Posted in Musings

Joseph Conrad’s Chthonic Folly

Joseph Conrad started writing relatively late in life.   He  drew heavily from a long career as master mariner in the era of European, eastern expansion.

In A Personal Record he tells of the first impulse to write. Sitting idle in his room at Bessborough Gardens he remembers his initial encounter with the man who inspired his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.

Conrad was 1st mate on a cargo steamer going up a Malaysian river to deliver supplies to a remote outpost. On board was a pony which the Dutch trader, Almayer, has ordered from Bali:

  The importation of that Bali pony might have been part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some hopeful intrigue. With Almayer, one could never tell. He governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious, by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable to any reasonable person.

The same might be said for the whole colonialist adventure. But this misguided effort is constantly undermined by inscrutable forces antithetical to the rigid mindset of the European.

Conrad describes the limp pony as he hoists it onto the dock in a sling:

 …his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went slowly swaying across the front of the bridge, I noticed an astute gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye.

Upon releasing the sling, the pony immediately flattens Almayer and bolts for the dense forest- an outcome which Almayer meets with perplexing indifference.

 But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want the pony anymore.

He embodies the ambiguous,  often childish, desire for dominion over the remotest corners of the earth; a tragi-comic symbol of imperialist hyper-extension who, despite his convoluted plans, succumbs to uncontrollable forces and, ultimately, to dissipation.

Listen to Almayer’s halting, distracted monologue as he reveals to the narrator something of his frustrations:

“…the worst of this country is that one is not able to realize…” His voice sank into a languid mutter. “And when one has very large interests…” He finished faintly. “…up the river.”

Conrad was to later use such chthonic imagery and musical, fractured dialogue in his masterful indictment of imperialism: Heart of Darkness.

A Personal Record tells how the encounter with this “factual” character was instrumental in the birth of a long literary career; a career in which he brought to fictional art an unequaled degree of expressiveness. With the concision of the sea language in which he was so fluent-a language as pithy as poetic verse-Conrad condensed into the microcosmic image of Almayer all the absurdity and hubris of the expansionist age.

Conrad goes on to imagine meeting his alter ego in the Elysian fields and confessing:

  It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted your name to my own uses. But that is very small larceny…Your name was common property of the winds…You were always complaining of being lost in the world, you should remember that if I had not believed enough in your existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens you would have been much more lost.

Though a failure in his wind-born life, Almayer triumphs in the end through Conrad’s belief in the ability of his protagonist to express something deep and dark in the psyche of modern man. This ability is all the more poignant because of Almayer’s fictive power. It is a power that confers reality.

  …if I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print.

Though I suspect Conrad’s Personal Record may not conform entirely to fact, his character attains a loftier status. He becomes a symbol of human folly that mere veracity cannot express.


I am an artist, writer and sailor in the Pacific Northwest.

39 thoughts on “Joseph Conrad’s Chthonic Folly

  1. I love Joseph Conrad. I reread Heart of Darkness just a month or so again and followed it up with watching Apocalypse Now. It got my mind going in all sorts of delicious, dark directions. Conrad ROCKS!

      1. Old English: kTHON-ick
        American English: THON-ick
        Greek: cuth-THON-ick

        I prefer the Old English where the initial K sound is pronounced very fast rather than a full syllable. The Greek treats it as a full syllable.

        To say it the Old English way, make a K sound with the top of the back of your tongue without expelling any air, like the K sound in the word “scar.” To say it Greek, push air out while you’re doing it, like the K sound in the word “car.”

        Got it? Don’t make me come over there….

  2. This is a well written and appealingly presented blog! Conrad has been a favorite of mine since reading Heart of Darkness in HS lit class! Thanks for writing!

  3. Conrad is among my favorites. You cover this material with obvious care. This is what blogging, to me, is about. Taking time to cover subjects that are important.

  4. “I thought ‘Stygian’ might [be] as good…”
    They are not quite the same thing. Cthonic means of the underworld in general while stygian refers specifically to the river Styx. Nice post, though.

  5. Did you know that Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was set on the east coast of Borneo, and published in 1895. This marked his first use of the pen name “Joseph Conrad”

    1. That would make Sabah or Sarawak the setting for the novel. But I get the sense it’s a place he brings alive because it’s part of his inner landscape as well as an actual, external one. This is one of the ideas I wanted to talk about. What is more “real?”

  6. I almost had Heart of Darkness ruined to me by an awful high school English teacher — and went back years later to discover that it was actually horrible in its brilliance. I found your essay illuminating, darling. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. I trying to figure out the pingback thing.
      Thank you for the kind (and wise) words. I am humbled to be in the company of such good writers.
      I agree on the importance of dialogue and acknowledgment of other bloggers work. It is a community effort after all. The work I see never ceases to floor me. Yours is up there with the best.
      It is a challenge to try and articulate one’s likes. Not just use “polite, meaningless words.”

  7. After watching Apocalypse Now, a couple of times it was a great idea to read Heart of Darkness, I am reading it in awe, such expressive powers and ruthless describing of the surroundings. Wow.

      1. yes, i agree with you here, But thank goodness they missed the point. Its really hard to read a book after watching its adaptation in a film.

  8. A very enjoyable post. I’m glad I found it 🙂 I had read Heart of Darkness in college for a Modern British Literature class. My professor is a Conrad scholar and imbued all of us with awe in what the man (Conrad) had accomplished in his writing. I believe that my professor said that English was Conrad’s third language, that is, he knew two other languages fluently before he learned English. Yet he is one of the most eloquent of writers in English. Regarding movies, TNT produced a movie of Heart of Darkness with John Malkovich as Kurtz. I believe it was 1994. I’m pretty sure I saw it, but I might have to view it again if I can find it on Netflix. My memory is not what it used to be 🙂

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