Joseph Conrad Biography

Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857 to Apollo Korzeniowski and Ewa (nee Bobrowska) in Berdyczow, located in a Ukranian province of Poland. Conrad’s early childhood is described as being rather harsh. When he was only three, his father was imprisoned in Warsaw for his supposed revolutionary political affiliations (Knowles 4-5). In addition, at the tender age of eight, Conrad experienced the loss of his mother to tuberculosis. Furthermore, his father passed away when Conrad was only twelve, also a victim of tuberculosis (Joseph Conrad). The apparent symbolism linked between Conrad’s childhood as an orphan and his later fiction is illustrated when he describes life as being a solitary ordeal and compares it to a nightmare (Knowles 6).

Since his father was a language translator, Conrad was exposed to literature from several nations while his guardian was still alive, including English, the literature of exploration, French, Spanish, and American. Consequently, I can begin to see that although Conrad’s early years were difficult, he still managed to get introduced to a rich literary atmosphere.

As an orphan at the age of twelve, Conrad was placed under the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, who introduced a new approach to life to the young boy. Instead of the revolutionary beliefs that Conrad was accustomed to from his father, he was instead implanted with ideas of conservatism, or strict social discipline. The aforementioned contrasting ways of life which Conrad experienced as a youngster contributed to his "awareness of himself as homo duplex, suspended between revolutionary and conservative, chivalric and egalitarian, romantic and pragmatic traditions". However, one important decision that Conrad made under the tutelage of his uncle which contrasted with the beliefs of his family was the fact that from the age of fourteen, he "always disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies, and festivals" (Knowles 6-7).

On September 26, 1874, Conrad left Poland for Marseilles to become a seaman (Najder xix). In the subsequent years ahead, it was reported from Conrad’s uncle that the youth attempted suicide after setbacks with his status as a seaman among the French, and losing his money in a failed smuggling expedition, along with foolish gambling (Knowles 8).

In 1878, Conrad yet again underwent a drastic change in his life when he made his first contact with the British Merchant Service (Knowles 8). On July 11, he joined his first British ship, the Skimmer of the Sea (Najder xix). Sea-life with the British Merchant Service reminded Conrad of home, since many of his fellow sailors had a strong foundation in values such as fidelity and solidarity, strict class divisions were an integral part of the environment, and a system of established traditions was introduced (Knowles 8). In August of 1886 he became a British subject, and later in the year, passed his examination for Ordinary Master of the British merchant marine (Najder xix).

Joseph Conrad’s visit to the Belgian Congo from 1890-1894 had both positive and negative effects on his life. The positive aspect of the voyage was the fact that he was able to write a famous novel filled with chilling commentary about his daily experiences among the natives of the Congo. On the other hand, while in the Congo he underwent a physical and mental breakdown that would effect his health for the rest of his life. When Conrad returned from the Congo to resettle in London, his mind and thoughts were fragmented, and he went into exile for several reasons, including political, aesthetic, and personal (Karl 308). Thus, Conrad ended a sea career that spanned twenty years, from which he was able to achieve success in imaginative fiction writing (Knowles 8-9).

Conrad’s literary career can be divided into three major periods. The first phase of his career was concerned with getting accustomed to a literary culture that was still strange to him. However, Conrad was mature beyond his years and a great writer as well, so it came as no surprise that he received favorable reviews for his first two novels, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. In these works, Conrad’s use of settings in the Far East established his reputation for exotic fiction, which paralleled the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling (Knowles 11).

The major phase of Conrad’s career began in 1897 with his novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus. This story is full of detail and it represents his "in between" position as a writer. It is the introduction to the prime of his career, in which he is relating his blend of styles, which include "cultivated Englishness" and underlying French literary techniques, to an English audience. During the years from 1898 to 1902, Conrad became a family man with the birth of his son, but this time period is also arguably the most prolific part of his career. During this time, he continued his struggle to negotiate with his English cultural identity and audience with novels such as Youth, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness. In each novel, Conrad used the character Marlow to find an English identity and voice among other things (Knowles 11-13).

Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s most famous novel, based primarily on his experiences in the Congo. It is a deeply symbolic text that is full of paradoxes. Conrad’s aim in his novel was to make a symbolic use of colors. Throughout the text, he makes constant references of white and black, of light and dark. He confuses the two by giving them different characteristics than we would usually associate with the terms. Not only does the title make a reference to the dark and gloomy way of life in the heart of Africa, it also signifies the corruption of Kurtz (an important character) and touches upon many other examples of moral and physical darkness (Watts 47).

Most apparent is the connection that Conrad made with characters and events in the novel with the situation he experienced in 1890. As with many of his novels the idea of imperialism, the conquest of the earth by various means, is brought to the forefront (Hay 83). Heart of Darkness is, among other things, a commentary touching upon the harsh reality of imperialist control. Throughout the novel, Conrad records his experiences by using characters like Kurtz and Marlow to paint a clear picture for the reader what life was really like for inhabitants under the cruel regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Conrad essentially speaks through the voice of Marlow, a British gentleman, who tells a story to other British gentlemen. Marlow provides a rather cloudy account to his fellow countrymen, but in fact it seems like Conrad does this on purpose to add to the mystery and darkness of the place (Watts 45-48). As stated in the Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness by Ian Watt, "Mist or haze is a very persistent image in Conrad" (312). The reality of the text is open for interpretation. It allows the reader to derive meaning from the myriad of symbols.

The character Kurtz is a prime example of the corruption that ran rampant through the Congo while under the control of King Leopold II. Conrad was inspired by the author Max Nordau, who wrote Degeneration, to employ a character like Kurtz because he exemplifies Nordau’s "highly gifted degenerate, the charismatic yet depraved genius" that was corrupting civilization at that time (Watts 46).

Another well known novel of Conrad’s is Lord Jim. In writing this story, his purpose was to write a Bildungsroman, in which he traces the maturation process of a young man as he encounters numerous obstacles on his way to becoming an adult. According to Stape in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Jerome Hamilton Buckley asserted that the Bildungsroman form is concerned with presenting a protagonist who progresses through complex social relationships, and therefore, is able to construct a working set of beliefs that enables him to find his place in the larger society (63).

However, as only Conrad can, he manages to alter the traditional style of the Bildungsroman form. As with Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim offers the reader a glimpse of the tragic faults of mankind when he includes bloodthirsty pirates as essential characters in the plot. Also, the novel encompasses a heavy usage of symbols, which again, are hard to decipher the meaning of. Instead of adhering to the fundamentally realist principles of the Bildungsroman form, Conrad uses various narrative strategies. Also, in comparison with the earlier phase of his career when Conrad’s adoption of exotic themes in his fiction associated him with Robert Louis Stevenson, Lord Jim has a tropical setting as well (Stape 64).

Lord Jim is a byproduct of Conrad’s various literary and cultural traditions. Among other things, his wide-ranging readings in the classics and in French, English, and Polish literature combined with his real life experiences at sea and in the Far East contribute to the rich depth of sources that he drew from to produce a work such as Lord Jim (64).

In 1904, Nostromo was published. It was an imaginative novel, which like his other two novels I discussed, explores man’s vulnerability and corruptibility. Conrad seemed to base this novel on his own personal experiences in the Caribbean ports and Venezuela when he was a teenager. This novel also seems to be about imperialist aims, as Conrad employs one of his most suggestive symbols, the silver mine (Hay 82-83). "In the story, the Italian Nostromo (‘our man’) is destroyed for his appetite for adventure and glory, but with his death the secret of the silver is lost forever" (Joseph Conrad).

Conrad was not financially secure until 1913 with the publication of Change. The last years of his life were painful in that he suffered from rheumatism. Similar to when he was offered honorary degrees from five universities, he refused an offer of knighthood in 1924. Conrad died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924 and was buried in Canterbury (Joseph Conrad).

In conclusion, Joseph Conrad’s literature was consistent with his gloomy nature, which was predominantly a result of his early experiences as a child and his own disordered young manhood. Basically all of his novels were filled with dark irony, so even if they ended well, Conrad’s method of storytelling made the tale seem disturbing. "In Conrad, no one can escape his fate and the evil that is inevitably part of it" (Sullivan).

Conrad’s odd way of using oblique symbolism was both his greatest strength and weakness. In Heart of Darkness, it worked to his advantage because Marlow’s storytelling does not blatantly inform the audience about the atrocities in the Congo. Maybe if Conrad would have come forth with the absolute truth about the brutal regime of King Leopold II in the Congo through his character Marlow, he might have been less believable. After all, if he would have told the truth, who would actually believe the breadth of horror that took place without thinking that Conrad was exaggerating to some extent? On the other hand, Conrad’s fixation on proving the ironic nature of all human experience, and as a result, manipulating characters to bring stories to unhappy conclusions might have damaged stories such as The Planter of Malata and Freya of the Seven Isles: A Tale of Shallow Waters (Sullivan). Despite the fact that he was an orphan at a young age, he still was able to become a prolific writer and a good seaman as well.


Works Cited

Hay, Eloise Knapp. "Nostromo." The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J.H.

Stape. Cambridge University Press, 1996: 81-99.

Joseph Conrad. 2000. 6 Nov. 2003.

Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

Knowles, Owen. "Conrad’s Life." The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J.H.

Stape. Cambridge University Press, 1996: 1-24.

Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad, A Chronicle. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Stape, J.H. "Lord Jim." The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J.H. Stape. Cambridge University Press, 1996: 63-80.

Sullivan, Walter. "Another View of Conrad: The Stories and Tales." Sewanee Review (1994): 171-77.

Watt, Ian. "Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness." Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988: 311-336.

Watts, Cedric. "Heart of Darkness." The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J.H. Stape. Cambridge University Press, 1996: 45-62.