Laughing in the Void: Comic Elements in Joseph Conrad's Tragic Vision

Date of Graduation

Spring 2003


Master of Arts in English



Committee Chair

Mark Smith


Joseph Conrad has traditionally been viewed as a writer with a "tragic vision," and as a result few critics have studied his use of humor. This partially results from Conrad's "double vision" that mixes tragic and comic perspectives within the same works. Conrad acts as a precursor of a twentieth-century mode of comedy that faces the absurdity of a universe of artificial values. Laughter becomes a defense mechanism against the tragic void left by the loss of traditional values, which are the basis of social order. Conradian humor displays a discomfort with ideal or abstract methods of achieving social order, which can too easily be used as fictions to cover a person's true desires. Instead, Conrad emphasizes the physical, material aspects of life. This dichotomy between body and mind is most clearly understood through the application of the psychoanalytic theories of Juliea Kristeva. Examination of sample short stories through this theoretical lens reveals that Conrad's fiction attacks the dominant ideologies of his day and unveils them as fictions. Nonetheless, the comic structure deflects the subversive effects of his vision, allowing it to function as a safe space to consider the absurdity of the universe without facing the problem squarely.

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


© Matthew E Oliver