This is a big book with so many themes I am rather intimidated: colonialism, wealth and poverty, power, the price of personal honesty. It is the most complex Conrad I have encountered, quite a contrast to more narrowly-focused stories like The Heart of Darkness.
Nostromo is “our man,” a versatile and popular Italian seaman in a South American country beset by corruption and chronic revolution. But he is only one of many fully-developed characters: the South American-born “English” man who owns the silver mine, his truly English wife who loves the country she has married into, the aging patrician, the sinister expatriate doctor, and many more. At times Conrad’s narrative technique can hardly contain them all. He narrates for one character, then doubles back in time to present another one, so that the same event appears to happen multiple times.
Life is not simple for any of them, and the greatest strength may be a kind of stoicism. As the mine owner remarks about a situation spinning out of control:
I thought we had said all there was to say a long time ago. There is nothing to say now. There were things to be done. We have done them; we have gone on doing them. There is no going back now. I don’t suppose that, even from the first, there was really any possible way back. And, what’s more, we can’t even afford to stand still.
The unintended consequences flow from the best-meant actions. Development is good? Yes, but the resulting wealth is a temptation to political manipulation and military violence. Nostromo, who tries to make his way with a simple credo of personal reputation, is in the end destroyed by the wealth he tries to protect.