Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Conrad is known as one of the great stylists of modern fiction, and “An Outpost of Progress” displays many of his characteristic techniques to full advantage. He uses a certain amount of realistic narrative, but for the most part, the story is filled with ominous and moody passages that create a haunting landscape that is not only the background for Kayerts and Carlier but also a disturbing projection of their minds. The purposely vague and melodramatic descriptions of the jungle and the river, for example, place the trading post in a setting that is impenetrable and unintelligible. Kayerts and Carlier never see anything clearly or have anything firm to hold on to, and it is inevitable from the start that they will be overwhelmed by mysterious forces that they have no hope of controlling.

The story is also effectively structured. There are, for example, repeated contrasts that make the reader aware of the key alternatives or conflicts being dramatized: Europe versus Africa, the trading post versus the jungle, “civilized” white men versus indigenous society, and so on. Furthermore, Conrad uses highly charged symbols to suggest that he is writing not an action story but a philosophical and moral parable: The storehouse, for example, is called a “fetish” and stands as a mock-shrine for the worship of material goods that characterizes European civilization. Finally, Conrad keeps his tale from becoming ponderously serious by interjecting grotesquely comic moments: Kayerts and Carlier, the ambassadors of civilization, are more laughable than imposing, although their absurdity does not make them any less destructive.

The most important technique used throughout the story, however, is irony, and its effect is especially noticeable when one reads “An Outpost of Progress” as an implicit parody and critique of traditional adventure stories by Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson that glorify adventurers and colonizers. From beginning to end Conrad’s corrosive irony undermines the pretensions of the would-be civilizers by showing that their notion of “progress” leads only to decay and murder, that the culture they disrupt is wiser than their own, and that the jungle and all the forces it symbolizes may yet win out over all attempts to banish darkness from human life.