In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Joseph Conrad

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Standard Editions
  • Correspondence
  • Periodicals and Societies
  • Achievement and Decline
  • Colonialism and Imperialism
  • Conrad and Other Authors
  • Drama and Film
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Language, Narrative, and PostStructural Approaches
  • Other Contextual Approaches
  • Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics
  • Poland and France
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Realism, Modernism, and Modernity
  • The Sea

British and Irish Literature Joseph Conrad
Mark Larabee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0089


Born Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski in Russian-annexed Polish Ukraine, Joseph Conrad (b. 1857–d. 1924) spent twenty years at sea before becoming an established writer in English—his third language. His experiences in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa, combined with his knowledge of Europe and his omnivorous reading, provided fertile material for literature that now places him in the first rank of early-20th-century British authors. Long noted as a subtle and sophisticated observer of human behavior and the physical world, as well as an accomplished literary craftsman, he wrote novels, short stories, and memoirs that today enjoy large general and scholarly readerships. Heart of Darkness (1899), for instance, is widely taught at secondary and postsecondary levels and has inspired several adaptations for film, theater, radio, and television, and its motifs and language have entered the popular lexicon and influenced countless other writers. Yet this story is only his most famous, in a body of fiction that also includes such admired novels as Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904) as well as The Secret Agent (1907). He also wrote numerous essays and some dramatic adaptations, and he left behind thousands of letters documenting his life history, writing methods, and literary friendships. His work was well reviewed during his lifetime, even if popular and financial success eluded him until the publication of Chance in 1913. Conrad’s critical reputation entered a period of decline after his death but underwent a revival in the 1950s, sparked in part by F. R. Leavis’s assessment of him (Leavis 1963, cited under Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics) as a great author in the English tradition. Since then, his writing has been widely recognized for its richness and technical mastery, inviting a vast amount of critical attention that has employed every major theoretical approach. Conrad occupied a pivotal position in literary history, having been especially influenced by 19th-century Continental realism and romanticism on one hand, and on the other, creating fiction whose narrative experimentations and thematic concerns lodged him firmly among canonical modernists. His incorporation of such compelling themes as ethical choice, political ideologies, cultural encounters, and alienation; his skepticism and attention to problems of knowledge and representation; his commentaries on the ideals and failings of the West; and his probing moral and psychological investigations have ensured his place as a major author of modern world literature.

General Overviews

Beginning students of Conrad’s work can be well served by starting with Watts 1993, Middleton 2006, Peters 2006, or Sherry 1972 (cited under Biographies). Sherry 1972, abundantly illustrated, is an especially good introduction for the beginning student. Watts 1993 provides extended commentary on Nostromo. Middleton 2006 and Peters 2006 offer concise introductions to Conrad texts (organized chronologically), and both provide an introduction to criticism. Middleton 2006 incorporates a discussion of critical issues particular to each text, with a separate introduction to criticism since 1980, whereas Peters 2006 separately addresses criticism since 1914. Instructors will find these volumes helpful as well for their citations and surveys of critical materials and lists for further reading. Berthoud 1978 and Gillon 1982 are not as recent but are still useful. Berthoud 1978, although focused on texts from The Nigger of the “Narcissus” to Under Western Eyes, is a clearly written and informative introduction to Conrad’s fiction. Gillon 1982 is a more basic overview, organized thematically and suitable for the beginning student. Accessible studies suitable for more advanced students, as well as instructors and researchers, include Stape 1996, Stape 2015, Simmons 2006, and Simmons 2009 (cited under Other Contextual Approaches). Stape 1996, a collection of essays, highlights several novels and Conrad’s historical contexts and narrative techniques. Stape 2015 complements Stape 1996 rather than updating or replacing the previous collection; the latter volume emphasizes new contextual approaches to Conrad that have appeared in the intervening years. Simmons 2006 attends to recent theoretical concerns and significant themes across Conrad’s works. Simmons 2009 provides a thoroughly researched introduction to Conrad, focusing on his life and works, critical reception, translations and adaptations, and readings of him in nineteen important historical and cultural contexts. Watt 1979, an influential earlier study, is cited under Realism, Modernism, and Modernity but also serves as a useful general introduction. See also Peters 2010 (cited under Other Contextual Approaches) for an introduction to Conrad from a historical perspective. Peters 2010, Simmons 2009, Peters 2006, Stape 1996, and Stape 2015 also provide helpful annotated bibliographies or suggestions for further reading.

  • Berthoud, Jacques. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511519192

    An important study that reshaped critical responses to Conrad. Remains an informative and well-argued introduction to his fiction. Addresses works from The Nigger of the “Narcissus” to Under Western Eyes.

  • Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

    Introductory survey for the beginning student and general reader.

  • Middleton, Tim. Joseph Conrad. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Concisely provides a discussion of Conrad’s biographical and historical contexts, conveniently organized summaries of individual works along with introductions to critical issues regarding them, and a selective introduction to criticism since 1980. Offers useful information for the advanced researcher in addition to being a thorough introduction for the beginning student.

  • Peters, John G. The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511607264

    Wide ranging but concise introduction that examines Conrad’s life, context, and writing. A chapter on criticism reviews the development of trends in Conrad scholarship (pp. 119–135), and an appendix provides a guide to further reading (pp. 136–140). Clearly written and well organized; aimed at beginning students of Conrad but also convenient for instructors.

  • Simmons, Allan H. Joseph Conrad. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-20959-6

    Valuable general interpretation that also highlights central, familiarly Conradian, themes of politics, history, identity, and moral problems. Stresses the unity of Conrad’s fiction while relating recent theoretical concerns (e.g., feminism, colonialism) to Conrad’s own sensitivity toward those issues in his time.

  • Stape, J. H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521443911

    A collection of essays by separate contributors that highlights four of the most important novels (Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes) while additionally considering Conrad’s biography, influence, relation to modernism and imperialism, narrative techniques, short fiction, and late novels.

  • Stape, J. H., ed. The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Emphasizes the range of new contextual scholarship on Conrad that appeared in the previous two decades. Contributions reflecting current scholarly interests include essays on style, texts and serialization; reception, adaptation, and canon formation; and theoretical issues such as postcolonialism, gender, and politics. Two works given particular attention are Heart of Darkness and “The Secret Sharer.”

  • Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Conrad. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1993.

    Overview of Conrad’s biographical and cultural backgrounds and narrative techniques. Provides commentaries on selections from his fiction, excerpts from his letters and prefaces, and a chapter on Nostromo. A reference section includes short biographies, names in Conrad’s fiction, and a list of further reading.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.