illustrated portrait of Polish-British author Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

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Joseph Conrad is best known for his powerful and psychologically penetrating novels, which, like his shorter fiction, are often set in exotic locales, frequently the Far East, at sea, or a combination of the two, as with his most famous work Lord Jim: A Tale (1900). Even when using a more conventional setting, such as London in The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907), or Geneva, Switzerland, in Under Western Eyes (1911), Conrad maintains a sense of otherness because his characters live in a moral shadow world of revolutionaries and adventures.

In addition to three plays based on his stories, Conrad produced three volumes of autobiographical writings, which, however, often conceal more than they explain about his varied and often dramatic personal life. Following his death, several edited collections of Conrad’s correspondence were published, and these letters offer some insight into his fiction.


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Joseph Conrad is one of the outstanding writers in English literature and, because of his background and achievements, occupies a unique position. To a great degree, Conrad was the creator of the psychological story and modern spy novel. Because of his genius and insight, Conrad transformed the typical setting of the adventure romance—the mysterious Far East, the shadowy underworld of the secret agent—into an acceptable setting for the serious writer and greatly expanded the range of English literature.

Conrad avoided direct narrative, presenting his plots as a tale told by someone who either recounted the events from memory or passed along a story heard from someone else. The narrator in a Conrad story also gives events obliquely, partially revealing them, speculating on their cause and possible meaning, and then adding new and often essential information, so that the reader must participate in interpreting the unfolding story.

Conrad used this method because he felt that it accurately reflected the manner in which people understand actions in real life but also employed it because of his characters, who cannot be understood quickly, for they are not simple persons. Complicated and often contradictory figures, their actions, like their personalities, must be apprehended gradually and from different angles.

A writer who did not learn English until his twenties, Conrad brought a sense of newness and scrupulous care to the language. He uses an extensive vocabulary, particularly in his descriptive passages of settings, internal as well as external. His style produces in the reader the moral and psychological equivalent to the emotions and inner struggles felt by the characters.

These qualities of plot, character, and style were recognized by the noted American critic H. L. Mencken when he wrote about Conrad that “[t]here was something almost suggesting the vastness of a natural phenomenon. He transcended all the rules.”

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Joseph Conrad’s many short stories were published in seven collected editions. The majority of the stories appeared earlier in magazine form, especially in Blackwood’s Magazine, a periodical that Conrad referred to as “Maga.” Of the short stories, three—“Youth,” “The Secret Sharer,” and “An Outpost of Progress”—have been widely anthologized and are generally recognized as classics of the genre. Two memoirs of Conrad’s years at sea, The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and Some Reminiscences (1912), which is also known as A Personal Record, are prime sources of background information on Conrad’s sea tales. Conrad wrote three plays: The Secret Agent (pb. 1921), a four-act adaptation of his novel that enjoyed a brief success on the London stage; and two short plays, Laughing Anne (pb. 1923) and One Day More (pr. 1905), which had no success. His oeuvre is rounded out by two books of essays on widely ranging topics, Notes on...

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Life and Letters (1921) and Last Essays (1926); a travel book, Joseph Conrad’s Diary of His Journey Up the Valley of the Congo in 1890 (1926); and the aborted novel The Sisters, left incomplete at his death in 1924 but published in fragment form in 1928.


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In the late twentieth century, Joseph Conrad enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in readership and in critical attention. Readers and critics alike have come to recognize that although one of Conrad’s last novels, The Rover, was published in the early 1920’s, he is the most modern of writers in both theme and technique.

Conrad is, in fact, the architect of the modern psychological novel, with its emphasis on character and character analysis. For Conrad, people in plot situations, rather than plot situations themselves, are the primary concern. Indeed, Conrad once professed that he was incapable of creating “an effective lie,” meaning a plot “that would sell and be admirable.” This is something of an exaggeration, but the fact remains that Conrad’s novels center on the solitary hero who, either by chance or by choice, is somehow alienated and set apart from his fellow human beings. This theme of isolation and alienation dominates Conrad’s novels and spans his work from the early sea tales to the political novels to what Conrad called his “romances.”

Conrad’s “loners” are manifest everywhere in his work—Jim in Lord Jim, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Razumov in Under Western Eyes. This emphasis on the alienated and isolated figure had a considerable impact on the direction of the novel in the twentieth century, and Conrad’s influence may be discerned in such disparate writers as Stephen Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot.

Conrad made another contribution in shaping the modern novel: He was the forerunner (although not the originator) of two techniques that have found much favor and wide employment in the novel. Conrad was among the first of the modern novelists to employ multiple narrators, or shifting points of view, as he does in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. This technique enabled Conrad to make the probing analyses of characters and their motivations that are the hallmarks both of his work and of the work of so many others to follow. The reader sees both Kurtz and Jim, for example, through several pairs of eyes, some sympathetic, some not, before both tales are turned over to Charlie Marlow, who does his best to sort out the conflicting testimonies and to give the reader objective and rounded views of both men.

The extensive use of the flashback in the modern novel and, indeed, in film, is another technique that Conrad pioneered. In Conrad’s case, as is the case with all writers who employ the technique, the flashback creates suspense, but it also serves another and more important function in his work, enabling him to examine more thoroughly the minds and the motivations of his characters. Having presented the crisis or the moment of action or the point of decision, Conrad then goes back in time, in an almost leisurely fashion, and retraces step-by-step the psychological pattern that led to the crisis, to the action, or to the decision.

Finally, Conrad finds a place and a role among the moderns in still another way: He is one of the great Symbolists in English literature. Conrad’s use of thoroughly unconventional symbols, related in some way to the metaphysical metaphors to be found in much modern poetry, has had an inestimable influence on the modern novel.

Discussion Topics

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Consider Lord Jim as an example of Joseph Conrad’s ability to combine exciting external action and psychological intensity.

Conrad used Marlow in several works as a narrator or viewpoint character. Does the reader learn the essential truth from Marlow, or is this character just one of the revealing sources?

In Heart of Darkness, what are the ingredients of the darkness?

Is it possible to establish the true self of the captain in “The Secret Sharer”? Explain your position.

What resources was Conrad able to bring to the creation of what is often called the “spy novel”?

It is very difficult to understand how Conrad wrote compellingly in a language which he never managed to speak very well. How did his early life and young adulthood prepare him to be a writer?


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Billy, Ted. A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad’s Short Fiction. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997. In this study of Conrad’s linguistic skepticism, Billy emphasizes endings in Conrad’s short fiction and how they either harmonize or clash with other narrative elements in nineteen of Conrad’s short novels and tales. Argues that Conrad presents knowledge of the world as fundamentally illusory.

Bohlmann, Otto. Conrad’s Existentialism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Bohlmann interprets six of Conrad’s major works in the light of the philosophical musings of theoreticians such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and practitioners such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Davis, Laura L., ed. Conrad’s Century: The Past and Future Splendour. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Examines Conrad and his times. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

DeKoven, Marianne. “Conrad’s Unrest.” Journal of Modern Literature 21 (Winter, 1997/1998): 241-249. Argues that in Conrad’s Tales of Unrest the concept of unrest is linked to modes of spirituality at odds with Western reason. Claims that the Enlightenment rationalism that freed the West from superstition did so by repressing spiritual and psychic forces; contends that the force of unrest in Conrad’s stories is the force of modernism.

Gibson, Andrew, and Robert Hampson, eds. Conrad and Theory. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. Essays include “Conrad and the Politics of the Sublime,” “The Dialogue of Lord Jim,” and “Conrad, Theory and Value.”

Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A solid introduction to Conrad’s life and art, written by a native Pole. Provides relatively brief but insightful analysis of the more significant shorter works.

Gordon, John Dozier. Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940. The discussion of Conrad’s early novels is excellent, in this classic of Conrad scholarship. Serious Conrad scholarship began with this work, which was especially important in the revival of interest in Conrad’s work in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Graver, Lawrence. Conrad’s Short Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. This study of Conrad’s stories is grouped chronologically and displays the linkages between the shorter fictions and individual stories, and between them as a group and the novels. Since it covers the lesser-known stories as well as the more famous ones, it is essential for placing Conrad’s development of themes and styles within a larger artistic context.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. New York: Continuum, 2007. Although Conrad’s works are usually thought to be lacking in sexuality, this book opens his writing up to new interpretations by citing passages from Conrad’s texts that support erotic interpretations.

Johnson, A. James M. “Victorian Anthropology, Racism, and Heart of Darkness.” Ariel 28 (October, 1997): 111-131. Argues that Conrad uncritically accepted racist assumptions of Victorian anthropology in Heart of Darkness.

Jordan, Elaine, ed. Joseph Conrad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An excellent introductory study of Conrad and his works.

Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. This book is, and will remain, the definitive Conrad biography, elucidating as it does Conrad’s life in Poland, on the seas, and in England. The well-documented study is also replete with generously thorough analyses of Conrad’s major works, as well as of his artistic development and political orientation. Karl tends at times to be stiltedly (and quite needlessly) insistent upon where and how his views differ from those of other interpreters of Conrad’s life and work, especially with regard to Gerard Jean-Aubry’s biography.

Karl, Frederick Robert. A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. Rev. ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997. A good handbook for students. Provides bibliographical references and an index.

Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘Infinities of Absolution’: Reason, Rumor, and Duty in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Tale.’” Modern Fiction Studies 44 (Fall, 1998): 715-729. Argues that because the narrator is lost in the wild illogic of rumor he commits a reprehensible act he believes to be demanded by duty.

Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus, 1948. Leavis, one of the most distinguished of modern English literary critics, places Conrad within the scope of the English literary world, showing how he drew from, and added to, that heritage. An invaluable study for those trying to understand what Conrad might have been attempting in his writing and how he could have perceived his place within a wider literary context.

Lewis, Pericles. “‘His Sympathies Were in the Right Place’: Heart of Darkness and the Discourse of National Character.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 53 (September, 1998): 211-244. Shows how Conrad contributed to modernist literary technique by structuring conflict between the “ethical” and the “sociological” in Marlow’s decision to align himself with Kurtz over the Company.

Lothe, Jakob, Jeremy Hawthorn, and James Phelan. Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre. Columbus: Ohio State, 2008. This collection of commentaries about Conrad’s narrative techniques covers a range of his works and presents several critical perspectives. Includes an introduction that discusses these essays as well as earlier criticism about Conrad’s writing.

Meyer, Bernard. Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. An important and indispensable reading of Conrad’s life and work, giving special attention to the writer’s mother worship, illnesses, and fetishes.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Bibliography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A briskly moving, no-nonsense biography that surveys the key points and themes of the major works. Very good at placing Conrad within the social and intellectual milieu of his day and offering good insights from other literary figures, such as Ford Madox Ford, who significantly influenced Conrad’s literary career.

Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Translated by Halina Carroll-Najder. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Revised edition, 2007. A thorough and sympathetic biography of Conrad written by a countryman. The volume stresses the influence of Conrad’s Polish heritage on his personality and art. Najder draws many telling and intriguing parallels between Conrad’s life and his writing.

Orr, Leonard, and Ted Billy, eds. A Joseph Conrad Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A good manual, complete with bibliographical references and an index.

Peters, John G. Conrad and Impressionism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. An important critical examination of the novelist’s literary impressionism. Includes a valuable bibliography.

Stape, J. H. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. In this collection of essays on most of Conrad’s major work by different critics, the most helpful for a study of his short fiction are the essays “Conradian Narrative” by Jakob Lothe, which surveys Conrad’s narrative techniques and conventions, and “The Short Fiction” by Gail Fraser, which discusses Conrad’s experimentation with short narrative.

Swisher, Clarice, ed. Readings on Joseph Conrad. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Contains essays by J. B. Priestley, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Adams about many of Conrad’s works.

Tennant, Roger. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Atheneum, 1981. Not a scholarly work, but a readable study that concentrates on Conrad’s sea years and his later struggles with ill health and financial difficulties. Its main weakness is a lack of emphasis on Conrad’s early and formative years in Poland, but, when used with Zdzislaw Najder’s work (above), it can be helpful.

Peters, John G. Conrad and Impressionism. Cambridge University Press, 2001. An important critical examination of the novelist’s literary impressionism. Includes a valuable bibliography.


Critical Essays