JOSEPH CONRAD (1857-1924)



The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. –


Conrad was born in Poland and his real name was Teodor Jozef Konrad Nolesz Korzenioski. His country had been under foreign rule since 1795 and his father was a very active member of the Polish nationalist movement which led him and his family to be exiled in Russia. Soon after both his parents died and Conrad, an orphan, went to live with an uncle until 1874. That year Conrad went to Marseille where he found a job as a sailor on French merchant ships. In 1878 he sailed on an English ship bound to the Far East and Australia and in 1886 he took the British citizenship and also became Master Mariner.

His last sea voyage dates 1890; it is during this last trip that he personally witnessed imperialism’s brutalities perpetrated at the expenses of the exploited local populations enslaved and treated cruelly by the white Western colonizers who, ideologically, justified their horrible misconduct with the “white man’s burden”. The price to be paid to achieve progress and civilization for the unfortunate primitive natives. Conrad was so harshly affected by this experience that he was ill for some time and almost suffered a nervous collapse. Therefore when he inherited a small sum at the death of his uncle he retired from his sailing career and settled down to become a full-time writer. This particular gruesome experience was recorded in Congo Diary (1890). He died of a sudden heart attack in 1924.


Writing Style and Language

Conrad belongs to the group of British 20th century writers labelled as psychological novelists because he is very much interested in exposing human condition by analysing his characters’ inner turmoil from various perspectives that allow him to investigate their feelings, thoughts and perceptions through their actions and behaviours as they are described by minor characters or bystanders. Historical and geographical settings are as important as human nature is because, according to Conrad, the human situation he meant to explore through his writings, is strictly linked to the historical time and the social environment in which humans happen to live, even for short periods of time, and their effects on their inner development.

To reach his literary aim he also explored several writing techniques setting aside, almost immediately, the traditional novel writing preferring instead innovative methods such as frequent shifts of time sequences, moving back and forth, relating the same episode from many different points of views as many as the characters involved are so as to give the reader the idea of a close to life event and also to free himself, as a writer, from the limiting device of an all-knowing narrator in order to provide his unfolding narration with values and principles that underlined the impossibility of portraying a single truth, thus enhancing the ever stronger relativism of his time. Some of his stories were also told by using devices such as journals and letters.

As far as the use of the language is concerned, out of the three that he spoke fluently, he chose English as it allowed him, through a certain degree of emotional detachment, to best express the infinite richness he attributed to man’s inner depths and contradictions and to do so he makes an extensive use of adjectives and idiomatic expressions along with complex linguistic and narrative structures.


The Double

Conrad’s personal experience as a victim of foreign occupation – in Poland under Russian despotic rule – during his childhood and later as an exile in Russia, where his parents soon died leaving him an orphan, influenced his adult outlook on human condition and shaped his writings. He can be regarded, to some extent, as lacking solid roots leading him to investigate the nature of the double that is palpable in many of his characters.

The multiple levels of narration that he applied in his works allowed him, in fact, on the one hand to provide the reader, as pointed out previously, with various perspectives underlining subjective truths; and, on the other hand, it enabled him to save his characters from taking clear standpoints giving them the possibility to explore their inner uncertainties and even moral conflicts.

Isolation and Exotic Locations

The theme of the double is better expressed then, through his isolated and lonely characters who are set against specific social and historical contexts, but only to emphasise even more their profound inner isolation; to this purpose the action takes place in exotic locations which he knew well since he had travelled extensively in such far off lands obtaining through this device multiple results. They symbolise, above all, mystery and adventure, but, at the same time the exotic, along with the idea of the confined space of a ship, combined with the great vastness of the sea, confer an even higher degree of isolation to his troubled anti-hero whose psychological introspection he ponders on in order to allow his contradictions to come to surface.

Imperialism’s Faults

Conrad, on the one side, exposes the political manipulation of the horrible actual facts taking place in such far off latitudes of the globe while, on the other, his crude descriptions and deep insight show humans’ condition as isolated and forlorn because he depicts the decline of individual consciousness and personal responsibility when the single individual is forced to face his inner demons, breaking free from social restraints and personal self-control.

Loss of Inner Restraints

As Conrad investigates deeper and deeper human condition he seems to emphasize the role played by society and its social rules and values. It is when he speaks of a loss of inner restraints that, in fact, he comprises all the above mentioned themes because he points out that only in a far off place, exotic yet frightening – the deep dark, black jungle – could human beings be treated worse than slaves, worse than animals and for materialistic greed and profit. None of what took place in Congo, at the expense of the indegenous populations, could ever have happened under the eyes of the westerners, only in a hidden, isolated place could it have been justified to themselves because there was no one to judge their unspeakable deeds, there everything could have been hidden away, lied about and therefore, Conrad, seems to be saying that if humans are left alone their evil surpasses the worst imagination, there is no end to the harm that it can do.


Language, as said above, is employed by Conrad as a device to describe vividly, through the rich use of adjectives and idiomatic expressions, episodes that indeed stay with the readers for long leaving very strong impressions on their minds; the same happens with his use of symbolism which is often overturned, after a misleading conventional choice, to magnify the contradictions that his narration unveils and are slowly revealed ever so sligthly to climax, finally, with uncanny insight.



Conrad was a prolific writer and his vast production ranged from articles to short stories and novels, often working simultaneously on several writings. Some of his best known works are:

  • The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)
  • Youth (1898)
  • Lord Jim (1900)
  • Heart of Darkness (1902)
  • Nostromo (1904)
  • The Secret Agent (1907)
  • The Secret Sharer (1909)
  • Under Western Eyes (1911)
  • The Shadow Line (1917)

Heart of Darkness

This short novel was written in 1890 and appeared in volume in 1902. It embodies most of the narrative innovations outlined above and it shows the author’s mastery in employing them, thus changing British literature and contributing to its ensue towards the most widely acknowledged revolutionary movement renowned as the Stream of Consciousness.

The Plot

The narration begins with an anonymous narrator who introduces Marlow, the protagonist, to the crew of the Nellie in which they are all waiting to sail. As they wait Marlow begins his tale about a voyage he undertook in Africa as a young man up the Congo River. Except for brief interruptions the novel is all focussed around this journey of many years before.

Marlow begins by saying that after applying for a post on a steamboat for a Company trading ivory in Congo he is hired. Once there he witnesses, first-hand the horrors to which the native populations are subjected by the imperialist westerners.

During his trip he is given an unforseen mission, he is to rescue one of the most valuable agents the Company has because he is ill and needs medical care.  The agent’s name is Kurtz and is presented, at first, by other characters with awe and admiration as he is the only one who has been capable of producing, during his time with the Company, incredible amounts of ivory, therefore, great profits. Kurtz is outlined, as the story proceeds, as a sensitive man of vast intelligence who, at the beginning, reaches Congo to write a report for the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”, motivated by profound idealistic principles, kurts sets out on his mission and duly writes his report. However, once there he stays and becomes an ivory agent.

As the tale unfolds the reader learns that the feeling towards Kurts are in fact ambiguous, his peers do profess admiration for his success and efforts, yet there is also an underlying sense of foreboding and fear about his person. He is indeed feared by the locals he brutally steers to his purposes, they regard him as a sort of divinity and they follow his orders without ever questioning him or threatnening him for his unearthly cruelty.

By this time, and after many perilous episodes and treacherous ambushes, Marlow finally reaches his destination, Kurtz’ Inner Station, where he finds Kurtz sick with madness and, as he is in critical conditions, Marlow decides to bring him back to the Central Station however Kurtz dies on the way back and his last words are: ” The horror! The horror!”

Back in Europe Marlow is approached by a Company official demanding he hand in to him the papers Kurtz entrusted him with before dying, Marlow refuses and gives him only the report Kurtz had written after tearing away the last page in which Kurtz had added a dreadful post scriptum saying “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Upon learning then, from the Company official, that Kurtz’ mother has died and that only his fiancé still lives he visits her and, thinking to bring her solace, tells her that her beloved, before dying, pronounced only her name; ashamed for his lie he can’t but think that it was the best thing to do as nobody would have ever believed what he had witenessed for he, himself, wished that he could extirpate from his mind all the horror that his eyes had seen.

The novel ends with the anonymous narrator picking up again the narrative as if closing the circle while looking at the overcast sky and the Thames that give him the feeling of leading right “into the heart of an immense darkness”.


In Heart of Darkness, the story line is divided in three parts and the narration is first taken up by an anonymous character who introduces Marlow to the rest of the crew of the ship, from that point on it is Marlow himself who tells the story even if, at times, other minor characters give their version of events or episodes that take place, the ending is again closed by the first anonymous narrator.

Time Shifts

A sort of big frame within which we find other smaller ones that are all held together by the time shifts of Marlow’s narration as he goes backwards and then forwards again creating suspense and curiosity as well. The big frame though, has also other aims, for instance it gives the author the opportunity of telling others about the the fearful things he experienced during that trip, and it gives Marlow the chance to unveil the lies that all Europeans had been told by Imperialists and that it was difficult for them to truly grasp especially for the preposterous evil that it actually meant.


It is no coincidence then that the historical context, especially in Heart of Darkness, is used by Conrad to accuse European Imperialism of brutally exploiting the colonized populations while veiling the operation – mainly based on greed and personal profit -behind the hypocritical ideal of doing the natives’ best interests by bringing them progress and civilization.

Kurtz, a German whose father is half French and whose mother is half English, is designed by Conrad to exemplify the battled soul who has plunged in a nightmarish madness. Kurtz is created to embody Europe. His idealistic beliefs that bring him to Congo, on what can be defined as a personal mission, to better the living conditions of the primitive natives based on Western knowledge, soon back fires on him and far away from his safe homeland, away from the comforting support of society’s limits and restrictions, he totally loses control of himself to the point of madness leading to death as the only possible escape left to him.

It is interesting to observe that in this short novel Conrad, once again, overturns traditional devices. As a matter of fact, as the narration progresses towards its climax, towards Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, this character slowly loses glamour and fascination and simultaneously the traditional contrast of the colour white that has symbolized since the beginning purity and a positive flair whereas black has represented, as was usual then, the darkness of the soul along with a sense of impurity, suddenly is reversed; in fact, at this point white is associated with the heinous crimes of the Europeans while black embodies the heart of the continent and the simple, trusty nature of the natives who had been enslaved and lost their purity at the hands of despicable individuals concerned merely with making ever so greater profit even if that meant losing their sanity and their souls.

Finally, Kurtz, is at first introduced as a sort of living legend, according to his fellow agents, since he was the best among them providing their employers with much more ivory than any of them, furthermore he was considered as a demigod by the natives. However, as the story proceeds and, the voyage too, deeper into the jungle, Kurtz’ true nature is slowly unveiled and his horrible deeds are progressively revealed. Again the theme of the double. Yet his madness is perceived as a dishonourable surrender by his peers along with their servants, who, upon learning of his sudden death, treat his corpse with contempt. Only Marlow seems to capture the horror that Kurtz refers to on his death bed; in the end consciously acknowledging his moral downfall.

Alas, Europe’s downfall!

© L. R. Capuana



3 Replies to “JOSEPH CONRAD (1857-1924)”

  1. By the way, I would like to use Conrad’s quote and your insights, in a future essay because what you both say is inspiring, convicting, and needs to be passed on to others who may not read your work…or his, for that matter. I’m so glad we have met.

  2. Not only am I learning a great deal that I should have learned in school…a gazillion years ago, I am gaining insights about history, society, civilization (and uncivilization), as well as humanity, in general, that I can certainly benefit from. Obliquely, I am also being cautioned to stay conscious and vigilant as I face a new life of potential isolation; I would not want to lose sight of moral responsibilities as well as a clear working sense of right and wrong.

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