Wide World of Quotes > Joseph Conrad Quotes

Joseph Conrad
Polish-born English novelist

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Outcast of the Islands (1896)

When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect.
-- Outcast of the Islands (1896), opening lines

It's only those who do nothing that make no mistakes, I suppose.
-- Outcast of the Islands (1896), pt. 3, ch. 2

The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential — their one illuminating and convincing quality — the very truth of their existence.
-- The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), preface

My task which I am trying to achieve is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see. That -- and no more; and it is everything.
-- The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), preface

To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile — such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a very few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And when it is accomplished — behold! — all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile — and the return to an eternal rest.
-- The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), preface

The men who could understand his silence were gone — those men who knew how to exist beyond the pale of life and within sight of eternity. They had been strong, as those are strong who know neither doubts nor hopes. They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and devoted, unruly and faithful. Well-meaning people had tried to represent those men as whining over every mouthful of their food; as going about their work in fear of their lives. But in truth they had been men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery — but knew not fear, and had no desire of spite in their hearts. Men hard to manage, but easy to inspire; voiceless men — but men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate. It was a fate unique and their own; the capacity to bear it appeared to them the privilege of the chosen! Their generation lived inarticulate and indispensable, without knowing the sweetness of affections or the refuge of a home — and died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave. They were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if they had learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine. But the others were strong and mute, they were effaced, bowed and enduring, like stone caryatides that hold up in the night the lighted halls of a resplendent and glorious edifice. They are gone now — and it does not matter. The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth, a faith, a generation of men goes — and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth, confessed the faith — or loved the men.
-- The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), ch, 1

Lord Jim (1900)

There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 2

They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 4

It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it's just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 13

The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 14

There is a weird power in a spoken word... And a word carries far — very far — deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 16

That faculty of beholding at a hint the face of his desire and the shape of his dream, without which the earth would know no lover and no adventurer.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 16

It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 16

I respected the intense, almost passionate, absorption with which he looked at a butterfly, as though on the bronze sheen of these frail wings, in the white tracings, in the gorgeous markings, he could see other things, an image of something as perishable and defying destruction as these delicate and lifeless tissues displaying a splendour unmarred by death.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 20

In the destructive element immerse ...that was the way.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 20

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 20

To the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 20

Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 21

The last word is not said, — probably shall never be said. Are not our lives too short for that full utterance which through all our stammerings is of course our only and abiding intention? I have given up expecting those last words, whose ring, if they could only be pronounced, would shake both heaven and earth. There is never time to say our last word — the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submissions, revolt. The heaven and the earth must not be shaken, I suppose — at least, not by us who know so many truths about either. My last words about Jim shall be few. I affirm he had achieved greatness; but the thing would be dwarfed in the telling, or rather in the hearing. Frankly, it is not my words that I mistrust but your minds. I could be eloquent were I not afraid you fellows had starved your imaginations to feed your bodies. I do not mean to be offensive; it is respectable to have no illusions — and safe — and profitable — and dull. Yet you, too, in your time must have known the intensity of life, that light of glamour created in the shock of trifles, as amazing as the glow of sparks struck from a cold stone — and as short-lived, alas!
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 21

There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 24

Truth shall prevail — don't you know Magna est veritas . . . Yes, when it gets a chance. There is a law, no doubt — and likewise a law regulates your luck in the throwing of dice. It is not Justice — the servant of men, but accident, hazard, Fortune — the ally of patient Time — that holds an even and scrupulous balance.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 34

It was a great peace, as if the earth had been one grave, and for a time I stood there thinking mostly of the living who, buried in remote places out of the knowledge of mankind, still are fated to share in its tragic or grotesque miseries. In its noble struggles too — who knows? The human heart is vast enough to contain all the world. It is valiant enough to bear the burden, but where is the courage that would cast it off?
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 34

You shall judge a man by his foes as well as by his friends.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 34

Vanity plays lurid tricks with our memory.
-- Lord Jim (1900), ch. 41

Heart of Darkness (1902)

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it.
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 1

We live, as we dream -- alone.
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 1

In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 2

Exterminate all the brutes!
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 2

I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath — 'The horror! The horror!'
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 3

Mistah Kurtz -- he dead.
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 3

"We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
-- Heart of Darkness (1902), ch. 3

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Youth (1902)

There was a completeness in it, something solid like a principle, and masterful like an instinct -- a disclosure of something secret -- of that hidden something, that gift of good and evil that makes racial difference, that shapes the fate of nations.
-- Youth (1902)

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more -- the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort -- to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires -- and expires, too soon, too soon -- before life itself.
-- Youth (1902)

His name was Jermyn, and he dodged all day long about the galley drying his handkerchief before the stove. Apparently he never slept. He was a dismal man, with a perpetual tear sparkling at the end of his nose, who either had been in trouble, or was in trouble, or expected to be in trouble — couldn't be happy unless something went wrong. He mistrusted my youth, my common-sense, and my seamanship, and made a point of showing it in a hundred little ways. I dare say he was right. It seems to me I knew very little then, and I know not much more now; but I cherish a hate for that Jermyn to this day.
-- Youth (1902)

Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour — of youth!... A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and — goodbye! — Night — Goodbye!
-- Youth (1902)

Nostromo (1904)

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and of flattering illusions.
-- Nostromo (1904), pt. 1: The Silver of the Mine, ch. 6

Having had to encounter single-handed during his period of eclipse many physical dangers, he was well aware of the most dangerous element common to them all: of the crushing, paralyzing sense of human littleness, which is what really defeats a man struggling with natural forces, alone, far from the eyes of his fellows.
-- Nostromo (1904), pt. 3: The Lighthouse, ch. 8

The truth was that he died from solitude, the enemy known but to few on this Earth, and whom only the simplest of us are fit to withstand. The brilliant Costaguanaro of the boulevards had died from solitude.
-- Nostromo (1904), pt. 3: The Lighthouse, Ch. 10

The Mirror of the Sea (1906)

I call to mind a winter landscape in Amsterdam — a flat foreground of waste land, with here and there stacks of timber, like the huts of a camp of some very miserable tribe; the long stretch of the Handelskade; cold, stone-faced quays, with the snow-sprinkled ground and the hard, frozen water of the canal, in which were set ships one behind another with their frosty mooring-ropes hanging slack and their decks idle and deserted, because... their cargoes were frozen-in up-country on barges and schuyts. In the distance, beyond the waste ground, and running parallel with the line of ships, a line of brown, warm-toned houses seemed bowed under snow-laden roofs. From afar at the end of Tsar Peter Straat, issued in the frosty air the tinkle of bells of the horse tramcars, appearing and disappearing in the opening between the buildings, like little toy carriages harnessed with toy horses and played with by people that appeared no bigger than children.
-- The Mirror of the Sea (1906), On Amsterdam, Ch. 14

Nobody ever comes back from a "missing" ship to tell how hard was the death of the craft, and how sudden and overwhelming the last anguish of her men. Nobody can say with what thoughts, with what regrets, with what words on their lips they died. But there is something fine in the sudden passing away of these hearts from the extremity of struggle and stress and tremendous uproar—from the vast, unrestful rage of the surface to the profound peace of the depths, sleeping untroubled since the beginning of ages.
-- The Mirror of the Sea (1906), On Amsterdam, ch. 17

For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on shore) have professed to feel for it, for all the celebrations it had been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
-- The Mirror of the Sea (1906), On Amsterdam, ch. 35

The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.
-- The Mirror of the Sea (1906), On Amsterdam, ch. 36

The Secret Agent (1907)

Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury.
-- The Secret Agent (1907), ch. 2

The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket.
-- The Secret Agent (1907), ch. 4

All idealization makes life poorer. To beautify it is to take away its character of complexity — it is to destroy it. Leave that to the moralists, my boy. History is made by men, but they do not make it in their heads. The ideas that are born in their consciousness play an insignificant part in the march of events. History is dominated and determined by the tool and the production — by the force of economic conditions. Capitalism has made socialism, and the laws made by the capitalist for the protection of property are responsible for anarchism. No one can tell what form the social organisation may take in the future. Then why indulge in prophetic phantasies? At best they can only interpret the mind of the prophet, and can have no objective value. Leave that pastime to the moralists, my boy.
-- The Secret Agent (1907), ch. 3

To the destruction of what is.
-- A toast by the professor in: The Secret Agent (1907), ch.13

All passion is lost now. The world is mediocre, limp, without force. And madness and despair are a force. And force is a crime in the eyes of the fools, the weak and the silly who rule the roost. You are mediocre. Verloc, whose affair the police has managed to smother so nicely, was mediocre. And the police murdered him. He was mediocre. Everybody is mediocre. Madness and despair! Give me that for a lever, and I'll move the world. Ossipon, you have my cordial scorn. You are incapable of conceiving even what the fat-fed citizen would call a crime. You have no force.
-- The Secret Agent (1907), ch. 13

He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable -- and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
-- The Secret Agent (1907), closing words

Under Western Eyes (1911)

Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.
-- -- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1

I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1

They talk of a man betraying his country, his friends, his sweetheart. There must be a moral bond first. All a man can betray is his conscience.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1, ch. 2

Who knows what true loneliness is — not the conventional word, but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1, ch. 2

A man's most open actions have a secret side to them.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1, ch. 2

Let a fool be made serviceable according to his folly.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 1, ch. 3

The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted matures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement -- but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 2, ch. 3

A belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt. 2, ch. 4

Perhaps life is just that... a dream and a fear.
-- Under Western Eyes (1911), pt.4, ch. 2

A Personal Record (Some Reminicences) (1912)

Don't talk to me of your Archimedes' lever... Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.
-- A Personal Record (also known as Some Reminicences) (1912), preface

Only in men's imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence.
-- A Personal Record (also known as Some Reminicences) (1912), preface

All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upwards on the miseries or credulities of mankind.
-- A Personal Record (also known as Some Reminicences) (1912), preface

Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art, as of life.
-- A Personal Record (also known as Some Reminicences) (1912), ch. 1

Chance (1913)

As to honour — you know — it's a very fine mediaeval inheritance which women never got hold of. It wasn't theirs.
-- Chance (1913), pt.1, ch. 2

As I waited I thought that there's nothing like a confession to make one look mad; and that of all confessions a written one is the most detrimental all round. Never confess! Never, never!
-- Chance (1913), ch. 7

Victory: An Island Tale (1915)

It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog.
-- Victory: An Island Tale (1915), pt. 2, ch. 3

He remembered that she was pretty, and, more, that she had a special grace in the intimacy of life. She had the secret of individuality which excites — and escapes.
-- Victory: An Island Tale (1915), pt. 3, ch. 4

Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love — and to put its trust in life!!
-- Victory: An Island Tale (1915), pt. 4, ch. 14

The Shadow Line (1915)

He feared neither God, nor devil, nor man, nor wind, nor sea, nor his own conscience. And I believe he hated everybody and everything. But I think he was afraid to die. I believe I am the only man whoever stood up to him.
-- The Shadow Line (1915)

The Arrow of Gold (Uniform Edition, 1924)

In plucking the fruit of memory one runs the risk of spoiling its bloom.
-- The Arrow of Gold (Uniform Edition, 1924)


He is pretty certain to come back into favour. One of the surest signs of his genius is the women dislike his books.
-- George Orwell, in: New English Weekly, 23 July 1936

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The selection of the above quotes and the writing of the accompanying notes was performed by the author David Paul Wagner.

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