revolution and capital accumulation in Latin America

Review of: Nostromo
Novel by:
Joseph Conrad

Reviewed by:
On 13 October 2009
Last modified:18 December 2015


Conrad's greatest ever novel

Nostromo is generally regarded by most Conrad commentators as his greatest novel. It embraces wide ranging themes of political struggle, international capitalism, the expansion of Europe and the United States into Latin America, various forms of personal heroism and sacrifice, and the dreams and obsessions which can lead people to self-destruction. The location of the novel is Costaguana, a fictional country on the western seaboard of South America, and the focus of events is in its capital Sulaco, where a silver mine has been inherited by English-born Charles Gould but is controlled by American capitalists in San Francisco.

Nostromo reviewCompeting military factions plunge the country in a state of civil war, and Gould tries desperately to keep the mine working. Amidst political chaos, he dispatches a huge consignment of silver, putting it into the hands of the eponymous hero, the incorruptible Capataz de Cargadores, Nostromo. However, things do not go according to plan. It is almost impossible to provide an account of the plot without giving away what are called in movie criticism ‘plot spoilers’. But the silver does not reach its intended destination, and the remainder of the novel is concerned with both the civil conflict and the attitudes of the people who know that the silver exists, and their vainglorious attempts to acquire it.

The novel has a curious but on the whole impressive structure. The first part of the book is an extraordinarily slow-moving – almost static – account of Costaguana and the back-history of the main characters in the story. Then the central section – more than half the novel – is taken up with the dramatic events of just two or three days and nights in which rebel forces attack the town, the silver is smuggled out, and the scene is set for disaster.

This central section of the novel which covers the scenes of military insurgency and high drama conveys very convincingly the uncertainty of civil war, the powerlessness of individuals, and the force of large scale events. Bandits suddenly become generals, all normal communications are cut off, and nobody can be sure where to turn to for law and order. Amazingly, around two hundred pages of narrative cover only two or three days of action – much of it at night.

The main point of Conrad’s story is that the silver of the mine corrupts almost all who come into contact with it. The inheritance and running of the mine estrange Charles Gould from his wife; once Nostromo has concealed the silver, his knowledge of its location eventually corrupts him; and the rebel leader Sotillo is driven almost made with desire to possess it. Only the saintly Emilia Gould has the strength to resist it, refusing to know where it is buried, even when the information is offered by the last person to know, on his death bed.

A great deal of the narrative tension in this long novel turns on who knows what about whom, and many of the key scenes are drenched in dramatic irony built on coincidences which have all the improbability of the nineteenth century novel hanging about them. At one point a completely new character suddenly appears as a stowaway on a boat, and then improbably survives a collision with another ship in the dark by hanging onto the other boat’s anchor. And this is merely a plot device allowing him to transmit misleading information to his captors – and incidentally allows Conrad to indulge in a rather unpleasant bout of anti-semitism.

In common with many other novels from Conrad’s late phase, the narrative is conveyed to us in a very complex manner. It passes from third person omniscient narrator to first person accounts of events by fictional characters. Authorial point of view and the chronology of events both change alarmingly; the narrative is sometimes taken over temporarily by a fictional character, or is recounted via an improbably long letter which we are meant to believe is being written (in pencil) in the heat of gunfire and other tumultuous events.

There’s also a great deal of geographic uncertainty. As reports come in from one end of the country to the other, and the loyalty of one province and its leaders is mentioned in relation to another – as well as its strategic position on the seaboard – I began to wish for a map to conceptualise events.

Once a heroic solution has been found for the plight of the beleaguered loyalists (an epic Paul Revere type ride on horseback by Nostromo) the story suddenly flashes forward to the successful years of recovery and the aftermath. Nostromo seeks to consolidate his successful position by a judicious marriage, but is distracted by his passionate love for his intended’s younger sister. Even this detail is linked to the silver of the mine, and it brings about the truly tragic finale.

Despite all Conrad’s stylistic peculiarities (and even some lapses in grammar) this is a magnificent novel which amply repays the undoubtedly demanding efforts required to read it. But that is true of many modern classics – from Mrs Dalloway to Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past.

© Roy Johnson 2009

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp.524, ISBN: 0199555915

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5 Responses to “Nostromo”

  1. Matt says:

    Hi. Good review.One of the best among those I found when looking for NOSTROMO reviews on the web.

    It struck me that the Hirsch plotline can be read as Conrad’s anti-semitism. True, the characters whose lives come to depend on his (and vice-versa) could be portrayed as such, but I never found a passage that would suggest that Conrad-as-narrator shares this attitude.

    Could you elaborate a bit on what made you feel this plotline being anti-semitic? I never read a critic mentioning Conrad’s anti-semitism.

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    Thanks for the comment Matthew. I don’t have my teaching copy of “Nostromo” to hand that contains all my notes, but briefly my argument is as follows.

    Hirsch is DESCRIBED in terms of a racial stereotype by Conrad, and when he escapes with the others in the boat, he BEHAVES in less than heroic manner. He is paralysed by fear, and is described as ‘cringing’ and ‘yelping’ in a very negative manner. The fact that he is tortured by Sotillo should not blind us to Conrad’s dismissive attitude as narrator.

    And despite all the switching of narrators and point of view, I do believe (as you might see from my notes above) that Conrad is foremost the narrator most of the time.

    Here are a few slivers of supporting evidence clutched from Google Books until I have my own copy to hand once more.

    “A greasy growth of beard was sprouting on the shaven parts of the cheeks. The thick lips were slightly parted … Hirsch was one of those men whom fear lashed like a whip … He displayed an extraordinary agility in disappearing forward into the darkness … It was evident that Hirsch could not be spoken to, reasoned with, or persuaded into a rational line of conduct … It was not so much firmness of soul as the lack of a certain kind of imagination – the kind whose undue development caused intense suffering to Senor Hirsch … Sotillo was induced to have Hirsch brought in to repeat the whole story, which was got out of him with the greatest difficulty, because every moment he would break out into lamentations …”

  3. Matthew says:

    Ok, Roy, now I see your point.

    My reading of this passage (and all the Hirsch character) is more about this particular person being the way you say, not all Jews and never felt Conrad trying to convey such a view.

    Still, I understand that the portrayal might be considered anti-semitic in that it perpetuates the wrongful racial stereotype.

    Very nice site you have here. Greetings from Poland.

  4. Roy Johnson says:

    … and of course Conrad manifests racial, national, and gender stereotypes in many of his other works as well.

    I think we have to accept that such views were quite common at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.

    My guess is that we in our turn might be unconscious of ideological views we hold which future generations will find surprising.

    Thanks for your kind remarks.

  5. F.M says:

    Hello everybody,
    Thsi is the best link i found while searching for critical analysis of nostromo. i want answers of the following question related to Nostromo. plz help me out in this.
    1. Detailed character anlysis of character Nostromo.
    2. How does Nostromo point out the evils of economic exploitation of a young nation by a powerful and established capitalist country?

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