Often regarded as Conrad's masterwork, Nostromo is also Conrad's darkest novel, filled with betrayals at all levels and offering little hope for man's redemption. A novel of huge scope and political intrigue, it is also a novel in which no character actually wins. All must accept the ironies which fate has dealt them. Setting the novel in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana, the story centers around a silver mine in the mountains outside of Sulaco, vividly depicting its allure and the price each character pays for its success.
When Charles Gould, returns from England to claim and reopen the rich silver mine he has inherited from his father, he has good intentions--to provide jobs for the peasants and contribute to the economy of the town at the same time that he also profits. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with wealth and power, and as the political climate gets hotter, he must pay off government officials, bandits, the church, and various armed revolutionaries to be able to work. Each of these groups is vividly depicted as working for its own ends and not for the good of the people, and with their goals focused on the real world, these characters have no self-awareness, nor do they develop it during the novel.
In contrast to these "unrealized" humans, Conrad presents several characters who develop some self-awareness through their experiences. Nostromo, a local legend, is a man of principle who has always kept his word. Martin Decoud, a newspaper man, is a nihilist who has editorialized against the revolution, though he has yet to test himself. Dr. Monygham, captured during a past revolution, broke under torture, and is now seeking absolution by fighting against this revolution. And the good and long-suffering wife of Charles Gould, Dona Emilia, who has lost her husband to his silver mine, now devotes her life to helping others.
When Nostromo agrees to protect a load of silver from revolutionaries by taking it out to sea, he takes Decoud with him, leaving him on an island with the silver when they almost sink. Decoud's reaction to his isolation, and Nostromo's reaction to the treasure that is suddenly "his," provide a dark commentary on idealism and human nature. In the conclusion, which includes a love story that feels tacked on, Conrad's darkest self is revealed, offering little hope of change and even less hope for man's redemption. Rich in atmosphere, vibrant in description, filled with characters representing all walks of life and philosophy, and set in a country where revolution is a way of life, the novel is full of dark portents and bleak political outcomes. Mary Whipple
on 19 May 2004
'Nostromo' is one of the finest novels ever written. The array of beautifully illustrated characters display every loathsome and admirable characteristic immaginable; Decoud is pompous, self righteous and detestable, but for his unbending love for Antonia. Gould is enigmatic, strong, calm but ultimately self-centered and consumed by his craving for wealth and success. Nostromo is benevolent, strong, selfless and courageous - but displays vanity in his obsession with being widely known and adored. Sotillo is utterly repulsive, cowardly, brutal and callous.
These characters, along with a whole cast of others, play out their lives, loves and struggles with a backdrop superbly constructed by Conrad. Costaguana is entirely believable and the political climate is not only an accurate depiction of South American states of the time, but an incisive critique of world politics and imperialism.
Conrad captures the world in miniature and does it with a level of skill unmatched by any other author. 'Nostromo' is by no means the easiest read, but once you've ploughed your way through it you'll have a warm glow of satisfaction and be very glad indeed that you invested the time. A classic.
on 6 March 2014
This is a fascinating book. I fully agree with the reviewers who advise others to stick with it, because it rewards perseverance. I was reminded, by its setting and scope, of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Although the style and structure are different, both books vividly evoke the turmoil of 19th century South America, and "live in the mind" long after the reader puts them aside. I found aspects of Nostromo puzzling or unsatisfactory. However, the comments below are minor criticisms in the context of what is an ambitious and successful novel. A "classic"? You'll have to judge for yourself.
Conrad spent two years in South America doing research for this book and it seems like he didn't want to waste any of his material. The novel is packed with characters, description and incident; perhaps too packed, although that's according to the taste of each reader. His contemporary, Anton Chekhov, would have filled three or four volumes of short stories with the material Conrad shoehorns into Nostromo. However, he probably couldn't have stitched it all together in the masterly way that Conrad does for this long novel.
Personally, I think he could have improved (or perhaps "streamlined") the book by reducing the number of characters by about 30%. Did he really need two rebel leaders called Montero? What's the point of building up the back story of the bandit Hernandez if we're never going to meet him? Would the Viola story have worked better if he'd only had one daughter? What does Father Corbelan add? We're told that Conrad originally planned this book as a novella. He was clearly right to expand it, but perhaps he bulked it up too much. Heart of Darkness remains his most famous work for a reason: he didn't overload it with characters and sub-plots, so the power of the central concept is allowed room to breathe.
The most successful characters in this book are the supporting players - Emilia Gould, Dr Monygham, Antonia Avellanos, Captain Mitchell - who are beautifully drawn. By contrast, the eponymous hero, Nostromo, verges on the cartoonish, performing daring deeds and being "magnificent" for most of the novel, before turning moody and introspective as fate catches up with him. He is one of Conrad's "Good Men Who Turn Bad" after fate deals him an unfair hand. Other characters queue up to say how strong, marvellous, brave, faithful etc. he is. However, the direct evidence for this is thin. In the first half of the novel we mostly glimpse him dallying with women, dominating the men who work for him at the dock, and rushing around on dangerous errands given him by his superiors. Once the real action of the novel begins we see much more of him, and observe more of the action from his perspective, but disappointingly he is portrayed as alternately querulous, callous and disillusioned.
The second major character is Charles Gould, the owner of the San Tome silver mine. Although a native of the country by birth, he is of English descent and behaves throughout like the quintessential Victorian gent: cold, taciturn and aloof; so reserved that we never get a rounded view of his character (unlike his wife). His only quality of note is the bloody-minded determination to make a success of the mine. However, the only evidence that he's obsessed with his mission is that he keeps dashing off to spend the night there leaving his poor, childless wife alone. Conrad probably thought this type of driven, buttoned-up, upper-middle-class Englishman was so well known to his readers that just a sketch of his character would suffice; we would fill in the rest of the details on our own. However, if not extinct, this type of Englishman is far less common in the 21st century than in the 19th. Without a thorough explanation by the author of Gould's motivations, he just seems like a self-obsessed prig. Conrad could have taken a cue from his contemporary George Gissing about how to convey the stifled passions and desperation that often lurks below the surface of the "typical" Englishman. Gould's counterpoint is Captain Mitchell, a gregarious and affable (if dim) official of the port, who gabbles away at various points in the narrative as if to compensate for the mine owner's reserve. It's as though Conrad were saying: "I know not all Englishmen are clam-tight like Gould".
The third and final major character is Martin Decoud, a dandy and intellectual who falls for the beautiful Antonia and gets caught up in the revolution, becoming a fervent advocate of a breakaway republic. Conrad uses the device of a letter written to his (Decoud's) sister to give us a first-person description of some of the events of the revolution in Sulaco from Decoud's perspective, so we get to know him well in a fairly short space of time (he doesn't feature until about page 100 and then fades into the background after about page 250). He's credited by some of the other characters as a leading light in the revolution. Despite this, Conrad could probably have written him out of the novel completely without affecting the narrative to any significant degree. If you know the book, try imagining it without the Porvenir (a news-sheet Decoud edits) and his luke-warm dalliance with Antonia, and picture the episode on the lighter with Decoud absent. Assuming Nostromo could have handled the craft on his own (which he could if Conrad had granted him a puff of wind for the sail) why did he need to bring Decoud along? Considering the way Decoud's story subsequently plays out, it would hardly have been a great loss if he had never appeared in the first place.
Perhaps that's a harsh judgement. I expect Conrad would have defended him as a pivotal character, and perhaps as archetypal of the kind of European-influenced intellectual who tended to get mixed up in South American politics back then. I don't know. However, the main thrust of the novel could have remained intact without his presence, and a leaner, lighter narrative (although perhaps not as rich?) might have ensured. Yes, Nostromo feels guilty about leaving Decoud on the Great Isabel, but that's only a small element of the remorse he suffers in the second half of the book.
I've seen Nostromo described as an early modernist novel, and I can see why: the narrative is not linear and the perspective jumps around as we witness events through the eyes of different characters. However, in other ways this is very much a novel of the high-Victorian era. In fact, the final chapters based around the lighthouse are pure Dickens, and in their tone reminded me of our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations. That's not bad in itself, but it seems like an unsatisfactory way to wrap up a story than in other respects anticipates the mood and themes of English literature in the 20s and 30s.
It's probably best to view Nostromo as a unique work that defies categorisation. It's not really modernist and there's not enough pure excitement to call it an action novel. There are some good psychological moments in it, but not many. Politics provide a central theme, but they are the politics of near anarchy. Capitalism confronts revolutionary zeal? Old world idealism falters in the face of global trade? All these themes, and more, are present, but none dominates. Conrad' real achievement was in blending them all into a successful whole. Perhaps he should have called his book Coastaguana, because ultimately the landscape of the country is the central "character" and most enduring image.
A point of usage
The following is taken from a comment I made on someone else's post about Nostromo. I've added it here really for my own convenience, so that all my scribblings about the book are in one place.
I'd say his grammar is generally correct rather than impeccable. Who, for example, is doing the "discovering" in the following sentence, which occurs as Nostromo agonises over whether to risk discovery on shore after hiding the silver?: "To discover his presence on shore, unless after many days, would, he believed, endanger the treasure". The only agent in that sentence capable of discovering anything is the pronoun "he", and he (Nostromo) cannot discover himself. Conrad may have had legitimate artistic reasons for choosing to write that sentence as he did but no one could claim it is grammatically perfect. It's worth noting that the sentence makes more sense if the word "reveal" is substituted for discover. Perhaps he just chose the wrong word (he didn't: see my update below). There are other examples in the book where he seems to have done so, for example where he writes: "He [Holroyd] was completely unbending to his visitor [Gould]". I had to read this two or three times before I realised it meant the opposite of what it appeared to mean i.e. he was receptive or friendly to his visitor rather than stiff, formal and unwilling to make concessions. Perhaps Conrad was confused by the similarity of verbs such as unfurl, unwrap and undress, which are not used to form adjectives in English. Of course, you can be a great writer without having "impeccable" grammar, so all of this is moot.
24th February update: It seems I was wrong about "discover". While reading a translation (mid-19th century) of Father Goriot by Balzac yesterday, I came across the following: "The very knitted woollen petticoat ... is a sort of epitome of the sitting-room, the dining-room, and the little garden; it discovers the cook..." i.e. the shabby petticoat somehow reveals the presence of the cook. This led me to look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists "divulge or disclose" as archaic meanings of the word discover; so it does work in the sentence quoted from Nostromo. You learn something new every day! Perhaps I'm also wrong about "unbending", although there's no mention in the dictionary of the sense in which Conrad uses it.
18th March update: I've been reading a few 18th Century books recently and in them the word discover is used frequently, and almost always in the sense that Conrad uses it in Nostromo (to reveal something). I wonder whether he picked up the usage from his own reading of 18th Century novels, and perhaps early 19th Century novels (from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published in 1814: "Sir Thomas brought him to her, saying something which discovered to Fanny that she was to lead the way and open the ball".). I've just made a quick check of the word in my Kindle version of the complete works of Charles Dickens (mostly 1840s, 50s and 60s) and he appears to have used the word mainly in the modern sense i.e. to find something out. Was the Conrad usage already archaic by 1904 when Nostromo was published? I wonder.