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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Joseph Conrad | Biography


Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was born on December 3, 1857, in Berdichev, Ukraine. His parents were of Polish nobility and conspired against Russian rule of their homeland, which, after a long history of independence, had been divided among the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian empires. They were arrested and exiled to northern Russia when Conrad was four years old, and both died before he turned 13. Conrad's parents' politics and their suffering were his earliest lessons in political oppression. These lessons developed in Conrad a sense of the mixed nature of human beings, with the capacity for both good and evil.

Conrad spent time in his formative years in France, supported by family and influential family friends, not unlike Marlow's situation in Africa. By age 14 he had decided he wanted to go to sea, and he did so in his late teens, entering the French merchant marine. In his autobiographical work A Personal Record (1912), Conrad observes there was "no precedent ... for a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking a ... standing jump out of his racial surroundings and associations." Conrad learned English during his time at sea, and, although he might have found a wider audience had he written in French, he notes in A Personal Record that he did not choose English: "It was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, an adoption by English ... too mysterious to explain." His service as a deckhand on a British freighter brought him to England in 1878. He would return to England when not at sea and, after marrying, would continue to live there.

In 1890 Conrad spent six months traveling in the Congo as a steamboat officer. When he returned he was exhausted, sick with malaria, and deeply troubled by all he had experienced. He started writing full time in 1894 and adopted the English version of his name, Joseph Conrad, the following year. In 1899 Heart of Darkness was published serially in three issues of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. His writing brought attention to the barbarity of Belgian colonial control of central Africa established in the 1880s to exploit the region. In 1903 a British consul solicited Conrad's support in exposing these atrocities to the public.

Conrad continued writing until his death in England on August 3, 1924. His other works include Lord Jim (1900), also narrated by the character Marlow; Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907), among other novels and stories. They are early examples of modernist fiction.

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