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Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Polish-born English author and master mariner wrote Heart of Darkness (1902);

“. . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone. . . .” (Part 1)

With haunting verse Conrad has crafted a chilling tale laden with lush imagery and symbolism describing the ambiguity between good and evil. “He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it!”—(ibid) With characters as anti-hero he examines man’s moral complexities and capacity for corruption and evil, and the dark depths of the human psyche;

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath. (ibid, Part 3)

While it addresses the timeless struggle of man’s self-deception and inner conflicts, influenced by Conrad’s own sense of isolation from his past, the story of Marlow’s journey into the Congo also exposes the clashes, exploitation and barbarity between European and African societies during 19th Century colonial expansionism. Controversial in his time and even today, some of Conrad’s works including Heart of Darkness have inspired filmmakers and such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel García Márquez, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Heller, Albert Camus, and Virginia Woolf. He has also been grouped with other such esteemed authors as his friend Stephen Crane and Robert Louis Stevenson. As a young man Conrad, becoming disillusioned and having abandoned his native Poland after his parents sacrificed their lives in the fight for their country’s freedom, became a world traveller on the high seas. He gained by his own sweat and blood as a seaman the life experience and sensitivity for insight into the human condition needed to produce the dozens of famous short stories and novels he wrote, many that are still in print today.

Józef Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski was born on 3 December 1857 in the Russian occupied city of Berdyczów, Ukraine. He was the only child born to Evelina Bobrowska (1832–1865) and Apollo Korzeniowski, (1820–1869) patriot, writer, and translator of such authors’ works as Victor Hugo’s and William Shakespeare’s. Joseph would also read their works as well as those of Charles Dickens, among many others’. As members of the Polish noble gentry szlachta living in the Ukraine under Tsarist autocracy was a turbulent time politically and the Korzeniowski’s were under constant surveillance. In 1861 Joseph’s nationalist father, who was an outspoken supporter of the serfs and critic of Poland’s oppressors, was arrested along with his wife for being involved with the Polish National Committee’s anti-Russian activities. They and four-year old Joseph were exiled to the province of Vologda in Northern Russia. The living conditions and harsh climate took their toll on Joseph’s parents: they both contracted tuberculosis, Evelina dying of it in 1865, Apollo in 1869. He was celebrated at his death by the Poles in patriotic honour.

Shaken from their deaths and also suffering from various health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life, at the age of twelve Joseph became the ward of his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski (d.1894), a landowner who lived in Cracow, Poland. He would be a great support to Joseph morally and financially for many years to come.

He was then sixty-two years old and had been for a quarter of a century the wisest, the firmest, the most indulgent of guardians, extending over me a paternal care and affection, a moral support which I seemed to feel always near me in the most distant parts of the earth.” (A Personal Record, Ch. 2)

As well as speaking Polish, Joseph had been taught French by his governess Mlle. Durand and received some schooling from his father. Now his uncle hired a student from Cracow University to continue his education, tutoring him in Latin, Greek, geography, and mathematics although Joseph disliked the formality of lessons. He was by nature full of nervous energy and physically active. His frustrated tutor soon learned that from an early age he yearned to travel on the seas and go to the ‘dark continent’ of Africa. In 1874 with his uncle’s blessing and as a way of avoiding conscription by the Russians, Conrad travelled to the bustling port town of Marseilles in southern France. As an important hub of the French Merchant Marine, Conrad was soon able to find employment with several French vessels over the next four years. It was the beginning of his fifteen year career as seaman during which he would meet so many of the men who would figure largely in his works.

Life at sea was challenging but full of thrills and adventure and suited Conrad well who at times had a tempestuous personality. He visited many of the major ports of the world and worked on every kind of vessel possible including the ‘Sainte Antoine’, ‘Duke of Sutherland’ ‘Palestine’, ‘Otago’ and ‘Tremolino’. He was involved with gunrunning and smuggling for a time, and in the off hours incurred a number of gambling debts. When he could not repay them he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He survived and his uncle paid off his debts but he lost his position with the French merchants so joined the English ship ‘Mavis’ in 1878. Two years later he passed his third mate’s exam and in 1886 earned his Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service and became a British Citizen. It was at this time that he changed his name to Joseph Conrad. His next few years of service took him to various ports of call including the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Siam and the Belgian Congo. Under the employ of the Societe Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890 Conrad at last plunged into the ‘dark continent’ and wrote his ‘Congo Diary’ that would later become The Heart of Darkness.

The harsh conditions of travelling to the Congo Free State and working on a paddle-steamer aggravated Conrad’s already at-times fragile health. He suffered gout and had periods of depression for many years. He returned to England weakened and suffering from fever and was hospitalised. While his sense of humour and irony was intact, the Congo had also caused a profound effect on his emotional health ….it was infinitely more likely that the sanest of my friends should nurse the germ of incipient madness than that I should turn into a writer of tales—(A Personal Record, Ch. 5) However, in a spare hour here and there Conrad had been working on Almayer’s Folly (1895).

And I, too, had a pen rolling about somewhere—the seldom-used, the reluctantly taken-up pen of a sailor ashore, the pen rugged with the dried ink of abandoned attempts, of answers delayed longer than decency permitted, of letters begun with infinite reluctance, and put off suddenly till next day—till next week, as like as not! (A Personal Record, Ch. 5)

Little did Conrad know he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest 20th Century novelists, known for his mastery of atmosphere and dramatic realism, at times compared to Rudyard Kipling. Having now retired from the sea he settled in Kent County, England. Almayer’s Folly (1895) was published to mixed reviews though mostly positive. In March of 1896 he married Jessie Emmeline George (1873-1936) with whom he would have two sons, Borys (b.1898) and John (b.1906). Now that Conrad was retired and earnestly writing, he had numerous works first serialised in such publications as Blackwood’s, Munsey’s and Harper’s. Other works published around this time include An Outcast of the Islands (1896), The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), Tales of Unrest (1898), Lord Jim (1900), collaborations with Ford Madox Ford The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903), Youth (1902), The End of the Tether (1902), Typhoon (1903), Nostromo (1904), The Mirror of the Sea (1906, semi-autobiographical), The Secret Agent (1907), A Set of Six (1908), and Under Western Eyes (1911).

Although he was now receiving a pension Conrad suffered financial difficulties for a number of years; it was with the immediate commercial success of Chance (1914) that was a turning point for him. Now living at his home ‘Oswalds’ in Bishopsbourne, Canterbury, he also travelled extensively including a trip to the United States in 1923 to give a reading where he was fęted by the press and hoardes of admiring readers. In 1924 he was offered a Knighthood but politely declined. He had become friend to many public figures and fellow authors including John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells. While he maintained a busy schedule he also continued his prodigious output of writing until his death, further publications including; The Arrow of Gold (1914), Victory (1915), The Shadow-Line (1917) which evokes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, The Rescue (1920), and The Rover (1923).

On 3 August 1924 Joseph Conrad died at home of a heart attack. Although a sceptic much of his life he was given a Roman Catholic service at St. Thomas’s and now rests with his wife Jessie in the Westgate Court Avenue public cemetery in Canterbury, England. His name is carved into the massive rough-hewn grave stone as was given at his birth, Joseph Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski. The epitaph carved below, also the epigraph for The Rover is from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and reads:

Sleep After Toyle, Port After Stormie Seas, Ease After Warre,
Death After Life Does Greatly Please

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Forum Discussions on Joseph Conrad

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