Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095
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...
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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 trading post, confers with Makola, and arranges to return later that night, bringing ivory in exchange for the indigenous men working at the station. In the commotion at nighttime, one of the men resisting is shot dead, and after this episode, there can be no escaping the fact that trade and “progress” are based on theft, violence, and oppression.
Kayerts and Carlier do not engineer this trade of men for ivory, but they are nevertheless complicit; they quickly rationalize the incident, saying, “It had to be done.” The price of their greatest economic success is thus complete moral collapse and, as a direct consequence, fear and utter isolation. Gobila and his people withdraw from all contact with the trading post, the steamship from the company fails to appear, and Kayerts and Carlier begin to treat each other with the contempt that has marked their treatment of the indigenous people. Short on supplies and, perhaps more important, plagued by an “inarticulate feeling that something within them was gone, something that worked for their safety, and had kept the wilderness from interfering with their hearts,” they begin to quarrel, and even a trivial disagreement quickly becomes murderous. In a faint gesture to maintain discipline, a last vestige of civilization, Kayerts rations their last bit of sugar, and when Carlier objects, their argument escalates into a bizarre chase that concludes with a scene that is as comical as it is frightening: “They came into violent collision. Both shouted with surprise. A loud explosion took place between them.” Carlier is killed, absurdly and unintentionally, by a man who is basically incapable of willful action.
The ease with which Kayerts rationalizes this murder is only momentary. Although Makola is perfectly ready to report that Carlier died of the fever, it is in fact Kayerts who is feverish, feverish unto death. A dense fog envelops the trading post, evoking his mad confusion, and the loud shrieking noise he hears is simultaneously his own tormented voice and the whistle from the steamboat, calling out to him in the name of “progress.” When the Managing Director finally comes ashore, he is met by a grotesque scene: Kayerts has hanged himself on the cross over the grave of the previous manager of the outpost, “and irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.” This is perhaps a symbol of defiance—Kayerts may well have experienced a moment of mad illumination—but most of all his shocking suicide, a parody of a crucifixion as he hangs from a cross, is a powerful emblem of not only the inevitable destruction but also the inevitable self-destruction prompted by those who base their notion of progress and civilization on a shallow understanding of their own weakness and wickedness.