Nostromo by Joseph Conrad: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

In his ambitious modernist 1904 novel, 'Nostromo', Joseph Conrad seems to have peered 100 years into the future into our globalizing world. In his novel, it is the moneymakers, not the lawmakers, who truly make the rules.

Nostromo- He's Our Man!

What if you were the trusted go-to person for all the bigwigs in town? And what if one day, one of these fat cats, say a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg type, were to give you a boatload of cash to keep safe for him--would you do what he asked? Or would you run off with the loot to some tropical island somewhere? Or maybe just skim a little off the top? What's the harm in that, right?

That's precisely the dilemma that the 'incorruptible' Giovanni Battista Fidanza, known as 'Nostromo' (roughly translating from the Italian to mean 'Our Man') faces. But Nostromo is not just some will-he-or-won't he story of wealth, greed, and temptation. Nostromo, written by Joseph Conrad in 1904, is a surprisingly accurate prediction of our modern, multinational world.

What Happens in Nostromo

The fictional South American nation of Costaguana is ravaged by violence--brutal dictatorships and searing rebellions. This is a nation that has never known peace. And Charles Gould is sick of it. So when the dictator Ribiera rises to power and ushers in a period of relative calm, Gould uses his considerable fortune from his family's thriving silver mine in the port city of Sulaco to ensure Ribiera's continued reign.

But many of the native Costaguanians are fed up with fat cat foreigners pouring in and getting rich off the land and its peoples. And even worse are their grubby hands in government affairs, the corrupt regimes they install, the government officials they keep well in their deep pockets, the military forces they control like so many puppets on string--all to ensure their access to the land's abundant resources.

This is the kind of foreign-dominated economic and political system that the revolutionary general, Montero, opposes. And even though Charles Gould is a native Costaguanian, his English ancestry, wealth, and unwavering support of the Ribiera government make him a target for the wrath of Montero and his followers.

So as Sulaco braces for the revolutionaries' attack, Gould turns to Nostromo. Nostromo is to get Gould's silver out of the city before Montero and his rebels can lay siege to it.

Nostromo sneaks off to sea under the cover of darkness, his boat brimming with Gould's silver, which he hides on a nearby island. When he returns, though, he claims that a storm at sea sank his boat and the fortune in silver along with it.

The revolution, like so many before it, passes. Nostromo's daring service in the war effort makes him instrumental in the region's gaining its independence and in the formation of the new nation, the Occidental Republic.

But after the war, Nostromo is not given the credit he thinks he deserves. He becomes bitter and resentful. No longer incorruptible, he begins lining his own pockets with the fortune Gould thought he had lost. Nostromo makes frequent, secret trips to the island, bringing home with him snatches of the silver he has stolen.

A lighthouse is built at the port and Nostromo fears this will put an end to his secret pilfering. But Nostromo is brilliant, and he convinces the powers-that-be to install the Viola family, whose lives Nostromo saved during the war, as the lighthouse keepers. Nostromo knows the Violas owe him.

Nostromo also claims to be engaged to the oldest Viola daughter, but is secretly having an affair with the youngest. This gives him a plausible excuse for skulking around the coast, when what he's really doing is secretly sailing to the island to recover more of his secret stash. One night, old man Viola, the girls' father, shoots and kills Nostromo, mistaking him for some letch there after his youngest girl (which, ironically, is precisely what Nostromo is).

Why Nostromo Matters

Conrad had seen firsthand the horrifying underbelly of modern European imperialism, or the political, cultural, and economic domination of a territory by a foreign nation. But what makes Nostromo so incredible is how accurately it predicts what happens after colonization, how it paints the post-imperialist world of today.

Costaguana is a nation created, propelled, and ravaged by foreign money. It is a nation in which governments are built and toppled by the breathtaking power of multinational corporations enriching themselves on the exploitation of developing nations and their people. This is the neo-imperialism of today, a conquest driven not by governments or militaries but by international conglomerates and the limitless self-interest of foreign capital.

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