Joseph Conrad has always been known among the mass of readers as a great teller of sea stories. He was also a pertinent, even prophetic, commentator on what he called land entanglements—particularly on the subject of political revolution. Conrad’s father was an active revolutionary in the cause of Polish independence; he died as the result of prolonged imprisonment for revolutionary “crimes.” Three of Conrad’s best novels are studies in political behavior: Nostromo, The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911). Nostromo is by far the most ambitious and complex of these works. It has a very large international cast of characters of all shapes and sizes, and it employs the typical Conradian device of an intentionally jumbled (and sometimes confusing) chronology. As is typical of Conrad, the physical setting is handled superbly; the reader is drawn into the book through the wonderfully tactile descriptions of the land and sea. The setting in South America is also particularly appropriate to Conrad’s skeptical consideration of progress achieved either through capitalism or through revolution.
Nostromo is a study in the politics of wealth in an underdeveloped country. The central force in the novel is the silver of the San Tomé mine—a potential of wealth so immense that a humane and cultured civilization can be built upon it. At least this is the view of the idealist Charles Gould, the owner and developer of the mine. There are other views. From the start, Gould is ready to maintain his power by force if necessary. He remembers how the mine destroyed his father. The mine attracts politicians and armed revolutionaries from the interior, but Gould is willing to blow up his treasure and half of Sulaco, the central city, in order to defeat the revolution. He succeeds, but Conrad intends for the reader to regard his success as partial at best. His obsession with the mine separates him from his wife; as is true for Conrad’s other heroes, the demands of public action distort and cancel out Gould’s capacity for private affection.
One of the magnificent elements of the first half of Nostromo is the way in which Conrad shows Gould and his silver from many angles. Readers are given a truly panoramic spectrum of attitude. For old Giorgio Viola, who was once a member of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Redshirts, Gould’s idealization of material interests is dangerous and wrong because it has the potential of violating a pure and disinterested love of liberty for all humanity. Viola, however, is as ineffectual as the austere and cultured leader of Sulaco’s aristocracy, Don José Avellanos, whose unpublished manuscript “Thirty Years of Misrule” is used as gun wadding at the height of the revolution. Ranged against...
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