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Introduction to Joseph Conrad: Novels and Colonialism

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  • 0:05 Conrad's Early Life
  • 4:36 Conrad's Writing
  • 6:08 Notable Works and Themes
  • 10:50 Conrad's Legacy
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Sailor, groundbreaking writer, incurable racist - these are just some of the terms that have been used to describe novelist Joseph Conrad. Watch our lesson for an introduction to this man's life and an overview of his major works!

Conrad's Early Life

So, the dude we're talking about today is a trilingual sailor. He's lived in three countries. He's traveled the world. He's a revolutionary's son. He's friends with everybody important. He's awesome, and he wrote one of the more talked-about books in the English language - Heart of Darkness, which you may have had to read in high school. It's firmly in the literary canon as one of those things you've got to read. He's a little bit pre-Modernist (high Modernism's more in the 1910s and 20s); he's considered a precursor to a lot of what was going on in literary Modernism. This is Joseph Conrad, and here is his story.

So, as we take a look at Conrad's life, one of the things that's really going to be important to look at is his internationalism. So, at a time when they couldn't just get on the Internet and read about other cultures, Conrad had traveled the world and knew stuff, and his own background is international. Joseph Conrad sounds like a pretty English name, but he's born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in the Ukraine but to a family of Polish nobles (that's where the Korzeniowski, I guess, comes from).

His father was a writer of politically themed plays, and he also translated a lot of really important English literature (like Shakespeare and Dickens) and French literature (like Victor Hugo) into Polish. So, he was a literary figure as well. He was also a Polish revolutionary, which got him exiled to remote Russia when he was trying to plan an 1863-1864 uprising in the Ukraine against the Russian Empire. During this unfortunate exile, both of Jozef's parents die, so now he's an orphan at age 11. This is when he goes to Krakow, Poland to live with his maternal uncle.

So, when he's 16, he's the age at which he might get conscripted into the Russian army, and he moves to Marseille. This is the part where he becomes an international citizen, and he also becomes a seafaring man. He gets this job as a sailor, and at this point, his life starts to resemble one of his novels because he eventually uses that as fuel for his writing. This includes things like gunrunning and political conspiracy - really exciting stuff, all that he lived at some point or another. But actually, as exciting as bits of his life were and as exciting as some of his books are, people who knew and observed him would generally report that he was a deadly serious man whose demeanor always betrayed that noble Polish heritage of his. He had a lot of disdain for people and wasn't all that happy in his life. In 1878, he had a very nasty chest wound that may have been the result of a duel; some people think it was actually a failed suicide attempt. So, the feeling that he wasn't such a happy guy is maybe substantiated by that.

After this incident, he moves on to British ships (he'd been traveling around on French ships, remember, because he was in Marseille), and he starts immersing himself in, now a third, language and culture - first Polish, then French and now English. He's learning English while he's working on these cargo vessels that he's sailing around on, and this is the thing that's really striking: he writes in English. Most of his famous stuff is written in English, and it's actually his third language. (Just pause and think of the language that you know second best to English and how difficult it would be to write in that. Now imagine knowing three. It's kind of nuts.) He has a really unique prose style, uniquely beautiful and cool, and a lot of people think this might actually be because he knew so many languages. He had all these different grammars in his head, all these different word orders and things like that. That might have actually made his prose so distinctive and good in English.

Conrad's Writing

During these years of traveling about and sailing and learning all these languages, all of these voyages continue to inform his writing. They provide all sorts of background for books, like The Arrow of Gold and Nostromo, and this trend of works imitating life really reaches its peak in 1889 when Conrad's the captain of a steamboat on the Congo River in Africa. This is what really influences him most when he goes on to produce Heart of Darkness, which, I think I mentioned before, is what he's most famous for now.

He does this for a while, and a few years later, in 1894, he actually retires from seafaring because his uncle told him not to in his will. (That's a will with some strings attached.) But it's okay because he's got this whole cache of memories and knowledge with which to write, so now he really gets serious about pursuing that and that alone. He publishes his first novel just a year after he retires in 1895. It's called Almayer's Folly, and it focuses on a Dutch trader who's hanging out in Borneo (so you can see Conrad's experiences are already influencing him). And his second book (1896) - An Outcast of the Islands is what it's called - is also about a trader, whose nasty actions disrupt someone's native land.

Notable Works and Themes

Already we get a little bit of Conrad's M.O. He's interested in foreign places. He's interested in crazy occurrences and adventures and things like that. Even though he was writing all these things, he wouldn't actually find much commercial success until 1913 (which is a lot later) with a book called Chance, which is actually now not really regarded as one of his top works. But his landmark book, Heart of Darkness, came in 1899 (that's when he started writing it and publishing it serially). It's a problematic, kind of crazy story about a guy named Charles Marlow who journeys down the Congo River - remember, that's something Conrad did on that steamboat. His mission is to return the rogue trader Mr. Kurtz, who's up to some nasty stuff in the heart of Africa. There's a famous movie about the Vietnam War called Apocalypse Now, which if you've ever seen that, the plot line is that this army captain has to go and retrieve this guy who's gone AWOL in the jungle. It's the same plot; it's basically taken from Heart of Darkness. (Marlon Brando is the crazy guy in the jungle.)

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