Who was Conrad? What did he write?
Joseph Conrad was a Polish author, who lived between 1857 and 1924.
He was born in Polish Ukraine, but he and his family were exiled in Northern Russia after his father participated in a movement for Polish independence. His parents died when he was young; when he was 17, he sailed on a French ship to South Africa. In 1978 he joined the English merchant navy and served the British Merchant Service for about twenty years. He was mainly in Eastern waters, as in Sumatra, Java, the Philippines and China. In 1894, he was sick and left the sea, and then started to write.
His stories were quite successful, and it is interesting to notice that he wrote in a language that was not his mother tongue, so it was difficult for him to write. Conrad died in 1924.
Conrad wrote two volumes of memoirs, twenty-eight short stories and thirteen novels. Among his most famous works, we can list:
- Youth, published in 1902. It is the report of a journey that Conrad made in 1883 to the East. The journey is also used as a symbol of the passage from youth to maturity.
- Heart of Darkness, published in 1902. It is a short novel about an ivory trader in Congo, the heart of Africa.
- Typhoon, 1903. It is the story of the captain of a ship, who manages to get his crew through a typhoon.
- Lord Jim, published in 1900. It narrates the story of a man who lives a moment of cowardice, gets dishonored, and then redeems himself through a heroic death.
- Chance, 1913. It is the story of a girl who marries a man she doesn’t love, in order to help her father, who’s in prison. When she starts falling in love with the man, he dies in a shipwreck.
- The Shadow Line, published in 1919. It tells the story of a captain and his crew, who face a tropical fever during a journey. When they reach the destination, the captain feels he has passed the “shadow line” between youth and adulthood.
Style and themes
The style is not easy to read at first. We find an ambiguous narrative structure, with long sentences, some obscure passages and an abundance of words and images.
This style is explained also by the themes and features that are typical of Conrad’s words.
First of all, we have the technique of the oblique narrative. This is the tale-within-a-tale technique: the story often begins with a narrator who tells a story, beginning the inner narrative, which is the actual story. Captain Marlow is the most frequent narrator, as he appears in Youth, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Chance.
We find often presence of a double, the alter ego of the protagonist or of the narrator. The double often represents the darkest, more ambiguous side of the protagonist.
Another ambiguity is that of the protagonists, who are typically European men finding themselves in an environment they don’t know, and that changes them. They will reveal their true character, either falling in moral degradation, or finding redemption in the end.
Conrad used symbols a lot, for instance the place described is often the sea, which also represents the isolation from society that the man experiences. Natural elements in general are symbols of the emotions and thought. For instance, the mist, the shadows, the clouds, evoke darkness and ambiguity.
Lastly, the traditional time sequence is often manipulated, going back and forth in time to trace memories and thoughts.
Heart of Darkness
This novel is based on the author’s personal experience of a journey through a river in Congo. The narrator here is Marlow, which is on a boat on the river Thames and tells the story of what happened to him some years before. He travelled through a river in Congo, visiting trading posts of an ivory company. At one of these trading posts, Marlow heard about a Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader. Kurtz used to live in Europe, and he was a man full of ideals, then he moved to Africa and he changed, becoming a criminal driven by ambition. Marlow meets him when Kurtz is sick; one of the most famous passage from the novel is the moment when Kurtz realizes his moral degeneration just before dying. Here is the passage.
One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.” The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, “Oh, nonsense!” and stood over him as if transfixed.
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as thought a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice a cry that was no more than a breath:
“The horror! The horror!”J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness
This was Joseph Conrad!
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