By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Joseph Conrad wrote numerous full-length novels, but what were Conrad’s best books? From his debut in 1895, Almayer’s Folly, to his final novel, Suspense (which he left unfinished – aptly, given the novel’s title – upon his death in 1924), Conrad’s fiction is an intriguing blend of difficult prose, exotic locations, adventure and betrayal, and moral and philosophical contemplation.
What follows is our pick of the best Joseph Conrad novels which everyone should read, presented in order where number 1 is ‘the best’ (a judgment that is bound to attract disagreement!). We’ve tried to steer clear of ‘spoilers’ per se, and instead offer very general summaries of the principal setup of the books being discussed.
10. An Outcast of the Islands (1896).
This novel is almost more famous for providing T. S. Eliot with a line for his poem ‘The Hollow Men’ than it is as a classic early Conrad novel, his second after Almayer’s Folly (1895). The ‘outcast’ of the novel’s title is Peter Willems, a renegade ne’er-do-well whose decline takes place against the lush backdrop of Makassar in Indonesia (that part of the world would provide the setting of much of Conrad’s fiction).
Recommended edition: An Outcast of the Islands (Oxford World’s Classics).
9. Under Western Eyes (1911).
As with many of Conrad’s fictions, this one opens with a moral dilemma for its protagonist: what would you do if a student friend of yours came to you having carried out a political assassination? Would you turn him over to the police, or cover for him? Razumov, Conrad’s student protagonist, decides to do the former – and this ‘betrayal’ throws him headlong into the world of Russian espionage.
With a plot which seems to be responding to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (an author Conrad appears to have had few kinds words for, perhaps because Russia occupied Conrad’s native Poland when Conrad was born in 1857), this novel was published in 1911, a year after the following choice first appeared in print …
Recommended edition: Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics).
8. Typhoon (1902).
A short novel published in 1902, Typhoon is about, pretty predictably, a typhoon, and the responses of three men on board a ship, the Nan-Shan, which finds itself caught in the eye of the storm. The simple-minded and fact-obsessed Captain MacWhirr – who is so literal-minded he fails to understand the turns of phrase used by his first mate, Jukes – is at the centre of this trio.
Recommended edition: Typhoon and Other Tales n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
7. ‘The Secret Sharer’ (1912).
Okay, so this one isn’t a novel, but a short story of around 40 pages. It is, however, probably the most popular – and most critically acclaimed – of Conrad’s bona fide short stories (if we count Heart of Darkness as a short novel rather than a short story), and much of Conrad’s fiction blurs the boundaries between short stories, novellas, and novels, so we feel it earns its place in this list of the best Joseph Conrad novels despite its (literal) shortcomings.
It is in the great tradition of tales about the double, which also includes such stories as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The tale is narrated by the captain of a ship which is boarded one night by the first mate of another ship; our narrator soon finds out that this stranger, named Leggatt, is on the run from justice, having killed a crewmate on the other ship. Our unnamed narrator recognises something of himself in this stranger, or ‘secret sharer’, and is faced with a dilemma: should he turn over the man to the authorities, or help him escape to a life of exile?
Recommended edition: The Secret Sharer and Other Stories.
6. Lord Jim (1900).
This book chronicles the adventures of a young British sailor named simply ‘Jim’, who brings dishonour on his (one) name when he and some crewmates abandon their ship. Jim’s journey in recovering his good name begins when he meets Charles Marlow – the protagonist of several other Conrad novel and stories, including Heart of Darkness (see below) – and Marlow finds him work as a clerk.
However, Jim is dogged by the memory of his cowardly abandonment of the ship, and others are keen to remind him of his moment of moral weakness. Eventually, he is befriended by the Malay and Bugis peoples and becomes something of a lord among them (hence the book’s title).
But just when the book looks set to settle down into a classic imperial romance tale of wish-fulfilment – well, hang on, we’d best not say any more for fear of saying too much.
Recommended edition: Lord Jim (Penguin Classics).
5. The Secret Agent (1907).
Like Under Western Eyes, this is a spy novel but is widely regarded as the more successful of the two books. The novel is perhaps most noteworthy for its character of the Professor, an anarchist terrorist who wears a bomb in his coat at all times: a would-be suicide bomber, he is ready for self-martyrdom at the press of a button.
Recommended edition: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics).
4. The Shadow-Line (1917).
This is a short novel that is at once an exotic adventure story (like so many of Conrad’s books) and a coming-of-age narrative (the ‘shadow-line’ of the title is identified as the nebulous boundary between youth and maturity).
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who, having abandoned his berth on one ship, reluctantly takes command of a new one which, he soon learns, is living under a supposed ‘curse’ brought about by the former captain’s wrongdoings. Our anonymous narrator has to deal with numerous problems, including a storm and an outbreak of malaria among his crew, learning much about his own character along the way.
Recommended edition: The Shadow-Line A Confession n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
3. Heart of Darkness (1902).
Probably Conrad’s most famous work, this novella follows Charles Marlow, who recounts his experiences in he Belgian Congo where he meets the mysterious Mr Kurtz, an ivory-trader. Contrary to popular belief, Marlow is not strictly the narrator of the novella, if we’re being completely accurate. Instead, Heart of Darkness is narrated by an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience on board the Nellie, a boat moored on the Thames, who listens as Marlow tells of his adventures in Africa.
The novella served as the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now (1979), where Mr Kurtz becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Recommended edition: Heart of Darkness and Other Tales n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
2. Nostromo (1904).
Focusing on the lives of a community based around a silver mine in the fictional South American country of Costaguana, Nostromo has a complex narrative structure with an unconventional chronology and (as usual with Conrad) an intricate syntactical style.
But it’s worth immersing yourself in, not least for the subtly drawn characters such as the cynical journalist Martin Decoud and Charles Gould, the inheritor of the mine. Recommended edition: Nostromo A Tale of the Seaboard n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. Victory (1915).
It’s controversial in the extreme to put this novel ahead of Nostromo and Heart of Darkness, but we’re nothing if not provocative here at Interesting Literature. Victory is a masterpiece of storytelling which nevertheless contains Conrad’s trademark moral and philosophiscal angst.
It has more action and adventure than many of his other works, but the central romance between Axel Heyst and Lena is handled with touching delicacy and is thoroughly convincing, and it contains many of Conrad’s trademark elements.
Harold Pinter wrote a screenplay for an adaptation that was never filmed, though a radio adaptation was produced by the BBC in 2015. Recommended edition: Victory: An Island Tale (Penguin Classics).
If you enjoyed this pick of the best Conrad novels (and stories), check out our interesting list of Joseph Conrad facts. You might also enjoy our pick of the best science fiction novels by H. G. Wells and the best non-Sherlock Holmes books by Conan Doyle, as well as our pick of Virginia Woolf’s books. For more short fiction recommendations, see our post on Edgar Allan Poe’s best short stories.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.