Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Many commentators on the modern novel date its inception to World War I—and its aftermath—because its horrors led to skepticism about moral values, religious principles, and political convictions that nineteenth century writers and readers believed were universal and enduring. The basic elements of modernism, however, evolved earlier; they appeared in Joseph Conrad’s early work, completed before World War I.
Conrad experienced the sort of displacement and disorientation that are the hallmarks of high modernism, that is, of novels that inquire into the foundations of civilization, the core beliefs and modes of perception that nineteenth century novelists took for granted or only fitfully questioned. This was a time when Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud first began to undermine the Victorian confidence in a coherent universe.
Conrad grew up in Russian-occupied Poland, the son of an impoverished Polish nobleman who wrote political plays and was persecuted by the Russians. Early on, Conrad absorbed the devastating history of Poland, an enlightened country that had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had risen against its oppressors in several futile rebellions. Conrad left his native land and went to sea, deciding several years later to reestablish himself in England and pursue writing as a career.
Conrad doubted the Victorian notion of progress. His novels, such as Heart of Darkness (1899 serial, 1902 book), reminded the British that their island nation had once been a part of the Roman Empire and that the British “moment” in history—its pride in the achievements of imperialism—might be just that: a...
(The entire section is 697 words.)