Foe attracted criticism on South Africa upon its publication. According to Michael Marais in "Death and the Space of the Response of the Other in J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg", Foe met "acrimony, even dismay" at the time of its publication, as one of South Africa's "most prominent authors" seemed to turn his attention from compelling events in South Africa to "writing about the writing of a somewhat pedestrian eighteenth century novelist." In detailing that receipt, Marais quotes Michael Chapman in "Writing of Politics" as typical with his dismissive comment: "In our knowledge of the human suffering on our own doorstep of thousands of detainees who are denied recourse to the rule of law, Foe does not so much speak to Africa as provide a kind of masturbatory release, in this country, for the Europeanising dreams of an intellectual coterie" Attwell, however, noted in 2003 that the novel is contextualized to Africa by the transformation of Friday from a Carib who looked nearly European to an African.
In the United States, reception was less politically charged. The novel received a positive review in The New York Times, where Michiko Kakutani praised the writing as "lucid and precise; the landscape depicted, mythic yet specific", concluding that "the novel - which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences - lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K, and yet it stands, nonetheless, as a finely honed testament to its author's intelligence, imagination and skill." Andrew O'Hehir for Salon described the novel as "a bit dry." In his review for Time Magazine, Stefan Kanfer questions the impact of what he describes as an "achingly symbolic retelling", suggesting that readers may be more self-congratulatory for discovering the author's "brilliantly disguised" themes than moved by "urgencies that are neither fresh nor illumined."