Last reviewed: June 2018
Polish-born English novelist
December 3, 1857
Near Berdyczów, Russian Empire (now Berdychiv, Ukraine)
August 3, 1924
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. Joseph Conrad
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.