Life of the Author

Joseph Conrad was born Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, the only child of a patriotic Polish couple living in the southern Polish Ukraine. Conrad's father was esteemed as a translator of Shakespeare, as well as a poet and a man of letters in Poland, and Conrad's mother was a gentle, well-born lady with a keen mind but frail health.

When Conrad was five, his father was arrested for allegedly taking part in revolutionary plots against the Russians and was exiled to Northern Russia; Conrad and his mother went with him. His mother died from the hardships of prison life after three years; she was only thirty-four.

Conrad's father sent him back to his mother's brother for his education, and Conrad never saw him again. The poet-patriot lived only four more years. Conrad was eleven years old, but the emotional bond between him and his father was so strong that a deep melancholy settled within the boy; much of his writing as an adult is marked by a melancholy undercurrent.

Conrad received a good education in Cracow, Poland, and after a trip through Italy and Switzerland, he decided not to return to his father's homeland. Poland held no promise; already Conrad had suffered too much from the country's Russian landlords. Instead, the young lad decided on a career very different from what one might expect of a boy brought up in Poland; he chose the sea as his vocation.

Conrad reached Marseilles in October of 1874, when he was seventeen, and for the next twenty years, he sailed almost continually. Not surprisingly, most of his novels and short stories have the sea as a background for the action ad as a symbolic parallel for their heroes' inner turbulence. In fact, most of Conrad's work concerns the sea. There is very little old-fashioned romantic interest in his novels.

Part of this romantic void may be due to the fact that while Conrad was in Marseilles and only seventeen, he had his first love affair. I ended in disaster. For some time, Conrad told people that he had been wounded in a duel, but now it seems clear that he tried to commit suicide.

Conrad left Marseilles in April of 1878, when he was twenty-one, and it was then that he first saw England. He knew no English, but he signed on an English ship making voyages between Lowestoft and Newcastle. It was on that ship that he began to lean English.

At twenty-four, Conrad was made the first mate of a ship that touched down in Singapore, and it was here that he learned about an incident that would later contribute to the plot of Lord Jim. Then, four years later, while Conrad was aboard the Vidar, he met Jim Lingard, the sailor who would become the physical model for Lord Jim; in fact, all the men aboard the Vidar called Jim "Lord Jim."

In 1886, when Conrad was twenty-nine, he became a British subject, and in the same year, he wrote his first short story, "The Black Mate." He submitted it to a literary competition, but was unsuccessful. This failure, however, did not stop him from continuing to write. During the next three years, in order to fill empty, boring hours while he was at sea, Conrad began his first novel, Almayer's Folly. In addition, he continued writing diaries and journals when he transferred onto a Congo River steamer the following year, taking notes that would eventually become the basis for one of his masterpieces, Heart of Darkness.

Conrad's health was weakened in Africa, and so he returned to England to recover his strength. Then in 1894, when Conrad was thirty-seven, he returned to sea; he also completed Almayer's Folly. The novel appeared the following year, and Conrad left the sea.He married Jessie George, a woman seventeen years younger than he was. She was a woman with no literary or intellectual interests, but Conrad continued to write with intense, careful seriousness. Heart of Darkness was first serialized in Blackwood's Magazine; it appeared soon afterward as a single volume, and Conrad then turned his time to Lord Jim, his twelfth work of fiction.

After Lord Jim, Conrad produced one major novel after another- Nostromo, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Victory, and Chance, perhaps his most "popular" novel. He was no longer poor, and. ironically, he was no longer superlatively productive. From 1911 until his death in 1924, he never wrote anything that equaled his early works. His great work was done.

Personally, however, Conrad's life was full. He was recognized widely, and he enjoyed dressing the part of a dandy; it was something he had always enjoyed doing, and now he could financially afford to. He played this role with great enthusiasm. He was a short, tiny man and had a sharp Slavic face which he accentuated with a short beard, and he was playing "aristocrat," as it were. No one minded, for within literary circles, Conrad was exactly that- a master.

When World War I broke out, Conrad was spending some time in Poland with his wife and sons, and they barely escaped imprisonment. Back in England, Conrad bean assembling his entire body of work, which appeared in 1920, and immediately afterward, he was offered a knighthood by the British government. He declined, however, and continued to live without national honor, but with literary honor instead. He suffered a heart attack in August, 1924, and was buried at Canterbury.


This article was taken from "Conrad's Heart of Darkness & Secret Sharer Cliff Notes" c.1997