The Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was concerned with men under stress, deprived of the ordinary supports of civilized life and forced to confront the mystery of human individuality. He explored the technical possibilities of fiction.
Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (to use the name which Joseph Conrad later drastically simplified for his English readers) was born on Dec. 3, 1857, in Berdyczew. Conrad's childhood was harsh. His parents were both members of families long identified with the movement for Polish independence from Russia. In 1862 Conrad's father, himself a writer and translator, was exiled to Russia for his revolutionary activities, and his wife and child shared the exile. In 1865 Conrad's mother died, and a year later he was entrusted to the care of his uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski.
In 1868 Conrad attended high school in Lemberg, Galicia; the following year he and his father moved to Cracow, where his father died. In early adolescence the future novelist began to dream of going to sea, and in 1873, while on vacation in western Europe, Conrad saw the sea for the first time. In the autumn of 1874 Conrad went to Marseilles, where he entered the French marine service.
For the next 20 years Conrad led a successful career as a ship's officer. In 1877 he probably took part in the illegal shipment of arms from France to Spain in support of the pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos. At about this time Conrad seems to have fallen in love with a girl who was also implicated in the Carlist cause. The affair ended in a duel, which Conrad fought with an American named J. M. K. Blunt. There is evidence that early in 1878 Conrad made an attempt at suicide.
In June 1878 Conrad went for the first time to England. He worked as a seaman on English ships, and in 1880 he began his career as an officer in the British merchant service, rising from third mate to master. His voyages took him to Australia, India, Singapore, Java, Borneo, to those distant and exotic places which would provide the background for much of his fiction. In 1886 he was naturalized as a British citizen. He received his first command in 1888. In 1890 he made the ghastly journey to the Belgian Congo which inspired his great short novel The Heart of Darkness.
In the early 1890s Conrad had begun to think about writing fiction based on his experiences in the East, and in 1893 he discussed his work in progress, the novel Almayer's Folly, with a passenger, the novelist John Galsworthy. Although Conrad by now had a master's certificate, he was not obtaining the commands that he wanted. Almayer's Folly was published in 1895, and its favorable critical reception encouraged Conrad to begin a new career as a writer. He married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, in 1896, and 2 years later, just after the birth of Borys, the first of their two sons, they settled in Kent in the south of England, where Conrad lived for the rest of his life. John Galsworthy was the first of a number of English and American writers who befriended this middle-aged Polish seaman who had come so late to the profession of letters; others were Henry James, Arnold Bennett, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, and Ford Madox Hueffer (later known as Ford Madox Ford), with whom Conrad collaborated on two novels.
The scene of Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), is the Dutch East Indies, and its complicated plot is concerned with intrigues among Europeans, natives, and Arabs. At the center of the novel is Almayer, a trader of Dutch extraction, who is married to a Malay woman and has by her one daughter, Nina. He dreams endlessly of returning to Europe with his daughter, but he is powerless to act. Nina runs away with her young Malay lover, and her father takes refuge in opium and dies pathetically.
An Outcast of the Islands (1896) deals with the same milieu, and in fact Almayer appears again in this work. The main character is a shabby trickster, Willems, who betrays the man who gives him a chance to make something of himself and thus plays a part in Almayer's ruin. The novel ends melodramatically: Willems is shot by the beautiful native woman Aissa, for whom he has abandoned his wife.
In The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897) Conrad turns to the life of the merchant seaman and to one of his commonest themes, the ambiguities of human sympathy. Just before the Narcissus leaves on a long journey, it takes on as one of its crew a huge Black named James Watt. From the beginning Watt is marked for death, and Conrad studies the effects on the crew of his steady physical deterioration. At first, his fellow seamen are compassionate, but then Watt's recalcitrance and his ingratitude after they have heroically saved his life drive the crew to the brink of mutiny. Watt dies, as the older sailors predict he will, when the ship is finally in sight of land. The novel contains one of Conrad's great set pieces, a wonderfully sustained account of a storm at sea.
The Heart of Darkness (1899) is based on Conrad's voyage up the Congo 9 years before. Narrated by the sympathetic and experienced seaman Marlow, the novel is at once an account of 19th-century imperialist greed and a symbolic voyage into the dark potentialities of civilized man. Marlow is fascinated by the figure of Kurtz, a Belgian whose self-imposed mission is to bring civilization into the Congo. Marlow tracks him down, and he finally finds the dying Kurtz, who has been corrupted by the very natives he has set out to save. Marlow, at the conclusion, visits Kurtz's fiancée, and he cannot find the courage to tell her the truth about her dead lover.
The first phase of Conrad's career culminates in Lord Jim (1900). Marlow is again the principal narrator, although Conrad entrusts his complex story to several other voices. Like all of Conrad's mature fiction, Lord Jim is a typical work of the 20th century in that a first reading does not begin to exhaust its subtleties of design and meaning. The hero begins as an inexperienced officer on the pilgrim ship Patna. In the night the ship, crowded with pilgrims to Mecca, strikes something in the water and seems about to sink. Urged by the other officers and not really aware of what he is doing, Jim deserts the ship. But the Patna does not sink, and the officers, Jim among them, are considered cowards. Disgraced, Jim wanders from job to job, moving ever to the East.
Marlow takes a sympathetic interest in the young man and finds him a job in the remote settlement of Patusan. Jim does well and he wins the respect of the natives, who call him Tuan Jim—Lord Jim. But the past catches up with him in the person of Gentleman Brown, a scoundrel who knows about Jim's past and insists that they are brothers in crime. Jim persuades the natives to let Brown go, whereupon Brown murders their chief, Dain Waris. Jim accepts responsibility for the murder, and he is executed by the natives. Once again, Conrad is concerned with the ways in which sympathy and imagination blur the clear judgment which is essential for the life of action.
Nostromo (1904) is probably Conrad's greatest novel. It is set in Costaguana, an imaginary but vividly realized country on the north coast of South America. Symbolically and realistically the novel is dominated by the silver of the San Tomé mine and its effects on the lives of a large cast of characters. The treasure attracts greedy men, who impose on the country a succession of tyrannies, and it tests and eventually corrupts men who are devoted to high ideals of personal conduct. Nostromo is concerned with the relationship between psychology and ideology, between man's deepest needs and his public actions and decisions.
The London of The Secret Agent (1907) is a far cry from the exotic settings of Conrad's first fiction. It is a city of mean streets and shabby lives, and in his depiction of these scenes Conrad surely owes something to the works of Charles Dickens. Verloc is a fat, lazy agent provocateur who is paid by a foreign power (probably Russia) to stir up violent incidents which will encourage the British government to take repressive measures against political liberals. His wife, Winnie, married him in the hope that he will provide a safe home for herself and especially for her dim-witted, pathetic brother, Stevie. Verloc plots to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Stevie is drawn into the plot; he stumbles, carrying an explosive, and is killed. Winnie kills her husband when she learns of Stevie's death—the dying Verloc cannot understand the violence of her reaction—and then kills herself.
Under Western Eyes (1911) is Conrad's study of the Russian temperament. Razumov, who may be the illegitimate son of Prince K—-, is a solitary and devoted student. Haldin, another student, bursts into Razumov's apartment after he has assassinated an autocratic politician. Haldin turns to the Prince K—-but is immediately captured by the police. Razumov now goes to Switzerland, where he finds himself in the midst of a group of émigré revolutionaries, among them Haldin's sister, with whom Razumov falls in love. Tortured by his isolation, Razumov finally confesses his responsibility for Haldin's capture and death. He is punished by the revolutionaries and returns to Russia, where he lives out his alienated life.
Thanks to the efforts of his American publisher, Conrad's next novel, Chance (1914), was a financial success, and for the rest of his life he was without worries about money. The novel is concerned with a young girl, Flora, and her relationship with her father, an egotistical fraud who spends some time in prison, and with an idealistic sea captain with whom she finds happiness after she has freed herself from her father.
Victory (1915), Conrad's last important novel, is another study in solitude and sympathy. Warned by his father to remain aloof from the world, the hero, Heyst, is twice tempted by sympathy into the active life—with tragic results. The second temptation is offered by the girl Lena, whom Heyst rescues and carries off to his island retreat. Their solitude is invaded by three criminals on the run, and in a melodramatic finale Lena dies saving Heyst's life.
Among Conrad's last novels are The Shadow Line (1917), a somber and ultimately triumphant story of another testing sea voyage, and The Rover (1923), a historical novel set in France in the years just after the Revolution.
Although there is a valedictory quality about Conrad's last novels—and some evidence of failing powers—he received many honors. In 1923 he visited the United States with great acclaim, and the year after, he declined a knighthood. He died suddenly of a heart attack on Aug. 3, 1924, and he is buried at Canterbury. His gravestone bears these lines from Spenser: Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,/Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
Further Reading on Joseph Conrad
Two older major biographical studies, G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (2 vols., 1927), and Jessie Conrad, Joseph Conrad and His Circle (1935; 2d ed. 1964), have been superseded by a definitive biography, Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960). Important critical studies of Conrad's work include M. C. Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland's English Genius (1941); F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1954); Paul L. Wiley, Conrad's Measure of Man (1954); Thomas Moser, Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1957); Albert Joseph Guerard, Conrad the Novelist (1958); and Eloise Knapp Hay, The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (1963).