Joseph Conrad Studies

Analysis and appreciation of a Polish author who became one of the greatest writers in the English language

There are not many influential English novelists who did not start writing and speaking fluently in English until they were in their early twenties. We are also talking about a novelist who survived an attempt at suicide by shooting himself in the chest. This is the case with Joseph Conrad whose original name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski and who was born on the 3rd December 1857 in Berdichev, which was then part of the Russian Empire and is now Berdychiv in Ukraine. Conrad was of Polish descent and indeed his family were Polish patriots fighting for independence. This was why he was exiled with his parents to Northern Russia. His parents died soon after and he would be looked after and mentored in his early years by his maternal uncle who sent him to school in Kraków and then to Switzerland.

Conrad is best known for his novels Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907) and the novella Heart of Darkness (1902). His extraordinary and exotic adventures in the merchant marine became the source, inspiration and a style influence for his distinctive English prose by a multilinguist for whom English was his third language after Polish and French.

He was a master storyteller and the swashbuckling and poignant adventures of the sea framed a preoccupation with humanity’s time-honured inner struggles with the forces of good and evil and vital issues of morality. The canvas for his plots was immense and drew on all the tragedies confronting the human soul in the narratives of global European empires in the face of indigenous resistance.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe was scathing in his denunciation of Conrad’s racist imagination, but other critics perceive a more complex and nuanced expression and tackling of the themes of racism and colonial exploitation.

Conrad passed away on the 3rd August 1924 in Canterbury Kent and his last unfinished novel Suspense was published posthumously in the following year.

His intensely personal vision and the searing and characterful dialogue in his prose means he has become celebrated as one of the greatest English novelists and short story writers.

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The grave of author Joseph Conrad at Canterbury Cemetery by Pam Fray. CC BY-SA 2.0

Evaluating a remarkable writer whose prose literature bridged the news and current affairs of his time

This resource seeks to present original and informed analysis of Joseph Conrad’s life and writings as well as the dramatisations of his work in theatre, radio, television and film. Professor Tim Crook dramatised The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness for UK independent radio and the US National Public Radio Network. It is not so well known that Conrad himself was a skilled, enthusiastic and successful stage dramatist.

Another sympathy Tim Crook has for Conrad’s writing is that he was often inspired by evocative, dramatic and catastrophic news and current affairs events of his time; almost journalistic in the perspective that inspired his fiction. For example The Secret Agent (1906) drew upon the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The short story The Secret Sharer (1909) was based on an incident from 1880 when Sydney Smith, the first mate of the Cutty Sark, killed a fellow seaman and became a fugitive with the connivance of the ship’s captain. The story of Under Western Eyes (1910) begins with the assassination of a much hated Russian government minister. This was inspired by the assassination of Russian Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve in 1904. The novella Freya of the Seven Isles (1911) was created from a tale given to Conrad by his fan and merchant marine colleague Captain Carlos M. Marris.

This painting, presumed to be the handsome barque Otago, was a cover image for Conrad’s “The Mirror of the Sea”. Public domain status.

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