Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "The Man Behind the Pen: Does the Writing Define Him?" by Charla P. (Spring 2014)

"The Man Behind the Pen: Does the Writing Define Him?" by Charla P. (Spring 2014)

            In his speech delivered in 1974, Chinua Achebe, a noted Nigerian writer and professor called Joseph Conrad “a bloody racist”. In the republished version of the speech in 1987, he used the more subdued version “thoroughgoing racist” (Murfin130). Through this description of Conrad, Achebe expresses a discontentment over the novelist’s seeming obsession of the skin color of the Africans (354). Whether or not the writing style that Conrad chose to use in Heart of Darkness makes him a racist remains a subject of debate. Achebe’s claim can be interpreted on a number of levels. Some might choose to understand it as Joseph Conrad, the author taking on a character to write a novel using the voice of someone encountering a culture for the very first time or Joseph Conrad, the human, being a racist. The goal of this research paper is to get a peek into Joseph Conrad’s life as a writer and as a human, stripped of all fame and recognition, to get to know the man who held the pen through the writing of several other authors, including his wife.  Through these different literary works, each presenting different and sometimes similar views of Conrad, I expect to find some clues as to Conrad’s day-to-day character and from there analyze Achebe’s claim in the context in which it was used and see if and how it applies to Conrad the novelist, Conrad the man, or both.

            One of the main sources that proved essential to analyzing Achebe’s declaration is Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him, a memoir of Joseph Conrad’s life by his wife, Jessie Conrad. This book, as Jessie Conrad puts it herself, is a tool that no one but her could have provided. Literary critics and biographers of Joseph Conrad can certainly find facts and evidence and write about Joseph Conrad in a fairly accurate manner, but Jessie Conrad’s book is the “only book that can be written about his private life; the most human, because the most intimate, account of him” (Conrad162). From Jessie Conrad only can we learn that once they went to town and Jessie Conrad was left with the task of securing a hotel room while her husband went about some business matters. At the end of the day, Conrad entered the wrong hotel and when told that his wife was not checked in at this particular hotel, he commanded the manager to “Produce [his] wife!” and was not easily convinced that he had the wrong place (22). Or that he presented her with a present every time a book was finished (100). Or something as trivial as the fact that “macaroni cheese” was his favorite dish (19). One of my objectives being to get to know Conrad as he was, as a mere human, starting with how his wife viewed him seemed to be a good starting point. Minor details such as tantrums thrown in a hotel lobby or favorite dish might seem trivial, but they can actually be a smaller part of a bigger picture, a puzzle of who an individual is. In order words, these details by themselves may not directly address Achebe’s claim, but looking at the whole picture, there is much to be learned from Jessie Conrad’s anecdotes.  

            A criticism of Jessie Conrad is that she may be biased in her account of Joseph Conrad. That is perfectly understandable and expected. No one wants enjoys talking about the bad memories they have of a loved one who passed away. In fact, these memories are often pushed the back of the mind and when called upon are done so with a certain fondness. This fondness can certainly be observed in the tone in which Jessie Conrad tells her stories. Still, there is an element of honesty there. She still talks about the bad habits that her husband had, even if they sound more like quirky habits. For example, Conrad had a habit of “making bread pellets and flinging them across the room” (19). Having experienced living with other humans, it can be easy to understand that the ‘quirky’ habits that Jessie Conrad described were probably not always seen as such. It probably proved very frustrating to have a grown man tear bread apart and throw the crumbs across a room. My hope is that by putting together these pieces that Jessie Conrad provides with, I’ll be able to compare Conrad to Achebe’s claim and see how justified said claim was.

            In response to potential critics about Jessie Conrad’s account of her husband, I examined another publication of Conrad’s life: The Three Lives Of Joseph Conrad by Olivia Coolidge. This book is more of a balance against Jessie Conrad’s books. It presents three major stages of Conrad’s life: The Polish Prisoner, The Sea Wanderer and The English Novelist. As one of these factual and non-intimate accounts of Conrad’s life that Jessie Conrad alluded to, Coolidge provides us with a non-emotionally involved view of Conrad’s life. Granted, there are certain more personal details that are lacking compared to Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him, but as a whole, we get a more objective view of Conrad’s life. This will allow for two different perspectives of Conrad: the personal, involved one, and the factual, historical one. In addition to balancing out Jessie Conrad’s account, this book provides a background drop for Joseph Conrad, an objective view of how he grew up, the factors that influence him and how that contributed to his writing style in Heat of Darkness

            Shifting the gear from Conrad for a moment, I wanted to see what Conrad was seeing when he set foot in Africa. True, Marlow was very descriptive about the things that he encountered when he got off the boat, but I wanted to again get a more objective point of view. Allan Simmons’ Joseph Conrad In Context provided the realities of the Congo during the time that Conrad traveled there, in the section of the book called “Africa” (109-116). This section provides a lot of context that would help us understand more about the way that Marlow/Conrad described Africa and most importantly the people living there. It provides suggestion to questions such as: Did Conrad use the language that he used in Heart Of Darkness- and that bothers Achebe so much- because there were no other known way of describing this continent that was so new to him? Having an historical setting for Conrad’s story, places readers in a neutral state of mind that cannot be achieved by reading Heart of Darkness alone.

            Examining these sources together should allow me to understand the setting that Conrad was in, not only physically, but also intellectually (what were the ideas going on around him at the time? And how might that have affected his language in the novel?). Most importantly, these sources will help me understand how Conrad’ character comes into play into all of this. Achebe’s claim that Conrad is a “bloody racist”, can be interpreted a number of ways. It could mean that Conrad, the novelist produces racist characters or Conrad, the man who resides inside the man holding the pen is racist. After all, authors can write about things that they do not necessarily agree with. By examining these sources, I hope to find a plausible answer as to which Conrad, if any, Achebe referred to when he made his declaration.        


Annotated Bibliography 

Conrad, Jessie. Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Page    

& Company, 1926. Print.

This book is a collection of anecdotes and everyday life events that occurred in the life of Joseph Conrad and hi family as told in the voice of Jessie Conrad, his wife. It provides a view of Conrad that as Jessie Conrad puts it “is the only book that that can be written about his private life; the most human, because the most intimate, account of him” (162). Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him allows readers to get into the “human” Conrad’s mind in a way that the literary critics of his books or his bibliographies do not. For example, Jessie Conrad’s book gives us a peek into Joseph Conrad’s writing process. It is interesting that on the books’ covers, Joseph Conrad is listed as the author when during the process he gets inputs and pointers from his wife, who goes unmentioned for the most part.  Jessie Conrad played an important role in Joseph Conrad’s self-editing process. He would give her the manuscript and have her read it aloud to him and he would scratch or add lines from there (102-103). I could go on and on about the different perspectives that this book offers. It can of course be argued that since the author is Joseph Conrad’s wife, there might be some bias present. That’s very reasonable. In general, Jessie Conrad tends to defend her husband’s work, but that is to be expected given that she pays in role in the realization of these books. However, I found the writing to be genuine and mostly matter-of-fact when it comes to describing Conrad as a human being and a husband. I am planning on using this a background source, as a lens through which I can observe the “human” inhabiting the novelist, the man behind the pen. 


 Coolidge, Olivia. The Three Lives Of Joseph Conrad. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Company , 1972. Print.

This source is also another recount of Joseph Conrad’s life. The author is not related to Joseph Conrad, so I thought that it would eliminate any biases that might come up in the previously discussed source, even if the perspective presented is different. The three lives that Coolidge refers to in her book are Conrad’s life when he was a polish prisoner, the time that he spent as a sailor, a “Sea Wanderer”, and when he settled down as an English novelist”. One of the most interesting thing about this book is that it also goes into details about Conrad’s marriage. The tone is very different from Jessie Conrad’s book, though. While Coolidge’s account makes the reader think of someone standing from the outside trying to guess what is going on on the inside, Jessie Conrad provides those answers. The Three Lives Of Joseph Conrad provides readers with one of those perspectives that Jessie Conrad mentioned would not totally do her husband justice.


Allan H., Simmons. Joseph Conrad In Context. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press,

2009. Print.

This source is a compilation of several memoirs and bibliographies, critics and even a chronology of Joseph Conrad’s life. Out of all of this, I only got the book because of the section called “Africa” that starts on page 109. This section I thought provided a historical account of the Congo during the time that Conrad was serving there. It briefly discussed the “Scramble for Africa” and the prevailing reasoning as to why Europeans deemed it just to avail themselves of all that Congo had to offer (112 and 114). This section of the book really sets the scene of what Conrad came upon during his stay in the Congo.  This historical knowledge provides a better understanding of the significance of Marlow/Conrad’s travel.


Achebe, Chinua. "An Image Of Africa: Racism In Conrad's Heart Of Darkness."

Massachusetts, 1974. Speech.

In this source, Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe argues that Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness is an inappropriate book because of its glaring racism view. Achebe proposes that “Certainly, Conrad had a problem with niggers” (345). Achebe uses Conrad’s seemingly obsession with the Africans’ skin color to make his argument ((345). Achebe goes further to say that Conrad’s representation of Africa if misleading in the fact that it uses Africa as the antithesis of Europe, “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity […]” (344).  This critic of Heart of Darkness and Conrad himself provides another perspective that I thought I could use as an argument source. Does the book define Conrad’s view? It also had me thinking about the prevailing views back then and whether or not Conrad had just subscribed to one of them.