The Secret Agent — Videos

Posted on July 28, 2015. Filed under: Blogroll, Bomb, Book, Books, British History, Communications, Congress, Constitution, Culture, Entertainment, Faith, Family, Fiction, Friends, government spending, history, Literature, Movies, Terrorism, Video, War, Welfare, Wisdom, Writing | Tags: , , , , |

The Secret Agent (David Suchet, Patrick Malahide, Peter Capaldi, 1992)

The Secret Agent

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For other uses, see Secret Agent (disambiguation).
The Secret Agent

First US edition cover
Author Joseph Conrad
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Spy fiction
Publisher Methuen & Co
Publication date
September 1907
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 442

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale is a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907.[1] The story is set in London in 1886 and deals with Mr. Verloc and his work as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia).The Secret Agent is notable for being one of Conrad’s later political novels. In these later novels, Conrad has moved away from his former tales of seafaring.

The novel deals broadly with anarchism, espionage, and terrorism.[2] It also deals with exploitation of the vulnerable, particularly in Verloc’s relationship with his brother-in-law Stevie, who has an intellectual disability.

The Secret Agent was ranked the 46th best novel of the 20th century by Modern Library.[3]

Because of its terrorism theme, it was noted as “one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media” two weeks after the September 11 attacks.[4]

Plot summary

The novel is set in London in 1886 and follows the life of Mr. Verloc, a secret agent. Verloc is also a businessman who owns a shop which sells pornographic material, contraceptives, and bric-a-brac. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie has a mental disability, possibly autism,[5] which causes him to be very excitable; his sister, Verloc’s wife, attends to him, treating him more as a son than as a brother. Verloc’s friends are a group of anarchists of which Comrade Ossipon, Michaelis, and “The Professor” are the most prominent. Although largely ineffectual as terrorists, their actions are known to the police. The group produce anarchist literature in the form of pamphlets entitled F.P., an acronym for The Future of the Proletariat.

The novel begins in Verloc’s home, as he and his wife discuss the trivialities of everyday life, which introduces the reader to Verloc’s family. Soon after, Verloc leaves to meet Mr. Vladimir, the new First Secretary in the embassy of a foreign country. Although a member of an anarchist cell, Verloc is also secretly employed by the Embassy as an agent provocateur. Vladimir informs Verloc that from reviewing his service history he is far from an exemplary model of a secret agent and, to redeem himself, must carry out an operation – the destruction of Greenwich Observatory by a bomb explosion. Vladimir explains that Britain’s lax attitude to anarchism endangers his own country, and he reasons that an attack on ‘science’, which he claims is the current vogue amongst the public, will provide the necessary outrage for suppression. Verloc later meets with his friends, who discuss politics and law, and the notion of a communist revolution. Unbeknownst to the group, Stevie, Verloc’s brother-in-law, overhears the conversation, which greatly disturbs him.

The novel flashes forward to after the bombing has taken place. Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor, who discusses having given explosives to Verloc. The Professor then describes the nature of the bomb which he carries in his coat at all times: it allows him to press a button which will blow him up in twenty seconds, and those nearest to him. After The Professor leaves the meeting, he stumbles into Chief Inspector Heat. Heat is a policeman who is working on the case regarding a recent explosion at Greenwich, where one man was killed. Heat informs The Professor that he is not a suspect in the case, but that he is being monitored due to his terrorist inclinations and anarchist background. Knowing that Michaelis has recently moved to the countryside to write a book, the Chief Inspector informs the Assistant Commissioner that he has a contact, Verloc, who may be able to assist in the case. The Assistant Commissioner shares some of the same high society acquaintances with Michaelis and is chiefly motivated by finding the extent of Michaelis’s involvement in order to assess any possible embarrassment to his connections. He later speaks to his superior, Sir Ethelred, about his intentions to solve the case alone, rather than rely on the effort of Chief Inspector Heat.

The novel then flashes back to before the explosion, taking the perspective of Winnie Verloc and her mother. At home, Mrs. Verloc’s mother informs the family that she wishes to move out of the house. Mrs. Verloc’s mother and Stevie use a hansom which is driven by a man with a hook in the place of his hand. The journey greatly upsets Stevie, as the driver’s tales of hardship coupled with his menacing hook scare him to the point where Mrs. Verloc must calm him down. On Verloc’s return from a business trip to the continent, his wife tells him of the high regard that Stevie has for him and she implores her husband to spend more time with Stevie. Verloc eventually agrees to go for a walk with Stevie. After this walk, Mrs. Verloc notes that her husband’s relationship with her brother has improved. Verloc then tells his wife that he has taken Stevie to go and visit Michaelis, and that Stevie would stay with him in the countryside for a few days.

As Verloc is talking to his wife about the possibility of emigrating to the continent, he is paid a visit by the Assistant Commissioner. Shortly thereafter, Chief Inspector Heat arrives to speak with Verloc, without knowing that the Assistant Commissioner had left with Verloc earlier that evening. The Chief Inspector tells Mrs. Verloc that he had recovered an overcoat at the scene of the bombing which had the shop’s address written on a label. Mrs. Verloc confirms that it was Stevie’s overcoat, and that she had written the address. On Verloc’s return, he realises that his wife knows her brother has been killed by Verloc’s bomb, and confesses what truly happened. A stunned Mrs. Verloc, in her anguish, then fatally stabs her husband.

After the murder, Mrs. Verloc flees her home, where she chances upon Comrade Ossipon, and begs him to help her. Ossipon assists her while confessing romantic feelings but secretly with a view to possess Mr Verloc’s bank account savings. They plan to run away and he aids her in taking a boat to the continent. However, her instability and the revelation of Mr. Verloc’s murder increasingly worry him, and he abandons her, taking Mr Verloc’s savings with him. He later discovers in a newspaper that a woman had disappeared, leaving behind her a wedding ring, before drowning herself in the English Channel.


  • Mr. Adolf Verloc: a secret agent who owns a shop in the Soho region of London. His primary characteristic, as described by Conrad, is indolence. He has been employed by an unnamed embassy to spy on revolutionary groups, which then orders him to instigate a terrorist act against the Greenwich Observatory. Their belief is that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to act more forcibly against emigre socialist and anarchist activists. He is part of an anarchist organisation that creates pamphlets under the heading The Future of the Proletariat. He is married to Winnie, and lives with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie.
  • Mrs. Winnie Verloc: Verloc’s wife. She cares deeply for her brother Stevie, who has the mental age of a young child. Of working class origins, her father was the owner of a pub. She is younger than her husband and married him not for love but to provide a home for her mother and brother. A loyal wife, she is deeply disturbed upon learning of the death of her brother due to her husband’s plotting, and kills him with a knife in the heart. She dies, presumably by drowning herself to avoid the gallows.
  • Stevie: Winnie’s brother has the mental age of a young child and is very sensitive and is disturbed by notions of violence or hardship. His sister cares for him, and Stevie passes most of his time drawing numerous circles on pieces of paper. Verloc, exploiting both Stevie’s childlike simplicity and outrage at suffering, employs him to carry out the terrorist attack on the Greenwich Observatory. However, Stevie stumbles and the bomb explodes prematurely.
  • Mrs. Verloc’s mother: Old and infirm, Mrs Verloc’s mother leaves the household to live in an almshouse, believing that two disabled people (herself and Stevie) are too much for Mr Verloc’s generosity. The widow of a publican, she spent most of her life working hard in her husband’s pub and believed Mr Verloc to be a gentleman because she thought he resembled patrons of business houses (pubs with higher prices, consequently frequented by higher classes).
  • Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwich. An astute and practical man who uses a clue found at the scene of the crime to trace events back to Verloc’s home. Although he informs his superior what he is planning to do with regards to the case, he is initially not aware that the Assistant Commissioner is acting without his knowledge. Heat knew Verloc before the bombing as Verloc had supplied information to Heat through the Embassy. Heat has contempt for anarchists who he regards as amateurs, as opposed to burglars who he regards as professionals.
  • The Assistant Commissioner: of a higher rank than the Chief Inspector, he uses the knowledge gained from Heat to pursue matters personally, for reasons of his own. The Assistant Commissioner is married to a lady with influential connections. He informs his superior, Sir Ethelred, of his intentions, and tracks down Verloc before Heat can.
  • Sir Ethelred: the Secretary of State (Home Secretary) to whom the Assistant Commissioner reports. At the time of the bombing he is busy trying to pass a bill regarding the nationalisation of fisheries through the House of Commons against great opposition. He is briefed by the Assistant Commissioner throughout the novel who he often admonishes to not go into detail.
  • Mr. Vladimir: the First Secretary of an embassy of an unnamed country. Though his name might suggest that this is the Russian embassy, the name of the previous first secretary, Baron Stott-Wartenheim, is Germanic, as is that of Privy Councillor Wurmt, another official of this embassy. There is also the suggestion that Vladimir is not from Europe but Central Asia.[6] Vladimir thinks that the English police are far too soft on émigré socialist and anarchists, which are a real problem in his home country. He orders Verloc to instigate a terrorist act, hoping that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to adopt repressive measures.
  • Michaelis: a member of Verloc’s group, and another anarchist. The most philosophical member of the group, his theories resemble those of Peter Kropotkin while some of his other attributes resemble Mikhail Bakunin.
  • Comrade Alexander Ossipon: an ex-medical student, anarchist and member of Verloc’s group. He survives on the savings of various women he seduces, mostly working class. He is influenced by the theories on degeneracy of Cesare Lombroso. After Mr Verloc’s murder he initially helps, but afterwards abandons Winnie leaving her penniless on a train. He is later disturbed when he reads of her suicide and wonders if he will be able to seduce a woman again.
  • Karl Yundt: a member of Verloc’s group, commonly referred to as an “old terrorist”.
  • The Professor: another anarchist, who specialises in explosives. The Professor carries a flask of explosives in his coat that can be detonated within twenty seconds of him squeezing an india rubber ball in his pocket. The police know this and keep their distance. The most nihilistic member of the anarchists, the Professor feels oppressed and disgusted by the rest of humanity and has particular contempt for the weak. He dreams of a world where the weak are freely exterminated so that the strong can thrive. He supplies to Mr Verloc the bomb that kills Stevie.

Background: Greenwich Bombing of 1894

Royal Observatory, Greenwich c. 1902 as depicted on a postcard

Conrad’s character, Stevie, is based on the French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, who died gruesomely in Greenwich Park when the explosives he carried prematurely detonated.[7] Bourdin’s motives remain a mystery as does his intended target, which may have been the Greenwich Observatory.[8] In the 1920 Author’s Note to the novel, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the bombing:[9]

[…] we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack. I pointed all this out to my friend who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.” These were absolutely the only words that passed between us […].[10]

Major themes

Terrorism and anarchism

Terrorism and anarchism are intrinsic aspects of the novel, and are central to the plot. Verloc is employed by an agency which requires him to orchestrate terrorist activities, and several of the characters deal with terrorism in some way: Verloc’s friends are all interested in an anarchistic political revolution, and the police are investigating anarchist motives behind the bombing of Greenwich.

The novel was written at a time when terrorist activity was increasing. There had been numerous dynamite attacks in both Europe and the US, as well as several assassinations of heads of state.[11] Conrad also drew upon two persons specifically: Mikhail Bakuninand Prince Peter Kropotkin. Conrad used these two men in his “portrayal of the novel’s anarchists”.[12] However, according to Conrad’s Author’s Note, only one character was a true anarchist: Winnie Verloc. In The Secret Agent, she is “the only character who performs a serious act of violence against another”,[13] despite the F.P.’s intentions of radical change, and The Professor’s inclination to keep a bomb on his person.

Critics have analysed the role of terrorism in the novel. Patrick Reilly calls the novel “a terrorist text as well as a text about terrorism”[14] due to Conrad’s manipulation of chronology to allow the reader to comprehend the outcome of the bombing before the characters, thereby corrupting the traditional conception of time. The morality which is implicit in these acts of terrorism has also been explored: is Verloc evil because his negligence leads to the death of his brother-in-law? Although Winnie evidently thinks so, the issue is not clear, as Verloc attempted to carry out the act with no fatalities, and as simply as possible to retain his job, and care for his family.[15]


The role of politics is paramount in the novel, as the main character, Verloc, works for a quasi-political organisation. The role of politics is seen in several places in the novel: in the revolutionary ideas of the F.P.; in the characters’ personal beliefs; and in Verloc’s own private life. Conrad’s depiction of anarchism has an “enduring political relevance”, although the focus is now largely concerned with the terrorist aspects that this entails.[16] The discussions of the F.P. are expositions on the role of anarchism and its relation to contemporary life. The threat of these thoughts is evident, as Chief Inspector Heat knows F.P. members because of their anarchist views. Moreover, Michaelis’ actions are monitored by the police to such an extent that he must notify the police station that he is moving to the country.

The plot to destroy Greenwich is in itself anarchistic. Vladimir asserts that the bombing “must be purely destructive” and that the anarchists who will be implicated as the architects of the explosion “should make it clear that [they] are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation.”[17] However, the political form of anarchism is ultimately controlled in the novel: the only supposed politically motivated act is orchestrated by a secret government agency.

Some critics, such as Fredrick R. Karl,[18] think that the main political phenomenon in this novel is the modern age, as symbolised by the teeming, pullulating foggy streets of London (most notably in the cab ride taken by Winnie and Stevie Verloc). This modern age distorts everything, including politics (Verloc is motivated by the need to keep his remunerative position, the Professor to some extent by pride), the family (symbolised by the Verloc household, in which all roles are distorted, with the husband being like a father to the wife, who is like a mother to her brother), even the human body (Michaelis and Verloc are hugely obese, while the Professor and Yundt are preternaturally thin). This extended metaphor, using London as a center of darkness much like Kurtz’s headquarters in Heart of Darkness,[19] presents “a dark vision of moral and spiritual inertia” and a condemnation of those who, like Mrs Verloc, think it a mistake to think too deeply.[20]

Literary significance and reception

Initially, the novel fared poorly in both the United Kingdom and the United States, selling only 3,076 copies between 1907 and 1914. The book fared slightly better in Britain, yet no more than 6,500 copies were pressed before 1914. Although sales increased after 1914, the novel never sold more than “modestly” throughout Conrad’s lifetime. The novel was released to favourable reviews, with most agreeing with the view of The Times Literary Supplement, that the novel “increase[d] Mr. Conrad’s reputation, already of the highest.”[21] However, there were detractors, who largely disagreed with the novel’s “unpleasant characters and subject”. Country Life magazine called the story “indecent”, whilst also criticising Conrad’s “often dense and elliptical style”.[21]

In modern times, The Secret Agent is considered to be one of Conrad’s finest novels. The Independent calls it “[o]ne of Conrad’s great city novels”[22] whilst The New York Times insists that it is “the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism”.[23] It is considered to be a “prescient” view of the 20th century, foretelling the rise of terrorism, anarchism, and the augmentation of secret societies, such as MI5. The novel is on reading lists for both secondary school pupils and university undergraduates.[24][25][26]

Influence on Ted Kaczynski

The Secret Agent is said to have influenced the Unabomber—Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski was a great fan of the novel and as an adolescent kept a copy at his bedside.[27] He identified strongly with the character of “the Professor” and advised his family to readThe Secret Agent to understand the character with whom he felt such an affinity. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBI, said that Kaczynski “seem[ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad.”[28]

Kaczynski’s idolisation of the character was due to the traits that they shared: disaffection, hostility toward the world, and being an aspiring anarchist.[29] However, it did not stop at mere idolisation. Kaczynski used “The Professor” as a source of inspiration, and “fabricated sixteen exploding packages that detonated in various locations”.[30] After his capture, Kaczynski revealed to FBI agents that he had read the novel a dozen times, and had sometimes used “Conrad” as an alias.[31] It was discovered that Kaczynski had used various formulations of Conrad’s name – Conrad, Konrad, and Korzeniowski, Conrad’s original surname – to sign himself into several hotels in Sacramento. As in his youth, Kaczynski retained a copy of The Secret Agent, and kept it with him whilst living as a recluse in a hut in Montana.[11]


See also

Joseph Conrad

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For other uses, see Joseph Conrad (disambiguation).
Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad.PNG

Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
3 December 1857
Terekhove near Berdychiv, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire
Died 3 August 1924 (aged 66)
Bishopsbourne, England
Resting place Canterbury Cemetery,Canterbury
Occupation Novelist, short-story writer
Language English
Nationality Polish
Citizenship British
Period 1895–1923: Modernism
Genre Fiction
Notable works The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’(1897)
Heart of Darkness (1899)
Lord Jim (1900)
Typhoon (1902)
Nostromo (1904)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Under Western Eyes (1911)
Spouse Jessie George
Children Borys, John


Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in English.[1] He was granted British nationality in 1886, but always considered himself a Pole.[2][note 1] Though he did not speak English fluently until he was in his twenties (and always with a marked accent), he was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English sensibility into English literature.[note 2][3] He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit.

Joseph Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works still contain elements of nineteenth-century realism.[4] His narrative style and anti-heroic characters[5] have influenced many authors, including T.S. Eliot,William Faulkner,[6] Graham Greene,[6] and more recently Salman Rushdie.[note 3] Many films have been adapted from, or inspired by, Conrad’s works.

Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew on his Polish heritage and on his experiences in the French and British merchant navies to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European-dominated world, while profoundly exploring human psychology. Appreciated early on by literary critics, his fiction and nonfiction have since been seen as almost prophetic, in the light of subsequent national and international disasters of the 20th and 21st centuries.[7]




Early years

Conrad’s writer father, Apollo Korzeniowski

Nowy Świat 47, Warsaw, where three-year-old Conrad lived with his parents in 1861. In front: a “Chopin’s Warsaw” bench.

Joseph Conrad was born on 3 December 1857 in Berdychiv, in a part of Ukraine that had belonged to the Kingdom of Poland before 1793 and was at the time of his birth under Russianrule.[8] He was the only child of Apollo Korzeniowski and his wife Ewa Bobrowska. The father was a writer, translator, political activist, and would-be revolutionary. Conrad was christenedJózef Teodor Konrad after his maternal grandfather Józef, his paternal grandfather Teodor, and the heroes (both named “Konrad”) of two poems by Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady andKonrad Wallenrod. He was subsequently known to his family as “Konrad”, rather than “Józef”.

Though the vast majority of the surrounding area’s inhabitants were Ukrainians, and the great majority of Berdychiv’s residents were Jewish, almost all the countryside was owned by the Polish szlachta (nobility), to which Conrad’s family belonged as bearers of the Nałęcz coat-of-arms.[9] Polish literature, particularly patriotic literature, was held in high esteem by the area’s Polish population.[10]:1

The Korzeniowski family played a significant role in Polish attempts to regain independence. Conrad’s paternal grandfather served under Prince Józef Poniatowski during Napoleon’s Russian campaign and formed his own cavalry squadron during the November 1830 Uprising.[11] Conrad’s fiercely patriotic father belonged to the “Red” political faction, whose goal was to re-establish the pre-partition boundaries of Poland, but which also advocated land reform and the abolition of serfdom. Conrad’s subsequent refusal to follow in Apollo’s footsteps, and his choice of exile over resistance, were a source of lifelong guilt for Conrad.[12][note 4]

Because of the father’s attempts at farming and his political activism, the family moved repeatedly. In May 1861 they moved to Warsaw, where Apollo joined the resistance against the Russian Empire. This led to his imprisonment in Pavilion X (Ten) of the Warsaw Citadel.[note 5] Conrad would write: “[I]n the courtyard of this Citadel – characteristically for our nation – my childhood memories begin.”[2]:17–19 On 9 May 1862 Apollo and his family were exiled to Vologda, 500 kilometres (310 mi) north of Moscow and known for its bad climate.[2]:19–20 In January 1863 Apollo’s sentence was commuted, and the family was sent to Chernihiv in northeast Ukraine, where conditions were much better. However, on 18 April 1865 Ewa died of tuberculosis.[2]:19–25

Apollo did his best to home-school Conrad. The boy’s early reading introduced him to the two elements that later dominated his life: in Victor Hugo‘s Toilers of the Sea he encountered the sphere of activity to which he would devote his youth; Shakespeare brought him into the orbit of English literature. Most of all, though, he read Polish Romantic poetry. Half a century later he explained that “The Polishness in my works comes fromMickiewicz and Słowacki. My father read [Mickiewicz’s] Pan Tadeusz aloud to me and made me read it aloud…. I used to prefer [Mickiewicz’s] Konrad Wallenrod [and] Grażyna. Later I preferred Słowacki. You know why Słowacki?… [He is the soul of all Poland]”.[2]:27

In December 1867, Apollo took his son to the Austrian-held part of Poland, which for two years had been enjoying considerable internal freedom and a degree of self-government. After sojourns in Lwów and several smaller localities, on 20 February 1869 they moved to Kraków (till 1596 the capital of Poland), likewise in Austrian Poland. A few months later, on 23 May 1869, Apollo Korzeniowski died, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven.[2]:31–34 Like Conrad’s mother, Apollo had been gravely ill with tuberculosis.

Tadeusz Bobrowski, Conrad’s uncle and mentor, to whom Conrad owed so much

The young Conrad was placed in the care of Ewa’s brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski. Conrad’s poor health and his unsatisfactory schoolwork caused his uncle constant problems and no end of financial outlays. Conrad was not a good student; despite tutoring, he excelled only in geography.[2]:43 Since the boy’s illness was clearly of nervous origin, the physicians supposed that fresh air and physical work would harden him; his uncle hoped that well-defined duties and the rigors of work would teach him discipline. Since he showed little inclination to study, it was essential that he learn a trade; his uncle saw him as a sailor-cum-businessman who would combine maritime skills with commercial activities.[2]:44–46 In fact, in the autumn of 1871, thirteen-year-old Conrad announced his intention to become a sailor. He later recalled that as a child he had read (apparently in French translation) Leopold McClintock‘s book about his 1857–59 expeditions in the Fox, in search of Sir John Franklin‘s lost ships Erebus and Terror.[note 6] He also recalled having read books by the American James Fenimore Cooper and the English Captain Frederick Marryat.[2]:41–42 A playmate of his adolescence recalled that Conrad spun fantastic yarns, always set at sea, presented so realistically that listeners thought the action was happening before their eyes.

In August 1873 Bobrowski sent fifteen-year-old Conrad to Lwów to a cousin who ran a small boarding house for boys orphaned by the 1863 Uprising; group conversation there was in French. The owner’s daughter recalled:

He stayed with us ten months… Intellectually he was extremely advanced but [he] disliked school routine, which he found tiring and dull; he used to say… he… planned to become a great writer…. He disliked all restrictions. At home, at school, or in the living room he would sprawl unceremoniously. He… suffer[ed] from severe headaches and nervous attacks…[2]:43–44

Conrad had been at the establishment for just over a year when in September 1874, for uncertain reasons, his uncle removed him from school in Lwów and took him back to Kraków.

On 13 October 1874 Bobrowski sent the sixteen-year-old to Marseilles, France, for a planned career at sea.[2]:44–46 Though Conrad had not completed secondary school, his accomplishments included fluency in French (with a correct accent), some knowledge of Latin, German and Greek, probably a good knowledge of history, some geography, and probably already an interest in physics. He was well read, particularly in Polish Romantic literature. He belonged to only the second generation in his family that had had to earn a living outside the family estates: he was a member of the second generation of the intelligentsia, a social class that was starting to play an important role in Central and Eastern Europe.[2]:46–47 He had absorbed enough of the history, culture and literature of his native land to be able eventually to develop a distinctive world view and make unique contributions to the literature of his adoptive Britain.[10]:1–5 It was tensions that originated in his childhood in Poland and grew in his adulthood abroad that would give rise to Conrad’s greatest literary achievements.[10]:246–47 Najder, himself an emigrant from Poland, observes:

Living away from one’s natural environment – family, friends, social group, language – even if it results from a conscious decision, usually gives rise to… internal tensions, because it tends to make people less sure of themselves, more vulnerable, less certain of their… position and… value… The Polish szlachta and… intelligentsia were social strata in which reputation… was felt… very important… for a feeling of self-worth. Men strove… to find confirmation of their… self-regard… in the eyes of others… Such a psychological heritage forms both a spur to ambition and a source of constant stress, especially if [one has been inculcated with] the idea of [one]’s public duty…[2]:47


Conrad was a Russian subject, having been born in the Russian part of what had once been the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. In December 1867, with the Russian government’s permission, his father Apollo had taken him to the Austrian part of the former Commonwealth, which enjoyed considerable internal freedom and a degree of self-government. After the father’s death, Conrad’s uncle Bobrowski had attempted to secure Austrian citizenship for him – to no avail, probably because Conrad had not received permission from Russian authorities to remain abroad permanently and had not been released from being a Russian subject. Conrad could not return to Ukraine, in the Russian Empire – he would have been liable to many years’ military service and, as the son of political exiles, to harassment.[2]:41

In a letter of 9 August 1877, Conrad’s uncle Bobrowski broached two important subjects:[note 7] the desirability of Conrad’s naturalisation abroad (tantamount to release from being a Russian subject) and Conrad’s plans to join the British merchant marine. “[D]o you speak English?… I never wished you to become naturalized in France, mainly because of the compulsory military service… I thought, however, of your getting naturalized in Switzerland…” In his next letter, Bobrowski supported Conrad’s idea of seeking citizenship of the United States or of “one of the more important Southern Republics”.[2]:57–58

Eventually Conrad would make his home in England. On 2 July 1886 he applied for British nationality, which was granted on 19 August 1886. Yet, in spite of having become a subject of Queen Victoria, Conrad had not ceased to be a subject of Tsar Alexander III. To achieve the latter, he had to make many visits to the Russian Embassy in London and politely reiterate his request. He would later recall the Embassy’s home at Belgrave Square in his novel The Secret Agent.[2]:112 Finally, on 2 April 1889, the Russian Ministry of Home Affairs released “the son of a Polish man of letters, captain of the British merchant marine” from the status of Russian subject.[2]:132

Merchant marine

In 1874 Conrad left Poland to start a merchant-marine career. After nearly four years in France and on French ships, he joined the British merchant marine and for the next fifteen years served under the Red Ensign. He worked on a variety of ships as crew member (steward, apprentice, able-bodied seaman) and then as third, second and first mate, until eventually achieving captain’s rank. Of his 19-year merchant-marine career, only about half was spent actually at sea.

Most of Conrad’s stories and novels, and many of their characters, were drawn from his seafaring career and persons whom he had met or heard about. For his fictional characters he often borrowed the authentic names of actual persons. The historic trader William Charles Olmeijer, whom Conrad encountered on four short visits to Berau in Borneo, appears as “Almayer” (possibly a simple misspelling) in Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. Other authentic names include those of Captain McWhirr (in Typhoon), Captain Beard and Mr. Mahon (Youth), Captain Lingard (Almayer’s Folly and elsewhere), and Captain Ellis (The Shadow Line). Conrad also preserves, in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, the authentic name of the Narcissus, a ship in which he sailed in 1884.

Conrad’s three-year appointment with a Belgian trading company included service as captain of a steamer on the Congo River, an episode that would inspire his novella, Heart of Darkness.

John Galsworthy, whom Conrad met on the Torrens

During a brief call in India in 1885–86, 28-year-old Conrad sent five letters to Joseph Spiridion,[note 8] a Pole eight years his senior whom he had befriended at Cardiff in June 1885 just before sailing for Singapore in the clipper ship Tilkhurst. These letters are Conrad’s first preserved texts in English. His English is generally correct but stiff to the point of artificiality; many fragments suggest that his thoughts ran along the lines of Polish syntax andphraseology. More importantly, the letters show a marked change in views from those implied in his earlier correspondence of 1881–83. He had departed from “hope for the future” and from the conceit of “sailing [ever] toward Poland”, and from his Panslavic ideas. He was left with a painful sense of the hopelessness of the Polish question and an acceptance of England as a possible refuge. While he often adjusted his statements to accord to some extent with the views of his addressees, the theme of hopelessness concerning the prospects for Polish independence often occurs authentically in his correspondence and works before 1914.[2]:104–5

When Conrad left London on 25 October 1892 aboard the clipper ship Torrens, one of the passengers was William Henry Jacques, a consumptive Cambridge graduate who died less than a year later (19 September 1893) and was, according to Conrad’s A Personal Record, the first reader of the still-unfinished manuscript of his Almayer’s Folly. Jacques encouraged Conrad to continue writing the novel.[2]:181

Conrad completed his last long-distance voyage as a seaman on 26 July 1893 when the Torrens docked at London and “J. Conrad Korzemowin” (per the certificate of discharge) debarked. When the Torrens had left Adelaide on 13 March 1893, the passengers had included two young Englishmen returning from Australia and New Zealand: 25-year-old lawyer and future novelist John Galsworthy; and Edward Lancelot Sanderson, who was going to help his father run a boys’ preparatory school at Elstree. They were probably the first Englishmen and non-sailors with whom Conrad struck up a friendship; he would remain in touch with both. The protagonist of one of Galsworthy’s first literary attempts, “The Doldrums” (1895–96), the first mate Armand, is obviously modeled on Conrad. At Cape Town, where the Torrens remained from 17 to 19 May, Galsworthy left the ship to look at the local mines. Sanderson continued his voyage and seems to have been the first to develop closer ties with Conrad.[2]:182–3


In 1894, aged 36, Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health, partly due to unavailability of ships, and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he had decided on a literary career. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the east coast of Borneo, was published in 1895. Its appearance marked his first use of the pen name “Joseph Conrad”; “Konrad” was, of course, the third of his Polish given names, but his use of it – in the anglicised version, “Conrad” – may also have been an homage to the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz‘s patriotic narrative poem, Konrad Wallenrod.[13]

Edward Garnett, a young publisher’s reader and literary critic who would play one of the chief supporting roles in Conrad’s literary career, had – like Unwin’s first reader of Almayer’s Folly, Wilfrid Hugh Chesson – been impressed by the manuscript, but Garnett had been “uncertain whether the English was good enough for publication.” Garnett had shown the novel to his wife, Constance Garnett, later a well-known translator of Russian literature. She had thought Conrad’s foreignness a positive merit.[2]:197

While Conrad had only limited personal acquaintance with the peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia, the region looms large in his early work. According to Najder, Conrad, the exile and wanderer, was aware of a difficulty that he confessed more than once: the lack of a common cultural background with his Anglophone readers meant he could not compete with English-language authors writing about the Anglosphere. At the same time, the choice of a non-English colonial setting freed him from an embarrassing division of loyalty:Almayer’s Folly, and later “An Outpost of Progress” (1897, set in a Congo exploited by King Leopold II of Belgium) and Heart of Darkness (1899, likewise set in the Congo), contain bitter reflections on colonialism. The Malay states came theoretically under the suzerainty of the Dutch government; Conrad did not write about the area’s British dependencies, which he never visited. He “was apparently intrigued by… struggles aimed at preserving national independence. The prolific and destructive richness of tropical nature and the dreariness of human life within it accorded well with the pessimistic mood of his early works.”[2]:118–20 [note 9]

Almayer’s Folly, together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), laid the foundation for Conrad’s reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales – a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.[note 10]

Almost all of Conrad’s writings were first published in newspapers and magazines: influential reviews like The Fortnightly Review and the North American Review; avant-garde publications like the Savoy, New Review, and The English Review; popular short-fiction magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s Magazine; women’s journals like the Pictorial Review and Romance; mass-circulation dailies like the Daily Mail and the New York Herald; and illustrated newspapers like The Illustrated London News and theIllustrated Buffalo Express.[citation needed] He also wrote for The Outlook, an imperialist weekly magazine, between 1898 and 1906.[14][note 11]

Financial success long eluded Conrad, who often asked magazine and book publishers for advances, and acquaintances (notably John Galsworthy) for loans.[2][note 12] Eventually a government grant (“Civil List pension”) of £100 per annum, awarded on 9 August 1910, somewhat relieved his financial worries,[2]:420 [note 13] and in time collectors began purchasing his manuscripts. Though his talent was early on recognised by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance – paradoxically, one of his weaker novels.

Edward Said describes three phases to Conrad’s literary career.[15] In the first and longest, from the 1890s to World War I, Conrad writes most of his great novels, including The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo(1904), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). The second phase, spanning the war and following the popular success of Chance (1913), is marked by the advent of Conrad’s public persona as “great writer”. In the third and final phase, from the end of World War I to Conrad’s death (1924), he at last finds an uneasy peace; it is, as C. McCarthy writes, as though “the War has allowed Conrad’s psyche to purge itself of terror and anxiety.”[16]

Personal life

Temperament and health

Conrad was a reserved man, wary of showing emotion. He scorned sentimentality; his manner of portraying emotion in his books was full of restraint, scepticism and irony.[2]:575 In the words of his uncle Bobrowski, as a young man Conrad was “extremely sensitive, conceited, reserved, and in addition excitable. In short […] all the defects of the Nałęcz family.”[2]:65

Conrad suffered throughout life from ill health, physical and mental. A newspaper review of a Conrad biography suggested that the book could have been subtitled Thirty Years of Debt, Gout, Depression and Angst.[17] In 1891 he was hospitalised for several months, suffering from gout, neuralgic pains in his right arm and recurrent attacks of malaria. He also complained of swollen hands “which made writing difficult”. Taking his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski’s advice, he convalesced at a spa in Switzerland.[2]:169–70 Conrad had a phobia of dentistry, neglecting his teeth till they had to be extracted. In one letter he remarked that every novel he had written had cost him a tooth.[7]:258 Conrad’s physical afflictions were, if anything, less vexatious than his mental ones. In his letters he often described symptoms of depression; “the evidence,” writes Najder, “is so strong that it is nearly impossible to doubt it.”[2]:167

Attempted suicide

In March 1878, at the end of his Marseilles period, 20-year-old Conrad attempted suicide, by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver.[18] According to his uncle, who was summoned by a friend, Conrad had fallen into debt. Bobrowski described his subsequent “study” of his nephew in an extensive letter to Stefan Buszczyński, his own ideological opponent and a friend of Conrad’s late father Apollo.[note 14] To what extent the suicide attempt had been made in earnest, likely will never be known, but it is suggestive of a situational depression.[2]:65–7

Romance and marriage

Little is known about any intimate relationships that Conrad might have had prior to his marriage, confirming a popular image of the author as an isolated bachelor who preferred the company of close male friends.[19] However, in 1888 during a stop-over on Mauritius, Conrad developed a couple of romantic interests. One of these would be described in his 1910 story “A Smile of Fortune”, which contains autobiographical elements (e.g., one of the characters is the same Chief Mate Burns who appears in The Shadow Line). The narrator, a young captain, flirts ambiguously and surreptitiously with Alice Jacobus, daughter of a local merchant living in a house surrounded by a magnificent rose garden. Research has confirmed that in Port Louis at the time there was a 17-year-old Alice Shaw, whose father, a shipping agent, owned the only rose garden in town.[2]:126–27

More is known about Conrad’s other, more open flirtation. An old friend, Captain Gabriel Renouf of the French merchant marine, introduced him to the family of his brother-in-law. Renouf’s eldest sister was the wife of Louis Edward Schmidt, a senior official in the colony; with them lived two other sisters and two brothers. Though the island had been taken over in 1810 by Britain, many of the inhabitants were descendants of the original French colonists, and Conrad’s excellent French and perfect manners opened all local salons to him. He became a frequent guest at the Schmidts’, where he often met the Misses Renouf. A couple of days before leaving Port Louis, Conrad asked one of the Renouf brothers for the hand of his 26-year-old sister Eugenie. She was already, however, engaged to marry her pharmacist cousin. After the rebuff, Conrad did not pay a farewell visit but sent a polite letter to Gabriel Renouf, saying he would never return to Mauritius and adding that on the day of the wedding his thoughts would be with them.

In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George.[20] The couple had two sons, Borys and John. The elder, Borys, proved a disappointment in scholarship and integrity.[2] Jessie was an unsophisticated, working-class girl, sixteen years younger than Conrad. To his friends, she was an inexplicable choice of wife, and the subject of some rather disparaging and unkind remarks.[21][22] (See Lady Ottoline Morrell’s opinion of Jessie in Impressions.) However, according to other biographers such as Frederick Karl, Jessie provided what Conrad needed, namely a “straightforward, devoted, quite competent” companion.[23] Similarly, Jones remarks that, despite whatever difficulties the marriage endured, “there can be no doubt that the relationship sustained Conrad’s career as a writer”, which might have been a lot less successful without her.[24]

The couple rented a long series of successive homes, occasionally in France, sometimes briefly in London, but mostly in the English countryside, sometimes from friends – to be close to friends, to enjoy the peace of the countryside, but above all because it was more affordable.[2][note 15] Except for several vacations in France and Italy, a 1914 vacation in his native Poland, and a 1923 visit to the United States, Conrad lived the rest of his life in England.

In 1914, Conrad stayed at the Zakopanepension Konstantynówka, operated by his cousin Aniela Zagórska, mother of his future Polish translator of the same name.[2]:462–63

Conrad; Aniela Zagórska(left), Karola Zagórska, Conrad’s nieces. Aniela translated Conrad into Polish.[25]

The 1914 vacation with his wife and sons in Poland, at the urging of Józef Retinger, coincided with the outbreak of World War I. On 28 July 1914, the day war broke out between Austro-Hungary and Serbia, Conrad and the Retingers arrived in Kraków (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), where Conrad visited childhood haunts. As the city lay only a few miles from the Russian border, there was a risk of getting stranded in a battle zone. With wife Jessie and younger son John ill, Conrad decided to take refuge in the mountain resort town of Zakopane. They left Kraków on 2 August. A few days after arrival in Zakopane, they moved to the Konstantynówka pension operated by Conrad’s cousin Aniela Zagórska; it had been frequented by celebrities including the statesman Józef Piłsudski and Conrad’s acquaintance, the young concert pianist Artur Rubinstein.[2]:458–63

Zagórska introduced Conrad to Polish writers, intellectuals and artists who had also taken refuge in Zakopane, including novelist Stefan Żeromski and Tadeusz Nalepiński, a writer friend of anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. Conrad roused interest among the Poles as a famous writer and an exotic compatriot from abroad. He charmed new acquaintances, especially women. However, the double Nobel laureate Maria Skłodowska-Curie‘s physician sister, Bronisława Dłuska, scolded him for having used his great talent for purposes other than bettering the future of his native land[2]:463–64[note 16] But thirty-three-year-old Aniela Zagórska (daughter of the pension keeper), Conrad’s niece who would translate his works into Polish in 1923–39, idolised him, kept him company, and provided him with books. He particularly delighted in the stories and novels of the ten-years-older, recently deceased Bolesław Prus,[2]:463[26] read everything by his fellow victim of Poland’s 1863 Uprising – “my beloved Prus” – that he could get his hands on, and pronounced him “better than Dickens” – a favourite English novelist of Conrad’s.[27][note 17]

Conrad, who was noted by his Polish acquaintances to be fluent in his native tongue, participated in their impassioned political discussions. He declared presciently, as Piłsudski had earlier in 1914 in Paris, that in the war, for Poland to regain independence, Russia must be beaten by the Central Powers (the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires), and the latter must in turn be beaten by France and Britain.[2]:464

After many travails and vicissitudes, at the beginning of November 1914 Conrad managed to bring his family back to England. On his return, he was determined to work on swaying British opinion in favour of restoring Poland’s sovereignty.[2]:464–68

Jessie Conrad would later write in her memoirs: “I understood my husband so much better after those months in Poland. So many characteristics that had been strange and unfathomable to me before, took, as it were, their right proportions. I understood that his temperament was that of his countrymen.”[2]:466


Conrad [writes Najder] was passionately concerned with politics. [This] is confirmed by several of his works, starting with Almayer’s Folly. […] Nostromo revealed his concern with these matters more fully; it was, of course, a concern quite natural for someone from a country [Poland] where politics was a matter not only of everyday existence but also of life and death. Moreover, Conrad himself came from a social class that claimed exclusive responsibility for state affairs, and from a very politically active family. Norman Douglas sums it up: “Conrad was first and foremost a Pole and like many Poles a politician and moralist malgré lui [French: “in spite of himself”]. These are his fundamentals.” [What made] Conrad see political problems in terms of a continuous struggle between law and violence, anarchy and order, freedom and autocracy, material interests and the noble idealism of individuals […] was Conrad’s historical awareness. His Polish experience endowed him with the perception, exceptional in the Western European literature of his time, of how winding and constantly changing were the front lines in these struggles.[28]

The most extensive and ambitious political statement that Conrad ever made was his 1905 essay, “Autocracy and War”, whose starting point was the Russo-Japanese War (he finished the article a month before the Battle of Tsushima Strait). The essay begins with a statement about Russia’s incurable weakness and ends with warnings against Prussia, the dangerous aggressor in a future European war. For Russia he predicted a violent outburst in the near future, but Russia’s lack of democratic traditions and the backwardness of her masses made it impossible for the revolution to have a salutary effect. Conrad regarded the formation of a representative government in Russia as unfeasible and foresaw a transition from autocracy to dictatorship. He saw western Europe as torn by antagonisms engendered by economic rivalry and commercial selfishness. In vain might a Russian revolution seek advice or help from a materialistic and egoistic western Europe that armed itself in preparation for wars far more brutal than those of the past.[2]:351–54

Conrad’s “Autocracy and War”, Najder points out, showed a historical awareness “exceptional in the Western European literature of his time” – an awareness that Conrad had drawn from his membership in a very politically active family of a country that had for over a century been daily reminded of the consequences of neglecting the broad enlightened interests of the national polity.[2]:352

Conrad’s distrust of democracy sprang from his doubts whether the propagation of democracy as an aim in itself could solve any problems. He thought that, in view of the weakness of human nature and of the “criminal” character of society, democracy offered boundless opportunities for demagogues and charlatans.[2]:290

He accused social democrats of his time of acting to weaken “the national sentiment, the preservation of which [was his] concern” – of attempting to dissolve national identities in an impersonal melting-pot. “I look at the future from the depth of a very black past and I find that nothing is left for me except fidelity to a cause lost, to an idea without future.” It was Conrad’s hopeless fidelity to the memory of Poland that prevented him from believing in the idea of “international fraternity,” which he considered, under the circumstances, just a verbal exercise. He resented some socialists’ talk of freedom and world brotherhood while keeping silent about his own partitioned and oppressed Poland.[2]:290

Before that, in the early 1880s, letters to Conrad from his uncle Tadeusz[note 18] show Conrad apparently having hoped for an improvement in Poland’s situation not through a liberation movement but by establishing an alliance with neighbouring Slavic nations. This had been accompanied by a faith in the Panslavic ideology – “surprising,” Najder writes, “in a man who was later to emphasize his hostility towards Russia, a conviction that… Poland’s [superior] civilization and… historic… traditions would [let] her play a leading role… in the Panslavic community, [and his] doubts about Poland’s chances of becoming a fully sovereign nation-state.”[2]:88–89

Conrad’s alienation from partisan politics went together with an abiding sense of the thinking man’s burden imposed by his personality, as described in an 1894 letter of Conrad’s to a relative-by-marriage and fellow author, Marguerite Poradowska (née Gachet, and cousin of Vincent van Gogh‘s physician, Paul Gachet) of Brussels:

We must drag the chain and ball of our personality to the end. This is the price one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought; so in this life it is only the chosen who are convicts – a glorious band which understands and groans but which treads the earth amidst a multitude of phantoms with maniacal gestures and idiotic grimaces. Which would you rather be: idiot or convict?[2]:195

In a 23 October 1922 letter to mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell, in response to the latter’s book, The Problem of China, which advocated socialist reforms and an oligarchy of sages who would reshape Chinese society, Conrad explained his own distrust of political panaceas:

I have never [found] in any man’s book or… talk anything… to stand up… against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world…. The only remedy for Chinamen and for the rest of us is [a] change of hearts, but looking at the history of the last 2000 years there is not much reason to expect [it], even if man has taken to flying – a great “uplift” no doubt but no great change….[2]:548–9


On 3 August 1924, Conrad died at his house, Oswalds, in Bishopsbourne, Kent, England, probably of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, under a misspelled version of his original Polish name, as “Joseph Teador Conrad Korzeniowski”.[2]:573 Inscribed on his gravestone are the lines from Edmund Spenser‘s The Faerie Queene which he had chosen as the epigraph to his last complete novel, The Rover:

Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,

Ease after warre, death after life, doth greatly please[2]:574

Conrad’s modest funeral took place amid great crowds. His old friend Edward Garnett recalled bitterly:

To those who attended Conrad’s funeral in Canterbury during the Cricket Festival of 1924, and drove through the crowded streets festooned with flags, there was something symbolical in England’s hospitality and in the crowd’s ignorance of even the existence of this great writer. A few old friends, acquaintances and pressmen stood by his grave.[2]:573

Another old friend of Conrad’s, Cunninghame Graham, wrote Garnett: “Aubry was saying to me… that had Anatole France died, all Paris would have been at his funeral.”[2]:573

Twelve years later, Conrad’s wife Jessie died on 6 December 1936 and was interred with him.

In 1996 his grave became a Grade II listed building.[29]

Critical reception


Conrad, 1916

Conrad, an emotional man subject to fits of depression, self-doubt, and pessimism, disciplined his romantic temperament with an unsparing moral judgment.

Despite the opinions even of some who knew him personally, such as fellow novelist Henry James,[2]:446–47 Conrad – even when he was only writing elegantly crafted letters to his uncle and acquaintances – was always at heart a writer who sailed, rather than a sailor who wrote. He used his sailor’s experiences as a backdrop for many of his works, but he also produced works of similar world view, without the nautical motifs. The failure of many critics in his time to appreciate this caused him much frustration.[2]:377, 562

An October 1923 visitor to Oswalds, Conrad’s home at the time – Cyril Clemens, a cousin of Mark Twain – quoted Conrad as saying: “In everything I have written there is always one invariable intention, and that is to capture the reader’s attention.”[2]:564

Conrad the artist famously aspired, in the words of his preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”[30]

Writing in what to the visual arts was the age of Impressionism, and what to music was the age of impressionist music, Conrad showed himself in many of his works a prose poet of the highest order: for instance, in the evocativePatna and courtroom scenes of Lord Jim; in the scenes of the “melancholy-mad elephant” and the “French gunboat firing into a continent”, in Heart of Darkness; in the doubled protagonists of The Secret Sharer; and in the verbal and conceptual resonances of Nostromo and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’.

Conrad used his own memories as literary material so often that readers are tempted to treat his life and work as a single whole. His “view of the world“, or elements of it, are often described by citing at once both his private and public statements, passages from his letters, and citations from his books. Najder warns that this approach produces an incoherent and misleading picture. “An… uncritical linking of the two spheres, literature and private life, distorts each. Conrad used his own experiences as raw material, but the finished product should not be confused with the experiences themselves.”[2]:576–77

Many of Conrad’s characters were inspired by actual persons he had met, including, in his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (completed 1894), William Charles Olmeijer, the spelling of whose name Conrad, probably inadvertently, altered to “Almayer.”[10]:11, 40 The historic trader Olmeijer, whom Conrad encountered on his four short visits to Berau in Borneo, subsequently haunted Conrad’s imagination.[10]:40–1 Conrad frequently borrowed the authentic names of actual individuals, e.g., Captain McWhirr[note 19] (Typhoon), Captain Beard and Mr. Mahon (“Youth“), Captain Lingard (Almayer’s Folly and elsewhere), Captain Ellis (The Shadow Line). “Conrad,” writes J. I. M. Stewart, “appears to have attached some mysterious significance to such links with actuality.”[10]:11–12 Equally curious is “a great deal of namelessness in Conrad, requiring some minor virtuosity to maintain.”[10]:244 We never learn the surname of the protagonist of Lord Jim.[10]:95 Conrad also preserves, in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, the authentic name of the ship, the Narcissus, in which he sailed in 1884.[2]:98–100

Apart from Conrad’s own experiences, a number of episodes in his fiction were suggested by past or contemporary publicly known events or literary works. The first half of the 1900 novel Lord Jim (the ‘Patna’ episode) was inspired by the real-life 1880 story of theSS Jeddah;[10]:96–7 the second part, to some extent by the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.[31] The 1901 short story “Amy Foster” was inspired partly by an anecdote in Ford Madox Ford‘s The Cinque Ports (1900), wherein a shipwrecked sailor from a German merchant ship, unable to communicate in English, and driven away by the local country people, finally found shelter in a pigsty.[2]:312–13 [note 20] In Nostromo (completed 1904), the theft of a massive consignment of silver was suggested to Conrad by a story he had heard in the Gulf of Mexico and later read about in a “volume picked up outside a second-hand bookshop.”[10]:128–29 [note 21] The Secret Agent (completed 1906) was inspired by the French anarchist Martial Bourdin‘s 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.[32] Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer” (completed 1909) was inspired by an 1880 incident when Sydney Smith, first mate of the Cutty Sark, had killed a seaman and fled from justice, aided by the ship’s captain.[10]:235–6 The plot of Under Western Eyes (completed 1910) is kicked off by the assassination of a brutal Russian government minister, modelled after the real-life 1904 assassination of Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve.[10]:199 The near-novella “Freya of the Seven Isles” (completed in March 1911) was inspired by a story told to Conrad by a Malaya old hand and fan of Conrad’s, Captain Carlos M. Marris.[2]:405, 422–23

For the natural surroundings of the high seas, the Malay Archipelago and South America, which Conrad described so vividly, he could rely on his own observations. What his brief landfalls could not provide was a thorough understanding of exotic cultures. For this he resorted, like other writers, to literary sources. When writing his Malayan stories, he consulted Alfred Russel Wallace‘s The Malay Archipelago (1869), James Brooke‘s journals, and books with titles like Perak and the Malays, My Journal in Malayan Waters, and Life in the Forests of the Far East. When he set about writing his novel Nostromo, set in the fictitious South American country of Costaguana, he turned to The War between Peru and Chile; Edward Eastwick, Venezuela: or, Sketches of Life in a South American Republic(1868); and George Frederick Masterman, Seven Eventful Years in Paraguay (1869).[10]:130 [note 22] As a result of relying on literary sources, in Lord Jim, as J. I. M. Stewart writes, Conrad’s “need to work to some extent from second-hand” led to “a certain thinness in Jim’s relations with the… peoples… of Patusan…”[10]:118 This prompted Conrad at some points to alter the nature of Charles Marlow‘s narrative to “distanc[e] an uncertain command of the detail of Tuan Jim’s empire.”[10]:119

In keeping with his scepticism[7]:166[10]:163 and melancholy,[10]:16, 18 Conrad almost invariably gives lethal fates to the characters in his principal novels and stories. Almayer (Almayer’s Folly, 1894), abandoned by his beloved daughter, takes to opium, and dies;[10]:42Peter Willems (An Outcast of the Islands, 1895) is killed by his jealous lover Aïssa;[10]:48 the ineffectual “Nigger,” James Wait (The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, 1897), dies aboard ship and is buried at sea;[10]:68–9 Mr. Kurtz (Heart of Darkness, 1899) expires, uttering the enigmatic words, “The horror!”;[10]:68–9 Tuan Jim (Lord Jim, 1900), having inadvertently precipitated a massacre of his adoptive community, deliberately walks to his death at the hands of the community’s leader;[10]:97 in Conrad’s 1901 short story, “Amy Foster“, a Pole transplanted to England, Yanko Goorall (an English transliteration of the Polish Janko Góral, “Johnny Highlander”), falls ill and, suffering from a fever, raves in his native language, frightening his wife Amy, who flees; next morning Yanko dies of heart failure, and it transpires that he had simply been asking in Polish for water;[note 23] Captain Whalley (The End of the Tether, 1902), betrayed by failing eyesight and an unscrupulous partner, drowns himself;[10]:91 Gian’ Battista Fidanza,[note 24] the eponymous respected Italian-immigrant Nostromo (Italian: “Our Man”) of the novel Nostromo (1904), illicitly obtains a treasure of silver mined in the South American country of “Costaguana” and is shot dead due to mistaken identity;[10]:124–26 Mr. Verloc, The Secret Agent (1906) of divided loyalties, attempts a bombing, to be blamed on terrorists, that accidentally kills his mentally defective brother-in-law Stevie, and Verloc himself is killed by his distraught wife, who drowns herself by jumping overboard from a channel steamer;[10]:166–68 in Chance(1913), Roderick Anthony, a sailing-ship captain, and benefactor and husband of Flora de Barral, becomes the target of a poisoning attempt by her jealous disgraced financier father who, when detected, swallows the poison himself and dies (some years later, Captain Anthony drowns at sea);[10]:209–11 in Victory (1915), Lena is shot dead by Jones, who had meant to kill his accomplice Ricardo and later succeeds in doing so, then himself perishes along with another accomplice, after which Lena’s protector Axel Heyst sets fire to his bungalow and dies beside Lena’s body.[10]:220

When a principal character of Conrad’s does escape with his life, he sometimes does not fare much better. In Under Western Eyes (1911), Razumov betrays a fellow University of St. Petersburg student, the revolutionist Victor Haldin, who has assassinated a savagely repressive Russian government minister. Haldin is tortured and hanged by the authorities. Later Razumov, sent as a government spy to Geneva, a center of anti-tsarist intrigue, meets the mother and sister of Haldin, who share Haldin’s liberal convictions. Razumov falls in love with the sister and confesses his betrayal of her brother; later he makes the same avowal to assembled revolutionists, and their professional executioner bursts his eardrums, making him deaf for life. Razumov staggers away, is knocked down by a streetcar, and finally returns as a cripple to Russia.[10]:185–87

Conrad was keenly conscious of tragedy in the world and in his works. In 1898, at the start of his writing career, he had written to his Scottish writer-politician friend Cunninghame Graham: “What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. [A]s soon as you know of your slavery the pain, the anger, the strife – the tragedy begins.” But in 1922, near the end of his life and career, when another Scottish friend, Richard Curle, sent Conrad proofs of two articles he had written about Conrad, the latter objected to being characterised as a gloomy and tragic writer. “That reputation… has deprived me of innumerable readers… I absolutely object to being called a tragedian.”[2]:544–5

Conrad claimed that he “never kept a diary and never owned a notebook.” John Galsworthy, who knew him well, described this as “a statement which surprised no one who knew the resources of his memory and the brooding nature of his creative spirit.”[33]Nevertheless, after Conrad’s death, Richard Curle published a heavily modified version of Conrad’s diaries describing his experiences in the Congo;[34] in 1978 a more complete version was published as The Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces.[35]

Unlike many authors who make it a point not to discuss work in progress, Conrad often did discuss his current work and even showed it to select friends and fellow authors, such as Edward Garnett, and sometimes modified it in the light of their critiques and suggestions.[2]

He also borrowed from other, Polish- and French-language authors, to an extent sometimes skirting plagiarism. When the Polish translation of his 1915 novel Victory appeared in 1931, readers noted striking similarities to Stefan Żeromski‘s kitschy novel, The History of a Sin (Dzieje grzechu, 1908), including their endings. Comparative-literature scholar Yves Hervouet has demonstrated in the text of Victory a whole mosaic of influences, borrowings, similarities and allusions. He further lists hundreds of concrete borrowings from other, mostly French authors in nearly all of Conrad’s works, from Almayer’s Folly (1895) to his unfinished Suspense. Conrad seems to have used eminent writers’ texts as raw material of the same kind as the content of his own memory. Materials borrowed from other authors often functioned as allusions. Moreover, he had a phenomenal memory for texts and remembered details, “but [writes Najder] it was not a memory strictly categorized according to sources, marshalled into homogeneous entities; it was, rather, an enormous receptacle of images and pieces from which he would draw.”[2]:454–7

But [writes Najder] he can never be accused of outright plagiarism. Even when lifting sentences and scenes, Conrad changed their character, inserted them within novel structures. He did not imitate, but (as Hervouet says) “continued” his masters. He was right in saying: “I don’t resemble anybody.” Ian Watt put it succinctly: “In a sense, Conrad is the least derivative of writers; he wrote very little that could possibly be mistaken for the work of anyone else.”[2]:457[note 25]

Conrad, like other artists, faced constraints arising from the need to propitiate his audience and confirm its own favourable self-regard. This may account for his describing the admirable crew of the Judea in his 1898 story “Youth” as “Liverpool hard cases”, whereas the crew of the Judea’s actual 1882 prototype, the Palestine, had included not a single Liverpudlian, and half the crew had been non-Britons;[2]:94 and for Conrad’s turning the real-life 1880 criminally negligent British Captain J. L. Clark, of the SS Jeddah, in his 1900 novel Lord Jim, into the captain of the fictitious Patna – “a sort of renegade New South Wales German” so monstrous in physical appearance as to suggest “a trained baby elephant.”[10]:98–103 Similarly, in his letters Conrad – during most of his literary career, struggling for sheer financial survival – often adjusted his views to the predilections of his correspondents.[2]:105 And when he wished to criticise the conduct of European imperialism in what would later be termed the “Third World“, he turned his gaze upon the Dutchand Belgian colonies, not upon the British Empire.[2]:119

The singularity of the universe depicted in Conrad’s novels, especially compared to those of near-contemporaries like his friend and frequent benefactor John Galsworthy, is such as to open him to criticism similar to that later applied to Graham Greene.[36] But where “Greeneland” has been characterised as a recurring and recognisable atmosphere independent of setting, Conrad is at pains to create a sense of place, be it aboard ship or in a remote village; often he chose to have his characters play out their destinies in isolated or confined circumstances. In the view of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, it was not until the first volumes of Anthony Powell‘s sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, were published in the 1950s, that an English novelist achieved the same command of atmosphere and precision of language with consistency, a view supported by later critics like A. N. Wilson; Powell acknowledged his debt to Conrad. Leo Gurko, too, remarks, as “one of Conrad’s special qualities, his abnormal awareness of place, an awareness magnified to almost a new dimension in art, an ecological dimension defining the relationship between earth and man.”[37]

T. E. Lawrence, one of many writers whom Conrad befriended, offered some perceptive observations about Conrad’s writing:

He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (…they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence…) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It’s not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can’t say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He’s as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective. Do they hate one another?[7]:343

In Conrad’s time, literary critics, while usually commenting favourably on his works, often remarked that many readers were put off by his exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas. Yet, as his ideas were borne out by ensuing 20th-century events, in due course he came to be admired for beliefs that seemed to accord more closely with subsequent times than with his own.

Conrad’s was a starkly lucid view of the human condition – a vision similar to that which had been offered in two micro-stories by his ten-years-older Polish compatriot, Bolesław Prus (whose work Conrad greatly admired):[note 26]Mold of the Earth” (1884) and “Shades” (1885). Conrad wrote:

Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow….

In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt….

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that… is always but a vain and fleeting appearance….

A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.[7]:166

Conrad’s friendCunninghame Graham

In a letter of late December 1897 to Cunninghame Graham, Conrad metaphorically described the universe as a huge machine:

It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.[2]:253

Conrad is the novelist of man in extreme situations. “Those who read me,” he wrote in the preface to A Personal Record, “know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.”

For Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest, that is Conrad’s theme.[1]

What is the essence of Conrad’s art? It surely is not the plot, which he – like Shakespeare – often borrows from public sources and which could be duplicated by lesser authors; the plot serves merely as the vehicle for what the author has to say. A focus on plot leads to the absurdity of Charles and Mary Lamb‘s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare. Rather, Conrad’s essence is to be sought in his depiction of the world open to our senses, and in the world view that he has evolved in the course of experiencing that outer, and his own inner, world. An evocative part of that view is expressed in an August 1901 letter that Conrad wrote to the editor of The New York Times Saturday Book Review:

Egoism, which is the moving force of the world, and altruism, which is its morality, these two contradictory instincts, of which one is so plain and the other so mysterious, cannot serve us unless in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonism.[2]:315 [note 27]


Conrad spoke both his native Polish language and the French language fluently from childhood and only acquired English in his twenties. Why then did he choose to write his books in, effectively, his third language? He states in his preface to A Personal Record that writing in English was for him “natural”, and that the idea of his having made a deliberate choice between English and French, as some had suggested, was in error. He explained that, though he was familiar with French from childhood, “I would have been afraid to attempt expression in a language so perfectly ‘crystallized’.”[38]:iv-x In a 1915 conversation with American sculptor Jo Davidson, as he posed for his bust, in response to Davidson’s question Conrad said: “Ah… to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic—if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France.”[39] These statements, as so often happens in Conrad’s “autobiographical” writings, are subtly disingenuous.[2] In 1897 Conrad was paid a visit by a fellow Pole, Wincenty Lutosławski, who was intent on imploring Conrad to write in Polish and “to win Conrad for Polish literature”. Lutosławski recalls that during their conversation Conrad explained why he did not write in Polish: “I value too much our beautiful Polish literature to introduce into it my worthless twaddle. But for Englishmen my capacities are just sufficient: they enable me to earn my living”. Perhaps revealingly, Conrad later wrote to Lutosławski to keep his visit a secret.[40]

More to the point is Conrad’s remark in A Personal Record that English was “the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions—of my very dreams!”[38]:252 In 1878 Conrad’s four-year experience in the French merchant marine had been cut short when the French discovered that he did not have a permit from the Imperial Russian consul to sail with the French.[note 28] This, and some typically disastrous Conradian investments, had left him destitute and had precipitated a suicide attempt. With the concurrence of his uncle Bobrowski, who had been summoned to Marseilles, Conrad decided to seek employment with the British merchant marine, which did not require Russia’s permission.[2]:64–66 Thus began Conrad’s sixteen years’ seafarer’s acquaintance with the British and with the English language.

Had Conrad remained in the Francophone sphere or had he returned to Poland, the son of the Polish poet, playwright and translator Apollo Korzeniowski – from childhood exposed to Polish and foreign literature, and ambitious to himself become a writer[2]:43–44 –might have ended writing in French or Polish instead of English. Certainly his mentor-uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski thought Conrad might write in Polish; in an 1881 letter he advised his 23-year-old nephew:

As, thank God, you do not forget your Polish… and your writing is not bad, I repeat what I have… written and said before – you would do well to write… for Wędrowiec [The Wanderer] in Warsaw. We have few travelers, and even fewer genuine correspondents: the words of an eyewitness would be of great interest and in time would bring you… money. It would be an exercise in your native tongue—that thread which binds you to your country and countrymen—and finally a tribute to the memory of your father who always wanted to and did serve his country by his pen.[2]:86

Inescapably, Conrad’s third language, English, remained under the influence of his first two languages – Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. Najder observes:

[H]e was a man of three cultures: Polish, French, and English. Brought up in a Polish family and cultural environment… he learned French as a child, and at the age of less than seventeen went to France, to serve… four years in the French merchant marine. At school he must have learned German, but French remained the language he spoke with greatest fluency (and no foreign accent) until the end of his life. He was well versed in French history and literature, and French novelists were his artistic models. But he wrote all his books in English—the tongue he started to learn at the age of twenty. He was thus an English writer who grew up in other linguistic and cultural environments. His work can be seen as located in the borderland of auto-translation [emphasis added by Wikipedia].[2]:IX

Inevitably for a trilingual Polish–French–English-speaker, Conrad’s writings occasionally show examples of “Franglais” and “Poglish” – of the inadvertent use of French or Polish vocabulary, grammar or syntax in his English compositions. In one instance, Najder uses “several slips in vocabulary, typical for Conrad (Gallicisms) and grammar (usually Polonisms)” as part of internal evidence against Conrad’s sometime literary collaborator Ford Madox Ford‘s claim to have written a certain instalment of Conrad’s novel Nostromo, for serialised publication in T. P.’s Weekly, on behalf of an ill Conrad.[2]:341–42

The impracticality of working with a language which has long ceased to be one’s principal language of daily use is illustrated by Conrad’s 1921 attempt at translating into English the Polish columnist and comedy-writer Bruno Winawer‘s short play, The Book of Job. Najder writes:

[T]he [play’s] language is easy, colloquial, slightly individualized. Particularly Herup and a snobbish Jew, “Bolo” Bendziner, have their characteristic ways of speaking. Conrad, who had had little contact with everyday spoken Polish, simplified the dialogue, left out Herup’s scientific expressions, and missed many amusing nuances. The action in the original is quite clearly set in contemporary Warsaw, somewhere between elegant society and the demimonde; this specific cultural setting is lost in the translation. Conrad left out many accents of topical satire in the presentation of the dramatis personae and ignored not only the ungrammatical speech (which might have escaped him) of some characters but even the Jewishness of two of them, Bolo and Mosan.[2]:538–39

As a practical matter, by the time Conrad set about writing fiction, he had little choice but to write in English.[note 29] Poles who accused Conrad of cultural apostasy because he wrote in English instead of Polish,[2]:292–95, 463–64 missed the point – as do Anglophoneswho see, in Conrad’s default choice of English as his artistic medium, a testimonial to some sort of innate superiority of the English language.[note 30] According to Conrad’s close friend and literary assistant Richard Curle, the fact of Conrad writing in English was “obviously misleading” because Conrad “is no more completely English in his art than he is in his nationality”.[41]:223 Moreover, Conrad “could never have written in any other language save the English language….for he would have been dumb in any other language but the English.”[41]:227–28

Conrad always retained a strong emotional attachment to his native language. He asked his visiting Polish niece Karola Zagórska, “Will you forgive me that my sons don’t speak Polish?”[2]:481 In June 1924, shortly before his death, he apparently expressed a desire that his son John marry a Polish girl and learn Polish, and toyed with the idea of returning for good to now independent Poland.[2]:571


In 1975 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’“, which provoked controversy by calling Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. Achebe’s view was that Heart of Darkness cannot be considered a great work of art because it is “a novel which celebrates… dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race.” Referring to Conrad as a “talented, tormented man”, Achebe notes that Conrad (via the protagonist, Charles Marlow) reduces and degrades Africans to “limbs”, “angles”, “glistening white eyeballs”, etc. while simultaneously (and fearfully) suspecting a common kinship between himself and these natives—leading Marlow to sneer the word “ugly.”[42] Achebe also cited Conrad’s description of an encounter with an African: “A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days.”[43] Achebe’s essay, a landmark in postcolonial discourse, provoked debate and the questions it raised have been addressed in most subsequent literary criticism of Conrad.[44][45]

Achebe’s critics argue that he fails to distinguish Marlow‘s view from Conrad’s, which results in very clumsy interpretations of the novella.[46] In their view, Conrad portrays Africans sympathetically and their plight tragically, and refers sarcastically to, and outright condemns, the supposedly noble aims of European colonists, thereby demonstrating his scepticism about the moral superiority of white men.[47] This, indeed, is a central theme of the novel; Marlow’s experiences in Africa, expose the brutality of colonialism and its rationales. Ending a passage that describes the condition of chained, emaciated slaves, the novelist remarks: “After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.” Some observers assert that Conrad, whose native country had been conquered by imperial powers, empathised by default with other subjugated peoples.[48] Jeffrey Meyers noted that Conrad, like his acquaintance Roger Casement, “was one of the first men to question the Western notion of progress, a dominant idea in Europe from the Renaissance to the Great War, to attack the hypocritical justification of colonialism and to reveal… the savage degradation of the white man in Africa.”[7]:100–1

Conrad scholar Peter Firchow wrote that “nowhere in the novel does Conrad or any of his narrators, personified or otherwise, claim superiority on the part of Europeans on the grounds of alleged genetic or biological difference”. If Conrad or his novel is racist, it is only in a weak sense, since Heart of Darkness acknowledges racial distinctions “but does not suggest an essential superiority” of any group.[49][50] Achebe’s reading of Heart of Darkness can be (and has been) challenged by a reading of Conrad’s other African story, “An Outpost of Progress“, which has an omniscient narrator, rather than the embodied narrator, Marlow. Some younger scholars, such as Masood Ashraf Raja, have also suggested that if we read Conrad beyond Heart of Darkness, especially his Malay novels, racism can be further complicated by foregrounding Conrad’s positive representation of Muslims.[51]


Monument to Conrad inVologda, Russia, to which Conrad and his parents were exiled in 1862

Anchor-shaped Conrad monument at Gdynia, on Poland’s Baltic Seacoast

Plaque commemorating “Joseph Conrad–Korzeniowski”, Singapore

An anchor-shaped monument to Conrad at Gdynia, on Poland’s Baltic Seacoast, features a quotation from him in Polish: “Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu” (“[T]here is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea” – Lord Jim, chapter 2, paragraph 1).

In Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia, a plaque in a “writers walk” commemorates Conrad’s visits to Australia between 1879 and 1892. The plaque notes that “Many of his works reflect his ‘affection for that young continent.'”[52]

In San Francisco in 1979, a small triangular square at Columbus Avenue and Beach Street, near Fisherman’s Wharf, was dedicated as “Joseph Conrad Square” after Conrad. The square’s dedication was timed to coincide with release of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Heart of Darkness-inspired film, Apocalypse Now.

In the latter part of World War II, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Danae was rechristened ORP Conrad and served as part of the Polish Navy.

Notwithstanding the undoubted sufferings that Conrad endured on many of his voyages, sentimentality and canny marketing place him at the best lodgings in several of his destinations. Hotels across the Far East still lay claim to him as an honoured guest, with, however, no evidence to back their claims: Singapore’s Raffles Hotel continues to claim he stayed there though he lodged, in fact, at the Sailors’ Home nearby. His visit to Bangkok also remains in that city’s collective memory, and is recorded in the official history of The Oriental Hotel (where he never, in fact, stayed, lodging aboard his ship, the Otago) along with that of a less well-behaved guest, Somerset Maugham, who pilloried the hotel in a short story in revenge for attempts to eject him.

A plaque commemorating “Joseph Conrad–Korzeniowski” has been installed near Singapore’s Fullerton Hotel.

Conrad is also reported to have stayed at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel—a port that, in fact, he never visited. Later literary admirers, notably Graham Greene, followed closely in his footsteps, sometimes requesting the same room and perpetuating myths that have no basis in fact. No Caribbean resort is yet known to have claimed Conrad’s patronage, although he is believed to have stayed at a Fort-de-Francepension upon arrival in Martinique on his first voyage, in 1875, when he travelled as a passenger on the Mont Blanc.

In April 2013, a monument to Conrad was unveiled in the Russian town of Vologda, where he and his parents lived in exile in 1862–63.


After the publication of Chance in 1913, Conrad was the subject of more discussion and praise than any other English writer of the time. He had a genius for companionship, and his circle of friends, which he had begun assembling even prior to his first publications, included authors and other leading lights in the arts, such as Henry James, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, John Galsworthy, Edward Garnett, Garnett’s wife Constance Garnett (translator of Russian literature), Stephen Crane, Hugh Walpole, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Norman Douglas, Jacob Epstein, T. E. Lawrence, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Maurice Ravel, Valery Larbaud, Saint-John Perse, Edith Wharton,James Huneker, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, Józef Retinger (later a founder of the European Movement, which led to the European Union, and author of Conrad and His Contemporaries). Conrad encouraged and mentored younger writers.[2] In the early 1900s he composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford.[53]

In 1919 and 1922 Conrad’s growing renown and prestige among writers and critics in continental Europe fostered his hopes for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Interestingly, it was apparently the French and Swedes – not the English – who favoured Conrad’s candidacy.[2]:512, 550 [note 31]

Conrad’s Polish Nałęczcoat-of-arms

In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat-of-arms (Nałęcz), declined a (non-hereditary) British knighthood offered by Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.[note 32] [note 33] Conrad kept a distance from official structures — he never voted in British national elections — and seems to have been averse to public honours generally; he had already refused honorary degrees from Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Yale universities.[2]:570

Of Conrad’s novels, Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904) are widely read as set texts and for pleasure. The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) are also considered among his finest novels. Arguably his most influential work remains Heart of Darkness (1899), to which many have been introduced by Francis Ford Coppola‘s film, Apocalypse Now (1979), inspired by Conrad’s novel and set during the Vietnam War; the novel’s depiction of a journey into the darkness of the human psyche resonates with modern readers. Conrad’s short stories, other novels, and nonfiction writings also continue to find favour with many readers and filmmakers.

In the People’s Republic of Poland, translations of Conrad’s works were published – all except Under Western Eyes, banned by the censors due to its advocacy of fairness and neutrality.[citation needed] Under Western Eyes was published in Poland in the 1980s as an underground “bibuła“.[54]

Joseph Conrad was an influence on many subsequent writers, including D. H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Maria Dąbrowska,[55] F. Scott Fitzgerald,[6] William Faulkner,[6] Gerald Basil Edwards, Ernest Hemingway,[56] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,[55] André Malraux,[55] George Orwell,[7]:254 Graham Greene,[6] Malcolm Lowry, William Golding,[6] William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez,[6] J. G. Ballard, Chinua Achebe, John le Carré,[6] V. S. Naipaul,[6] Philip Roth,[57]Hunter S. Thompson, J. M. Coetzee,[6] Stephen Donaldson, and Salman Rushdie.[note 34]


A striking portrait of Conrad, aged about 46, was drawn by the historian and poet Henry Newbolt, who met him about 1903:

One thing struck me at once—the extraordinary difference between his expression in profile and when looked at full face. [W]hile the profile was aquiline and commanding, in the front view the broad brow, wide-apart eyes and full lips produced the effect of an intellectual calm and even at times of a dreaming philosophy. Then [a]s we sat in our little half-circle round the fire, and talked on anything and everything, I saw a third Conrad emerge—an artistic self, sensitive and restless to the last degree. The more he talked the more quickly he consumed his cigarettes… And presently, when I asked him why he was leaving London after… only two days, he replied that… the crowd in the streets… terrified him. “Terrified? By that dull stream of obliterated faces?” He leaned forward with both hands raised and clenched. “Yes, terrified: I see their personalities all leaping out at me like tigers!” He acted the tiger well enough almost to terrify his hearers: but the moment after he was talking again wisely and soberly as if he were an average Englishman with not an irritable nerve in his body.[2]:331

On 12 October 1912, American music critic James Huneker visited Conrad and later recalled being received by “a man of the world, neither sailor nor novelist, just a simple-mannered gentleman, whose welcome was sincere, whose glance was veiled, at times far-away, whose ways were French, Polish, anything but ‘literary,’ bluff or English.”[2]:437

After respective separate visits to Conrad in August and September 1913, two British aristocrats, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell – who were lovers at the time – recorded their impressions of the novelist. In her diary, Morrell wrote:

I found Conrad himself standing at the door of the house ready to receive me. How different from the [disparaging] picture Henry James had evoked [in conversation with Morrell], for Conrad’s appearance was really that of a Polish nobleman. His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fibre of him seemed electric… He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner… He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked… apparently with great freedom about his life – more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered… [His wife Jessie] seemed a nice and good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook, as Henry James [had] said, and was indeed a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life’s vibrations…. He made me feel so natural and very much myself, that I was almost afraid of losing the thrill and wonder of being there, although I was vibrating with intense excitement inside; and even now, as I write this, I feel almost the same excitement, the same thrill of having been in the presence of one of the most remarkable men I have known. His eyes under their pent-house lids revealed the suffering and the intensity of his experiences; when he spoke of his work, there came over them a sort of misty, sensuous, dreamy look, but they seemed to hold deep down the ghosts of old adventures and experiences – once or twice there was something in them one almost suspected of being wicked…. But then I believe whatever strange wickedness would tempt this super-subtle Pole, he would be held in restraint by an equally delicate sense of honour…. In his talk he led me along many paths of his life, but I felt that he did not wish to explore the jungle of emotions that lay dense on either side, and that his apparent frankness had a great reserve. This may perhaps be characteristic of Poles as it is of the Irish.[2]:447

A month later, Bertrand Russell visited Conrad at Capel House, and the same day on the train wrote down his impressions:

It was wonderful – I loved him & I think he liked me. He talked a great deal about his work & life & aims, & about other writers…. I got him on to Henry James… Then we went for a little walk, & somehow grew very intimate. I plucked up courage to tell him what I find in his work – the boring down into things to get to the very bottom below the apparent facts. He seemed to feel I had understood him; then I stopped & we just looked into each other’s eyes for some time, & then he said he had grown to wish he could live on the surface and write differently, that he had grown frightened. His eyes at the moment expressed the inward pain & terror that one feels him always fighting…. Then he talked a lot about Poland, & showed me an album of family photographs of the [18]60’s – spoke about how dream-like all that seems, & how he sometimes feels he ought not to have had any children, because they have no roots or traditions or relations.[2]:448

Russell’s insights, so resonant with Morrell’s, reveal the profundity of Conrad’s existential loneliness. Russell’s Autobiography, published over half a century later in 1968, vividly confirms his original experience:

My first impression was one of surprise. He spoke English with a very strong foreign accent, and nothing in his demeanour in any way suggested the sea. He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his fingertips…. At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other… I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.[2]:448–49

The two men’s subsequent friendship and correspondence lasted, with long intervals, to the end of Conrad’s life. In one letter, Conrad avowed his “deep admiring affection, which, if you were never to see me again and forget my existence tomorrow will be unalterably yours usque ad finem.”[2]:449 Conrad in his correspondence often used the Latin expression meaning “to the very end”, which he seems to have adopted from his faithful guardian, mentor and benefactor, his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski.[58]

Conrad looked with less optimism than Russell on the possibilities of scientific and philosophic knowledge.[2]:449 In a 1913 letter to acquaintances who had invited Conrad to join their society, he reiterated his belief that it was impossible to understand the essence of either reality or life: both science and art penetrate no further than the outer shapes.[2]:446

Najder describes Conrad as “[a]n alienated émigré… haunted by a sense of the unreality of other people – a feeling natural to someone living outside the established structures of family, social milieu, and country”.[2]:576

Throughout almost his entire life Conrad was an outsider and felt himself to be one. An outsider in exile; an outsider during his visits to his family in… Ukraine; an outsider – because of his experiences and bereavement – in [Kraków] and Lwów; an outsider in Marseilles; an outsider, nationally and culturally, on British ships; an outsider as an English writer.[2]:576

Conrad’s sense of loneliness throughout his exile’s life found memorable expression in the 1901 short story, “Amy Foster“.

In popular culture




Epstein’s bust of Conrad (1924),Birmingham Art Gallery. Additional copies are at London’s National Portrait Gallery and San Francisco’s Maritime Museum. Epstein, wrote Conrad, “has produced a wonderful piece of work of a somewhat monumental dignity, and yet—everybody agrees—the likeness is striking”[2]:568

  • “The Black Mate”: written, according to Conrad, in 1886; may be counted as his opus double zero; published 1908; posthumously collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925.
  • The Idiots“: Conrad’s truly first short story, which may be counted as his opus zero; written during his honeymoon (3.1896), published in The Savoy periodical, 1896, and collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898.
  • The Lagoon“: composed 1896; published in Cornhill Magazine, 1897; collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898: “It is the first short story I ever wrote.”
  • An Outpost of Progress“: written 1896; published in Cosmopolis, 1897, and collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898: “My next [second] effort in short-story writing”; it shows numerous thematic affinities with Heart of Darkness; in 1906, Conrad described it as his “best story”.
  • “The Return”: completed early 1897, while writing “Karain”; never published in magazine form; collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898: “[A]ny kind word about ‘The Return’ (and there have been such words said at different times) awakens in me the liveliest gratitude, for I know how much the writing of that fantasy has cost me in sheer toil, in temper, and in disillusion.” Conrad, who suffered while writing this psychological chef-d’oeuvre of introspection, once remarked: “I hate it.”
  • “Karain: A Memory”: written February–April 1897; published November 1897 in Blackwood’s Magazine and collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898: “my third short story in… order of time”.
  • Youth“: written 1898; collected in Youth, a Narrative, and Two Other Stories, 1902
  • “Falk”: novella / story, written early 1901; collected only in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903
  • Amy Foster“: composed 1901; published in the Illustrated London News, December 1901, and collected in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903.
  • “To-morrow”: written early 1902; serialised in The Pall Mall Magazine, 1902, and collected in Typhoon and Other Stories, 1903
  • “Gaspar Ruiz”: written after Nostromo in 1904–5; published in The Strand Magazine, 1906, and collected in A Set of Six, 1908 (UK), 1915 (US). This story was the only piece of Conrad’s fiction ever adapted by the author for cinema, as Gaspar the Strong Man, 1920.
  • “An Anarchist”: written late 1905; serialised in Harper’s Magazine, 1906; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 (UK), 1915 (US)
  • “The Informer”: written before January 1906; published, December 1906, in Harper’s Magazine, and collected in A Set of Six, 1908 (UK), 1915 (US)
  • “The Brute”: written early 1906; published in The Daily Chronicle, December 1906; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 (UK), 1915 (US)
  • “The Duel: A Military Story”: serialised in the UK in The Pall Mall Magazine, early 1908, and later that year in the US as “The Point of Honor”, in the periodical Forum; collected in A Set of Six in 1908 and published by Garden City Publishing in 1924. Joseph Fouché makes a cameo appearance.
  • “Il Conde” (i.e., “Conte” [count]): appeared in Cassell’s Magazine (UK), 1908, and Hampton‍ ’​s (US), 1909; collected in A Set of Six, 1908 (UK), 1915 (US)
  • The Secret Sharer“: written December 1909; published in Harper’s Magazine, 1910, and collected in Twixt Land and Sea, 1912
  • “Prince Roman”: written 1910, published 1911 in The Oxford and Cambridge Review; posthumously collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925; based on the story of Prince Roman Sanguszko of Poland (1800–81)
  • “A Smile of Fortune”: a long story, almost a novella, written in mid-1910; published in London Magazine, February 1911; collected in Twixt Land and Sea, 1912
  • “Freya of the Seven Isles”: a near-novella, written late 1910–early 1911; published in The Metropolitan Magazine and London Magazine, early 1912 and July 1912, respectively; collected in Twixt Land and Sea, 1912
  • “The Partner”: written 1911; published in Within the Tides, 1915
  • “The Inn of the Two Witches”: written 1913; published in Within the Tides, 1915
  • “Because of the Dollars”: written 1914; published in Within the Tides, 1915
  • “The Planter of Malata”: written 1914; published in Within the Tides, 1915
  • “The Warrior’s Soul”: written late 1915–early 1916; published in Land and Water, March 1917; collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925
  • “The Tale”: Conrad’s only story about World War I; written 1916, first published 1917 in The Strand Magazine; posthumously collected in Tales of Hearsay, 1925



A number of works in various genres and media have been based on, or inspired by, Conrad’s writings, including:



Orchestral works

See also

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

%d bloggers like this: