Joseph Conrad the Man

Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857 to parents Apollo Korzeniowski and Ewa Bobrowska. His mother Ewa perished from tuberculosis when Joseph was 7. Joseph’s father Apollo did his best to home school Joseph but between his ill attempts at farming and political activism (of which the ruinous result was imprisonment) Joseph learned what he did from reading he did by himself. Four years later Apollo died leaving Joseph an orphan at the ripe age of 11. Joseph went to his uncle, and since he was constantly in poor health as was a miserable student, asides from in geography, it became clear to Joseph’s uncle that he would need to learn a trade. So at the age of 16 he was sent to Marseilles, France to become a sailor. His only skills existing were fluency in French and a reasonable knowledge of history of geography. After four years of service he found the Frenchmen repugnant and joined the British merchant marine and continued to serve there for the next 15 years. It was after this that he applied for, and received, English citizenship. It was while at sea and in the Belgian Congo that Conrad amassed his experiences upon which his novels are based upon, additionally it was these voyages which imparted upon him that most particularly stiff style of writing and painful hopelessness regarding humanity. So it was at age 36 that Conrad put down the ship’s wheel and took the author’s pen. Financial soundness avoided him, despite his wild success amoungst the English intellectually elite, until 1913 when he wrote (what was apparently) one of his weaker novels- Chance. His style is characterized as a disciplined sort of romanticism, with a touch of unsparing moral judgments in some ways becoming the foremost prose poet of the era. But in keeping with his skepticism and melancholy Conrad inspired many other great writers to come such as: D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and many recognized (and recognizable) others. As far as his personality was concerned he was a reclusive, isolated, and deeply troubled man; constantly sick and often depressed, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. His marriage, at age 39, was no less melancholy than his writing, marrying an unsophisticated working girl aged 16 for no other reason than the fact that she was straightforward and devoted. Upon his tombstone is inscribed
“Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, doth greatly please”.

A Personal Connection

I so rarely have a subjective sort of experience with any sort of reading that focuses so little on relationships between humans, but rather ideas.The Heart of Darkness is less about Marlow or his crew mates, but rather the idea of a conqueror. Thus the subject of the book is less about a fiction; rather, a critique of the very real events which Conrad experienced. Personally already having known what occurred in the Congo, this scathing criticism fell on habituated, and consequently deft ears, allowing me less to feel and more to think.
This work is less of a sailor writing and more about a writer sailing, a direct parallel with Conrad. The meaning of the book is simple: it is an unashamed, unfaltering, and scathing condemnation of how the Belgians were acting in Africa and colonialism on the whole. The protagonist oddly enough isn't the narrator of the first frame of the story or Marlow in the second frame, but rather the idea of Mr. Kurtz. For it is only Mr. Kurtz and his white follower who truly are capable of humanity, but that even for Kurtz power proved corrupting. In this duality there is a great example of the ambiguous and changing message Conrad is presenting.
The book is of unique position in academia, in part due to the mystery of the darkness and in part due to the ambiguity of the meaning. Nigerian Writer Chinua Achcebe believes the book to be “offensive and totally deplorable,” incorrectly portraying Africa as the antithesis of Europe and depersonalizing portions of the human race. Yet that is clearly not the intent of Conrad, seeing that his depersonalization of portions of the human race was done in a scathingly satiric fashion, mocking colonialism. What Achcebe fails to realize is that Conrad was far ahead of his times in his critique. He was criticizing racism before the term existed. Thus Heart of Darkness can be set to rest as being morally correct; despite lacking the rhetoric of modern condemnations of racism (for the very obvious reason that they didn't exist in Conrad’s time).

Critic James Tropham notes much of what I did in my personal reaction section in that he believes the darkness is more about mystery and non-understanding than racism, and that generally the darkness more likely refers to the corruptive influence of power as the darkest darkness is not really the place on the river where Kurtz’s camp is, rather Kurtz himself. The book suggests that the darkness affecting Kurtz is one the common man at the time failed to grasp, and as such Conrad portrayed it so. Thus it is fitting we know not the extent of the meaning of Kurtz’s final words “The horror! The horror!” Tropham goes on saying that the heart of darkness contains some of the most fantastic language in English literature. Commenting further how Conrad’s journey lent to his style a “wonderfully authentic colloquialism” and that the work as a whole is remarkably poetic for a prose work (i.e. what I said about Conrad being a prose poet) and that it is more than a novel; rather, it is an extended symbolic poem imbuing the reader with awe not only through the breadth of ideas but also the beauty of its words.
Tropham’s summary of Heart of Darkness
“A seaman sat upon a tugboat moored in the river Thames narrates the main section of the story. This man, named Marlow, tells his fellow passengers that he spent a good deal of time in Africa. In one instance, he was called upon to pilot a trip down the river Congo in search of an ivory agent, who was sent as part of the British colonial interest in an unnamed African country. This man, named Kurtz, disappeared without a trace--inspiring worry that he'd gone "native," been kidnapped, absconded with the company's money, or been killed by the insular tribes in the middle of the jungle.

As Marlow and his crewmates move closer to the place Kurtz was last seen, he starts to understand the attraction of the jungle. Away from civilization, the feelings of danger and possibility start to become attractive to him because of their incredible power. When they arrive at the inner station, they find that Kurtz has become a king, almost a God to the tribesmen and women who he has bent to his will. He has also taken a wife, despite the fact he has a European fiance at home.

Marlow also finds Kurtz ill. Although Kurtz doesn't wish it, Marlow takes him aboard the boat. Kurtz does not survive the journey back, and Marlow must return home to break the news to Kurtz's fiance. In the cold light of the modern world he is unable to tell the truth, and instead lies about the way Kurtz lived in the heart of the jungle and the way he died.”

My Own Review

I have already mentioned much of what I thought about the meaning, and said meaning’s mystique. As far as the writing itself is concerned one must note that Conrad rarely uses paragraphing of any kind. That combined with the plethora of ambiguous metaphors, the host of symbols and imagery create a uniquely dense style of allegory only slightly less laborious to read than a college level chemistry textbook. Yet despite lacking characters to which one feels emotionally connected-for the book starts in media res-one cannot help but continue reading as if hoping to discover the darkness for oneself.

Works Cited

"Joseph Conrad." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

"Project MUSE - Martin Ray's Posthumous Conrad Bibliography." Project MUSE - Martin Ray's Posthumous Conrad Bibliography. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Joseph Conrad (British writer)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.
"joseph conrad bio video 256k." YouTube. YouTube, 27 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie queen. London: Dent, 1910. Print.
"'Heart of Darkness' Review." Classic Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

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