What are moral issues in Joseph Conrad's novel Nostromo?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Nostromo, Joseph Conrad makes a scathing and openly political denunciation of European policies in the less-developed world.  Isolating “moral issues” in Nostromo is difficult because the entire novel is an indictment of imperialism.  A recurring theme is the emphasis on “material interests” and on the political stability or “security” that is demanded of those charged with exploiting the natural resources of colonized lands.  That Conrad viewed such practices with a wary eye is evident in many of his works, but in Nostromo it is all-consuming.

Revolving around the San Tome silver mine, the story is replete with recriminations regarding the exploitation of the native peoples and the natural resources to which they will never be entitled.  To the European settlers and company officials, the silver mine is everything; the indigenous peoples are merely a source of cheap labor and an occasional obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of the vast wealth the mine represents.  One of the novel’s most important passages involves an exchange between Emilia Gould and Dr. Monygham, during which he educates the wife of the mine’s owner on the immorality at the core of imperialism and the intractability of the revolutionary forces that oppose her husband’s enterprise:

"Will there be never any peace? Will there be no rest?" Mrs. Gould whispered. . ."

"No!" interrupted the doctor. "There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. Mrs. Gould, the time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back."

"How can you say that, Dr. Monygham?" she cried out, . . .

"I can say what is true," the doctor insisted, obstinately. "It'll weigh as heavily, and provoke resentment, bloodshed, and vengeance, because the men have grown different. . .”

This passage speaks directly to the moral quandary faced by the less mercenary of the foreign settlers.  That Nostromo serves at the interest of the European imperialists, and that he is eventually killed trying to complete his mission of protecting a hidden cache of silver from the revolutionaries, is the story’s saddest moment.  The underlying degradation and exploitation of an entire people, though, is the novel’s main moral issue.  Discussing the legacy of the silver mine, which was bequeathed to him by his father, Charles makes an illuminating statement that reveals the classic arrogant European perception of subjugating other peoples for their own good:

“What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. . . I pin my faith to material interests. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That's how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards. That's your ray of hope."

Gould’s “ray of hope” is the indigenous people of Costaguana’s nightmare.  By projecting European perceptions of justice upon an occupied people, he is illuminating the immorality inherent in his and his family’s life work.

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