A summary of a classic novel
F. Scott Fitzgerald left behind one of the most perfect novels ever written, The Great Gatsby: at least, that is the version of many critics. But even Fitzgerald once said, ‘I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel.’ Yet Nostromo is a challenging and multi-layered novel, demanding much of its readers, even when compared with the high demand Conrad places on his other fiction. What is Nostromo about, and how should we analyse this classic modernist novel about South American mining, capitalism, and revolution?
At least on one level, Nostromo is about a succession of political regimes in the fictional South American country of Costaguana: from military dictatorship at the hands of Guzman Bento, to a conservative-democratic uprising against Bento’s regime (Ribiera and his Blancos), to the rise of the imperialist capitalism which is embodied by the English (though native-born Costaguanan) Charles Gould and his American backer, Holroyd. Thereafter, there is a failed nationalist revolution against this foreign-backed capitalist venture, led by the Monteros, before this is itself replaced by a socialist group who try to bring the country into a post-capitalist, Marxist future. This, in summary, is the basic framework of the plot on which Conrad builds the dense layered structure of Nostromo.
Joseph Conrad had visited various parts of the world himself – he was a naval man – by the time he came to write Nostromo in 1904. However, for the portrait of a fictional South American state, Costaguana, he relied on several printed sources as well as the material provided to him by his friend, Cunningham Graham. Conrad had learned French before he learned English, and French literature was very influential on him: his principal literary influences come not from nineteenth-century English writers like Trollope or George Eliot, but from French novelists who are using a different kind of realism – not so much the external realism practised by the English writers, but a more internalised, psychological realism, such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Flaubert was a particularly strong influence on Conrad, as was Henry James, whose fiction became increasingly experimental or ‘modernist’ around the turn of the century. Conrad was also influenced by Impressionism, that art-movement which involved giving partial glimpses of the world, filtered through the artist’s own consciousness, rather than photographic, ‘objective’ reproductions of the real world. Although Conrad’s attitudes towards Impressionist painting were complicated (he was in the habit of dismissing much of it), the Impressionist mode clearly influenced him in the writing of Nostromo, as in his earlier novella, Heart of Darkness. This has consequences for narrative point of view: the ‘omniscient’ narrator of Nostromo deliberately withholds details from us, and indeed turns out to be ‘unomniscient’, if you like.
It helps to consider in a little more detail what the chief themes of Nostromo are. F. R. Leavis remarked in his analysis of Nostromo (in The Great Tradition) that the novel’s main theme is the relation between moral idealism and ‘material interests’. Conrad presents this theme through a series of personal histories which relate to this central idea of ‘idealism versus materialism’: to name just a few, Charles Gould and his wife, the French journalist Decoud, Dr Monygham, Giorgo Viola, and Nostromo himself.
Plot and Narrative of Nostromo
We won’t recount the plot of Nostromo here, because providing any sort of detailed plot summary would make this ‘short’ analysis considerably longer by several thousand words! But we recommend the ‘Introduction’ to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Nostromo for a very brief and simplified synopsis of the plot, which allows you to get a handhold on what’s going on and who the principal characters are. Another plot summary – which focuses less on the political action of the novel and more on the personal relationships between the characters – can be found in Margaret Drabble’s The Oxford Companion to English Literature. But as we say, offering a plot summary would take up too much space here. However, it is worth stopping to consider the significance of the novel’s plot and narrative structure.
Cedric Watts warns us of Nostromo that it’s ‘the kind of text that needs to be read at least twice, because many of its ironies can only be appreciated at a second reading’. Indeed, the novel is out to make us question any easy judgments or analyses of people or institutions: Nostromo ‘embodies questions about the very activity of making sense of life.’ Watts goes on to argue that in its wedding of the public to the private, of smaller domestic relationships to grand political structures, Nostromo is comparable in scope to War and Peace.
Terry Eagleton, in The English Novel: An Introduction, calls the narrative of Nostromo ‘crab-like’ and ‘broken-backed’, ‘full of flashbacks, deferments and multiple perspectives’ which ‘question the view that there is any simple upward evolution at stake here’. The novel appears to be about progress, like many novels (romances are progressions towards true love and a happy ending, adventure narratives move towards fulfilling the quest for treasure etc., a detective story moves towards discovering the story behind the crime), but in Nostromo it is not easy to see how the succession of various modes of power are moving towards ‘progress’ in any straightforward sense.
What’s more, the note on which the novel ends – with the suggestion that a Marxist revolution will displace the current regime – cannot be simply read as the culmination of something, as a neat conclusion or realisation of the country’s main political interests. Conrad suggests that this coming Marxist revolution will probably be just the same as the former regimes (much as, later in the twentieth century, would play out in real life, as religious or imperial regimes gave way to Communism in Europe and Asia, ostensibly in the name of political improvement, although these replacement regimes actually ended up being just as oppressive and unjust as the power structures they had replaced). There is a link here between the succession of failing/failed revolutions and the unusual chronology of the novel (which makes much use of analepsis/flashback and prolepsis/flashforward): in refusing to offer us a straightforward linear plot, is Conrad suggesting that things are no better at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning? Is he seeking to undermine the implicit message of much nineteenth-century fiction, namely that novels were about charting a journey of improvement (in Bildungsromans, for instance: Pip in Great Expectations becomes a wiser man, Jane Eyre ends up with Mr Rochester)?
Another purpose served by the anachronic structure of the novel’s narrative (‘anachronic’ is Gerard Genette’s term and refers to narratives which are told out of sequential order, or with much recourse to flashback to past events and anticipation of future events) is that it allows Conrad to link together symbolically certain events or moments in the novel which he could not otherwise have connected together so easily, if telling the story in a consecutive fashion. Conrad is, in part, laying bare such common storytelling devices.
Characters in Nostromo
The following character summaries, while brief, may help to separate some of the principal characters out into separate entities, as it can prove a challenge upon a first read to keep track of who’s who:
Charles Gould: the novel’s protagonist (of sorts), working on the ‘Gould Concession’, or silver mine, which he has inherited from his father (the same Concession also killed his father). His father, who was coerced into running the Concession, warned his son, before he died, to have nothing to do with the silver mine, but Gould, an idealist, believes he can make Costaguana a better place if he can use the mine to bring prosperity to the land. Gould pins his hopes on ‘material interests’, believing that the way to save the town of Sulaco from lawlessness is to set up a thriving economic structure. But he is an idealist because he believes that, in setting up a thriving economic town, Sulaco will become a better place. Along with his friend Don José Avellanos (a fellow idealist), he supports Don Vincente Ribiera’s dictatorship. His wife, Emilia Gould, looks on while her husband becomes more successful in redeeming the business, and less successful in managing his personal life and marriage.
Nostromo: the title character, real name Gian’ (or Giovanni) Battista Fizanda. He thrives on reputation, but has no ideals beyond himself. He is a self-styled ‘man of the People’ who ‘does not want to raise himself above the mass’. Indeed, even his adopted name suggests nostro uomo, Italian for ‘our man’. He is shot by accident at the end of the novel by his adoptive father, Giorgio Viola.
Martin Decoud: the French intellectual and journalist, he is Nostromo’s companion during the night in the Gulf. Like Nostromo, he has no ideals. He labels Charles Gould a ‘sentimental Englishman’ who ‘cannot exist without idealizing every simple desire or achievement. He [Gould] could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale.’ Unlike Gould, Decoud has no time for the ‘sentimentalism of the people that will never do anything for the sake of their passionate desire, unless it comes to them clothed in the fair robes of an ideal’. However, his passion for Antonia Avellanos leads to the mine being saved and the aims of both the patriots and the idealists achieved.
Dr Monygham: like Gould, he holds to an ideal – an ideal of conduct and propriety. He is, as the narrator remarks, ‘an officer and a gentleman’ of the Merchant Service. A man of real moral integrity, he is devoted to Mrs Gould. He was one of the men who were tortured by the sadistic priest Father Berón, some years before the main action of the novel. Under torture, he was coerced into giving away the names of his close friends who were rumoured to be in a conspiracy against Guzman Bento, during Bento’s dictatorship some twenty years before.
Giorgio Viola: the Garibaldino (he was formerly in the army of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi), he is a libertarian idealist who wants independence for Costaguana. For Leavis, he ‘represents with monumental massiveness the heroic age of the liberal faith’, that is, a sort of humanism or religion of doing good (rather than being affiliated to a specific religion such as Christianity).
Captain Joe Mitchell: he is another representative of the Merchant Service, like Dr Monygham. He is, for Leavis, ‘sane and stable to the point of stupidity’. As Conrad puts it at a key point, ‘He was too pompously and innocently aware of his own existence to observe that of others.’
Hirsch: a hide merchant and ‘embodiment of fear’ (in Leavis’s phrase), the man is later tortured (and eventually killed) by the rebel Colonel Sotillo by being hung up by his wrists, in order to make him confess where the silver is.
Some final notes towards an analysis of Nostromo: Joseph Conrad once remarked, ‘Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit.’ Do any of the characters in Nostromo gain a universal, balanced view of the world, or are they all blinded/limited by idealism (they see the world as they want it to be, e.g. Gould), subjectivity (Decoud’s relying only on his own personal sensations for verification), or by a somewhat blinkered rationalism (Dr Monygham and Captain Mitchell)? In the world of Nostromo, there is no hope of gaining absolute knowledge of the world, much less absolute truth. As a much later and very different writer, Terry Pratchett, once put it: ‘Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.’
The best edition of the novel is Nostromo A Tale of the Seaboard n/e (Oxford World’s Classics), which comes with an informative introduction and extensive notes.