Joseph Conrad Biography


Personal Background

Joseph Conrad, one of the English language's greatest stylists, was born Teodor Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzenikowski in Podolia, a province of the Polish Ukraine. Poland had been a Roman Catholic kingdom since 1024, but was invaded, partitioned, and repartitioned throughout the late eighteenth-century by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. At the time of Conrad's birth (December 3, 1857), Poland was one-third of its size before being divided between the three great powers; despite the efforts of nationalists such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who led an unsuccessful uprising in 1795, Poland was controlled by other nations and struggled for independence. When Conrad was born, Russia effectively controlled Poland.

Conrad's childhood was largely affected by his homeland's struggle for independence. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, belonged to the szlachta, a hereditary social class comprised of members of the landed gentry; he despised the Russian oppression of his native land. At the time of Conrad's birth, Apollo's land had been seized by the Russian government because of his participation in past uprisings. He and one of Conrad's maternal uncles, Stefan Bobrowski, helped plan an uprising against Russian rule in 1863. Other members of Conrad's family showed similar patriotic convictions: Kazimirez Bobrowski, another maternal uncle, resigned his commission in the army (controlled by Russia) and was imprisoned, while Robert and Hilary Korzeniowski, two fraternal uncles, also assisted in planning the aforementioned rebellion. (Robert died in 1863 and Hilary was imprisoned and exiled.) All of this political turmoil would prove to be predictably disturbing to young Josef, who could only stand idly by as he watched his family embroiled in such dangerous controversy. The notion of the strong oppressing the weak — and the weak powerless to revolt — surfaces in Heart of Darkness, where the White traders wantonly murder the Congolese in pursuit of riches and power.

Conrad's father was also a writer and translator, who composed political tracts, poetry, and satirical plays. His public urgings for Polish freedom, however, eventually caused Russian authorities to arrest and imprison him in 1861; in 1862, his wife (Conrad's mother), Eva, was also arrested and charged with assisting her husband in his anti-Russian activities. The two were sentenced to exile in Vologda, a town in northern Russia. Their exile was a hard and bitter one: Eva died of tuberculosis in 1865 and Apollo died of the same disease in 1869. Conrad, now only twelve years old, was naturally devastated; his own physical health deteriorated and he suffered from a number of lung inflammations and epileptic seizures. His poor health would become a recurring problem throughout the remainder of his life. Poland did not gain independence until 1919, and although patriots such as Apollo were instrumental in this eventual success, their martyrdom left many children (such as Conrad) without parents or hope for their future.

The Call of the Sea

After his father's death, Conrad was returned to Krakow, Poland, where he became a ward of his maternal uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski. His uncle sent Conrad to school in Krakow and then to Geneva under the guidance of a private tutor. However, Conrad was a poor student; Despite his having studied Greek, Latin, mathematics, and (of course) geography, he never completed the formal courses of study that he was expected to finish. His apathy toward formal education was counterbalanced by the reading he did on his own: During his early teenage years, Conrad read a great deal, particularly translations of Charles Dickens' novels and Captain Frederick Marryat, an English novelist who wrote popular adventure yarns about life at sea. (He also read widely in French.)

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