Conrad, Joseph (3 December 1857 - 3 August 1924)
Conrad, née Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was born in Russian-occupied Poland. His father, a writer and poet, was exiled with his family to Russia for working for Polish independence. Joseph's mother died of tuberculosis in 1865, and his father of the same disease in 1869.
The teenager went to live with his uncle until signing up as a seaman in the French merchant navy at age 17. His many adventures included gunrunning. He eventually spent 16 years in the British merchant navy and saw Australia, Malaysia, South America, the Congo, and the South Pacific. His eastern travels later became favorite settings for his novels.
In 1884, Conrad became a naturalized British citizen and settled down at age 36 to write. Although English was his third language, he wrote in that tongue to great acclaim. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, set in Malaysia, came out in 1895, followed by The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), the novella Heart of Darkness (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and many other books.
In Some Reminiscences (1912), he wrote an avowal of his agnosticism,
- The ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions. . . that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all.
His work portrayed the conflict between non-Western cultures and modern civilization, and it remains popular not only among pre-college but also college students.
From a literary standpoint Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, associates "the wild" with despair, death, savagery, inhuman acts, and African people. In the novel the brutality is mainly started by Europeans, with Conrad seemingly making the point that when Europeans spend enough time with African "savages" they become savage themselves. In his depiction of London and industrial man Conrad also paints a problematic and gloomy picture which offers little alternative. Conrad exhibits primarily a deep ambivalence toward colonial rule, his question being, when Europeans colonize Africa are they civilizing the "savages" or are the Africans instead "savagizing" the Europeans. His journal from his 1890 trip to Belgian Congo, which experience formed the basis for the novel, reflects a keen awareness of the frequently brutal treatment of Africans at the hands of white men who, according to Conrad, have been brutalized by their contact with "savage" Africans. Moreover, in Heart of Darkness, "savage" Africa is presented as often more attractive than, even superior to, modern European civilization (hence Marlow's dejection on returning to Europe); other critics have held that Marlow's dejection upon his return to Europe stems from him being awakened to the "fact" that not far beneath the European skins lies savagery (like that of the "inferior" Africans). Conrad seems to imply that what Imperial Rome once did to northern Europe, imperial Europe was doing to the whole world; whether this was a good or a bad thing, remains ambiguous in Conrad's assessment of history.
- Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
- Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
Conrad was buried with the above epitaph at the St. Thomas Church Cemetery in Canterbury, England.
(David Denby evaluates contemporary criticism of Heart of Darkness, discussing how far Conrad should be judged negatively for writing within the confines of his own time, in “Jungle Fever,” The New Yorker, 6 November 1995.)