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Joseph Conrad - Biography

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
by Karen Bernardo

Joseph Conrad's masterpiece, the novella "Heart of Darkness," forms an integral part of the school curriculum in English-speaking countries all over the world. Other fictional works, such as the novel Lord Jim and the short story "The Secret Sharer" convince us that this is a writer of rare gifts. It seems hard to believe that Conrad was of Polish extraction, born in the Ukraine, and didn't speak English until he was twenty. But once he found his literary voice, it spoke in English, and its eloquence was unquestionable.

A common thread running through Conrad's fiction is darkness -- whether it figures in the title or is created through the piece's mood. Conrad does not have a particularly generous view of humanity; he sees his fellow human beings as creatures at the mercy of social forces they do not understand -- forced to deal with ethical questions their culture has never equipped them to handle. The resolution of these issues gives Conrad's fiction a strong flavor of irony.

In "Heart of Darkness," for example, he takes on capitalism, colonialism, and xenophobia -- the nationalistic hatred of any culture different from one's own. The British in Conrad's day typically believed that dark-skinned people were intrinsically inferior to whites, and everyone was inferior to the British; this belief provided the motivation for the exploitation of colonials the world round. Kurtz, the story's villain, falls prey to his own power over the indigenous Africans, and this eventually destroys him. In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad takes on the issue of naval protocol as well as the true nature of respect. The unnamed narrator, a sea captain, initially does not have the respect of his men because he is too insecure to merit it; yet in order for his ship to run properly and safely, he must learn to take control. Through the experience of harboring a stowaway, which of course is in direct violation of the naval protocol the captain is sworn to uphold, the captain learns how to make decisions and "think on his feet," and in the process becomes the naval officer his men need.

Because Conrad deals so intensively with the soul, he has been considered a metaphysical writer. But he is also a social and political one, in that his characters are so much a function of their place and time. In both these stories, he shows us that we must sometimes think "out of the box" of society's norms in order to fulfill our potential as a person. Joseph Conrad's fiction takes a hard look at issues of morality in settings where one's natural instincts are challenged.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

Heart of Darkness

The Secret Sharer

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Works of Joseph Conrad: (25+ works) Includes Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and more.