Conrad, Joseph (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Conrad, Joseph (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

Conrad, Joseph (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) (1857-1924) Polish-British fiction writer

In the last years of the Victorian era (1837-1901) and the beginning of the Edwardian era (1901-10), Joseph Conrad branded imperial racism and exploitation as corrosive evils. Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdichev, Ukraine, he was the son of Apollo Korzeniowski, a Polish poet and freedom fighter in a period when Russian expansionism threatened Poles in the territory. During his family's exile to Vologda in northeast Russia in 1862, the seven-year-old Joseph first became aware of the shadow of the Russian Empire, an oppression that fostered factional hatred. He lost his mother to tuberculosis contracted during the prison sentence for sedition she voluntarily shared with her husband. Father and son returned to Poland in 1868, shortly before Apollo Korzeniowski's death, and young Joseph became the ward of his uncle in Krakow.

At age 16, to avoid being drafted into the Russian army, Conrad moved to Marseilles and went to sea at a time when the British ruled almost two-thirds of the global land mass. In travels to Venezuela, the West Indies, and the French Antilles, he became involved in gun smuggling on behalf of the Spanish royal family. Burdened by debt, a failed romance, and melancholy, he took passage as a steward on a British freighter to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). He mastered English as his third language and collected wisps of pidgin dialect from the nomads who scoured the world's ports for livelihood and company.

In 1886, at age 29, Conrad rose to the rank of master mariner in the British merchant navy, altered his name, and gained British citizenship. While sailing to colonial berths in Java, Borneo, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Siam, he wrote up his travels and composed his first story, “The Black Mate” (1884), a tale of treachery published in London Magazine in April 1908. Conrad's posting in 1889 to Kinshasa in the Belgian Congo (present-day Zaire), exposed him to the beatings of servants and bearers, some of whom were young boys. His experience ended in frustration, fever, and near drowning, but his Congo diary gave him material for his masterwork, HEART OF DARKNESS (1899), an antiheroic classic. The diary reveals an epiphany—that the darkness of Africa radiated from the conqueror, not the conquered. The novel's title reflects a grim perspective on foreign dominion and the beginning of globalization.

Unlike RUDYARD KIPLING, who distinguished between his understanding of nationalism and imperialism, Conrad critiqued the macho posturing and amorality of the frontiersman. He rejected imperial assumptions about ethnicity, entitlement, and European-based civilization, which Kipling described as the “white man's burden” in his poem published the same year as Conrad's novel.

At age 40, Conrad retired from the sea to treat gout and depression. At his home outside Canterbury, Kent, he supported his wife, Jessie George Conrad, and sons John and Borys by writing stories and serializing novels in Blackwood’s, Cornhill, Cosmopolis, Harper’s, the Illustrated London News, Pall Mall Magazine, and T P’s Weekly. In a literary manifesto in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), he claimed to empower the written word with hearing, feeling, and visualization. He prospered as a writer until his death from heart failure on August 3, 1924. He was buried in Canterbury, England, under his birth name.

Conrad and Imperialism

Conrad's first novel, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), set a pattern of motifs and themes that dominated his works—the battles with conscience and circumstance that demoralize colonial settlers. The book is a character study of a Dutch merchant, Kaspar Almayer, at an isolated trading post in Borneo, where he expends his energies and his humanity on dreams of wealth. Ostensibly, he, like other imperialists, rules in the tropics, but he soon finds himself devoured by isolation and betrayed by a “vision of a great and splendid reward” (Conrad 1904, 10). Conrad's familiar symbol of a pier and lone residence built by a languid river reminds the reader that the passage of life is ever in motion, propelling opportunities out of Almayer's reach toward the sea. At a distance, his nation profits by colonizing the Dutch East Indies; up close, the one-on-one cost of maintaining the ledgers of commerce is loss of soul and a defeat for Western ideals. As events unfold among shadowy trees and tangled creepers, he longs for peace, “that inanimate thing now growing small and indistinct in the deepening darkness” (11). At the nadir of his fantasies, he looks toward a grinning monkey and exclaims, “Eternity!”—an enigmatic response to disillusion and terror (244).

The author ventured into more complex moral study with Lord Jim (1900), a historical novel based on the abandonment of 800 Muslim pilgrims by the British officers of a transport vessel. Scandal dogs the title character, a British water clerk who has traveled the Asian ports and trading centers of the British Empire. As a scapegoat for the abandonment of the SS Patna in Indonesian waters, he is stripped of his certification for dereliction of duty. The narrator remarks on Jim's self-torment: “He made so much of his disgrace while it is the guilt alone that matters,” a reference to his leaving trusting passengers to drown (Conrad 1920, 177). Conrad describes Jim's martyrdom as the appropriate retribution for moral weakness, also the theme of the short story “The Lagoon” (1897), an Indonesian love story, and of the novels Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard (1904), set amid revolutionary upheaval in fictional Costaguana, South America; and Under Western Eyes (1911), an antihero study of betrayal and guilt during Russia's czarist regime.

Lauded by giants of the era—Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and James Joyce—and emulated by the Bengali novelist ANITA MAZUMDAR DESAI, the German- born writer RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA, and the Trinidadian-British writer V. S. NAIPAUL, Conrad remained a pivotal figure in the literature of empire until Nigerian author CHINUA ACHEBE'S essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ’Heart of Darkness'” (1975) reevaluated Conrad's perception of colonialism. Two films brought new audiences to Conrad's works: Lord Jim (1964), featuring Peter O'Toole, James Mason, Eli Wallach, Curt Jurgens, and Jack Hawkins; and Apocalypse Now (1979), with Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in an adaptation of Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War.


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ’Heart of Darkness.'” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., 782-794. New York: Norton, 2001.

Ash, Beth Sharon. Writing in Between: Modernity and Psychosocial Dilemma in the Novels of Joseph Conrad. London: Macmillan, 1999.

Conrad, Joseph. Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1904.

----- . Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Signet, 1983.

----- . Lord Jim. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1920.