Joseph Conrad Biography

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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3337

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.

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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, nevertheless, a series of painful and frustrating tests in survival for Conrad and his family, as he chartered an original course through the artistic realm of exile and cunning.

Perhaps another testament to, if not Conrad’s genius, his dedication to his newly chosen writing career is that he began composing An Outcast of the Islands (1896), his second novel, even before Almayer’s Folly had been accepted for publication. Yet the financial returns to Conrad for both novels would be disappointingly slight, and it was not until 1897, with the publication of The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” that he began receiving significant critical acclaim, and instead of being compared by reviewers to Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, as he had been by reviewers of his first two novels, he was now being favorably compared to Stephen Crane. Nevertheless, even though he was exhibiting an impressive prolificacy, Conrad—now married and his wife, Jesse, pregnant with their first child—was still barely able to survive financially. Thus he began writing short stories for magazines, since the financial returns for his stories could be realized much faster than those for his novels, and as it turned out the payments he received for his short stories proved to be essential to the family’s support for the twenty years that Conrad struggled to become a “popular” writer while remaining loyal to his aesthetic ideals. Between 1896 and 1917, for example, he wrote and saw published twenty-nine short stories; noteworthy, also, is that during this same period he wrote eleven novels, two book-length reminiscences, and a one-act play.

Especially painful and frustrating to Conrad was that, even though he received high praise for his fiction (from such writers as Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, W. H. Hudson, Edward Garnett, Ford Madox Ford, André Gide, and Henry James), and even though his fiction was being translated from English into French and being published in both Great Britain and the United States, public recognition—and the income therefrom—eluded Conrad for the first twenty years of his writing career. It was not until the publication of Chance, in 1913, that the tide began to turn in his favor, as this novel brought him both popularity and financial comfort in the last decade of his life. Ironically, by the time he became a “popular” writer, he had already written his greatest fiction, and his final decade represents a marked and progressive waning of his artistic powers. Nevertheless, from 1914 onward, Conrad’s fame spread with increasing rapidity: Frank N. Doubleday undertook to publish the writer’s collected works in America, H. L. Mencken proclaimed him one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, at the height of his fame in 1923 he visited the United States by invitation, and collectors were paying more for his manuscripts than had been paid for any manuscripts ever. Then, in 1924, in his sixty-seventh year, he died suddenly at his home in Oswalds, England, a short distance from Canterbury, where he is buried.

The record of Conrad’s last thirty years, during which he and his family were plagued by both financial and seemingly endless health problems as he struggled for public recognition, is therefore essentially a record of the titles and dates of his books. After Almayer’s Folly, The Outcast of the Islands, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus” were published, between 1895 and 1897, his first book of short stories, Tales of Unrest, appeared in 1898, followed by the publication of Lord Jim in 1900. He collaborated with Ford on three novels: The first two, The Inheritors and Romance, were published in 1901 and 1903, respectively; the third, The Nature of a Crime, would not be published until 1924. Meanwhile, Typhoon and Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories were published in 1902; Typhoon, and Other Stories, in 1903; Nostromo (which Conrad considered his best novel), in 1904; and The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions, in 1906. While many critics agree with Conrad’s assessment of Nostromo, it is generally regarded as only one of his five best, the other four being The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1910), Chance, and Victory (1915). During the periods between these novels, Conrad also produced A Set of Six (1908), A Personal Record (serial 1908-1909, book 1912), and ’Twixt Land and Sea: Tales (1912), and published his 1905 play, One Day More: A Play in One Act (1913). Thereafter, he wrote another collection of short stories, Within the Tides (1915), The Shadow-Line: A Confession (1917), The Arrow of Gold (1919), The Rescue (1920), Notes on Life and Letters (1921), The Secret Agent, Drama in Four Acts (1921), The Rover (1923), and Laughing Anne: A Play (1923). At the time of his death, he was engaged in writing his final book, Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel, which was published in its unfinished form in 1925. Also published after his death were Tales of Hearsay (1925), Last Essays (1926), and The Sisters (1928).

Summary

Early in his writing career, Conrad was a devotee of some of the formalist ideas of the French Symbolists, as well as of Gustave Flaubert (he told one friend, for example, that it was Madame Bovary that had prompted him to begin writing fiction; in fact, he began writing Almayer’s Folly on the flyleaves and inside the front and back covers of his copy of Flaubert’s novel). Certainly in Conrad’s early fiction (such as Almayer’s Folly, The Outcast of the Islands, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus”), the reader can sense his striving after symbolic sensory expression, tone, and color. Yet as a prose stylist, Conrad was to go beyond his early influences by creating his own impressionistic fictional method, an essential characteristic of which is the communication of synesthesiacal sensations. “My task,” he said, “is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” His artistic aim was, then, to “reach the spring of responsive emotions” in his readers through sensory appeal.

At least one critic has suggested that it was probably from studying the work of Flaubert that Conrad learned that action in fiction should be rendered in terms of situation and scene, instead of being expressed from the author’s point of view. Yet, in this regard too, Conrad moved well beyond derivation and mastered such a rendering of action through his characteristic use of the voice and felt presence of a narrator—one often the agent, sometimes the victim, or sometimes the humanly fallible judge of a given drama. In such early stories as “Karain,” “The Idiots,” “The Lagoon,” “Youth,” Heart of Darkness (1902), and “Falk,” Conrad uses the first-person narrative strategy; there is the definite presence of an “I” in The Nigger of the “Narcissus”; Marlow narrates Lord Jim (just as he does “Youth” and Heart of Darkness); “Amy Foster” is told to the reader by Doctor Kennedy; both “Il Conde” and “The Secret Sharer” are told by their central characters; Under Western Eyes is told by a professor of languages who translates the “text” from Russian and interprets it for the reader; the character of Davidson and his narrative contribution shade Victory; and the omniscient narrative voice of Nostromo frequently gives way to certain characters’ personal reflections. In short, while Conrad’s use of first-person narration serves to create a sense of immediacy in a given story’s action (because that same sense of immediacy has been injected into a given situation and scene), it also serves as one of the most salient features of Conrad’s unique kind of storytelling; that is, he repeatedly dramatizes the act of sympathetic identification with tormented, confused, and alienated individuals, most of whom seem acutely conscious of their personal limitations and losses.

It may seem paradoxical that Conrad—in whose fiction individuality, set against the homogeneity and complacency imposed upon humans by societies advocating behavioral relativism, is the sine qua non—would populate his fictional gallery with individuals who are outcasts because of various emotional, psychological, and/or moral flaws, and then invite his readers into the gallery and demand that they identify sympathetically with the denizens imprisoned there. Yet, one needs only to read The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” “The Secret Sharer,” Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, or Under Western Eyes to see that Conrad believed that the success of any political idea, any society, depends upon the individual—especially upon the one who is conscious of his will to power, control, and domination, yet cautious about succumbing to their allure. In a sense, then, Conrad demands that his readers participate in the struggles germane to individuality, and that they see each of his flawed characters as Marlow came to see Jim, in Lord Jim: as “one of us.”

Bibliography

Allen, Jerry. The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad. New York: Doubleday Publishing Co., 1965. Though weak in his interpretations and conclusions about Conrad’s fiction, Allen has done an admirable job investigating Conrad’s sea career. Compare this book to Norman Sherry’s, cited below.

Berman, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: Writing as Rescue. New York: Astra Books, 1977. An analysis of Conrad’s imagination insofar as it, Berman argues, derived from his attempt at suicide in Marseilles, France, in 1878. While narrower in its focus, this book owes a large debt to Bernard Meyer’s biography.

Fleishman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. This study attempts to place Conrad in the English tradition of Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. Compare Fleishman’s discussion to Irving Howe’s chapter on Conrad in his Politics and the Novel.

Gillon, Adam. Conrad and Shakespeare. New York: Astra Books, 1976. A somewhat illuminating study of Shakespearean influence and language apparent within Conrad’s stories, with an especially informative chapter, “Conrad and Poland.”

Gillon, Adam. The Eternal Solitary: A Study of Joseph Conrad. New York: Bookman, 1960. Also an excellent study of the theme of isolation in Conrad’s fiction.

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.

Howe, Irving. “Conrad: Order and Anarchy.” In Politics and the Novel. New York: Horizon Press, 1957.

Jean-Aubry, Gerard. Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters. New York: Doubleday Publishing Co., 1927. The first thorough, well-documented account of Conrad’s life.

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.

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.

Morf, Gustav. The Polish Heritage of Joseph Conrad. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, 1930. The forerunner in an area of Conrad scholarship that has become increasingly important to critical discussions of the writer’s life and work, this study attempts to delineate the extent to which Conrad’s fiction is tied to his Polish background. See also Morf’s The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad (New York: Astra Books, 1976).

Sherry, Norman. Conrad’s Eastern World. Cambridge, England: At the University Press, 1966. A good discussion of the influence Conrad’s sea career had on his fiction.

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