Themes and Meanings
In a letter describing this story, Conrad said that it expressed his “indignation at masquerading philanthrophy,” a continuing theme throughout his work. Although he was by no means a political radical, he was appalled by abuses of power and wrote with great insight about the mechanisms of imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As exaggerated as they may seem, the Managing Director and the Great Trading Company (which Conrad wryly renames the “Great Civilizing Company”) that hover behind the action of “An Outpost of Progress” accurately picture the ruthlessly ambitious businessmen and powerful economic conglomerates (in England and Belgium especially) that set out to colonize non-European countries for their own profit. All this was advertised as a well-intentioned attempt to spread civilization to the undeveloped parts of the world, but Conrad points out clearly that such a notion of progress originates not in piety and compassion but in racism, brutality, and greed. The veil is irreparably torn from the gospel of “progress” when Carlier suggests that “exterminating” the indigenous people is a necessary part of the civilizing process, and throughout the entire story, Conrad shows that when the colonizing Europeans move into central Africa, the “heart of darkness” they discover is their own.
Conrad is also deeply concerned with psychological as well as political issues in this story. Kayerts and Carlier are not only exploitative colonizers but also examples of the kind of “mass man” created by modern society, “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” loveless, unimaginative, and alternately paralyzed and volatile. As long as they are within a highly structured society, controlled by habits, rules, and rituals, they can function satisfactorily, but once they face the abyss of the jungle, they lose the qualities one normally thinks of as “human” and become capable of any atrocity. In this respect, the story is not only an adventure set in Africa but also an existential fable about the frailty and precariousness of human life: The jungle is, after all, not the only place where one experiences the blank mystery of being and alienation.