Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo was first published 1904. The book takes place in the fictional South American country of Costaguana in the fictional seaport of Sulaco. Charles Gould, who is of English descent, is a citizen of Costaguana. He and his wife, Emilia Gould, return to Costaguana from Europe to revive an abandoned silver mine that had previously ruined his father. As the mine begins to be successful, Gould allies himself with Costaguana’s President don Vincente Ribiera. The president is a reformer who is trying to bring stability to Costaguana after years of repression, civil wars and corruption. Unfortunately, Ribiera is overthrown by brutal, oppressive and corrupt forces. These forces proceed to invade Sulaco as various factions compete for power and influence.
Nostromo is an ex-Genovese sailor who resides in Sulaco. He is a foreman of European workmen, but he also serves the various upper class European residents as a kind of security operative. He becomes instrumental in the fight against the oppressive factions. When Sulaco is invaded by the enemy forces, he undertakes a mission to save a large shipment of silver from them by getting it out of the country by boat. Much of the book concerns this mission and its aftermath.
The book is filled with interesting and complex additional characters. Martin Decoud is a cynic who is drawn into the reformist cause as a journalist and editorial writer. Decoud accompanies Nostromo on his mission to save the silver. Also cynical is the moody Dr. Monygham, who also becomes involved with the reformists.
As is typical of other Conrad works that I have read, this novel is full of detailed descriptions and dense prose. The first part of the book is so full of these descriptions as well as background information on characters, that the plot barely moves at all.
There are multiple themes running through this book. As I often do, I will devote a few words to one of these. The motivations and obsessions that provide meaning to life and that drive action is a major subject of this novel. Various characters in the book are determined people. It is of note that they are driven by different things.
Charles Gould is obsessed with the San Tome Mine. Gould is less interested in monetary success than he is in the success of the mine itself and its social impact. The mine, which destroyed his father, becomes the focus of his life. It becomes so important to him that the love and tenderness goes out of his marriage. At one point his wife Emilia laments,
"Incorrigible in his devotion to the great silver mine was the Senor Administrador! [Gould] Incorrigible in his hard, determined service of the material interests to which he had pinned his faith in the triumph of order and justice. Poor boy! She had a clear vision of the grey hairs on his temples. He was perfect— perfect. What more could she have expected? It was a colossal and lasting success; and love was only a short moment of forgetfulness, a short intoxication, whose delight one remembered with a sense of sadness, as if it had been a deep grief lived through. There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea. She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than the worst Government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness. He did not see it. He could not see it. It was not his fault. He was perfect, perfect; but she would never have him to herself. Never; not for one short hour altogether to herself”
Likewise, Nostromo, is a focused man. He is obsessed with his own reputation. The ex-sailor is incorruptible and brave. He fights on the side of reform. However, he cares nothing for the cause. He only values what others say about him and that he is esteemed. He shows himself willing to die for his reputation.
At one point he comments about his mission to save the silver.
“I am going to make it the most famous and desperate affair of my life... It shall be talked about when the little children are grown up and the grown men are old”
Things get really interesting when Nostromo begins to realize that the Europeans are just using him for their own ends. He becomes disillusioned. As the narrative continues for years after the mission, this disillusion carries Nostromo into all sorts of directions. This turn of mind allows Conrad to explore both his character as well as disillusionment of purpose.
Martin Decoud is another example. As his role as writer for the reformists begins to metamorphose into that of a political leader, Decoud shows physical bravery and outwardly appears to be committed to ideas. In reality, however, he is cynical and does not believe in causes. He is, however, in love with Antonia Avellanos, a committed and idealistic person who is dedicated to the cause of reform. Thus, Decoud’s commitment is not what it appears to be.
Despite the depressive aspects of his personality, Dr. Monygham claims to value loyalty to others. It is revealed that he is haunted by the fact that he betrayed people when he was subjected to torture by a previous regime. It turns out that the thing that he seems to care most about is an unrequited love that he has for Emilia Gould
There are multiple additional characters whose motivations in life are examined. Some engage with one another through dialogues that expose their differences and incompatibilities.
At one point, the chief engineer of the railroad observes,
“things seem to be worth nothing by what they are in themselves. I begin to believe that the only solid thing about them is the spiritual value which everyone discovers in his own form of activity”
The above quotation encapsulates a lot of what this book has to say.
The story allows Conrad to explore meaningfulness and personal values in many permutations. Some characters maintain their beliefs, some beliefs some become disillusioned, and others believe that they have betrayed their own values.
There is a lot more going on in this book. It is a critique on both Colonialism as well as Latin American politics. It describes some horrendous violence and brutality that conveys an anti-violence message. There is a disturbing passage that describes torture that might lead some readers to avoid this book.
This is another brilliant novel by Conrad. It has more characters, more plot threads and more themes floating around than either Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the other Conrad books that I have read. I find that Conrad is a master of prose, plot, characters and themes. With that, as stated above, this novel is heavy with descriptions and background information so some readers might become a little bored. For those who appreciate its strengths , I think that this book will not disappoint.
I keep thinking of reading this at some point. For one reason (among others!) I was to see exactly how many 'Aliens' references there are in the text!! [lol]
Nostromo sounds like a descriptive, intense, worthwhile book, although the torture scene sounds very disturbing. Psychological and/or spiritual elements seem important to the author. Excellent commentary, as usual.
i read this some sixty years ago and remember my slightly confused reaction, if not details of the plot... but it did get me started on reading Conrad's other works, off and on, and it's been one of those long-lasting experiences in which the reader discovers as much about himself as he does about the books he peruses... that's one of the chief gifts offered by writers like Conrad, i think: that it epitomizes the search for self instead of just engaging the reader in another potboiler...
Hi CyberKitten - That is very funny. I thought that just the ships Nostromo and Sulaco referenced this book, but A Google seach indicates that ships throughout the series are named after various elements in Conrad’s books.,
Thanks Suko. Conrad was all about psychology. He was also so very intense and descriptive.
Hi Mudpuddle- Conrad really did delve into humanity. I agree, the reader of his works can often get a lot of things that effect him or her personally.
You have really good insight into this story, Brian. I have not read it, but I plan to. Your comments about one man's obsession because it gives him purpose for life is so true. When that object is taken away, his sense of purpose evaporates. It's a type of idol worship, in my opinion.
I'm not sure I would enjoy wading through the dense descriptions; I like my story lines to move at a fairly rapid pace. I don't need the writer to spell out what every blade of grass looks like. It does seem that some authors, at least during certain years, felt compelled to over-describe.
Still, I will one day read this book because I like Conrad. Take care!
Hi Brian, Joseph Conrad is a writer I definitely want to read. I've read two books by Graham Greene and I sense Conrad and Greene explore similar terrain. I would start with Heart of Darkness because that as is the book Conrad is most known for although Lord Jim interests me as well.
Thanks Sharon. I think that the idol worship is a good comparison. For Charles Gould, as it sometimes is in real life, it is akin to it.
The descriptions are so heavy in the first part of the book. I was starting to wonder if there would be much plot at all in the book.
Hi Kathy - I have not read Greene but I would like to. I loved Heart of Darkness but I liked Lord Jim even better.
Lord Jim it is then!
I started reading this, but stalled because of all the scene setting. Conrad is just SO wordy sometimes. I think you have to be in the mood to read his longer works, because he does go on and on. I hope to get back to it soon. Glad you liked it. That gives me hope that there's a great story amongst all that scene setting. I have a theory that Conrad indulges in so much descriptive writing in order to figure things out for himself. Probably, he should have wielded the red pen a bit more and cut out some of the extraneous stuff. I do like him, though, as a writer and a person. Although he would have been a terrible dinner guest, flicking those bread pellets at people and hogging the conversation.
Your review is great. It reminded me how much I liked this book. I appreciate your highlighting Nostromo's disillusionment. The contrast between his character and Gould strikes me as and important aspect of the story. I also remember appreciating Conrad's focus on the psychology of the characters.
I haven't read this - in fact I haven't read much Conrad at all - but this idea of obsessions with things/ideas being more important that the things themselves and, it seems, more important than people and relationships certainly appeals to me. I'm guessing the his description is beautiful enough to keep you going. It's very much of its era isn't it - that is, to write long descriptions. How much meaning to they add to the novel? Why do we see so much less of it now?
Hi Violet - It seems that he would hog a conversation. The level of description and scene setting in the firsr part of the book was amazing. I was convinced that the book had almost no plot. It does pick up in the second half.
Thanks James. I could have written so much more about the characters. There was a striking contrast between Nostromo and Gould. It is interesting that they just did not understand one another.
Hi WP - The descriptions really do add s lot of meaning. In Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness I found them fairly easy to connect to the plot. Here I thought that they were s bit more enigmatic. I think I would need to read some external commentary to delve deeper in the case of this book.
You raise a good question about why such descriptions have fallen out of style. It is tempting to say that modern readers lack patience. I am not sure if that is the case or not.
Though a longtime Conrad fan, I've tried several times to read Nostromo and given up quickly. I really enjoyed your character analysis here, and it makes me want to give it another go!
Re: lack of long descriptions - it seems to be genre-based rather than across the board. Some sci-fi and fantasy novels, for example, have notably dense descriptions and world-building. But why it's unpopular in literary fiction specifically? my guess would be the influence of cinema and the screenplay, and the assumption that readers already know more about our world through films. It's kind of unfortunate because verbal description is an art form, one that we'll lose if we don't practice it.
Hi Marion - You raise a good point, Science fiction and fantasy often does have a lot of descriptions. Frank Herbert comes to mind as a writer who used a lot of descriptions.
With that, the amount of descriptions and background provided in this book was beyond anything that I read anywhere else. It made up the majority of the first half of the book.
Geez, this sounds like *really* complex world-building, hats off to Conrad! I do love fictionalised critiques of colonialism (a hangover from my days studying sociology at uni, I think), though I must say I'd be nervous that this one might be a little dense and heavy a read for me just at the moment... I'll bear it in mind, though, and (as always) thank you for sharing a fantastic review!
Hi Sheree - World building is a good word for what Conrad does here. The first part is very dense. I do not know if have read Lord Jim, but it is my favorite Conrad so far.
I'd like to read this. I enjoy the kind of psychological complexity you're discussing here and how individual lives tie to larger events in various ways.
The only novel of his I've read is The Secret Agent, which I recommend. It also explores some similar themes, like the hidden motives in the lives of anarchists/revolutionaries. Characters can claim allegiance to high-minded ideals of serving mankind while perpetrating devastating personal betrayals.
Hi Hila - I have not read The Secret Agent yet. Over the last year or so have found that I love Conrad so I will read it soon.
Conrad is all about psychology, motivation, life’s meaning.
It is tempting to say that re patience Brian, but I'd like to think there's more to it than that - though what, I'm not sure!
Not something I would normally pick up I don't think Brian but after your commentary, if I came across it, I would pick it up. When I read the book title I actually thought it was going to be about something very different xxx
Hi Lainy - The title does sound like it is about something ghoulish. I liked this book a lot, but if you have not read it already, I liked the Lord Jim the best.
Hi Brian! I haven't read anything by Conrad, though Heart of Darkness is certainly high on my list. I think I have Lord Jim around too. That seems to be your favorite. ☺
Hi Rachel - Lord Jim is my favorite so far. This book as well as Heart of Darkness were also great works.
what a POWERFUl commentary Brain!
you are oUTSTANDING in reviewing the books specially novels which i love to read .
Nostromo sounds like a fascinating character who is greatly in love with himself and too much care about others opinion for him which lead him to be betrayed by europeans in his most important mission
the way you described the structure of novel is so compelling !
i would love to read it if find here
Conrad sounds an excellent writer !
Thank you so much for other recommendations of his works too
Thanks Baili - I think some people would find the structure of this a little challenging as not s lot happens in the first half. Nostromo is really in love with himself.
I think I can finally decide which Conrad novel I'd pick after my not-very-succesfull Heart of Darkness (still need to reread this one someday, though, to give fair judgement). Anyway, thanks for the review.
Hi Fanda - Of the three Conrad books that I have read, I liked Lord Jim the best. I thought that Heart of Darkness was fairly typical Conrad so I am not sure if you would like the other book oks
This definitely sounds intense, especially with the disturbing passage about torture you mention.
It's crazy to think of how people are capable of doing that. I recently watched a documentary on the Tower of London and they went into the torture chamber there and ew. It's just hard to imagine such brutality.
Great commentary as usual.
I think I would like to start out with Lord Jim & Heart of Darkness first. This one sounds dense at the beginning but picks up as it goes along. The part about the sea & the mine interest me. It definitely seems to have a lot of threads running through this story!
Hi Susan - It is not a bad idea to start with those other books first. This one is a more involved reading project.
I have never heard of this book--sounds challenging, interesting, and worth reading, especially if one is interested in how Conrad fits into the literary pantheon. He has a reputation as an imperialist, but your review suggests otherwise.
Actually, while reading the review I was reminded of Ann Patchett's excellent Bel Canto, which is also about a fictional South American country and the politics that destroy/characterize it.
Great review, Brian.
Thanks Jane. This book is indeed many things. Conrad’s views were complex. In this book and in others he seemed to be critical of Europeans but also of folks native to the colonies.
I must try Bel Canto.
OUTSTANDING REVIEW AS USUAL, BRIAN!
This book sure sounds complex, as well as very nuanced. Conrad is definitely a brilliant writer, but I do think he's not for everyone. I don't think I could read any of his books, because they sound as if they're imbued with a heavily depressive, as well as oppressive, atmosphere. Your mention of very brutal and graphic violence in this particular book certainly makes me want to stay away. Thanks for the warning!
Having stated all of the above, I can appreciate the things you've mentioned that make the book interesting, such as the contrast between idealism and opportunism, and the depiction of other opposing ideologies embodied by the various characters.
What I have always admired about Conrad, even though I've only read snippets of his works in literature classes, is that English was not his native language, and yet, he was a superb prose stylist in this, his second language.
Maybe, just maybe, I will try out "Lord Jim". This novel might perhaps be the least violent one he ever wrote. Am I right? If I am, then I can certainly give it a try!
Thanks for another very insightful, fascinating review!! <3 :)
Thanks Maria. I find that Conrad’s books seem to mix oppressiveness with lightheartedness. The mix is one of the things that make his work distinctive. I agree that Lord Jim was the least oppressive of the books that I read. I also do not remember graphic violence.
The fact that English was not Conrad’s first language is indeed extraordinary! His prose is so rich and his style is so innovative. I wonder how learning English played into this. I suspect that a good biography of Conrad would shed some interesting light on the subject.
Have a great week!
A very interesting review, Brian. The only Conrad novel I've read is "Almayer's Folly", which I found amazing. I always wnat to read more of him, so thanks for the nudge, althoigh, I'll be picking up Heart of Drakness before embarking on longer work.
I'm always surprised when you mention the descriptions because for some reason, I always think he's not a descritive writer.
Hi Caroline - I wonder how different Almayer's Folly is from Conrad’s other works as I found what I have read to be so heavy with description. As much as I liked this book, I liked Heart of Darkness better. I am curious as to what you will think about it.
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