such as Ford Madox Ford, who significantly influenced Conrad’s literary career. Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Translated by Halina Carroll-Najder. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Revised edition, 2007. A thorough and sympathetic biography of Conrad written by a countryman. The volume stresses the influence of Conrad’s Polish heritage on his personality and art. Najder draws many telling and intriguing parallels between Conrad’s life and his writing. Orr, Leonard, and Ted Billy, eds. A Joseph Conrad Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A good manual, complete with bibliographical references and an index. Peters, John G. Conrad and Impressionism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. An important critical examination of the novelist’s literary impressionism. Includes a valuable bibliography. Pritchard, William H. "Conrad Once More." Hudson Review, vol. 22, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 329–34. EBSCOhost, Accessed 4 Aug. 2017. Explores Conrad's stories Victory and Chance. Provides some comparison with Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes, and discusses the critical reception of Conrad's later books. Stape, J. H. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. In this collection of essays on most of Conrad’s major work by different critics, the most helpful for a study of his short fiction are the essays “Conradian Narrative” by Jakob Lothe, which surveys Conrad’s narrative techniques and conventions, and “The Short Fiction” by Gail Fraser, which discusses Conrad’s experimentation with short narrative. Swisher, Clarice, ed. Readings on Joseph Conrad. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Contains essays by J. B. Priestley, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Adams about many of Conrad’s works. Tennant, Roger. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Atheneum, 1981. Not a scholarly work, but a readable study that concentrates on Conrad’s sea years and his later struggles with ill health and financial difficulties. Its main weakness is a lack of emphasis on Conrad’s early and formative years in Poland, but, when used with Zdzislaw Najder’s work (above), it can be helpful. Peters, John G. Conrad and Impressionism. Cambridge University Press, 2001. An important critical examination of the novelist’s literary impressionism. Includes a valuable bibliography.

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