Joseph Conrad, often considered a foundational writer in the English language, struggled to learn English and often as a young man struggled to find acceptance within British and wider-European society. Incredibly well-traveled and familiar with the quirks particular to a life spent at sea, Conrad uses his knowledge of far-flung places and of life on the ocean to bring his readers cracking tales with unbelievably high-stakes and powerful moments of realization.
Joseph Conrad is definitely worth reading. In his prose, and how he structures his novels, he demonstrates an unparalleled understanding and mastery of the tools required to tell an affecting story. Conrad also draws attention to a shared humanity greater than, and capable of overcoming empire.
Who was Joseph Conrad?
Joseph Conrad was a Polish writer born in 1857 who moved from his native (modern-day) Ukraine to France and later, to England, after serving for many years on vessels which traveled the world by sea.
In many ways, Conrad had a difficult life, struggling at different points with poor health and with high levels of debt.
Conrad loved language from when he was a young boy and used his skills and his experiences as a sea-faring mariner to write works of literature which are still considered to have had one of the greatest influences upon later writers working in the English language, not limited to: T.S. Eliot, Joan Didion and J.M. Coetzee (and writers like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, working in other languages too!)
What did Joseph Conrad Write?
Perhaps most famously, Conrad wrote the novella Heart of Darkness, based upon his own experiences of sailing a ship up the Congo River and traveling through the area.
Conrad uses a slew of techniques to draw attention to the problematic nature of seeking to civilize another group of human beings, developing a thorough critique of colonial power.
Importantly, Heart of Darkness examines the relationship between power and madness, and details how those with power may subject those without power, who they deem ‘savages’, to the most extreme kinds of savagery.
Some of Conrad’s characters, like Charles Marlow, appear across multiple novels (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim).
Conrad’s other novels are primarily concerned with examinations of the full lives of sea-faring men, and of how their relationship to power changes over the course of their life. In Nostromo, Conrad recounts the story of a maritime thief who emerges as the great captain of a schooner.
Lord Jim follows the story of a man who formed part of the crew aboard a passenger ship as he grapples publicly and privately with his abandonment of this vessel.
Each of Conrad’s stories has been carefully set in locations which he, as an experienced sea-farer, had ample access to, but which many of his readers were unlikely to see during their own lives.
Was Joseph Conrad a Good Writer?
Joseph Conrad was an exceptional writer. His novels still deliver excitement and adventure with the weight and accuracy of knowledge and historical detail only a true mariner could provide.
The real reason why Conrad was such a good writer though, was because of his ability to draw parallels between humans from completely different walks of life.
For budding writers, Conrad has got to be your ‘go-to’ person for guidance on how to structure novels, both temporally and when using framing devices and innovative modes of narration.
Perhaps more salient than anything else through time, remains Conrad’s ability to draw us into a story via his close and careful attention to detail, and to the complex literary techniques he used to relay information to us as readers.
Why Should We Read Joseph Conrad Today?
As readers of Conrad, we come to empathize and share concerns with those we may otherwise see ourselves as different to or separate from.
In his novels and novellas, Conrad challenges our desire to ‘other’ people who do not look or sound like ourselves, and draws attention always to a shared humanity which demands equal respect for all.
Conrad, who felt as though he occupied the position of an outsider during his life, was familiar with the experience of being ‘othered’ and sought desperately to use story as a way of bringing people from disparate worlds together.
Vitally, Conrad’s stories comment upon the cruelty of humanity under hostile conditions and during moments of extreme danger, drawing attention not only to problematic aspects of colonialism which have perpetuated suffering, but also to the absurdity of humans condescending to ‘savages’, and ironically bringing harm to others who they perceive as threatening.
Is Joseph Conrad Worth Reading?
Conrad rightly deserves recognition as one of the great engineers and craftsmen of the novel and novella forms.
His understanding of form remains one of the greatest examples of how narration and story structure can be used to develop and deliver tales of truly epic proportions.
Bravely, Conrad delivered progressive messages at a time of unparalleled colonial expansion and subjugation, such that these were read and considered by subjects within the colonies at the time.
Conrad offered his contemporaneous readers a way to see, based upon his maritime experiences, other people and places as sharing the same concerns and desires as they themselves had.
If you’re keen, as a writer, to learn how to engage your reader and sustain their interest, there’s a lot Conrad can teach you about precisely how to relay events and use sensory language to suspend a reader’s disbelief.
It goes without saying that Joseph Conrad remains one of the most accomplished novelists who wrote in the English language.
His experiences as a Polish person working across multiple other countries and regions, with colleagues from across the world, allowed Conrad to develop a global sensibility and outlook which were revolutionary and subversive at the time of writing.
Conrad’s contribution to literature, and to the refinement of the mechanisms we use to tell and share stories have altered how we approach and engage with people who have experiences which differ from our own.
In effectively using a frame narrative structure for many of his novels and novellas, Conrad has affected how writers today convey events and develop rapport with their readers.