Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Action Is Consolatory": The Dialectics of Action and Thought in Nostromo

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Action Is Consolatory": The Dialectics of Action and Thought in Nostromo

Article excerpt

IN NOSTROMO, Conrad grapples with the conflict of idea and matter, showing how action and thought inform and contest against one another. Within this tale of epic scope, action, whether intentional or forced, involves most characters directly or indirectly.1 This essay explores the dialectical struggle of action and thought in the novel and traces Conrad's scepticism about humankind's inability to sustain moral integrity in the face of "material interests" and existential adversity.

Contrary to the distinctions some critics have made between action, activity, and acting when discussing Nostromo, there is strong evidence that the three are interrelated. Action and acting, for instance, have a symbiotic relationship, and the novel's two most active characters, Nostromo and Charles Gould, often see their actions turned into a show for their admirers' eyes. Theatricality reaches its height with Nostromo. All his acts, even those undertaken in the dark, like giving his last dollar to a lamenting old lady, have a spectacular value and are meant to be talked of and treasured. His obsessive hankering after reputation is especially embodied in his decision to ship the silver to a safe hidingplace. The only thing he cares for during this perilous expedition is, as Decoud observes, to be well spoken of and remembered for his heroic feats. He aspires to mythic stature, wanting to "be talked about when the little children are grown up and the grown men are old" (265). Like Don Juan, Nostromo acts in puppet-like compliance with the demands of a self exhibitionistically hungry for publicity and fame.

To a lesser degree and more subtly, Gould is an active character whose iterative actions take on a theatrical dimension destined for his wife. The transportation of the silver from the mountain, for example, has the trappings of ceremonial ritual, with Gould going to meet the silver escort and Mrs. Gould, akin to the "lady of the mediaeval castle" (68), sitting on a balcony to see her husband pass by. As suggested in the Goulds' relationship, action falls to man's province. Women seem either utterly "out of it" (to recall Mariow's words in "Heart of Darkness" [115]) or are involved in charity work. Enacting Victorian gender prejudices, Conrad contrasts "man's instinct of activity" with "woman's instinct of devotion" (74): men are "doers," women the passive admirers of their husbands' activities. While Emilia Gould stands for tenderness and devotion, her husband and Holroyd are gifted with "practical instinct," the very brand of "true virility" that contends to be best expressed in "action of a conquering kind" (67). The working of the mine and subduing nature form their privileged battlefield, and they thus become prime movers of material forces as well as agents of history. Conrad establishes the interrelationship between action and history and action and politics through Gould and Holroyd, who both influence Sulaco's politics and dictate the course of her history. The mine's economic success gives Gould the political power to launch Don Vincente Ribiera into the presidency.

While the lines between action, activity, and acting blur, those between action and thought are manifest to the extent that the former appears as the latter's opponent. Thought, like action, is of a concentrated form, referring both to mental activity tied to the here-and-now of concrete reality and to a philosophical as well as aesthetic stance detached from the present's literalism. The conflict between action and thought, enacted through Nostromo, Gould, and Holroyd, contrasts with detached thinkers like Decoud and Monygham. The first two practical and idealistic characters are opposed to the second unsentimental and sceptical figures in a manner highlighting Conrad's attempt to present the four characters and the ideologies they embody as distinct. Active, Gould and Holroyd share the same work ethic and endow their acts with idealism. From the very start, Gould attaches an ideal to the mine's reopening, stating that he intends to make it a moral force in a benighted continent:

What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. …

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