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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The social structure of Nostromo

We see by the end of the first (of three) sections of Conrad's Nostromo how the silver mine has established a hierarchy in the culture of the South/Central American country (Costaguana): at the top stand the owners of the mine, the Goulds, English of course; a step below would be their advisors, Spanish-descendant residents of the country - Conrad is a little contemptuous of their clubbiness and general indifference to the lives of their countrymen/women - and a notch below that is the representative of the navigation company, Capt Mitchell (retired from the sea now), no doubt the most typically Conradian character in the novel, the elder seaman with his aphorisms and his befuddled view of life ashore - to him, everything is either a historic or epochal event, "a mistake," or, as we learn at end of section one, in this hint of things to come, "a fatality" - and below him is the President of the country and his entourage, beneath contempt, corrupt and feckless. Then we go to the other Europeans, the Italians - the hotel owner and the eponymous Nostromo, hired hands, powerful figures (at least N. is), idealists, who get things done. The natives of the country are far below and even below these are the blacks, descendants of the slaves, whose ancestors are buried among the ruins and rubble of the mine. You can see a kind of racial/ethnic cliche in this hierarchical sorting, something endemic to Conrad and to the culture of the time - although there is talk of upending this hierarchy - the Italian freedom fighter, the politician who dreams of democracy, and a few others - and we can maybe anticipate where this novel is heading - with all this $ in play, the scene cannot remain peaceful for long. One powerful and beautiful passage in the first section of Nostromo is the description of Gould leading a convoy of mule-driven carts carrying silver ingots from the mine to the coast for shipment north to SF - our first glimpse of the great divide in the society as the silver, protected by armed guards, travels the dangerous road past villages and towns of extreme poverty.

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