Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
The cast of characters in "Outpost of Progress" seem limited, but as is frequently the case in Conrad's shorter fiction, several members of the cast have more significant roles than appear at first. The central focus is of course on the two white men who are newly appointed to operate the isolated station, and their deterioration during eight months in the African bush, with no company except themselves and the African natives they work with. However, at least two of the Africans are also effectively characterized.
Of the two white agents, Kayerts is the older and stronger of the two. Although his name is strikingly similar to that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, he is in appearance a kind man of good intentions, albeit an intellectual and moral mediocrity. He claims to be taking on the lonely job of station agent to make money for his daughter, Mehe, but a strong motive of pure greed seems equally responsible. However, Kayerts's failings are essentially petty in nature: Nothing he does has the demonic grandeur attained by the destructive Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
Since Kayerts is the stronger of the two white agents, more attention is given to his moral decay. Whereas Carlier's death results from the quarrel engendered by Carlier's resentment and Kayerts's subsequent angry and thoughtless firing of his revolver, Kayerts's suicide by hanging is the result of his belated recognition of his many failures and the crime that he has committed in a blundering fashion. Not only has he violated the company's rules about gathering ivory, but under his management many of the black Africans employed by the company have deserted or disappeared; moreover, he has killed his assistant, almost by accident after a foolish quarrel.
Although Makola offers Kayerts an escape from social retribution by suggesting that Carlier's death can be attributed to fever, Kayerts is not able to accept that way out. In fact, he may not even be able, in his final state of moral degeneration and psychological depression, to contemplate lying plausibly to the Director of the company. Therefore his act of suicide may be motivated as much by fear of the Director as from conscience; but this final act of self-destruction seems to result from a sudden recognition of the enormity of his transgression against the code of white society. Ironically, reminded of his identity in the world of white European society by the sound of the arriving steamboat's whistle, Kayerts is able to realize that murder is the supreme crime: By its nature, it is an irreversible act.
By contrast, Carlier, a younger man, is essentially an immature romantic, who has learned little about courage or heroism from his brief career in the army. As long as things go well, Carlier tends to swagger about or assume a tough and heroic posture, although he is actually a coward. Dependent upon the companionship and approval of his fellows, Carlier is poorly equipped psychologically for a stint of six months at a lonely jungle station—and even less prepared when the six months is extended to eight, with unexpected threats to the station.
With a different companion or in a situation with more support from his companions, he might have survived his eight months' ordeal in the bush. His moral regression is, like Kayerts's, the result of an inner emptiness and a life in civilization that has never adequately tested him or provided him with the courage to survive. However, from the beginning Carlier is less aware than Kayerts of the perilous world he has entered, and after Makola's deal with the visiting tribesmen leads to the disappearance of the company's blacks, Carlier succumbs to fear and petty recrimination. It is Carlier's impulsive suggestion that Kayerts has become a trader of slaves for ivory that precipitates the final quarrel between Carlier...
(The entire section contains 1107 words.)
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