Study Guide


By Joseph Conrad

Nostromo Introduction

Nostromo has more going on than a type-A high school junior intent on getting early admissions at Princeton. Seriously, this book does so much. There's romance, political intrigue, backstabbing, family drama, shipwrecks, and hidden treasure… and we're just talking about major plot points and setting aside Modernist stylistic mayhem (for now).

It's also set in the South American nation of Costaguana and focusing in particular on the town of Sulaco. Don't panic, geography buffs—they're both totally made up. Yeah, that's right: on top of stringing together a dizzying plot and intricate style, Joseph Conrad created the entire dang world of Nostromo.

When the book opens, we quickly learn that Sulaco and Costaguana have a long history of political upheaval and war, but the characters are really hoping for a calmer stretch. A local guy, Charles Gould, tries to bring about some peace and prosperity for the country by getting the San Tomé silver mine up and running but Gould's involvement in local affairs actually has the opposite effect: people start resenting all the foreigners that have their grubby paws in Costaguana's business.

Mayhem (and we're talking bodies-weighted-with-bars-of-silver, sea-battles, torture-chambers, political intrigue mayhem) ensues. But don't worry: this isn't a kind of zany Cutthroat Island-style romp. What it is is searing political commentary about Colonialism, paired with Joseph Conrad's signature inquiry into "the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him." So yeah: this ain't campy.

After all, Joseph Conrad is said to have influenced such shining stars of literature as Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot with books like Nostromo. Nostromo is dry and witty, but you'll be laughing with it, not at it.

Fair warning, though: Nostromo is a tricky novel. Conrad is a Modernist, and he shows his stripes pretty quickly. Before you know it, you're zooming in and out of people's minds and back and forth in time, and details that you thought were just secondary—you know, background noise—emerge as totally key to the plot. In short, the novel really asks you to stay vigilant, and take in every detail.

Whoa. A novel that pairs buried treasure, political intrigue and ultraviolence with a lesson in freaking mindfulness? Yes indeed. And if that seems crazytown fantastic today, just think of how amazing it was when it came out in 1904.

What is Nostromo About and Why Should I Care?

Although the big dogs in global commerce have changed a bit since Nostromo was written, this novel gives us a peek at the dynamics underpinning globalization that have only become more important and far-reaching over time.

If you're not really sure what we mean, just look around you right now. If you're from the U.S., we would wager that at least some of the clothes you're wearing and even the device on which you're reading this were manufactured in another country. Why? Because the companies who produce these products find it financially beneficial to use resources and labor located elsewhere. Does outsourcing create certain complexities and challenges in international relations? Abso-freaking-lutely.

In Nostromo, this kind of financial relationship between the fictional nation of Costaguana and other countries is definitely bad news bears. Sure, the influx of foreign financial capital means jobs and a certain increase in prosperity. However, it also seems to give foreigners a lot of power in a country that isn't theirs… which makes the Montero brothers (and a sizeable portion of the Costaguana population) angry enough to revolt.

Think of Nostromo as training wheels to learning about the seedy underbelly of globalization. You get all the benefits of a novel—intriguing characters! buried treasure (no, really)! violent ship battles!—but you also get to peer inside the machine of Colonialism and marvel at the amount of greed, terror, and Machiavellian wheeling and dealing that goes down.

Or, you could just check out Nostromo because it's an awesome read. F. Scott Fitzgerald said "I'd rather have written Conrad's Nostromo than any other novel," and that dude wrote The Great Gatsby. Robert Penn Warren said "It is, in my view, the masterwork of (Conrad's)… one of the few mastering visions of our historical moment and our human lot." And if you can't trust F. Scott and Robert Penn's taste in literature, we don't know whose you can trust.

Nostromo Resources


The Man Himself
Check out Joseph Conrad's awesome life. He makes Jack Kerouac look like a suburban golf-loving real estate agent.

Read the Full Text of Nostromo Online (Since the Actual Book is Pretty Heavy)
You can find it at handy ol' Project Gutenberg.


Nostromo the Musical!
Okay, not really… but there was a miniseries adaptation in 1996.


Chinua Achebe's Case Against Conrad
Okay, this essay is on Heart of Darkness, but check it out and think about how the argument can apply to Nostromo as well.

Director's Cut
Read an interview with Fernando Ghia, who produced the 1996 miniseries version of Nostromo.

Nostromo Is Still Pretty (Con)Rad
Ibsen Martinez discusses the legacy of Conrad's novel.

Remember How We Said Conrad was Suspicious of Progress?
Check out an NPR article about how some people thought the Unabomber got his ideas from Conrad's The Secret Agent, which is about a dude wants to bomb an observatory to protest scientific advancement.


Gould Meets with Hernández
Check out a clip from the 1996 miniseries.

Montero and Gould Go Head to Head
Another scene from the 1996 movie. Bonus: Colin Firth is Gould.


Check Out the Author Himself
What a 'stache!

Colin Firth and Serena Scott Thomas as the Goulds
Because we know you already picture every English literary character as Colin Firth, right?