Themes and Meanings
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is more than a simple adventure story. It is a complex psychological study of how greed may corrupt and eventually destroy not only individuals but also larger groups, even a society. Traven juxtaposes the action of the novel, in which Dobbs degenerates into fear and madness, eventually paying with his life, with stories that indict the greed of the Spanish conquistadores and the complicity of the monks who accompany them. Even modern Mexican and American societies where workers are exploited are shown as flawed.
On the most basic level, the novel vividly demonstrates the devastating effect of greed on each of the three main characters. When Dobbs first hears Howard’s story, he feels as if another self has suddenly appeared within him. This darker side of his personality eventually dominates him. Curtin and Howard are shown as men who somehow find the strength to resist evil, more by luck than by superior moral strength. Howard emphasizes this point, refusing to condemn Dobbs, even after he has stolen and attempted to murder Curtin. Throughout the novel, Howard restates that all men are weak enough to succumb if the circumstances are right.
Another theme, one that is present in much of Traven’s fiction, is the search for self, for an identity in a society where one’s position is determined by wealth and class structure. In the opening chapter, Dobbs describes the paucity of roles open to him, a poverty-stricken American in Mexico. Gold, initially, would seem to provide entry to the world of power, but the novel shows the dangers of clinging to that illusion. Traven portrays a closed society where the poor are forced into limited roles. The murderous bandits become simply a modern version of the monks and conquistadores who slaughtered the Aztecs, a more ruthless version of the capitalists who exploit the working class. They murder and steal in the name of Christ because these are their only opportunities to share in the two greatest sources of power they can imagine, gold and God.
The Indians provide a counterpoint to the ruthlessness of Western civilization. Although they are presented as extremely naïve, in a manner that might appear condescending or patronizing to a modern reader, Traven finds their way of life far superior to that which exists in the world around them.