Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychiv, Ukraine on December 3, 1857 to educated parents. His father was a poet, translator and ardent Polish patriot whose actions on behalf of his beloved Poland led to his exile to the northern part of Russia. His family went with him. The harsh climate eventually led to the death of Conrad's mother in 1865. His father supported himself and his son by translating works of English literature. Conrad read these works in Polish and French. He became fluent in French and later as a young man would become fluent in English. His mastery of the English language is evident in his novels and stories which were all written in that language. In 1869 Conrad's father died and the boy was cared for by his materal uncle-a man who had a great influence on the young man. Conrad was sent to school but was restless and wanted to go to sea. His uncle gave him a yearly allowance and introduced him to a French merchant. In the summer of 1876, Conrad sailed as an apprentice. For sixteen years he would pursue a merchant sailing career--studying to advance and take certification examinations. Eventually he would become a firstmate. In 1878 he signed on as a deckhand on a British ship. He knew little English but his skill with languages would permit him to master English quickly and eventually become a master of English writing.
Conrad's years as a merchant seaman took him all over the world and provided a great deal of material for his books. He was shipwrecked and as a young officer was in command of a lifeboat for many hours, finally landing off the coast of Sumatra. He would use this experience to publish a short story in 1898. In 1889, he was in command of a Congo River steamboat in the heart of Africa. This experience forever changed him, forming his dark view of human nature and opinion that the natural world is indifferent to the affairs of humans. The Congo trip also damaged his health. For the rest of his life, he would suffer from recurrent fevers, gout and depression. In 1894, his uncle died, ending Conrad's nautical career. By that time he had completed his first novel, "Almayer's Folly." The book was published in the Spring of 1895 under the name "Joseph Conrad." Several more novels followed, most notably "Lord Jim" in 1900 and the novella "Heart of Darkness" in 1902. Many of his books are set in the South Seas, in southeast Asia and Africa. While Conrad placed his characters in exotic locations, his main focus was not in the exotic but in human psychology, evil, and morality. He was interested in the darkness that is part of human nature and in the tragic condition.
In 1895 Conrad married a young 22 year old English woman, Jessie George. They had two sons and lived in Southeast England. He was troubled by poverty, but kept writing. Finally by 1910 his financial situation became more secure. A Civil List pension helped him as well as the successful serialization of his later books. Plagued by physical aliments, Conrad continued to write until his death in 1924.
Critics have written that Conrad's view of life was pessimistic. Evil is everywhere and can corrupt the best of men. All one has, Conrad believed, is fidelity -to an ideal, to "goodness" to fellow humans. We are constantly battling our dark instincts. Conrad believed we often lose the battle, but we must keep trying to win.