Study Guide

Nostromo Themes

By Joseph Conrad

  • Politics

    Political struggles are front and center in Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaboard; all the other themes somehow come back to or relate to this big ol' topic. Political life in Costaguana is incredibly complicated and messy—so if you're looking for a clear set of good guys and bad guys, you're going to be out of luck. Well, that's not entirely true—the really bad bad guys are easy enough to identify. That said, it's never entirely clear who the "good guys" are… maybe you can take a look and let us know if you find any?

    Questions About Politics

    1. Charles Gould seems to view himself as being somehow above or outside of Costaguana politics. But his mine and its power are at the heart of the political maneuverings that compose the meat of the plot. Do you think his desire to stay outside of politics is genuine, or is something else going on here? How do we know?
    2. President-Dictator Don Vincente Ribiera, despite the kind of scary title, has the reputation of being a relatively decent dude, but he doesn't last long in Costaguana. Meanwhile, apparently Guzmán Bento ruled for years. What do you make of all that? Is there any larger message about politics here?
    3. Is there a political faction or leader that emerges as both admirable and successful?

    Chew on This

    Political life in Costaguana, which basically has no good guys, symbolizes the fact that politics is an inherently dirty business—can't get around it.

    Charles Gould's supposed distance from his country's politics is not just disingenuous—it's dangerous. Trying to erase your political influence is one of the most evil, shady things you can do.

  • Wealth

    Money is king in Sulaco. Well, technically, Charles Gould is the one known as "El Rey [king] de Sulaco"—but he gets that title because he is crazy wealthy, so we think the principle stands. Money is viewed as the key to getting things done, which is why people go so crazy protecting the Goulds' silver supply when the Monterists are about to attack the town.

    That all said, money has a huge downside in Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaboard. For example, that whole Monterist uprising thing happens because Charles used his money/influence to help Ribiera come to power. Also, there's the fact that extreme wealth seems to make people (e.g., the gringos of local lore, Charles, and Nostromo) a little nutty.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Is Montero's desire for wealth better or worse (or even different) from Charles's? Why or why not, and how do we know?
    2. Do you think Nostromo covets the silver for revenge, or is he just greedy?
    3. What's the "takeaway" about wealth and its power for this novel? Does it actually have the power to do good, or is it always a corrupting force?

    Chew on This

    Can't deny it: extreme wealth just turns people bad. It can never be a force for good because it clouds the minds of those who possess it.

    Despite initially seeming totally opposite in terms of their morals and motivations, Nostromo, Pedrito, and Gould are all ultimately portrayed as equally stupid and greedy.

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    In this Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaboard, there are a ton of different types of foreigners running around. First, you have the foreign laborers like Nostromo, the men of the railway and dudes like Giorgio, who keeps the hotel. And then you have Charles and Decoud, who were born in Costaguana but a) spent a lot of time abroad and b) are of European extraction.

    Then there's the indigenous population. Ah, you think: Cool! Locals! Nope, not in this book. The narrative treats the local indigenous population like they are the outsiders. With all these topsy-turvy perspectives on what it means to be native or foreign, it's no wonder Costaguana has mad political problems.

    Questions About Foreignness and the "Other"

    1. What do you make of the way Conrad presents the indigenous ("Indian") population of Costaguana? How does that presentation compare to how "true Costaguaneros" like Gould and Decoud are portrayed?
    2. Prior to the events of the book, Costaguana had been colonized (and presumably named) by the Spanish. Yet, the Spanish population of Costaguana is treated as indigenous, whereas the latest influx of Europeans is described as foreign. What do you make of that? Is that inconsistent or is that just how the Colonialist cookie crumbles?
    3. The indigenous population of Costaguana is portrayed as somehow more foreign or strange than the European conquerors. Do you find this problematic/offensive, or is it just a powerful way for Conrad to portray the way these Europeans see the indigenous population?

    Chew on This

    Nostromo portrays the indigenous population of Costaguana as mute and foreign to highlight the crummy attitude that several characters hold toward these individuals.

    By making the indigenous population of Costaguana seem mute and foreign, Nostromo falls into the same trap as Heart of Darkness. Symbolism is all well and good, but you can't just turn indigenous peoples into a voiceless "other" for your own artistic purposes. Well, you can, just not without being super problematic… and not without ticking off Chinua Achebe.

  • Religion

    Religion never really takes center stage in the Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, but it's always hanging out there in the background. There are three primary forms of religion in the novel: Catholicism, Protestantism, and silver. Okay, we're (mostly) kidding about that last one.

    Of course, it's worth noting that Catholicism and Protestantism were imports to Costaguana, and (as you'll see in the quotes) they become the means by which certain political games play out. Hey, we told you politics touched everything in this novel.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is religion portrayed as a refuge from politics at all? If so, where/how?
    2. Are Catholicism and Protestantism portrayed differently in the novel? If so, where/how?
    3. Is religion overall portrayed as a positive force amid all the political nonsense?

    Chew on This

    Even though they are both "imports," Catholicism is portrayed as more "Costaguanero" than Protestantism.

    By keeping religion in the background, Nostromo suggests that wealth is really the "God" that governs modern life.

  • Power

    We could spend a lot of time debating where true power lies in Costaguana's universe. At first, it seems like wealth is the key to getting anything you want done in that country… but then, on second thought, it doesn't appear to be enough to ensure political stability for more than five minutes. Oh, and political power seems to be, er, fleeting at best.

    You could make an argument that Nostromo actually has quite a lot of power, compared to other characters in Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, since everyone seems to need him and listen to him. However, there's still the fact that people treat him just as a tool to get what they want, rather than his own person. Bottom line: it's hard to keep hold of power when everyone around you is vying for it.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who do you think has the most power in Costaguana: rich people, politicians, or Nostromo? How do we know?
    2. What about religion? What is the nature of its power on Costaguana? How does it measure up to wealth, political power, or reputation?
    3. Is power ever benevolent or admirable within Nostromo's universe?

    Chew on This

    Power is great while you have it, but it's impossible to hold onto forever—so, you'd be better off preoccupying yourself with stuff that can actually do some good.

    Wealth is definitely the most powerful force in the novel—just the mere prospect of getting it drives people out of their minds.

  • Race/Ethnicity

    If you've read Heart of Darkness (or the essay Chinua Achebe wrote about it), you know that Conrad is pretty interested in talking about race… and it gets him into some sticky places.

    Like Heart of Darkness, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard presents the indigenous peoples as "mute," "suffering," and basically lacking in individuality/agency, which is pretty problematic. However, you could argue this presentation is just a symbolic move on Conrad's part—the narrative mirrors the way in which the "forces of progress" push indigenous peoples into the background while Europeans, Americans, and European-Costaguaneros make Costaguana their economic playground.

    Questions About Race/Ethnicity

    1. What does being a "true" Costaguanero entail? How do we know? What does the novel's presentation of race/ethnicity have to do with this definition?
    2. The novel does a lot of talking about different "races," often associating the indigenous people of Costaguana with savagery. Do you think this is a perspective that the text stands behind or tries to critique?
    3. If the novel parrots racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples in order to critique the people/forces that perpetuate that racism, does that make it excusable? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The novel's presentation of particular races as somehow inferior is not self-conscious. The "savagery" of indigenous peoples is used in the book to mirror/highlight the savagery of supposedly more "civilized" peoples… which is pretty offensive.

    The supposed "savagery" of indigenous peoples is self-conscious, presented but then debunked when compared to the behavior of the non-indigenous inhabitants. In other words, the Europeans/European-Costaguaneros end up looking like the "savages," not the indigenous population.

  • Patriotism

    Patriotism seems to be a confused and confusing business in Costaguana. Main characters such as Charles, Antonia, and Martin are native to Costaguana and claim to feel like "Costaguaneros"… however, these same characters are of European extraction and seem to dig Europe/its customs quite a bit.

    Characters like Martin and Charles kind of avoid displays of patriotism. Martin even denies being patriotic at all, saying his commitment to protecting the nation is all about his love for Antonia. In short, the presentation of patriotism is a bit muddled—it's never quite clear whether Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaboard is presenting it as a good thing or a bad thing, or just an irrational or inconsistent feeling that people have trouble justifying.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. What do you think—does the novel present patriotism positively or negatively? Provide examples.
    2. Martin repeatedly denies being a patriot, claiming that everything he does in the service of his country is for Antonia. Do you believe him? Why or why not?
    3. What do you think of Don José's version of patriotism, which involves complimenting a vicious dictator because he, too, loved Costaguana. Is that portrayed as admirable or ridiculous? Or neither?

    Chew on This

    Patriotism is portrayed as an entirely useless sentiment that only gets the characters into trouble by causing them to act irrationally. It's basically love with a voter registration card.

    The novel's portrayal of patriotism is muddled because the whole concept has gotten complicated in a Costaguana that's been in the throes of European and now American imperialism.

  • War/Peace

    It seems that if you sneeze in Costaguana, you end up in a war with someone. Okay, okay, we exaggerate… but not by much. A lot of conflicts went down before Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaport even starts, and their legacy continues to have an impact on the characters. Then, of course, there's the war at the heart of the novel's plot, which happens when General Montero's people decide to take out the regime of Don Vincente Ribiera. Even when all that is cleared up at the end, we have a sense that peace won't last for too long.

    Questions About War/Peace

    1. What do you think of Martin's idea of secession? Do you think it's likely to "break the mold" of Costaguana politics enough to prevent wars in the future?
    2. Do you agree with Doctor Monygham's assertion that more conflict is on the way once people turn against the Goulds?
    3. Does the novel present enduring peace as a possibility? Why won't the people of Costaguana give peace a chance… for more than five minutes?

    Chew on This

    Martin's secessionist ideas are more of the same old, same old. He's trying to preserve a Costaguana ruled by rich people with "the purest blood" (II.5.66), which is basically what they had before—and what got the Monterists so riled up.

    Conrad implies that peace is currently impossible in Costaguana—at least, for the foreseeable future.

  • Primitivism

    Joseph Conrad frequently associates primitivism with certain groups (see "Race" and "Foreignness" for more on that), but it's just a big topic generally. When you first see someone or something described in Nostromo: A Tale of The Seaboard as savage or "primeval," you probably think of that as an insult—and hey, rightly so.

    However, it's important to note that Conrad is pretty suspicious of notions of "progress," so there are moments where it seems like he's presenting savagery as preferable to more "developed" or advanced people—politicians, for example. So, calling someone a savage might actually be a compliment? Sure…

    Questions About Primitivism

    1. Do you see any nuance or differences in how the savagery of Sotillo and Pedrito Montero is portrayed?
    2. Is savagery actually portrayed as somehow superior or preferable to the behaviors or customs of more "advanced" people, such as the novel's politicians?
    3. Are basically all the main characters "savages" in some way or another?

    Chew on This

    The novel makes repeated references to savagery and primitivism to emphasize those qualities in the politics of the time.

    The novel makes repeated references to savagery and primitivism to provide a comforting counterpoint (a.k.a. a "worst case scenario") to the political strife of the ruling classes/politicians.