ClassicsOnline Home » CONRAD, J.: Nostromo (Abridged)
Set in the fictional South American country of Costaguana, Nostromo explores the volatile politics and crippling greed surrounding the San Tomé silver mine. The story of power, love, revolutions, loyalty and reward is told with richly evocative description and brilliantly realised characters. But Nostromo is more than an adventure story; it is also a profoundly dark moral fable. Its language is as compellingly resonant as the sea itself; the characters absorbing and complex. It was Conrad’s masterwork, a forerunner of Modernism, and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
By the time he was nine, Joseph Conrad was an orphan, essentially stateless, and longing for a life that was not even associated with land. He wanted the sea. His intellectual and patriotic parents had been effectively killed by an occupying country, and after completing his education thanks to his fond and generous uncle, he was finally given the chance. For twenty years he worked in French and British merchant ships, during which time he saw that the grotesqueries of politics were not restricted to the overlording Russia and his native Poland. He witnessed the horrors of the Belgian Congo, was involved with gun-running and smuggling, attempted suicide because of gambling debts, became afflicted with illnesses and conditions that would affect him for the rest of his life, and in 1892 decided to become a professional writer. He had by this time also become a British national, adopting English (his third language after Polish and French) in which to write, and living in Kent. His output was huge, including Youth, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Heart of Darkness, non-fiction, short stories and more. The process of creation was never easy for him, partly because of his physical condition, partly because of his financial position; but largely because the moral, political and social world he was creating was implacable in its crushing effect on the human spirit, and his expression of this was so weighted, rich, complex and profound.
Such is the immediate resonance of his themes to contemporary readers, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) was a man of the nineteenth century. Yet he was born in 1857 to parents who were of the gentry, and who encouraged him to read Hugo, Shakespeare and Dickens. When they died from tuberculosis, after being exiled to Northern Russia for promoting Polish nationalism, Conrad’s education was continued by his uncle, who ensured that he was taught Greek, maths, Latin and geography by a private tutor. Given this background, his modernity is, at the very least, unpredictable. It may be unsurprising that he despaired of politics, after the treatment of his parents. But the world that is created by Conrad is not a window-dressed autobiography. It is born from a dark sense of the world as a useless whole, realised through works of fiction that are ground-breaking linguistically, stylistically and in terms of character. The bleakness of his philosophy, which rejected almost all human endeavour as brutal and fruitless, reached its beautiful and absorbing apogee in Nostromo.
Nostromo was published in 1904. It is based around the silver mine in San Tomé and the port of Sulaco, in the fictional South American country of Costaguana. It is an adventure, but it is also a moral fable—a novel of symbols and implications, where however detailed the reality, there is always a more general point at play. (A small but telling indicator of how Conrad saw the country he had invented and its implications is given by the fact that ‘guano’ means ‘manure’ (to put it politely). This is a euphemism similar to that which Dickens employed with his ‘dust-heaps’ in Our Mutual Friend, and which would be taken up by Dylan Thomas in a more light-hearted fashion by naming the town in Under Milk Wood ‘LLareggub’.) The San Tomé mine becomes a fulcrum for any number of national and international players whose lives are reflected in and affected by their involvement with it. It is crucial to European trade in Costaguana, and indeed the whole continent. It is owned by an Englishman, Charles Gould, who becomes so bound up with the mine that he loses touch with himself and his wife. It is part-financed by an American (Holroyd) who wants to convert the Catholic country to his evangelical Protestantism. There are profound ‘material interests’, in South America and beyond, that need the mine’s wealth to develop the country’s infrastructure for their own gain. The mine is of such importance that it becomes an obsession for most people associated with it and the focal point for the almost farcically violent shifts in the politics of the country. As a result, there are revolutions, counter-revolutions and attempts at democracy; nationalism, secession, freedom-fighters, riots, torture and popular heroes, all bound by the silver of the mine and what they believe it can do for them.
Many of the characters and situations of volatile South American politics have become familiar to the point of cliché since Conrad first drew them so clearly. But his portrayal, however perceptive and detailed, and however much it excites the imagination as an adventure story, is also about politics in a much broader sense. He had no faith that politicians could do anything to save their people—rather the opposite—and the machinations in Nostromo show power and wealth corrupting rather than improving, even when the initial intention may have been honourable. And on a purely personal level, for the people of the story, there is no redemption, no uplifting sense of achievement; only tragedy, defeat and despair.
The story is told in three parts, but also in several different ways: the standard, all-knowing narrator, telling the tale in the past tense; sudden jumps forward in time to tell it from a different perspective; in one long sequence, from a particular character explaining events from his point of view; and an occasional first-person narrator, talking as if in the historical present, and in a manner suggesting that everything about the place is true. A history of this fictional country, written by one of the fictional characters, is quoted as a reference work for the events described. This formally self-referential aspect of the book shows Conrad’s development away from the traditional novel form and into something recognisably modern, which influenced almost every major writer of English thereafter, from Woolf to Greene to Lawrence and beyond.
But the principal reason for Nostromo’s influence is in its characters and in its tone. The language is not easy—sentences are often long and convoluted, and there are rather dated moral and rhetorical abstract generalisations. But the descriptions are lush, comprehensive, poetic and allusive, often using a series of slightly altered repetitions to build up a powerful image. All the writing has a huge rolling flow to it, like the sea itself, that resonates long beyond the words themselves. Into this richly complex and scenically exotic world, explored so fully by the language used to describe it, Conrad places people with such psychological truth and complexity that they could all be drawn from intimate biographies. All are created with a depth of personality and credible potential for individual choice based on their characters. The range and depth is astonishing, and made all the more remarkable by their symbolic power as well, whether of European colonialism, American financial imperialism or political opportunism; or aspects of humanity such as cynicism, froideur, malice or deeply constrained affection. At the same time, all the choices the characters make are entirely in keeping with the personality and history of that character. For all that they serve Conrad’s larger, remorseless purpose, these are detailed and layered human personalities, who—facing a range of moral and personal dilemmas—are changed gradually, subtly, convincingly, yet in complete accord with Conrad’s general convictions, by the world they are in.
Nostromo was a difficult book for Conrad. It was initially published in serial form, and the pressure to produce the work added to his considerable pains in writing it. He was drained by it, and was aware that he had created something the like of which he would never achieve again, despite living until 1924. But he constructed a work that was unwavering in its moral conviction, vivid imagination and detail; haunting, intense and resonant. He created unmatched individuals as well as archetypal characters that would become stereotypes for over a century; and for all its nihilism, Nostromo is dryly compassionate and passionately objective.
Notes by Roy McMillan