Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
Nostromo is Conrad’s most expansive and ambitious political novel, a story that examines how both societies and individuals are adversely affected by the process of government in its most brutal form. The book combines several of Conrad’s recurring themes, most notably the harmful effects of imperialism, the baleful influence of wealth, and the evil results of individuals acting without the restraints of inner moral codes.
The story is set in the Occidental Province of Costaguana, a nation in Central America. Isolated behind an almost impassable mountain range and situated on a broad but windless bay, the Golfo Placido, Sulaco, the capital city of the province, has for centuries remained outside of events. Sulaco’s only importance comes from the riches of its nearby silver mine, known as the Gould Concession because it is operated by an English family of that name. The Goulds, who have lived in Costaguana for three generations, are permitted to work the mine so long as they pay sufficient bribes to whatever government happens to control Costaguana. Charles Gould, who has brought the mine to its greatest productivity, has grown tired of this endless extortion and resolves to throw his great wealth behind a revolution that will finally bring a responsible government to power in Costaguana.
The novel also follows the career of its title character, an Italian immigrant who is the leader of the stevedores and other dockworkers in Sulaco harbor and whose real name is Gian’ Battista Fidenza. Fidenza has been given the nickname “Nostromo,” meaning “one of ours,” by the Englishmen who operate Costaguana’s shipping line and is valued by his English masters for his ability to discipline his fellow workers. He is also a brave and resourceful individual, and when the Gould-inspired government seems about to collapse following another revolution, Nostromo is ordered to transport a shipment of silver to safety outside Costaguana. After his small craft is nearly wrecked by a passing ship during the dangerous night crossing, Nostromo hides the treasure on a deserted island in the Golfo Placido. When he learns that Gould and the others believe the silver lost, Nostromo resolves to keep it for himself. Nostromo’s realization of the loss of his integrity weighs heavily on him, and although his death at the novel’s end comes from a tragic mistake, Conrad makes it clear that the real cause is Nostromo’s sense of overwhelming guilt.
As is typical of Conrad, these events are not related in strict chronological sequence or through simple narrative. Instead, the novel moves forward and backward in time, arranged more by themes than events. Following a natural metaphor suggested by the silver mine, Conrad pursues each vein of his story until it seems exhausted, then turns to another. Only gradually, as the narrative strands are connected, does a total picture of events and characters emerge. Because nothing is simple in Costaguana, Conrad implies, its history must also be told in an oblique fashion.
Conrad uses several different narrators. Much of Nostromo is told by a third-person narrator who seems to have visited the place and perhaps even participated in some of the actions. Two of the most important accounts of the novel’s central events, the defeat and resurgence of the Gould-backed revolution, are told indirectly. The first is presented in a letter written by one of the revolutionaries, Decoud, to his sister. The second is retold years after the events by another character, the Englishman, Captain Mitchell. Ironically, neither man understands fully what he has related; only the reader can place their stories into perspective.
Such irony, an essential trait of Conrad, runs strongly through Nostromo. Not only do the characters engage in actions whose importance and results they cannot comprehend, their very names signal a gulf between perception and reality. Most notable, of course, is the title character himself. Nostromo, as he is called by his supposed masters, is anything but “one of ours,” and his real name, Fidenza, or “Faithful,” becomes a cruel joke when he steals the silver he has been entrusted to preserve.
For Conrad, irony was inevitable in a political situation because politics is the exploitation of the split between the real and the perceived. In such a fashion, Charles Gould defends his silver mine and his backing of yet another revolution for Costaguana because they will bring “law, good faith, order, security.” As he tells his wife: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.
“Afterwards,” Conrad implies in Nostromo, never comes. There will always be one more revolution, one more justification for money-making above justice itself. In Conrad’s most ironic novel, nothing is more bitterly ironic than Charles Gould’s “ray of hope.”
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