Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Major works:
The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)
Lord Jim (1900)
Heart of Darkness (1902)
"Typhoon" (1903)
Nostromo (1904)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Under Western Eyes (1911)
Chance (1913)
The Rover (1923)

Biographical notes

Conrad (Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) was born to Polish parents in the Ukraine.  His father's anti-Russian politics got the family exiled to Vologda in northern Russia, where Conrad's mother died when he was seven years old.  After they returned to Poland his father died, too, and Conrad was raised by an uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski.  At seventeen Conrad pursued his dreams of the sea by going to Marseilles and joining a French ship that was involved in clandestine gun-running for Spanish rebels.  Most of his twenty years at sea were spent in British merchant service, where Conrad gradually rose from common sailor to mate to "master mariner" (merchant ship's captain).  His maritime adventures provided much of the subject matter for his subsequent novels and short stories, and though he hated the label of "sea-story writer," Conrad's tales of the sea are still generally considered his best work.  Conrad became a British subject in 1886, and in poor health, he reluctantly retired from the sea in 1894 and lived in England, where he he married in 1896 and became a professional writer of fiction. 

His first novel, Almayer's Folly, was published when Conrad was thirty-eight, and the many works he published over the next twenty years had little popular success (A number of important contemporary novelists did admire him greatly, though.).  Chance, in 1913, was Conrad's first financial and popular success.  By the end of his life Conrad was established as one of the leading "Modernists," and by the 1940s he was considered one of the most important British writers of the twentieth century, a position he still enjoys today.

From Polish to French to English

"Gorgeous word-painting" is how one critic describes Conrad's early prose, referring to such passages as his evocation of exotic eastern islands: "clothed in their dark garments of leaves, in a great hush of silver and azure, where the sea without murmur meets the sky in a ring of magic stillness."  It is a minor wonder that Conrad came to be so admired for his style and powerful command of English, his third language.  His father was a student of English literature, and as a boy Conrad read Shakespeare and Dickens in translation, but he did not learn English until joining the British merchant marine in his late teens.  Conrad was proud of his Polish heritage, but even late in life French was the language he was most comfortable with.  It is amazing to realize that Conrad composed his fiction by thinking in Polish, translating his thoughts into French, and then recording them on paper in English.

Narrative technique

In many of his tales of the sea, Conrad's characteristic method is to present the action through a filtering narrator Marlow, who is at times a central actor in the events he describes—typically, though, Marlow is only peripherally involved in the stories he relates.  Conrad's use of Marlow to narrate his stories is significant for a number of reasons, not least among them is that the author appears more aloof, more removed from the events he describes than was typical of most Victorian novelists.  The closer Conrad was personally to what he was writing about, the more he struggled in the writing—the distance and aloofness Marlow provided were essential to Conrad's greatest successes in fiction.

Conrad's method also brings the reader closer to the characters and events Marlow describes by doing away with the omniscient "authorial" narrator, who has been called the defining characteristic of the Victorian novel—think Dickens, e.g.  Marlow's stories have a greater immediacy as Marlow ostensibly pieces together his stories from a mixture of his own observation and scraps of hearsay in the vein of the typical "seaman's yarn."

"In vogue"

Books of fiction and non-fiction on the exotic and faraway lands that Conrad often writes of were very popular around the turn of the twentieth century, a time when England's imperial possessions and interests were at their highest point.  The Brits at home were fascinated with tales and news of the far off places where so many of their sons and neighbors worked and lived.

Man vs. Nature; Civilized vs. Primitive—or, "Man alone"

One recurring conflict in Conrad's fiction centers on the civilized European man (not woman) in the most trying and primitive environments—he explores the reactions of his characters to completely alien and extreme circumstances (typhoons and other powerful storms at sea, the African jungle, etc.).  Conrad seemed interested in showing how great pressure and an alien environment bring out both the best and worst in human nature: "Puny and courageous man struggles with natural forces but also with forces inside his own nature.  Conrad's interest is not in the typical human being but in the exceptional, whether in moral heroism or moral degradation" (Chew and Altick).

bulletConrad's fiction consistently places characters in situations of solitude and painful alienation, living in moral isolation from "the world" as outcasts, exiles, or "estranged souls."  The crux of most in his work forces his characters to arrive at honest self-discovery, or "truth."  Conrad characters reach their loneliness through a variety of causes—pride, scandal, betrayal, politics, naiveté, the folly of youth, "fate," and more—but more often than not, Conrad characters face their alienation, the "destructive element of reality," and learn to survive.  Typically, duty, love, or most of all a sense of personal honor frees the Conrad character from isolation, and despite the apparent pessimism that places the hero alone and at odds with a hostile world, Conrad is often seen as an idealist and a romantic.  

Modern concerns: symbolism and psychology

bulletAlong with his contemporary, Henry James, and following in the vein we recently explored in Crime and Punishment, Conrad signaled movement in English fiction away from primary interest with external incident and character, into deeper concern with the individual's subjective shaping and interpretation of reality.  Conrad, James, and the bulk of twentieth-century literature become increasingly less dependent on  action-oriented plots in their primary interest for the reader.  Whereas dramatic action formerly involved the reader's interest in questions such as, "How will Kit get out of being accused of theft, and will Nell get better?" now the interest becomes more a matter of psychology, and the reader of Conrad's Lord Jim might ask, "How does the hero come to terms with his past?  How will he deal with the cowardly youthful act of betrayal that continues to haunt him?"  Modern literature follows the development of what Robert Browning called "action in character," as opposed to "character in action."  Increasingly, literature of the twentieth century moves inside the mind and explores the psychology of the individual.

bulletConrad admitted that there were intentional overtones of symbolism in many of his works—symbolism, also as we've seen recently in Crime and Punishment, is another of the defining characteristics of much literature in the twentieth century.  The major symbolism in Heart of Darkness is fairly evident: more on specific symbolism in class. . . .