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Literature / Nostromo

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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.

Nostromo, A Tale of the Seaboard is a 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad. It's famous for its highly intricate storytelling, its psychological complexity and for its cast of memorable characters.

Costaguana is a fictitious South American nation known for its vast silver mines and its constant revolutions. In the capital city of the Occidental Province, Sulaco, the Gould Mining Concession, headed by the wealthy Englishman Charles Gould and his wife Emily, holds sway over government and society. They are able to do so thanks to several vital relationships with the local junta and bourgeosie. But the most important cog in the Gould mining wheel is the Capataz de Cargadores, Nostromo, an Italian immigrant labourer, who leads the dockworkers, breaks up strikes and serves the interests of his employers while being popular among the people. However, a new revolution is arriving in Costaguana, this one threatening the Gould mine itself. Nostromo is tasked with a dangerous mission that makes him question everything he has ever believed.

Nostromo is considered to be one of Conrad's greatest works, and often considered his best by critics and other writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. It has been adapted for television by the BBC with Colin Firth as Charles Gould, Claudio Amendola as Nostromo, Claudia Cardinale as Theresa Viola, and Albert Finney as Dr. Monygham. It was also invoked as the name of Ripley's iconic spaceship in Ridley Scott's Alien.


  • The Ace/Broken Ace: Everyone regards Nostromo as being this and Nostromo himself is quite proud of his reputation and fame. Teresa Viola however snarks at him and reminds him that he is in the end a lackey for his masters and will never be anything else. When Nostromo finally does understand this and decides to do something for himself, it slowly makes him reckless and self-destructive.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Dr. Monygham is hopelessly in love with the much younger Emilia Gould, wife of mine operator Charles Gould. While she likes and respects the doctor, she doesn't reciprocate his romantic feelings. Nor would either Monygham's sense of propriety or Emilia's allow them to do anything about it even if the feelings had been mutual.
  • Almighty Janitor: Nostromo is never anything more than the "Capataz de Cargadores" (Foreman of the Stevedores) but he manages to be the linchpin of all major events in the recent history of Costaguana.
  • Anachronic Order: The book is famous for the fact that it frequently flashes back and forth in time between scenes. There are many abrupt Time Skip and it isn't till the final sections that you have something like a linear story.
  • Anti-Hero: Ranging from all types. Most of the characters are highly gray and deeply cynical, and while Nostromo gets several purely heroic moments, he's also an enforcer of a corrupt silver cartel.
  • Banana Republic: Costaguana might be the Trope Codifier for many literary depictions. It's run by corrupt businessmen who oppress native tribes, former black slaves and is constantly plagued by military coups and failed revolutions.
  • Big Bad: General Montero, the leader of the uprising. Though he ends up getting killed unceremoniously offscreen, so more of a Disc-One Final Boss. The real big bad is perhaps Charles Gould, though Nostromo, the book's hero never gets to go into opposition with him.
  • The Caper: Charles Gould sends Nostromo and Martin Decoud on one. When Montero's soldiers are arriving at the capital, he tasks them to store all the silver in a Cargo-Lighter ship and sell its shares so as to deny the coming revolution of any monetary supplies. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Well, there's a stowaway, Poor Communication Kills, and rough seas which force Nostromo to jump overboard leaving Decoud to crash the lighter on an island.
    • As Conrad stated in an introduction for a later edition, this was Based on a True Story of a real silver heist aboard a lighter during a Latin-American revolution.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The Gould Silver Mine exploits the environment, drains its resources, exploits the population and accord to Emily Gould, doesn't even bring Charles Gould much satisfaction. That said, any alternatives to capitalism are shown to be equally bad and/or worse, suggesting that human endeavour as a whole is bad, doomed to self-destructive and lack of contentment.
  • Character Title: Nostromo himself, though that is his nickname.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Senor Hirsh, a Jewish fur trader and the stowaway on Nostromo's lighter, is submitted to this by Colonel Sotillo.
    • Doctor Monygham and Charles Gould's father suffered this as well under a former regime.
  • The Dandy: Martin Decoud is often called this by the Costaguanese.
  • Democracy Is Bad / Democracy Is Flawed: It's hard to say if the Gould Concession and their liberal well-wishers actually want a democracy since they insist on supporting puppet dictators who disenfranchise the poor (who in turn are co-opted by military junta). Emily Gould at least feels guilty about the exploitation and genuinely wishes for a good society for the people. Her husband, Charles Gould, felt the same way at one point but later on, he decides that he cares more about the silver than anything else.
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: What also turns Nostromo bitter. His efforts in foiling the revolution are genuinely heroic, but in the end he's treated by the ruling class as just a useful tool.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Costaguana is described in detail, in terms of its coastline, its power-structure, its history, the waves of immigration, tensions between African ex-slaves, Indian tribes and the junta, and its relationships with the United States, UK and Europe. Conrad breathes life into it and borrows aspects from various South American nations and histories.
    • The city of Sulaco is based on Buneos Aires, Argentina on account of the heavy presence and involvement of Italian immigrants and the broadly multicultural composition of the ruling bourgeosie. The silver traced to the mountains is based on the famous Sierra de la Plata legend, from which Argentina derives its name (Argentum, Latin for Silver).
    • On the other hand Costaguana's overall geography resembles Colombia, and the heavy fights between the ruling nations, black slaves and Indian tribes based in the rural parts of Costaguana is more suggestive of Brazil and Cuba.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Martin Decoud loses his mind and is Driven to Suicide after spending time alone with his thoughts on the island. Decoud comes to realize that his cynical, nihilistic philosophy was just a front, and that in reality, he was just a glib socialite who didn't know how to even function outside of his elite social circle.
  • Hero of Another Story: While Nostromo ultimately is The Hero of the story, he is fairly peripheral for most of the book. The first section often consists of brief vignettes portraying Costaguana's society through various characters in different social strata.
  • Honor Before Reason: Martin Decoud and the Capataz de Cargadores losing their minds over the failure of the mission to export the silver in the Cargo Lighter. Decoud commits suicide, and Nostromo out of guilt, spite and recklessness, starts hoarding a missing silver crate in a lighthouse, losing his mind over taking it and starting a life for himself or not. In the end he dies in an absurd fashion just when he's finally making his last move.
  • Land of One City: Costaguana is stated to be a large South American state, but most of the action takes place in Sulaco which considers itself separate from the conflict across the country. After suppressing the Montrero uprising, Sulaco becomes a full city state, with the wealthy silver mines kept away from the hands of the other Costaguanans.
  • Meaningful Name: Nostromo is "Boatswain" or "Bo'sun" in Italian, it's also a corruption of the phrase, "Nostro uomo" (Our Man), signifying his position as all-purpose Man Friday to the Gould Concession.
  • Metallic Motifs / Mineral MacGuffin: The silver from Charles Gould's San Tome mine is often invoked as a theme for Greed and overall corruption. The mine we are told comes from the mountains and is exploited crudely and the wealth and business it generates creates turmoil in the country.
  • Morton's Fork: What Nostromo is confronted with when he finds the cargo-lighter crashed with all the silver inside. Decoud had used four silver bars to weigh his body when he was Driven to Suicide. Nostromo fears that if he returned the remaining silver, he would be accused of keeping four bars for himself since it's too small and specific a number to have been lost to sea.
  • No Name Given: Averted and Played With. For most of the book, Nostromo is called by his nickname, which is mocked by Teresa Viola for being a silly name to be proud of, she herself calls him Gian'Battista stating that its the name of his Patron Saint. It's only in the final section, when Nostromo, after realizes he's being used by the Gould Mine, starts referring to himself by his full name, Giovanni Battista Fidanza.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: Thanks to Alien, Nostromo is often named as a ship in many works with few characters aware of the original book it alludes to. Aliens then picked Sulaco.
  • Proper Lady: Lady Emily Gould is admired by the Costaguanese for being this. She also serves as a mentor and mother-figure to aspiring ladies like Antonia Avellenos and Giorgio Viola's daughters Linda and Giselle.
  • Reign of Terror: What Guzman Bento (something of a Robespierre Expy) is remembered for by all Costaguanese.
  • The Remnant: Giorgio Viola, the Garibaldino, was a former boon companion of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Wars of Italian Independence.
  • Straw Nihilist: Martin Decoud.
  • What You Are in the Dark: A classic Conrad theme and he puts all his characters through the ringer, especially Martin Decoud and Nostromo. Decoud left to himself goes mad and kills himself. Nostromo is more ambiguous, he becomes a hero but also decides to slowly keep the silver he had been asked to protect for himself.
  • Working-Class Hero: Nostromo was intended by Conrad to be this, and he is one of the most realistic and believable examples in fiction at the time.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Averted. While Conrad exposes the greed and venality of Costaguana's elite (including the owners of the silver mines), he is even less sympathetic towards the hypocritical leaders of "liberation movements" such as Guzman's dicatorship, seeing radical political movements as little more than opportunities for brutal or manipulative rabble-rousers to acquire wealth and power.