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Related post for Thought provoking essay ideas

For other uses, see Joseph Conrad (disambiguation).

Joseph Conrad (Polish pronunciation: [ˈjuz̪ɛf ˌkɔn.rad]; born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) was a Polish-British writer[1] regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language.[2] He joined the British merchant marine in 1878, and was granted British citizenship in 1886. Though he did not speak English fluently until his twenties, he was a master prose stylist who brought a non-English sensibility into English literature.[note 1] He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe.[note 2]

Conrad is considered an early modernist,[note 3] though his works still contain elements of 19th-century realism.[3] His narrative style and anti-heroic characters[4] have influenced numerous authors, and many films have been adapted from, or inspired by, his works. Numerous writers and critics have commented that Conrad's fictional works, written largely in the first two decades of the 20th century, seem to have anticipated later world events.[5][6]

Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew on, among other things, his native Poland's national experiences[note 4] and his own experiences in the French and British merchant navies, to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European-dominated world—including imperialism and colonialism—and that profoundly explore the human psyche.

Life

Early years

Conrad was born on 3 December 1857 in Berdychiv, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire; the region had once been part of the Kingdom of Poland.[7] He was the only child of Apollo Korzeniowski – a writer, translator, political activist, and would-be revolutionary – and his wife Ewa Bobrowska. He was christened Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski after his maternal grandfather Józef, his paternal grandfather Teodor, and the heroes (both named "Konrad") of two poems by Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady and Konrad Wallenrod, and was known to his family as "Konrad", rather than "Józef".[note 5]

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.[8] Polish literature, particularly patriotic literature, was held in high esteem by the area's Polish population.[9]:1

The Korzeniowski family had played a significant role in Polish attempts to regain independence. Conrad's paternal grandfather Teodor had served under Prince Józef Poniatowski during Napoleon's Russian campaign and had formed his own cavalry squadron during the November 1830 Uprising.[10] Conrad's fiercely patriotic father Apollo 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.[11][note 6]

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[note 7] of the Warsaw Citadel.[note 8] Conrad would write: "[I]n the courtyard of this Citadel – characteristically for our nation – my childhood memories begin."[12]: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.[12]: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.[12]: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 from Mickiewicz 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]".[12]: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.[12]:31–34 Like Conrad's mother, Apollo had been gravely ill with tuberculosis.

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 outlay. Conrad was not a good student; despite tutoring, he excelled only in geography.[12]: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.[12]: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 9] He also recalled having read books by the American James Fenimore Cooper and the English Captain Frederick Marryat.[12]: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...[12]: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.[12]: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.[12]: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.[9]: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.[9]:246–47Zdzisław 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...[12]:47

It has been suggested that when Conrad left Poland, he wanted to break once and for all with his Polish past.[12]:97 In refutation of this, Najder quotes from Conrad's 14 August 1883 letter to family friend Stefan Buszczyński, written nine years after Conrad had left Poland:

... I always remember what you said when I was leaving [Kraków]: "Remember"–you said–"wherever you may sail, you are sailing towards Poland!"

That I have never forgotten, and never will forget![12]:96

Citizenship

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.[12]:41

In a letter of 9 August 1877, Conrad's uncle Bobrowski broached two important subjects:[note 10] 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".[12]: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.[12]: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.[12]:132

Merchant marine

Main article: Joseph Conrad's career at sea

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. During the 19 years from the time that Conrad had left Kraków in October 1874 until he signed off the Adowa in January 1894, he had worked in ships, including long periods in ports, for 10 years and almost 8 months. He had spent just over 8 years at sea — 9 months of this as a passenger.[12]:187

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.

During a brief call in India in 1885–86, 28-year-old Conrad sent five letters to Joseph Spiridion,[note 11] a Pole eight years his senior whom he had befriended at Cardiff in June 1885 just before sailing for Singapore in the clipper shipTilkhurst. 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 and phraseology. 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.[12]:104–5

Conrad's three-year association 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. During this period, in 1890 in the Congo, Conrad encountered and befriended the Irish Republican and advocate for human rights, Sir Roger Casement.[12]:149–51

When Conrad left London on 25 October 1892 aboard the clipper shipTorrens, one of the passengers was William Henry Jacques, a consumptiveCambridge 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.[12]: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.[12]:182–3

Writer

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.[12]: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 English-speaking world. 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."[12]:118–20[note 12]

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 13]

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 the Illustrated Buffalo Express.[14] He also wrote for The Outlook, an imperialist weekly magazine, between 1898 and 1906.[15][note 14]

Financial success long eluded Conrad, who often asked magazine and book publishers for advances, and acquaintances (notably John Galsworthy) for loans.[12][note 15] Eventually a government grant ("Civil List pension") of £100 per annum, awarded on 9 August 1910, somewhat relieved his financial worries,[12]:420[note 16] 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 – ironically, one of his weaker novels.

Edward Said describes three phases to Conrad's literary career.[16] In the first and longest, from the 1890s to World War I, Conrad wrote 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."[17]

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.[12]: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."[12]: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.[18] 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.[12]:169–70 Conrad had a phobia of dentistry, neglecting his teeth until they had to be extracted. In one letter he remarked that every novel he had written had cost him a tooth.[19]: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."[12]: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.[20] 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 17] To what extent the suicide attempt had been made in earnest, likely will never be known, but it is suggestive of a situational depression.[12]: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.[21] 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.[12]: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.[22] The couple had two sons, Borys and John. The elder, Borys, proved a disappointment in scholarship and integrity.[12] 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.[23][24] (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.[14] 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.[25]

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.[12][note 18] 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.

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.[12]: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 aroused interest among the Poles as a famous writer and an exotic compatriot from abroad. He charmed new acquaintances, especially women. However, the double Nobel laureateMaria 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.[12]:463–64[note 19][note 20]

But thirty-two-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,[12]: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 21]

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 Central Powers must in turn be beaten by France and Britain.[12]: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.[12]: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."[12]:466

Politics

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.[12]:351–54

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.[12]: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.[12]:290

Before that, in the early 1880s, letters to Conrad from his uncle Tadeusz[note 22] 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."[12]: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?[12]: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....[12]:548–9

Leo Robson writes:

Conrad... adopted a broader ironic stance—a sort of blanket incredulity, defined by a character in Under Western Eyes as the negation of all faith, devotion, and action. Through control of tone and narrative detail... Conrad exposes what he considered to be the naïveté of movements like anarchism and socialism, and the self-serving logic of such historical but "naturalized" phenomena as capitalism (piracy with good P.R.), rationalism (an elaborate defense against our innate irrationality), and imperialism (a grandiose front for old-school rape and pillage). To be ironic is to be awake—and alert to the prevailing "somnolence." In Nostromo... the journalist Martin Decoud... ridicul[es] the idea that people "believe themselves to be influencing the fate of the universe." (H.G. Wells recalled Conrad's astonishment that "I could take social and political issues seriously.")[29]

But, writes Robson, Conrad is no moral nihilist:

If irony exists to suggest that there's more to things than meets the eye, Conrad further insists that, when we pay close enough attention, the "more" can be endless. He doesn't reject what [his character] Marlow [introduced in Youth] calls "the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilisation" in favor of nothing; he rejects them in favor of "something," "some saving truth," "some exorcism against the ghost of doubt"—an intimation of a deeper order, one not easily reduced to words. Authentic, self-aware emotion—feeling that doesn't call itself "theory" or "wisdom"—becomes a kind of standard-bearer, with "impressions" or "sensations" the nearest you get to solid proof.[30]

In an August 1901 letter to the editor of The New York Times Saturday Book Review, Conrad wrote: "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."[12]:315[note 23]

Death

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".[12]: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[12]: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.[12]: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."[12]:573

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

In 1996 his grave was designated a Grade II listed structure.[31]

Writing style

Themes and style

Despite the opinions even of some who knew Conrad personally, such as fellow-novelist Henry James,[12]:446–47 Conrad – even when 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 sailing 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 to appreciate this caused him much frustration.[12]:377, 562

He wrote oftener about life at sea and in exotic parts than about life on British land because—unlike, for example, his friend John Galsworthy, author of The Forsyte Saga—he knew little about everyday domestic relations in Britain. When Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea was published in 1906 to critical acclaim, he wrote to his French translator: "The critics have been vigorously swinging the censer to me.... Behind the concert of flattery, I can hear something like a whisper: 'Keep to the open sea! Don't land!' They want to banish me to the middle of the ocean."[12]:371

Writing to his friend Richard Curle, Conrad remarked that "the public mind fastens on externals" such as his "sea life", oblivious to how authors transform their material "from particular to general, and appeal to universal emotions by the temperamental handling of personal experience".[32]

Nevertheless, Conrad found much sympathetic reading, especially in the United States. H.L. Mencken was one of the earliest and most influential American readers to recognize how Conrad conjured up "the general out of the particular". F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing to Mencken, complained about having been omitted from a list of Conrad imitators. Since Fitzgerald, dozens of other American writers have acknowledged their debts to Conrad, including William Faulkner, William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Thomas Pynchon.[33]

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."[12]: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."[34]

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 evocative Patna 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."[12]:576–77

Many of Conrad's characters were inspired by actual persons he met, including, in his first novel, Almayer's Folly (completed 1894), William Charles Olmeijer, the spelling of whose surname Conrad probably altered to "Almayer" inadvertently.[9]:11, 40 The historic trader Olmeijer, whom Conrad encountered on his four short visits to Berau in Borneo, subsequently haunted Conrad's imagination.[9]:40–1 Conrad often borrowed the authentic names of actual individuals, e.g., Captain McWhirr[note 24] (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."[9]:11–12 Equally curious is "a great deal of namelessness in Conrad, requiring some minor virtuosity to maintain."[9]:244 Thus we never learn the surname of the protagonist of Lord Jim.[9]:95 Conrad also preserves, in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', the authentic name of the ship, the Narcissus, in which he sailed in 1884.[12]: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 the SS Jeddah;[9]:96–7 the second part, to some extent by the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.[35] 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.[12]:312–13[note 25]

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."[9]:128–29[note 26] The novel's political strand, according to Maya Jasanoff, is related to the creation of the Panama Canal. "In January 1903," she writes, "just as Conrad started writing Nostromo, the US and Colombian secretaries of state signed a treaty granting the United States a one-hundred-year renewable lease on a six-mile strip flanking the canal... While the [news]papers murmured about revolution in Colombia, Conrad opened a fresh section of Nostromo with hints of dissent in Costaguana", his fictional South American country. He plotted a revolution in the Costaguanan fictional port of Sulaco that mirrored the real-life secessionist movement brewing in Panama. When Conrad finished the novel on 1 September 1904, writes Jasanoff, "he left Sulaco in the condition of Panama. As Panama had gotten its independence instantly recognized by the United States and its economy bolstered by American investment in the canal, so Sulaco had its independence instantly recognized by the United States, and its economy underwritten by investment in the [fictional] San Tomé [silver] mine."[36]

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.[37] Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer" (completed 1909) was inspired by an 1880 incident when Sydney Smith, first mate of the Cutty Sark

In 1914, Conrad stayed at the ZakopanepensionKonstantynówka, operated by his cousin Aniela Zagórska, mother of his future Polish translator of the same name.[12]:462–63
Joseph Conrad, 1919 or after

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