Since the novel spends a lot of time "in" the characters' minds, the tone is often dependent on who is speaking. However, there are definitely some moments when a "voice" exterior to the characters emerges. When Hirsch is being tortured, for example, we get some commentary on his predicament that isn't particularly sympathetic (so it's fairly clear it's not coming from Hirsch himself):
Sotillo, followed by the soldiers, had left the room. […] Hirsch went on screaming all alone behind the half-closed jalousies while the sunshine, reflected from the water of the harbour, made an ever-running ripple of light high up on the wall. He screamed with uplifted eyebrows and a wide-open mouth—incredibly wide, black, enormous, full of teeth—comical. (III.9.24)
As you can see, the presentation of Hirsch's pain is fairly causal and disinterested—check out the pretty water reflections on the wall—and the narrator even goes so far as to drop the word "comical" in describing Hirsch's face as it contorts in agony. Being tortured lol. The moment is consistent with the general "let-me-chuckle-to-myself-as-you-idiots-kill-each-other/yourselves" vibe that we get here and there from the narrator.
No doubt about it, Conrad was a cynical dude. And why shouldn't he be cynical? When you spend the your life up to the age of thirty-seven running around the world and then sit down to write some of the century's best novels (in your second language, no less) you kinda get to be cynical.
Yes, there are lots of ways in which the novel is pretty traditional. Conrad's sentence structure and writing style are relatively clear (and complete, thanks Conrad!)—so, in that respect, it's definitely a far cry from, say, Ulysses. Also, Nostromo gives you healthy doses of action, intrigue, and strange/remarkable events, things that are often not really at the forefront of Woolfian and Joycean Modernism, which tend to focus on everyday events.
Digging a bit deeper, though, we see that that Conrad definitely gets experimental when it comes to narrative structure and plotting. You might have noticed, for example, that the book puts its supposed protagonist on the backburner for a good chunk of the novel. You could argue that Nostromo doesn't really become a major focal point until roughly halfway through, which is when the narrative really starts dipping into his mind and clueing us into his motivations.
By making us wait to "meet" Nostromo and giving us only other people's perspectives on him for the first part of the novel, Conrad's narrative mimics the way the characters kind of treat him as a mere tool in their own stories rather than a whole person. So, like other Modernists, Conrad definitely uses experimentations with the novel form to a larger thematic effect.
Then there's the way Conrad rapidly shifts focus back and forth between the minds of different characters, which is definitely Modernist—hello, Mrs. Dalloway. You get a great example of this technique when Nostromo and Martin are on the lighter, trying to avoid being seen by Sotillo and his crew on the steamer. The narrator kind of "floats" back and forth between the two groups, giving us their differing P.O.V. during that tense period. Check out one snippet from that section and see for yourself:
Sotillo, on the bridge, muttered from time to time angrily to the captain. […]
"If your eyes are of no more use to you than this, I shall have them put out," he yelled.
The captain of the steamer made no answer, for just then the mass of the Great Isabel loomed up darkly after a passing shower… […] The ship was put then full speed on the course, and a great bustle of preparation for landing arose among the soldiers on her deck.
It was heard distinctly by Decoud and Nostromo. The Capataz understood its meaning. They had made out the Isabels, and were going on now in a straight line for Sulaco. (II.8.50-54)
In this moment, the narrative shifts focus abruptly from Sotillo and his crew's thoughts to Nostromo's. That kind of thing happens a lot in that chapter and throughout the book, and it's definitely the kind of trick you see a lot in Modernism.
This is the question you will be asking yourself about eighty pages into the novel, when you realize you've really only gotten passing references to Nostromo, and that all those references were nestled within the stories of English and American tycoons living/traveling/investing in Costaguana.
But just be patient—the story is very much about Nostromo, his downfall, and what he represents symbolically. We go over in crazy detail (we feel about literary analysis the way Nostromo feels about silver: obsessed) the nuances of both Nostromo's character and what he symbolizes: check out our "Character Analysis" and "Symbols" sections for more.
The novel ends with Doctor Monygham arriving at the Great Isabel to relay news of Nostromo's death to the Violas. Hearing the news, Linda declares that she will never forget him. In fact, she screams it out into the night, using his real (!) first name: "Never! Gian' Battista!" (III.13.153).
With that, the novel wraps things up pretty quickly:
Dr. Monygham, pulling round in the police-galley, heard the name pass over his head. It was another of Nostromo's triumphs, the greatest, the most enviable, the most sinister of all. In that true cry of undying passion that seemed to ring aloud from Punta Mala to Azuera and away to the bright line of the horizon, overhung by a big white cloud shining like a mass of solid silver, the genius of the magnificent Capataz de Cargadores dominated the dark gulf containing his conquests of treasure and love. (III.13.153)
The ending is kind of brilliant in a few ways:
First of all, it brings everything full circle with the mention of Punta Mala and the Azuera peninsula, which are mentioned in the first chapter.
Secondly, unlike at the beginning of the novel, Nostromo is front and center—and getting his name (and his real name at that) screamed from the rooftops (er, lighthouse). Just like he always wanted.
Thirdly, it drops in the word "conquests." The idea of conquest has been super important in the book, in terms of understanding the political scuffles and resentments that have caused Costaguana's wars. It's interesting that Nostromo has become a conqueror, right?
Finally, this ending also drops in that other little key word: "Silver." That might be the most important thing in the book, so it's notable the clouds above the landscape are likened to "a mass of solid silver." Dang. Even the clouds have a touch of the silver-fever by the end.
It's truly kind of amazing how Conrad brings references to all those themes and symbols together in just a couple lines. But hey, that's why he's said to have influenced such shining stars of literature as Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. He's amazing.
Costaguana is a fictional South American country loosely based on Colombia. Most of the action takes place in Sulaco, a port town (which is also totally made up).
Understanding the geography of Sulaco and the surrounding areas is pretty important, which is probably why Conrad starts the book with an entire chapter devoted to setting—no characters, no action. In addition to giving us a ghost story that serves as a metaphor for some of the characters' behavior (see "Symbols"), this chapter provides a crystal clear picture of the topography of Sulaco's surroundings.
Check out the first paragraph:
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. (I.1.1)
This first chunk of text gives us a lot of really important information. First: Costaguana has been conquered by Europeans for some time. We end up learning that European conquest is kind of a big topic for the novel, and Conrad signals as much by putting a reference to it in the very first sentence.
Also, we learn that Sulaco hadn't exactly been a commercial hub because of its geography. That kind of explains why Gould was so keen to get an industry going there.
Finally, the narrator mentions how calm the wind in the gulf is, making it difficult for boats to move around the harbor. That's not just a throwaway detail, y'all—that aspect of the wind becomes important later, when Nostromo and Martin are trying to escape Sulaco, and it's slow going because they get enough wind in their sails.
We think you get our point. If you don't understand the geography of the place, it's going to be hard to follow all the political maneuverings and challenges the characters face. So, Conrad is wise to give us a chapter giving us the lay of the land; it's useful and signals how important geography is going to be for the rest of the book. You know what they say—it's all about location, location, location.
"So foul a sky clears not without a storm." - Shakespeare
Has anyone ever told you that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better? That's kind of what this quote from Shakespeare's King John in King John is getting at. Coincidentally enough (or not, because Conrad was a well-read dude who picked his epigraphs thoughtfully) King John is a play about a political unrest and the game of musical chairs—or should we say Game of Thrones?—that follows upheaval.
This quote definitely sets the stage for us to dig into the political life of Costaguana, a place where things have been bad for quite a while, and more war is on the way…
Nostromo may be about sailors and hidden treasure, but don't expect a simple adventure tale. The plot is complex and jumps around a whole bunch, often abruptly shifting focus and perspective from character to character and flashing backwards and forwards in time.
The end result? You get a lot of different perspectives—both temporally and character-wise—but you'll likely find it a wee bit disorienting. Every time you begin a new chapter, you have to figure out "where" you are (and with whom), and sometimes that "where" switches mid-chapter. It feels like Conrad really wants to make sure you are paying attention.
On top of all that, there's a lot of complex political talk and a whole bunch of characters to keep track of. All told, these qualities make the trek up Mount Nostromo fairly steep. However, don't fret—it's totally doable, and Conrad's narrative structure (once you've wrapped your head around it) really is kind of incredible to behold.
As we discuss in the "Genre" section, the narration likes to switch back and forth a bunch between different characters and locations, which makes the style pretty chaotic; you will be suddenly jerked out of one character's mind and pulled into another, often without any kind of page break or other indicator that you're running with a new dog (narratively speaking).
In the "Genre" section we check out an example of how the narration does this kind of thing with characters in the same space, but it also happens with characters in different physical locations. So you, the reader, are in for a wild ride: whooshing in and out of consciousnesses and in and out of geographical locations.
Take the moments directly after Don Pepe and Father Roman are visited by a messenger from Pedrito Montero. After getting these men's reactions to the visit, the narrative switches locations to see what the messenger got up to after he departed:
Father Roman expressed in a few words his thankfulness at hearing of the Señor Administrador's safety. The hour of oration had gone by in the silvery ringing of a bell in the little belfry. The belt of forest closing the entrance of the valley stood like a screen between the low sun and the street of the village. At the other end of the rocky gorge, between the walls of basalt and granite, a forest-clad mountain, hiding all the range from the San Tomé dwellers, rose steeply, lighted up and leafy to the very top. […] Before the casa of the alcalde, the foremen of the night-shift, already assembled to lead their men, squatted on the ground in a circle of leather skull-caps, and, bowing their bronze backs, were passing round the gourd of maté. The mozo from the town, having fastened his horse to a wooden post before the door, was telling them the news of Sulaco as the blackened gourd of the decoction passed from hand to hand. (III.6.7-8)
Here, we actually switch locations mid-paragraph, zooming from Don Pepe's camp across the gorge to where the messenger is hanging out outside of the alcalde's house. We're able to follow what's happening, of course, but it seems pretty whiplash-y to us. Each copy of Nostromo should come complete with a roller-coaster harness.
This is the biggie in terms of symbols; in fact, it's so important that it basically becomes its own character. For Nostromo and Charles Gould, the San Tomé silver is like a mistress. For example, Charles's obsession with it leads him to feel guilty for the "infidelity through which his wife was no longer the sole mistress of his thoughts" (III.4.6). Hmm. Maybe he thinks of the silver like this?
Along the same lines, the narrator notices that Nostromo's feelings about the precious metal seem to be a lot more intense than his feelings for Giselle:
He was afraid. He was not afraid of being refused the girl he loved—no mere refusal could stand between him and a woman he desired—but the shining spectre of the treasure rose before him, claiming his allegiance in a silence that could not be gainsaid. (III.12.31)
Okay, fine, you could argue that Nostromo isn't as anxious about keeping Giselle as he is the silver because he's just a confident guy, but that claim is pretty ludicrous; it's clearly more difficult to date your fiancée's sister than it is to hold onto a pile of silver that no one else knows about. Please.
When it's not being compared to a mistress, silver is being compared to a kind of disease. Case in point: Martin Decoud agrees with Nostromo that being entrusted with the silver during the Monterist uprising is a very dangerous proposition: "I can see it well enough myself, that the possession of this treasure is very much like a deadly disease for men situated as we are" (II.7.162).
Why do these guys (and others) find silver so compelling? It's tempting to think greed is the culprit, but we don't think it's as simple as that. For Gould, the silver is tied up with his family's legacy and history; his uncle was killed during one of the country's conflicts, and his father's life was basically ruined when the government gave him the land concession for the mine (which didn't really benefit the elder Gould, since the mine didn't function, and was just a ploy to collect large fees in return for the "favor").
So, for Gould, the silver appears to represent redemption and prosperity. Making the mine lucrative kind of avenges his Dad's failures and, in his mind, will help ensure stability for Costaguana.
With Nostromo, too, keeping the silver is not just about banking some cash (though that's nice, too, of course). Although he's probably trying to make excuses for what is essentially criminal behavior, he does seem to believe (at least somewhat?) that he's righting some kind of injustice by keeping the silver:
"The rich lived on wealth stolen from the people, but he had taken from the rich nothing—nothing that was not lost to them already by their folly and their betrayal. For he had been betrayed—he said—deceived, tempted. […] He had kept the treasure for purposes of revenge; but now he cared nothing for it." (III.12.1053)
Okay, so, we know Nostromo certainly does care about the treasure, so that part is bogus. That said, given his earlier ranting about how the Goulds asked him to protect the silver with very little regard to the risk it entailed (to Nostromo), it seems that he might be legitimately keeping the silver out of revenge for treating him like a supporting player, rather than the hero that he clearly believes he is. To put it differently—and to paraphrase Dirty Dancing—keeping the silver is about saying that nobody puts Baby (Baby Nostromo, that is) in the corner.
We already know that silver is a symbol in its own right (see "Silver" in this section), but Conrad takes things to another level and provides symbols for our favorite precious metal, the people who pursue it, and the power it wields.
Is all the meta talk making your mind hurt? Okay, we'll back up and take you through it. The book opens with a chapter on the landscape of Costaguana, which includes a story about two gringos and a mozo who allegedly stole a donkey and went looking for gold among the rocks of the Azuera, a peninsula on the coast near Sulaco. They were not first to make the attempt; apparently others had tried to find this rumored treasure and died in the process.
According to local legend, the two gringos had remained alive to this day through some magic connected with the treasure and their greed for it:
As to the mozo, a Sulaco man—his wife paid for some masses, and the poor four-footed beast, being without sin, had been probably permitted to die; but the two gringos, spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty—a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced and been released. (I.1.4)
So, you probably get the point—it's pretty easy to connect the dots between this story and the events of the novel, in which Nostromo and Gould (both Europeans) get kind of metaphorically trapped by their obsession with the silver. Nostromo even makes the connection himself when he argues to Martin that their mission with the silver was more dangerous than sending a man into the rocks of Azuera to look for treasure.
Okay, so, we know we've already discussed Nostromo elsewhere (see "Nostromo" under "Players/Attributes"), but he's got some symbolic significance we need to suss out.
You know how the wealthy and powerful use him as a tool in their own political and economic maneuvers, largely for their own gain? Well, that seems awfully similar to the way the Goulds and other foreigners have exploited the natural resources and indigenous population of Costaguana, right?
Think about it: All the major characters are of European extraction (with the exception of the Montero brothers), and indigenous individuals are treated as almost entirely secondary to the plot. For the most part, they are nameless—ahem, remember how people rarely call Nostromo by his real name?—and often just referred to as part of large groups… for example, workers. Workers that help Gould get rich. Like Nostromo. We rest our case, your honor.
Even his name—which translates to "our man"—is possessive and demeaning. Nostromo acts as a stand-in for the indigenous population of Costaguana, and exhibits the kind of anger at being nameless, seen only in terms of utility, and generally shoved around.
It's tricks like these that make Conrad such a confusing/divisive author to read politically. On the one hand, he's using a character to represent the possible anger of native peoples under the Colonialist thumb: yay, Conrad! On the other, he's using a white European character to represent the possible anger of native peoples under the Colonialist thumb: boo, Conrad.
The narrative weaves in and out of characters' minds seamlessly, often floating back and forth between different people and even different locations within a chapter.
The narrator doesn't really editorialize on what the characters are doing or saying; rather, s/he lets quotes do the talking and/or uses free indirect discourse to show us what characters are thinking.
For an example, let's look at how the narrator presents contradictions in Nostromo's thoughts when he meets up with the doctor after hiding the silver on the Great Isabel. Nostromo initially acts super annoyed that he's going to have to deal with the doctor's curiosity about the silver:
Leaning back with folded arms at the foot of the immense building, he dropped his head, biting his lips slightly, and not looking at the doctor. "Now," he thought to himself, "he will begin asking me about the treasure." (III.9.41)
Just a few lines later, however, Conrad uses free indirect discourse to show us that Nostromo is now annoyed that the doctor hasn't asked: "…he had never even asked after it. Not a word of inquiry about the most desperate undertaking of his life" (III.9.49).
As you can see, Nostromo is definitely flip-flopping here, and the narrator doesn't call him on it or draw attention to it. Instead, s/he just presents what the characters are thinking/saying, contradictions and all, without commenting. So, it's up to you to catch when characters are fibbing or being inconsistent—and you don't even have a lie detector.
You could say that we as readers kind of experience the anticipation stage right along with Nostromo, since we have to wait a good long while for him to emerge as a central character. This treatment of Nostromo mirrors the way other characters perceive him; he's useful to their businesses and safety—indispensible, even—but, at the end of the day, they really just see him as a man-for-hire rather than a central player in their lives and dealings.
When we finally become privy to Nostromo's thoughts and desires, we learn that he wants, more than anything, to live on easy street.
During the Monterist uprising, Nostromo is asked to protect the Goulds' silver supply by getting it out of town. He's annoyed by this mission, since the risk to him is much higher than the likely reward (to the Goulds or him). Mind you, he's not afraid of dying so much as failing, which would sully his reputation. That said, he goes all in on the effort, hoping that a win here will finally result in a bump up in his status (both in terms of cold, hard cash and status).
Even though there are a few complications, he does save the silver. However, the Goulds don't exactly know that he saved it; they think it's at the bottom of the harbor. Nostromo just sort of lets the Goulds keeping on thinking that… and decides to keep the treasure for himself.
Holding on to the silver in secret isn't easy, though. First of all, he can't access it all at once, or people will wonder how he suddenly got rich. So, he draws on the supply slowly, pretending to have earned the money trading up and down the coast.
Secondly, the O.S.N. decides to build a lighthouse on the Great Isabel (where the silver is hidden), which means someone working at the lighthouse could find it accidentally. To prevent this from happening, he makes sure that some friends of his, the Violas, are installed as the lighthouse's caretakers/operators. Quick thinking, Nostromo.
To make sure his frequent visits to the Great Isabel seem legit, he finally proposes to Linda Viola (who he had been expected to marry for some time), even though he has the hots for her younger sister, Giselle. Then he decides to have his cake (and silver) and eat it too (the cake, not the silver), striking up a romance with Giselle. Despite juggling these two ladies at once, his main obsession remains protecting the silver.
Nostromo is prowling around the island one night when Giorgio Viola shoots him, thinking that Nostromo is a different man trying to sneak in to see Giselle. The big fat irony? Nostromo wasn't even trying to visit Giselle; he was visiting his One True Love: the silver.
Peace has finally come to Costaguana after a long period of civil war and the cruel reign of a man named Guzmán Bento. Charles Gould, a native Costaguanero of English extraction, decides to take advantage of a mining concession granted to his family and get the San Tomé mine pumping out silver. His hope is that the new mine will help the country become prosperous and, in the process, achieve some lasting peace. Oh yeah, and to become filthy rich himself.
After joining forces with a rich and powerful American steel and silver magnate, Charles gets the San Tomé off the ground in no time. As the mine starts booming, Charles gains increasing influence and power in Costaguana politics. In fact, he even helps bring about the appointment of Don Vincente Ribiera as President. Things seem to be humming along on a good track, as far as Gould is concerned.
Unfortunately for Gould, some folks don't really appreciate how much power Europeans and Americans have gained in Costaguana's political circles. Huh, wonder why? In particular, Don Vincente Ribiera's Minister of War, General Montero, gets all sorts of angry with Ribiera's involvement with foreign interests and spearheads the movement to kick him to the curb. The Goulds and their allies in Sulaco go into a frenzy trying to defend their homes (and money-making schemes) from ruin.
With his eyes on the prize of achieving lasting peace and security, an anti-Monterist journalist named Martin Decoud convinces the Goulds to push for the Occidental province to split off as their own country. So, on the eve of the invasion of Monterist forces, Martin and Nostromo set out with two goals: 1) to protect the Goulds' most recent silver shipment from the invaders and 2) to get to a guy named Barrios in nearby Cayta and bring him back (and oh, yeah, and there's a third goal: to keep Martin alive).
Martin and Nostromo's plan hits some bumps, and Martin ends up chilling on the Great Isabel (an island) with the silver (which is hidden) while Nostromo heads back to town to help out. Nostromo is eventually able to make himself useful by going to Cayta and bringing Barrios back. Unfortunately, Martin goes crazy on the island all alone and decides to kill himself. He helps himself to a couple of bars of the silver to help sink his body: that's a pretty classy weight there, Martin.
Nostromo eventually retrieves the silver from its hiding place and, since everyone else already thought it was gone, decides to just keep it for himself. After all, he put himself at considerable risk keeping the silver out of enemy hands, which was the key thing, and didn't get a ton for his trouble. What could possibly go wrong with this plan?
Don't start settling in for a happy ending, though. He quickly gets way too obsessed with the silver and starts making some bad decisions. It's a long and twisted story, but the upshot (pardon the pun) is that he ends up getting a gun fired at him while he's prowling around checking on his silver. And there you have it—the silver claims yet another victim.
After years of political infighting and war, the Costaguana-born Englishman Charles Gould is hoping to bring lasting peace and stability by starting up a silver mine. The plan goes okay for a little while at least—he gets rich and becomes powerful, as do his friends/business partners…
Eventually, certain people within Costaguana's political stratosphere get cranky about the fact that foreigners are gaining all the political power. General Montero, the Minister of War in an administration that Gould helped bring into power, leads a revolt against the current President. Nostromo, who is known around town as a go-to guy, gets heavily involved in defending the Goulds' interests and fighting off the Monterist invasion of Sulaco.
In the process, he helps get the Goulds' silver supply out of town so invading forces can't seize and use it to help their cause. A local journalist, Martin Decoud, is also involved in that caper (he also comes up with the idea to have the Occidental province of Costaguana secede to achieve lasting peace).
Thanks to Nostromo's efforts, General Barrios and other anti-Monterist forces manage to fight off the revolutionaries. Martin's dream of secession comes true, and the Occidental State comes into being. A happy ending, right? Nope, not so fast. This is a Joseph Conrad novel we're reading, guys.
Unfortunately, Martin died before he could see the Occidental State thing happen. Meanwhile, Nostromo holds on to the silver he had rescued, because the Goulds think it's at the bottom of the harbor. Unfortunately, his obsession with protecting the treasure makes him a little batty, leading him into some dicey decisions. He ends up getting accidentally shot as a result. Greed sucks, everyone. Just say no.