Joseph Conrad 1857–-1924
(Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Conrad's works from 1986 through 2002. See also The Secret Sharer Criticism.
Considered one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, Conrad is also esteemed as a preeminent writer of short fiction. Two works in particular, the novella Heart of Darkness (1902) and the short story “The Secret Sharer,” have been proclaimed as the works of a consummate literary artist and an entertaining storyteller. In these and other stories Conrad employed an introspective narrator to focus attention on the teller as well as the tale. Like many of his novels, Conrad's short fiction deals with several recurring themes: the ambiguity of good and evil, the corruption of moral ideals, and the human propensity of self-deception.
Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdiczew, Russia, a city that is now located in Poland. He was exiled with his parents to northern Russia in 1863, following his parents' participation in the Polish independence movement. After the deaths of his parents in 1868, Conrad lived in the homes of relatives, where he was often ill and received sporadic schooling. At sixteen, Conrad pursued a career as a seaman, sailing to Martinique and the West Indies. Although he knew very little English at the time, he joined the British merchant marines in 1878. During his ten years of service, he became a naturalized British citizen, traveled to Africa, Australia, India, and the Orient, rose to the rank of captain, and mastered the English language. Poor health, however, forced Conrad to retire from the merchant marines. In 1894 he began a career as a writer, basing much of his work on his experience as a seaman. He wrote much of his first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), while he was still in the service. Conrad struggled for the rest of his life to earn a living as a writer. In addition to his financial difficulties, he found writing in English to be a slow and agonizing ordeal, and many critics have noted the effects upon his work of such lifelong conditions as neurasthenia and fear of inadequacy. Conrad suffered a heart attack and died in his home in Kent, England, in 1924.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Critics generally divide Conrad's literary career into two periods: works written before or during 1912 and those written after 1912. Works of the first period include Conrad's widely acclaimed stories of the sea, most prominently “Youth,” “Typhoon,” “The End of the Tether,” “The Secret Sharer,” as well as the novella Heart of Darkness. Stories of the second period are less highly regarded and are typified by such romantic melodramas as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” “The Tale,” and “The Warrior's Soul.” Typical of the early works, Heart of Darkness is based in part on Conrad's personal experiences. The novella tells the story of Marlow—who also appears in Lord Jim (1900) and “Youth”—and his journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to meeting Kurtz, Marlow admires the trader and is excited at the prospect of their encounter. When Marlow finally meets him, he is repulsed by Kurtz's barbarism, subjugation of African peoples, and thirst for power. Upon Kurtz's death, Marlow realizes that the heart of darkness—the human potential for evil and savagery—lies within him as well.
Whereas in Heart of Darkness Conrad focused on Marlow's intensified awareness of evil in human nature through his identification with Kurtz, Conrad used the idea of a “double” in “The Secret Sharer” to portray the protagonist's growth toward self-knowledge. “The Secret Sharer” is the account of a young captain who harbors a criminal on his ship while at sea. The captain aids in the escape of Leggatt, a man wanted for murder, because he believes him to be his ideal self, his “secret sharer of life.” Some critics have contended, however, that Leggatt is far from any human ideal. Instead, they argue, he displays cowardice, murderous instincts, and irrationality and represents the evil in the captain and in humankind. Conrad's ambiguous portrayal of characters has inspired extensive critical debate and stems from his goal as a writer to present the complexities of events and individuals without pretense of explanation.
While popular with readers of the time, Conrad's works written after 1912—including the novels Chance (1913), Victory (1915), and The Shadow-Line (1917) and the short story collections Tales of Hearsay (1925) and The Sisters (1928)—are considered inferior to his earlier writings. In such stories as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” and “The Warrior's Soul,” Conrad abandoned complex narratives and characterizations and focused instead on romance, violence, and sentiment. “The Planter of Malata,” for example, tells the story of Geoffrey Renouard, a young man in love with Felicia Moorsam, who is engaged to another man. Wanting to keep Felicia close to him, Geoffrey deceives her into sailing away to the remote island of Malata. When Felicia learns of Geoffrey's duplicity, she scorns him, and a brokenhearted Geoffrey kills himself.
Most critics affirm that the superiority of Conrad's earlier stories can be attributed to their basis in his own life, particularly his experiences at sea and his private struggle with questions of morality, loyalty, and human fallibility. Some have commented that toward the end of his career, Conrad was more concerned with selling books than in creating works of literature. Moreover, critics contend that in his later works, Conrad's examination of the ambiguity of good and evil is generally considered too stylized and heavy-handed. His most highly regarded works, however, are acknowledged as masterpieces of English literature and continue to generate significant critical commentary. Critics regard him as a profound influence on several prominent twentieth-century writers, and many of his works have been adapted for the theater and film.