From the first lines of “An Outpost of Progress,” the reader knows that the two main characters are comical and pathetic, thrust into circumstances that will first humiliate and then destroy them. As different as they are in appearance—Kayerts is short and fat, while Carlier is tall and birdlike—both of these men embody the arrogance and stupidity that are the distinguishing marks, according to author Joseph Conrad, of the white European men who set out to make themselves rich by spreading commerce and civilization to black Africa. The fate of the two new administrators of the trading post, the “outpost of progress” ironically referred to in the title, is prefigured early in the story: Even their boss, the mysterious director of the trading company, thinks of them as hopeless “imbeciles,” and the most prominent landmark in the trading post is the grave of the previous administrator, marked by a huge cross. There is little doubt that before long Kayerts and Carlier will suffer through the same “fever” that killed their predecessor.
The first few months pass by rather uneventfully. Although they are generally fearful and begin to cling to each other more out of desperation than out of any feelings of affection or respect, both Kayerts and Carlier imagine themselves to be in a kind of pastoral scene: As the legitimate masters of the area, at least in their own eyes, they simply sit back and wait for the “ignorant savages” to bring them piles of valuable ivory. They are indeed well served by Makola, their employee, who actually takes care of the details of managing the entire operation. Makola is a crucial figure in the story. He possesses a great deal of power and dignity, and his “uncivilized” qualities—the musical tones of his speech, his impressive physical stature, and “worship of evil spirits”—provide a contrast to the impotent refinement of the civilized men.
Unlike Makola, Kayerts and Carlier are almost completely blind to the effects of the surrounding darkness and mystery, symbolized best by the impenetrable jungle. There is not much action in part 1 of the story, as Conrad attempts to describe their obliviousness and present a kind of psychological portrait of their increasingly futile attempts to “think better of themselves” and maintain their sanity. Like modern Europeans in general, Conrad suggests, Kayerts and Carlier lack “all independent thought, all initiative,” and once they are taken from the customary social rituals and institutions that support them, they are powerless. They fall back on a self-serving ideology of imperialism, but Conrad never lets the reader forget that this is the refuge of scoundrels. As the days pass and it becomes clear that even their own company has temporarily abandoned them, they look over old newspapers and have long discussions about“Our Colonial Expansion” and the “sacredness of the civilizing work” they are doing.
For all the high seriousness of their arguments, Conrad skillfully shows that these spokespersons for progress are buffoons: When they meet with Gobila, the chief, to spread their civilizing influence, they behave like clowns, lighting matches and passing around an ammonia bottle to thrill the villagers, while Gobila acts with great dignity and intelligence. Kayerts and Carlier simply cannot overcome their basic incompetence and impotence, for by the end of part 1, they are physically wasting away and slowly coming to an awareness that they are threatened by the circumstances they claimed to have mastered.
Throughout most of part 1 the dangers of which Kayerts and Carlier are barely conscious are described in vague, moody, portentous language: The jungle, for example, is a place of “throbbing life,” and the trading post is only a tiny clearing surrounded by “immense forests, hiding fateful complications.” In part 2, though, these abstract threats take on violent physical forms. A group of armed people visits the...
(The entire section is 1,095 words.)