Joseph Conrad has been called one of the greatest writers of the English novel. Yet English was not his first language. He was born in the Ukraine into a Polish family and learned English only later in life. He disliked the narrowness of his upbringing, particularly his father’s religious zeal. Later in life he wrote to a friend: “It’s strange how I always, from the age of 14, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals … Christianity has lent itself with amazing facility to cruel distortion … and has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls – on this earth.”
As a young man, he became fascinated by the sea and sailed to many places, especially in Africa and Asia, first as a sailor and then as a captain. He was saddened to see the divisions caused by religious belief in the many countries he visited. He came to look on humanity not as different nationalities or races but simply as people. It was the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings that concerned him. He saw this broken by advocates of the many, and differing, religions practised in the world. His boyhood had made him distrust dogmatic attitudes of this kind.
He read an essay, A Free Man’s Worship, by the famous philosopher and humanist, Bertrand Russell, which said: ‘We should worship only the God created by our own love of the good.’ Conrad wrote to Russell saying, ‘For the marvellous pages on the worship of a free man, the only return one can make is that of deep admiring affection.”
In stories like Typhoon and Youth he used many of the experiences he went through. His books were very different in style and in content from conventional Victorian and Edwardian writing. He wrote compassionate, realistic portraits of people who were outsiders, detached from the mainstream of society – as he was himself. His experiences as a boy and at sea led him to a “penetrating scrutiny of honour, steadfastness and integrity in human conduct.” (Caxton Encyclopaedia)
His religious scepticism appears in his novels. In Under Western Eyes, he writes: “A belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are capable of every wickedness.” In Heart of Darkness he says, “We live, as we dream – alone.” And Under Western Eyes shows his humanist morality: “All a man can betray is his conscience.” One of the main histories of English literature says that although in his writing Conrad was a realist, he was also “a thinker and a poet”; that in his work there is “a profound ethical element”; and his “idealism lies in the sense of the unknown which we brush past at every moment,” an unusual way of referring to his agnostic view of life.
Joseph Conrad admired other writers with a humanistic, rationalist outlook. To John Galsworthy, the novelist and playwright, he wrote, making clear his own rejection of dogma: “Scepticism is the tonic of mind, the tonic of life, the agent of truth. It is the way of art and salvation.”