Costaguana is an imaginary Republic in South America plagued by constant cycles of political corruption and revolutions. As repayment for extensive loans extorted by the corrupt political governments, Charles Gould’s father inherits a silver mine in Sulaco, which weighs upon his mind and brings him nothing but misery. His son, Charles Gould, returns after his father’s death with plans to transform his inheritance into a successful business enterprise with the aid of a rich American entrepreneur. Over time, sick of the political turmoil and bribery, Charles backs a politician in the name of political reform, but this only leads to a revolution by the military in the name of expelling the corrupt Europeans exploiting the local populace. As the war effort turns in favor of this newest revolution, the revolutionaries turn their eyes to capturing a massive shipment of silver from the mine.
Nostromo, the captain of the dock loaders, is tasked with a suicide mission to sail a ship loaded with the silver out into the middle of the gulf, along with the help of Decoud, a member of the patrician class who grew up abroad in Paris and who has dreams of Sulaco becoming independent from the corrupt Costaguana. While out in the Gulf on their mission, a collision occurs with an enemy ship sailing to Sulaco in order to steal the silver, which forces Nostromo and his companion to land the boat on a small island off the coast of Sulaco. With everyone in town now holding the false belief that the silver was lost at sea, Nostromo struggles internally over the possibility of stealing the silver for himself.
This is a difficult novel to summarize because of its panoramic sweep in a similar vein to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. There are many characters that play important roles in the story that I had to ignore in my summary due to lack of space; many of these other characters possess a richness in their depictions and symbolic connotations that could sustain a full-fledged literary essay on their own, which is a testament to the depth of Conrad’s novel. Likewise, considering Conrad’s native language was not English, he has a way with words that puts him on par with the best literary masters; there are quite a few passages that left me breathless from their sheer beauty and inventiveness. On the other hand, the novel isn’t exactly a page-turner and while I ultimately liked it, as some reviewers complained on Amazon, not much happens until the second half of the novel. Stylistically the novel is a forerunner of modernism; particularly the more difficult modernist works. While not full-fledged stream-of-consciousness, Conrad at times situates us deeply into many different character’s thoughts, other times pulls back into a more neutral omniscient point-of-view, sometimes relays events through characters writing letters or telling the events as an anecdote to some faceless person at a later time point, and quite often jumps backwards in time between chapters, all of which can be difficult for a reader and perhaps off-putting to some.
On the surface this is a novel that explores the problems with colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and greed. However, this is not a simple anti-imperialist tale. Conrad is not looking to write a simplistic anti-imperialism moral, but rather wants to look at how “material interests” corrupts our very souls. One of the more sophisticated aspects of the novel in relationship to these issues is that it doesn’t depict the Europeans as blood-thirsty monsters. Charles Gould wants to redeem the silver mine not out of greed, but rather in the name of the injustice done to his father and an ideal of social order driven by material interests. The impression the reader gets is that he could care less about the wealth itself for its own sake and rather the success of the mine represents for him a rectifying of an injustice and a triumph of his own energetic will on a force that defeated his father and ruined his family. The wealth of the mine allows Mrs. Gould, Charle’s wife, to open hospitals and schools for the benefit of the native population. The novel hints throughout that the Europeans have the best and noblest of intentions in Costaguana and Sulaco. We see, however, that this South American nation is plagued by one revolution after another, which is a reflection of many nations post-Colonialism.
On a deeper level, it is a story about how the mine, whether it represents greed or some other ideal, corrupts everything it touches. Charles in his attempt to rectify the injustice done to his father and make the mine a success becomes obsessed with it to the point of neglecting his wife; the novel suggests his true love, his true partner is the mine. Far from being a Marxist novel, Conrad depicts revolutions in an equally cynical light. The revolution led to fight the exploitation of the Europeans, which proves the central external conflict of the novel, ends up being about the various military force’s own greedy desire for the silver and hopes of personal wealth. Later, towards the end of the novel, Sulaco manages to become an independent nation from Costaguana and it seems to be forming into a stable society, but as Nostromo is in the process of dying, a character speaking to him suggests the people are tired of the exploitation and want the mine for themselves, foreshadowing that the cycle of revolutions and class warfare will continue. However, Conrad isn’t offering a Marxist solution because in these examples from the novel he is suggesting that these revolutions themselves are corrupt and driven by greed, or at the very least have good intentions that succumb to greed. In theory the mine should be a major economic support and source of stability for the country, but in the long term these material interests that create short-term stability, ultimately bring out the worst side of people and their greediness and ends up destabilizing the country. Conrad seems to be noting the irony that the very thing that should bring stability actually encourages instability. Conrad’s point then is good intentions succumb to the material interests in the end.
The other big theme of the novel is personal identity and its relationship to society. Nostromo’s identity is first defined for us by the other characters. It initially revolves around his vanity and his hope that his usefulness to the wealthy Europeans and reputation in town will eventually make his fortune. Even though, he is the captain of the dockworker, he performs pretty much any dangerous and dirty job the Europeans need from him. The novel posits that our identity is tied-up in our roles, actions, and the perceptions of others in society. That Nostromo takes on any job offered him is symbolic; what really makes Nostromo valuable is his willingness to do the dirty work for those in power and occupy whatever role they need. The novel cynically notes through this depiction that we become what others want us to be and find our purpose in the roles society gives us.
After the accident on the ship, in which none of the Europeans care much about his fate as they are too busy worrying about their own problems, Nostromo comes to realize the Europeans don’t appreciate him beyond what he can do for them and decides to steal the silver from the lost boat instead and build his fortune that way. The incorruptible Capataz de Cargadores becomes corrupted. Not only is the act itself a corruption of a man praised specifically and thus ironically for his incorruptibility, but from his own point-of-view we learn the silver weighs on his mind so that it corrupts his very thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. Where once he was genuinely fearless, he only acts fearless as an outward appearance and is really roiling with fear that someone will discover his secret thievery of the silver at any moment. The silver is more than just a symbol of greed; it represents the corruption of the supposedly incorruptible.
Decoud expands this theme of identity through society after being stranded on the island. He suffers from his isolation away from society and comes to see how vapid his own thoughts are without other beings there to guide and define them. Decoud’s identity as “the spoiled darling of the family, the lover of Antonia and journalist of Sulaco” (408) doesn’t exist outside of society. None of those things matter without other people. This idealistic youth, who at first seems like a character borrowed straight from Les Miserables, which I suspect is intentional of Conrad, takes a more cynical turn when he comes to realize all his lofty ideals are meaningless outside of society, that it was the ideas themselves that are interesting, not him for holding them. His unique individuality only has meaning in society.
“In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part (409).”
However, Decoud comes to realize that nature and the universe at large cares little about his fate. The actions and roles we adopt in a society grant the illusion of individuality, but once removed Decoud understands he is a part of nature as much as a rock is a part of nature. He recognizes the illusion of his identity and individuality as being a product of society; he has no real purpose. He recognizes his own unimportant part in the grand scheme of things, which is deadly to a youth who spent the rest of the novel fighting for grand ideals of independence.
Conrad is challenging us to see society as a double-edged sword. Society is what gives us our identities and purposes, but as Nostromo comes to realize it may be an absurd role and not be the one you wish for yourself and leaves one with very little freedom or reward. In a sense society offers an illusion of identity, but the price it that it enslaves you to it. While being outside of society, we lose our identity, but also leave us void of purpose and meaning.
In the end, Decoud’s grand dream is achieved. Sulaco gains its independence from the corrupt Costaguana, and superficially it seems like all is solved, we see little hints that nothing is truly fixed. Antonia Avellanos dreams of reuniting the prosperous independent nation with Costaguana and sharing the prosperity and good government with them. A Marxist movement develops in the independent Sulaco in response to perceived exploitation by Charles Gould’s mine, which foreshadows that the cycle of revolutions will continue inside the new independent nation. Nostromo ends up shot and killed while courting the younger daughter of two Italian sisters, while being betrothed to the eldest who truly loves him. On his death bed, Nostromo wants to unburden his mind by confessing about the stolen silver to Mrs. Gould, but she refuses to listen to his confession, just as earlier, Teresa Viola doesn’t get the chance to unburden her soul to a priest because Nostromo refuses to fetch one due to the necessity of saving the silver on the boat for the Europeans. The novel ends with nobody happy with what they have or end up with. This, I suspect, is what the mine really represents: the human tendency to never be satisfied with what you have and always desire more. And, of course, when one thinks about this goes back to the very motivation of imperialism in the first place, the desire to have riches beyond what anyone needs and leaves endless misery in its wake.