Part One of the novel tells the story of how the San Tomé silver mine comes to be a power in the country of Costaguana, under the leadership of Charles Gould. The phrasing of the section title--which calls attention to the metal itself--is our first indication that silver has a larger symbolic meaning. And indeed, every major character in the novel will seek the silver as a means to accomplish their respective ideal or ambition: even Martin Decoud, who requires four bars of silver to finally consummate his lack of ideals. The silver thus represents the raw material of dreams (and the word "mine" has a second meaning relating to the covetous character of each ambition). Likewise, Part One serves to establish the 'raw material' of the novel -- the geography, history and cast of Costaguana -- for the drama to come.
At first glance, the most striking aspect of Part One is its form: a bewildering, impressionistic avalanche of detail that serves equally to obscure the structure of the story and illuminate the imaginary Costaguana with an unsurpassed realism. Readers seeking the familiar footholds of a continuing character or a chronological progression of scenes are willfully thwarted by the narrative's abrupt shifts in point of view and time. Bereft of protagonist and chronology to steer by, the reader is encouraged to cling to the narrative voice as an omniscient guide, but at a crucial moment even this voice proves itself to be as hopelessly subjective as the rest.
The bizarre technique, often frustrating to first-time readers, is a crucial
dramatization of the theme of the novel. That theme is Conrad's notion which
I call the 'dream-ideal,' a guiding goal or philosophy which every person requires
to make sense of an otherwise meaningless world, and which for every person
is different. What Part One accomplishes is to present the reader with the meaningless
world -- with the closest possible approximation to the raw chaos of uninterpreted
sense perception -- thus triggering the reader's own need for a literary
dream-ideal by which to interpret it. The effect is to make the reader a
helplessly active participant in creating the world, by forcing the reader to
organize the material according to his or her own dream-ideal. For example,
does Nostromo denounce or applaud capitalism? Partisan critics are capable
of mining the text to prove either wing; in the very cacophony of debating interpretations,
the novel proves its point.