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Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) was a Polishmarker-born Britishmarker novelist, who became a British subject in 1886.

He is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in English though he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties (and then always with a marked Polish accent). He wrote stories and novels, predominantly with a nautical or seaboard setting, that depict trials of the human spirit by the demands of duty and honor.

Conrad was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature. While some of his works have a strain of romanticism, he is viewed as a precursor of modernist literature; his narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many subsequent authors. Films have been adapted from or inspired by Conrad's Victory, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, An Outcast of the Islands, The Duel, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo.

Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew upon his experiences in the French and later the British Merchant Navy to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a worldwide empire while also plumbing the depths of the human soul.

Early life

Joseph Conrad was born in Berdyczów (now Berdychivmarker, Ukrainemarker) into an impoverished, highly patriotic Polish noble family bearing the Nałęcz coat-of-arms. His father Apollo Korzeniowski was a writer of politically-themed plays and a translator of Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from the French and English. He encouraged his son Konrad to read widely in Polish and French.

In 1861 the elder Korzeniowski was arrested by Imperial Russianmarker authorities in Warsawmarker for helping organize what would become the January Uprising of 1863–64, and was exiled to Vologdamarker, a city with a very harsh climate, some north of Moscow.

His wife Ewelina Korzeniowska (née Bobrowska) and four-year-old son followed him into exile. Due to Ewelina's weak health, Apollo was allowed in 1865 to move to Chernihivmarker, Ukraine, where wıthin a few weeks Ewelina died of tuberculosis. Apollo died four years later in Krakówmarker, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven.

In Kraków, young Conrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski—a more cautious figure than his parents. Nevertheless, Bobrowski allowed Conrad to travel at the age of 16 to Marseillemarker and begin a career as a seaman. This came after Conrad had been rejected for Austro-Hungarian citizenship, leaving him liable to conscription into the Russian Army.


Conrad lived an adventurous life, dabbling in gunrunning and political conspiracy, which he later fictionalized in his novel The Arrow of Gold. Apparently he experienced a disastrous love affair that plunged him into despair. A voyage down the coast of Venezuelamarker would provide material for Nostromo; the first mate of Conrad's vessel became the model for that novel's hero.

In 1878, after a failed suicide attempt in Marseillemarker by shooting himself in the chest, Conrad took service on his first British ship, bound for Constantinoplemarker before its return to Lowestoftmarker, his first landing in Britain.

Barely a month after reaching England, Conrad signed on for the first of six voyages between July and September 1878 from Lowestoft to Newcastle on a coaster misleadingly named Skimmer of the Sea. Crucially for his future career, he "began to learn English from East Coast chaps, each built to last for ever and coloured like a Christmas card."

In London on 21 September 1881 Conrad set sail for Newcastlemarker as second mate on the small vessel Palestine (13 hands) to pick up a cargo of 557 tons of "West Hartley" coal bound for Bangkok. From the outset, things went wrong. A gale hampered progress (sixteen days to the Tyne), then the Palestine had to wait a month for a berth and was finally rammed by a steam vessel.

At the turn of the year, Palestine sailed from the Tyne. The ship sprang a leak in the English Channelmarker and was stuck in Falmouth, Cornwallmarker, for a further nine months. After all these misfortunes, Conrad wrote, "Poor old Captain Beard looked like a ghost of a Geordie skipper." The ship set sail from Falmouth on 17 September 1882 and reached the Sunda Straitmarker in March 1883. Finally, off Java Head, the cargo ignited and fire engulfed the ship. The crew, including Conrad, reached shore safely in open boats. The ship is re-named Judaea in Conrad's famous story Youth, which covers all these events. This voyage from the Tyne was Conrad's first fateful contact with the exotic East, the setting for many of his later works.

In 1886 he gained both his Master Mariner's certificate and British citizenship, officially changing his name to "Joseph Conrad." Prior to his retirement from the sea in 1894, Conrad served a total of sixteen years in the merchant navy. In 1883 he joined the Narcissus in Bombaymarker, a voyage that inspired his 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus.

A childhood ambition to visit central Africa was realised in 1889, when Conrad contrived to reach the Congo Free Statemarker. He became captain of a Congo steamboat, and the atrocities he witnessed and his experiences there not only informed his most acclaimed and ambiguous work, Heart of Darkness, but served to crystallise his vision of human nature — and his beliefs about himself. These were in some measure affected by the emotional trauma and lifelong illness he contracted there. During his stay, he became acquainted with Roger Casement, whose 1904 Congo Report detailed the abuses suffered by the indigenous population.
Conrad, 1904
The journey upriver that the book's narrator, Charles Marlow, made closely follows Conrad's own, and he appears to have experienced a disturbing insight into the nature of evil. Conrad's experience of loneliness at sea, of corruption and of the pitilessness of nature converged to form a coherent, if bleak, vision of the world. Isolation, self-deception, and the remorseless working out of the consequences of character flaws are threads running through much of his work. Conrad's own sense of loneliness throughout his exile's life would find memorable expression in the 1901 short story, "Amy Foster."

In 1891, Conrad stepped down in rank to sail as first mate on the Torrens, quite possibly the finest ship ever launched from a Sunderlandmarker yard (James Laing's Deptford Yard, 1875). For fifteen years (1875–90), no ship approached her speed for the outward passage to Australia. On her record-breaking run to Adelaide, she covered 16,000 miles in 64 days. Conrad writes of her:

"A ship of brilliant qualities - the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one's heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers."

Conrad made two voyages to Australia aboard her, but in 1894 he had parted from the sea for good and embarked upon his literary career—having begun writing his first novel Almayer's Folly on board the Torrens.

In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, and together they moved into a small semi-detached villa in Victoria Road, Stanford-le-Hopemarker and later to a medieval lath-and-plaster farmhouse, "Ivy Walls," in Billet Lane. He subsequently lived in London and near Canterburymarker, Kentmarker. The couple had two sons, John and Borys.

Emotional development

A further insight into Conrad's emotional life is provided by an episode which inspired one of his strangest and least known stories, "A Smile of Fortune." In September 1888 he put into Mauritiusmarker, as captain of the sailing barque Otago. His story likewise recounts the arrival of an unnamed English sea captain in a sailing vessel, come for sugar. He encounters "the old French families, descendants of the old colonists; all noble, all impoverished, and living a narrow domestic life in dull, dignified decay. (...) The girls are almost always pretty, ignorant of the world, kind and agreeable and generally bilingual. The emptiness of their existence passes belief."

The tale describes Jacobus, an affable gentleman chandler beset by hidden shame. Extramarital passion for the bareback rider of a visiting circus had resulted in a child and scandal. For eighteen years this daughter, Alice, has been confined to Jacobus's house, seeing no one but a governess. When Conrad's captain is invited to the house of Jacobus, he is irresistibly drawn to the wild, beautiful Alice. "For quite a time she did not stir, staring straight before her as if watching the vision of some pageant passing through the garden in the deep, rich glow of light and the splendour of flowers."

The suffering of Alice Jacobus was true enough. A copy of the Dictionary of Mauritian Biography unearthed by the scholar Zdzisław Najder reveals that her character was a fictionalised version of seventeen-year-old Alice Shaw, whose father was a shipping agent and owned the only rose garden in the town. While it is evident that Conrad too fell in love while in Mauritius, it was not with Alice. His proposal to young Eugénie Renouf was declined, the lady being already engaged. Conrad left broken-hearted, vowing never to return.

Something of his feelings is considered to permeate the recollections of the captain. "I was seduced by the moody expression of her face, by her obstinate silences, her rare, scornful words; by the perpetual pout of her closed lips, the black depths of her fixed gaze turned slowly upon me as if in contemptuous provocation."

Later life and death

In 1894, aged 36, Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided on a literary career. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, set on the east coast of Borneomarker, was published in 1895. Together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), it laid the foundation for Conrad's reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales, a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.

Except for several vacations in France and Italy, a 1914 journey to Poland, and a 1923 visit to the United States, he lived the rest of his life in England.

Financial success evaded Conrad, though a Civil List pension of £100 per annum stabilised his affairs, and collectors began to purchase his manuscripts. Though his talent was recognized by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance—paradoxically, as that novel is not now regarded as one of his better ones.
Conrad's coat-of-arms
Thereafter, for the remaining years of his life, Conrad was the subject of more discussion and praise than any other English writer of the time. Although the quality of his work declined, he enjoyed increasing wealth and status. Conrad had a true genius for companionship, and his circle of friends included talented authors such as Stephen Crane and Henry James. In the early 1900s he composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford.

In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat-of-arms (Nałęcz), declined a (non-hereditary) British knighthood offered by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

Shortly after, on 3 August 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterburymarker, England, under his original Polish surname, Korzeniowski.


Conrad, an emotional man subject to fits of depression, self-doubt, and pessimism, disciplined his romantic temperament with an unsparing moral judgment.

As an artist, he famously aspired, in his preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."

Writing in what to the visual arts was the age of Impressionism, Conrad showed himself in many of his works a prose poet of the highest order: thus, for instance, in the evocative Patna and courtroom scenes of Lord Jim; in the "melancholy-mad elephant" and gunboat scenes of Heart of Darkness; in the doubled protagonists of The Secret Sharer; and in the verbal and conceptual resonances of Nostromo and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'.

The singularity of the universe depicted in Conrad's novels, especially compared to those of near-contemporaries like John Galsworthy, is such as to open him to criticism similar to that later applied to Graham Greene. But where "Greeneland" has been characterised as a recurring and recognisable atmosphere independent of setting, Conrad is at pains to create a sense of place, be it aboard ship or in a remote village. Often he chose to have his characters play out their destinies in isolated or confined circumstances.

In the view of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, it was not until the first volumes of Anthony Powell's sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, were published in the 1950s, that an English novelist achieved the same command of atmosphere and precision of language with consistency, a view supported by present-day critics like A. N. Wilson. This is the more remarkable, given that English was Conrad's third language. Powell acknowledged his debt to Conrad.

Conrad's third language remained inescapably under the influence of his first two — Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. It was perhaps from Polish and French prose styles that he adopted a fondness for triple parallelism, especially in his early works ("all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men"), as well as for rhetorical abstraction ("It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention").
T. E. Lawrence, one of many writers whom Conrad befriended, offered some perceptive observations about Conrad's writing:

He's absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (...they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence...) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It's not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can't say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He's as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective. Do they hate one another?

In Conrad's time, literary critics, while usually commenting favourably on his works, often remarked that his exotic style, complex narration, profound theme and pessimistic ideas put many readers off. Yet as Conrad's ideas were borne out by 20th-century events, in due course he came to be admired for beliefs that seemed to accord with subsequent times more closely than with his own.

Conrad's was, indeed, a starkly lucid view of the human condition — a vision similar to that which had been offered in two micro-stories by his ten-years-older Polish compatriot, Bolesław Prus (whose work Conrad admired): "Mold of the Earth" (1884) and "Shades" (1885). Conrad wrote:

Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow....
In this world — as I have known it — we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt....
There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that... is always but a vain and floating appearance....
A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains — but a clot of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.

Conrad is the novelist of man in extreme situations. "Those who read me," he wrote in the preface to A Personal Record, "know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity."

For Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest, that is Conrad's theme.


In 1975 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'," which provoked controversy by calling Conrad a "thoroughgoing racist". Achebe's view was that Heart of Darkness cannot be considered a great work of art because it is "a novel which celebrates... dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race." Referring to Conrad as a "talented, tormented man," Achebe astutely notes that Conrad (via Marlow) reduces and degrades Africans to "limbs," "angles," "glistening white eyeballs," etc. while simultaneously (and fearfully) suspecting a common kinship between himself and these natives--leading Marlow to sneer the word "ugly." While most scholars agree with Achebe that racism is present in the text, many have defended the ongoing value of Conrad's work and some have reproached Achebe with disregarding its historic context.

They note that in Heart of Darkness Conrad refers sarcastically to the supposedly noble aims of European colonists, thereby demonstrating his skepticism about the moral superiority of white men. This, indeed, is a central theme of the novel; Charles Marlow's experiences in Africa expose the brutality of colonialism and the false rationalizations given for it. Ending a passage that describes the condition of chained, emaciated slave workers, the novelist remarks: "After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings." Conrad, whose own native country had been conquered by European powers, empathized by default with other subjugated peoples.


Of Conrad's novels, Lord Jim and Nostromo continue to be widely read, as set texts and for pleasure. The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are also considered to be among his finest books.

Arguably Conrad's most influential work remains Heart of Darkness, to which many have been introduced by Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, inspired by Conrad's novella and set during the Vietnam War. The novella's depiction of a journey into the darkness of the human psyche, still resonates with modern readers.


An anchor-shaped monument to Conrad at Gdyniamarker, on Poland's Baltic Seacoastmarker, features a quotation from him in Polish: "Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu" ("Nothing is so seductive, so disillusioning or so enthralling as life on the sea").

In Circular Quaymarker, Sydneymarker, Australia, a plaque in a "writers walk" commemorates Conrad's brief visits to Australia between 1879 and 1892. The plaque notes that "Many of his works reflect his 'affection for that young continent.'"

In San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker, in 1979, a small triangular square at Columbus Avenue and Beach Street, near Fisherman's Wharfmarker, was dedicated as "Joseph Conrad Square" after Conrad, who had twice visited San Francisco. The square's dedication was timed to coincide with release of Francis Ford Coppola's Heart of Darkness-inspired film, Apocalypse Now.

Notwithstanding the undoubted sufferings that Conrad endured on many of his voyages, he contrived to put up at the best lodgings at many of his destinations. Hotels across the Far East still lay claim to him as an honoured guest, often naming the rooms he stayed in after him: in the case of Singaporemarker's Raffles Hotelmarker, the wrong suite has been named in his honour, apparently for marketing reasons. His visits to Bangkokmarker are also lodged in that city's collective memory, and are recorded in the official history of The Orientalmarker hotel, along with that of a less well-behaved guest, Somerset Maugham, who pilloried the hotel in a short story in revenge for attempts to eject him.

Conrad is also reported to have stayed at Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotelmarker. Later literary admirers, notably Graham Greene, followed closely in his footsteps, sometimes requesting the same room. No Caribbeanmarker resort is yet known to have claimed Conrad's patronage, though he is believed to have stayed at a Fort-de-Francemarker pension upon arrival in Martiniquemarker on his first voyage, in 1875, when he travelled as a passenger on the Mont Blanc.


Novellas, short stories

  • "The Idiots" (Conrad's first short story; written during his honeymoon, published in Savo 1896 and collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898).
  • "The Black Mate" (written, according to Conrad, in 1886; published 1908; posthumously collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925).
  • "The Lagoon" (composed 1896; published in Cornhill Magazine 1897; collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898).
  • "An Outpost of Progress" (written 1896 and named in 1906 by Conrad himself, long after the publication of Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, as his 'best story'; published in Cosmopolis 1897 and collected in Tales of Unrest 1898; often compared to Heart of Darkness, with which it has numerous thematic affinities).
  • "The Return" (written circa early 1897; never published in magazine form; collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898; Conrad, presaging the sentiments of most readers, once remarked, "I hate it").
  • "Karain: A Memory" (written February–April 1897; published November 1897 in Blackwood's and collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898).
  • "Youth" (written in 1898; collected in Youth, a Narrative and Two Other Stories, 1902)
  • "Falk" (novella/story, written in early 1901; collected only in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903).
  • "Amy Foster" (composed in 1901; published in the Illustrated London News, December 1901, and collected in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903).
  • "To-morrow" (written early 1902; serialized in Pall Mall Magazine, 1902 and collected in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903).
  • "The End of the Tether" (written in 1902; collected in Youth, a Narrative and Two Other Stories, 1902)
  • "Gaspar Ruiz" (written after "Nostromo" in 1904–05; published in Strand Magazine in 1906 and collected in A Set of Six, 1908 UK/1915 US. This story was the only piece of Conrad's fiction ever adapted by the author for cinema, as Gaspar the Strong Man, 1920).
  • "An Anarchist" (written in late 1905; serialized in Harper's in 1906; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 UK/1915 US.)
  • "The Informer" (written before January 1906; published in December 1906 in Harper's and collected in A Set of Six, 1908 UK/1915 US.)
  • "The Brute" (written in early 1906; published in The Daily Chronicle in December 1906; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 UK/1915 US.)
  • "The Duel" (aka "The Point of Honor": serialized in the UK in Pall Mall Magazine in early 1908 and in the US periodical Forum later that year; collected in A Set of Six in 1908 and published by Garden City Publishing in 1924. Joseph Fouché makes a cameo appearance)
  • "Il Conde" (i.e., 'Conte' [count]: appeared in Cassell's Magazine [UK] 1908 and Hampton's [US] in 1909; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 UK/1915 US.)
  • "The Secret Sharer" (written December 1909; published in Harper's in 1910 and collected in ’Twixt Land and Sea 1912)
  • "Prince Roman" (written 1910, published in 1911 in the Oxford and Cambridge Review; based upon the story of Prince Roman Sanguszko of Poland 1800–1881)
  • "A Smile of Fortune" (a long story, almost a novella, written in mid-1910; published in London Magazine in February 1911; collected in ’Twixt Land and Sea 1912)
  • "Freya of the Seven Isles" (another near-novella, written late 1910–early 1911; published in Metropolitan Magazine and London Magazine in early 1912 and July 1912, respectively; collected in ’Twixt Land and Sea 1912)
  • "The Partner" (written in 1911; published in Within the Tides, 1915)
  • "The Inn of the Two Witches" (written in 1913; published in Within the Tides, 1915)
  • "Because of the Dollars" (written in 1914; published in Within the Tides, 1915)
  • "The Planter of Malata" (written in 1914; published in Within the Tides, 1915)
  • "The Warrior's Soul" (written late 1915–early 1916; published in Land and Water, in March 1917; collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925)
  • "The Tale" (Conrad's only story about World War I; written 1916 and first published 1917 in Strand Magazine)

Memoirs, essays


A number of films have been based on, or inspired by, Conrad's writings, including:

See also


  1. Morton Dauwen Zabel, "Conrad, Joseph", Encyclopedia Americana, 1986 ed., vol. 7, p. 606.
  2. "Poland." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 05 August 2009
  3. Authors who have been influenced by Conrad's works include Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, V.S. Naipaul, Italo Calvino, Hunter S. Thompson and J. M. Coetzee. Literacka Nagroda Nobla (Nobel Literature Prize), "John Maxwell Coetzee (2003)."
  4. Polish for "Eveline."
  5. Collaborative Literature
  6. Zdzisław Najder: Conrad - Polak, żeglarz, pisarz, Toruń, UMK. Wydaw., 1996, ISBN 8323107785
  7. Regions of the Mind: the Exoticism of Greeneland; Andrew Purssell, University of London
  8. Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad: a Biography, p. 343.
  9. Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad: a Biography, p. 166.
  10. Two Readings of Heart of Darkness at
  11. [1]


  • The authorized biography is Gérard Jean-Aubry's Vie de Conrad, Gallimard, 1947, translated by Helen Sebba as The Sea Dreamer: A Definitive Biography of Joseph Conrad, Doubleday & Co.,1957.
  • Tim Butcher: Blood River - A Journey To Africa's Broken Heart, 2007. ISBN 0-701-17981-3.
  • Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad: a Biography, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
  • Zdzisław Najder, Conrad under Familial Eyes, Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-25082-X.
  • Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: a Life, translated by Halina Najder, Rochester, Camden House, 2007, ISBN 157113347X.
  • J.H. Stape, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • John Stape. The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Pantheon, 2008, ISBN 1400044499.
  • T. Scovel, A Time to Speak: a Psycholinguistic Inquiry into the Critical Period for Human Speech, Cambridge, MA, Newbury House, 1988.
  • Morton Dauwen Zabel, "Conrad, Joseph," Encyclopedia Americana, 1986 ed., ISBN 0-7172-0117-1, vol. 7, pp. 606–7.

External links


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