Joseph Conrad Biography

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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 for several years, during which time he secured berths on board French ships: first, two months after he arrived in France, as a passenger on the Mont Blanc for five months; on the same ship, as an apprentice seaman for six months; and then, on the Saint Antoine, as a steward for seven months. On these sailing vessels he traveled throughout the Caribbean area, and there is some reason to believe that he was involved in smuggling weapons to revolutionaries in Spain sometime during his residence in France, twenty-four months of which he spent pursuing shore activities. As a result of one of those activities, gambling, Conrad incurred large debts and, suffering deep depression over these debts and his more or less reckless life-style while on shore, he attempted suicide early in 1878 by shooting himself in the chest. The bullet passed through his body and out his back without touching any organs. Two months later, he began his English sea career, taking a berth on the Mavis, an English ship sailing for Constantinople.

Unromantic and demanding much hard work, Conrad’s English sea career involved him in several near-wrecks, and it situated him among men who had been shipwrecked. Apparent in much of the fiction he was to write is the ability he had to assimilate his shipmates’ stories and integrate them with his own hazardous experiences—as well as with the famous shipwrecks or near-wrecks he probably read about in the maritime histories of the day. Eight years would pass, however, after he signed on with the Mavis, before Conrad would write his first story in English, the language he struggled to learn after sailing from France. Two years after taking his berth on the English ship, furthermore, Conrad passed his examination as a second mate, and he would go on to pass two more examinations to become a captain in the English merchant service. He sailed three times to Australia (each trip taking a little more than a year), twice to Singapore, twice to India, and at least once to Java—all before sailing to the Congo in May of 1889. This latter journey was important to Conrad, who had become an English citizen in 1886, because he would be the captain of the ship, and throughout his career as an officer he had been forced to accept berths that were below what he had attained by examination (at least one biographer suggests that this must have been a blow to Conrad’s pride and sense of accomplishment, and that it may have contributed to his decision to leave the sea in favor of a writing career).

The firm that hired Conrad to sail its vessel to Africa expected him to remain in their service, in the Congo region, for three years. Besides the depressing and murderous signs of British imperialism that he witnessed while he was in the Congo, as well as the squalid living conditions of the natives he encountered, Conrad suffered nearly fatal attacks of dysentery and fever, and he left Africa in December, 1890, arriving back in England in January, 1891. He carried with him out of Africa six chapters of his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), which he had begun writing in 1889 while still in England; thus, as his twenty-year-long sea career was nearing its end (he sailed only twice after his Congo journey), he was launching himself into his greater—and in many ways more difficult—writing career. He would be thirty-seven when his first novel was published, and a year later he would marry Jesse George, fifteen years his junior, with whom he would have two sons, Borys and John, born in 1898 and 1906, respectively.

Life’s Work

After the publication of Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, in 1895, Joseph Conrad’s life was devoted mainly to the writing of his short stories and novels, an endeavor seldom easy for him, with a growing family, a frequent shortage of money, an inexact knowledge of the English language, and the unyieldingly high artistic standards to which he devoted himself. When he was not writing he suffered bouts of deep depression, and when he was writing it was a painfully slow process (he confessed on several occasions, in his letters, to sitting before a blank sheet of paper for days sometimes before he could begin writing). In addition to these difficulties, throughout his adult life he suffered from hereditary gout, attacks of nerves, neuralgia, and fevers, and periods of desperate anxiety.

The odds against Conrad’s ever being able to support himself and his family as a writer were great; after all, when he began writing seriously he was a middle-aged Pole and retired sailor who had not begun learning the English language until he was in his twenties, had married and begun rearing a family in his thirties, had developed no friendships with others in the literary world, and had had his first novel accepted for publication primarily because of John Galsworthy’s influence. (A writer himself, and to be winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, Galsworthy had met Conrad for the first time on board a ship for which the latter was chief mate, and had agreed to read—and was favorably impressed by—the manuscript of Almayer’s Folly.) Still, Conrad’s father and several relatives had themselves been published writers, so the profession was not completely foreign to Conrad when he began writing. In any case, it is a testament to Galsworthy’s insight, as well as to Conrad’s genius, that Conrad went beyond his first novel to become one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. The first twenty years of his thirty-year writing career were,...

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