This essay examines the relationship between character and institution in Conrad's Nostromo. It argues that Nostromo undoes the Victorian impulse to reconcile the individual and the social world in the conventions of the bildungsroman and the adoption and modification of those conventions in Conrad's earlier novels (such as Lord Jim) by constructing a narrative in which development has been relocated from the interesting individual to what the novel calls “material interests” and what Conrad elsewhere terms “political institutions.” Nostromo's flattened characters, proliferation of types, and elastic temporality serve to organize its narrative around the “inhuman” timescape of institutions—of the state, military, communication, transit, and finance—rather than the individual biography. Relying on a romance plot to bring closure to a theoretically endless narrative of institutional reproduction, Nostromo calls on tropes of nineteenth-century realism only to insist upon their inadequacy. The novel's attention to institutions as material structures (and as actors in their own right) joined to sets of values, practices, and incentives (and thus as contexts for individual action) resonates with recent institutionalist scholarship from the social sciences and makes Nostromo a significant text in the history of the modern novel's engagement with collectivity.

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