At a Glance
Joseph Conrad is considered one of the best English novelists (not to mention one of the most famous), but he did not actually learn to speak English until he was twenty-one. Conrad was born in Poland and orphaned at the age of eleven. He joined the French merchant navy at sixteen and spent much of his early years on the high seas. At many points in his life, he became involved in illegal activities (such as gunrunning) and was often embroiled in political intrigue. His many adventures led him to write novels such as Lord Jim, Nostromo, and his most celebrated book, Heart of Darkness. In almost all of his work, he explored loneliness, despair, and self-loathing—themes that ran through much of his own life.
Facts and Trivia
- The Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now was inspired by and loosely based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- In 1923, Conrad was offered a British knighthood, but he declined it.
- Despite being an atheist throughout most of his life, he accepted last rites and was buried as a Roman Catholic.
- Although he spent most of his life in England and was fluent in English, Conrad always spoke with a heavy accent.
- In a 1975 essay, Chinua Achebe called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist,” mostly due to his depiction of black Africans in Heart of Darkness. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Conrad was racist or whether twentieth-century scholars have ignored the historical context of his work.
Article abstract: Although best known as an adventure novelist, Conrad raised the form to new heights, dealing with the issues of human isolation in the face of an overwhelming natural universe, with a psychological realism that revealed the depths of his characters’ consciousness and perceptions.
Born December 3, 1857, in Podolia, Poland, to Catholic parents of the landowning class, Joseph Conrad was originally named Jósef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski (he officially changed his name when he became a naturalized British citizen in 1886). His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, had been educated at St. Petersburg University before going on to become a published poet, dramatist, and translator; it was, furthermore, because of Apollo’s political activities and outspokenness against Russian imperialism in Poland that he, with his wife, Ewa (née Bobrowska), and his four-year-old son Jósef, were exiled to Vologda, Russia, in 1862. As a result of the harsh living conditions, Conrad’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven, and his father died of the same disease when the boy was eleven. Thereafter, until he was seventeen, Conrad was reared by a number of guardians (all of them literary, writers or aspiring writers), the most notable a matrilineal uncle who insisted upon the value of education and responsibility. Although Conrad’s schooling came mostly from private tutors after his father’s death, by the time he left Poland at seventeen he was fluent not only in his native Polish but also in French (he knew some German and Russian as well), and he was familiar with the works of such writers as Homer, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Schiller, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Alfred de Vigny.
When Conrad left Poland in 1874, his destination being Marseilles, France, he left not to become a writer but—against his uncle’s wishes—to become a seaman. He had always been a lover of geography and travel books and had always been attracted to travel; for example, he had predicted, when he was ten or eleven and looking at a map of Africa, “When I grow up I shall go there .” (He did indeed, and the journey almost killed him.) Leaving his homeland for France and, more specifically, the sea was therefore not so much a teenager’s impulsive move as it was a departure the young Conrad had been growing toward for years. Arriving in Marseilles in October, 1874, he was to remain in France ostensibly...
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