Free Will and Determinism in Nostromo

By Schnauder, Ludwig | The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.), Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Free Will and Determinism in Nostromo


Schnauder, Ludwig, The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)


THE QUESTION whether we are free in our choices and actions has not exercised philosophers only. Indeed, the problem of free will is protean, discussed in its most abstract form in philosophy but also in science, sociology, history, and literature. A theoretical problem debated with the help of complicated terminology, free will and determinism also concerns such practical issues as responsibility, guilt, justice, human relationships, the way we see ourselves and others, and our so called life-hopes and expectations. Conrad's fiction centrally addresses many of these topics, and his oeuvre constitutes one of the first expressions of a fundamental conceptual shift about the problem of free will, mainly, the transformation of Victorian compatibilism into late-Victorian and early twentiethcentury incompatibilism, the latter foregrounding hard determinism and indeterminism or a combination of the two.

Nostromo is particularly well suited to discuss free will and determinism because it is explicitly concerned with exploring the historical process. In light of Cedric Watts's observation that the novel puts "rival concepts of historical evolution" to the test (1990: 43), this essay examines Conrad's treatment of history from three viewpoints: the Whig or bourgeois capitalist one, the Marxist, and an evolutionary view based on T. H. Huxley's theory of evolution. Each concept is characterized by a particular attitude towards free will and determinism. By examining the representation of history in Nostromo, conclusions can be adduced as to the nature of the problem of free will in the novel.

The Whig or Bourgeois Capitalist View of History

The Whig or bourgeois capitalist view has one of its sources in the theories of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century economists and Utilitarians, such as Smith, Ricardo, and Bentham, who claimed that if all the obstacles to laissez-faire capitalism were done away with progress would follow. This idea was seized upon by Victorian historians such as Lord Macaulay and Henry Thomas Buckle, for whom history was synonymous with progress and who, as evidence for their claims, frequently referred to the beneficial development of "material interests" in the shape of the Industrial Revolution. This interpretation of history as a linear, progressive, and cause-and-effect process is usually referred to as the "Whig" view. Later in the nineteenth century, Darwin's theory of evolution was at first interpreted as an additional proof of the belief in progress. Herbert Spencer, the founder of Social Darwinism, explicitly combined the principles of evolutionary theory with those of capitalism, believing that the result would be not only material but also biological and moral progress: "Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. ... As surely as there is ... any meaning in such terms as habit, custom, practice; so surely must evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect" (cited in Houghton 1957: 38).

The Whig view goes hand in hand with what, in philosophical discussions, is referred to as the "compatibilist" attitude towards free will and determinism:1 a firm belief in an empirical, materialist, scientific, and, therefore, determinist view of the world is combined with an equally strong belief in limited individual freedom, responsibility, and control over oneself and the environment.

Is such a view of history as progress and the compatibilist attitude towards the freedom-of-the-will-problem applicable to Nostromo? A purely economic perspective on developments in the novel might incline one to an answer in the affirmative. When Charles Gould first comes to Costaguana to work the San Tomé silver mine the country is engulfed in political chaos and steeped in corruption. His credo is typical of the Victorian beliefs described above:

"What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interests. …

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