The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Józef Conrad
1857 - 1924



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 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.

Early 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.

Political Novels

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.

Later Novels

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.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008