Joseph Conrad was a Pole who wrote in English. His novels have a tendency to stray into masculine stereotypes, similar to Hemingway, but with a subtlety that provide literary merit. Heart of Darkness (1902) is his most popular and enduring work, perhaps made most famous by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. It concerns the steamship journey of a man named Marlow up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, a fellow employee of the same Company who appears to have "gone native." The journey into the heart of Africa is a descent away from civilization for Marlow, so that in the end it is difficult to detect lingering traces of "civilization" in either Marlow or Kurtz.
Other famous works by Conrad include the following:
- Lord Jim
- The Secret Agent
- Under Western Eyes
Today, literary scholars recognize the works of Joseph Conrad as some of the most significant examples of the sea novel. Nearly all of Conrad's writings are counted among the most unanimously admired fixtures of the canon of Western literature.
Although Conrad did not write exclusively about the sea and seagoing men, the majority of his works deal with some aspect of sea travel. In Conrad's texts, the element of adventure that had served to popularize the sea novel among contemporary readers is not altogether missing, but it is greatly subordinated to the subtle nuances of psychological and moral tension that determine the momentous actions and decisions of many of Conrad's key characters at pivotal junctures in the narrative.
As opposed to the representatives of the sea novel genre that preceded his work, Conrad's narratives do not feature the minutia of maritime technology. Instead, the voyages and ships he describe serve only as a backdrop to the psychological friction between characters, albeit a necessary one, since many of the scenarios Conrad develops require the unique circumstances of prolonged sea travel to support crucial elements of the plot or characterization.
In addition, the setting of sea travel that defines Conrad's sea novels provides a setting that effectively initiates the introspection and existential dilemmas that confront many of his characters in such a way that few other natural settings could duplicate as successfully.
The manager of the African station where Marlow first disembarks describes Kurtz: "He is a prodigy. He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else" . He is one, probably in Conrad's eye, the type of person called "a man's man." Kurtz is charismatic, with the type of natural leadership that other men instinctively recognize. As Marlow journeys up the river in search of Kurtz, he comes to know the man more and more. Kurtz, at first, is little more than a mystery, a word to be whispered more than a name to be spoken aloud.