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Review of An Outpost of Progress by Joseph Conrad

Society, not from any tenderness, but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine, and forbidding it under pain of death.

-Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress

In Conrad's An Outpost of Progress two "men" have their umbilical chords that tether them to society severed. The protagonists Kayerts and Carlier are appointed first and second in command of a trading post after being dropped off on the coast of Africa. They begin their adventure full of excitement while the director of the Great Trading Company sails away, happy to leave the two imbeciles to fend for themselves. Kayerts and Carlier's self-deception and inability to perceive their environment eventually leads them to fight to the death over a sugar cube.

The short story is sprinkled with sarcasm and irony that mirror false promises of society. The irony begins with the title, An Outpost of Progress. There is no progress anywhere in the outpost, only a few white men withering away. The duo's doom is foreshadowed by the old stager, who, "with a quiet smile" says, "They will form themselves there." When the ship returns at the end of the story, Conrad informs us The Great Trading Company has become The Great Civilization Company "since we know that civilization follows trade." Kayerts and Carlier believe the ideas that Conrad intends to be ironic, while other characters in the book know what really goes on at the outpost.

The characters have different levels of understanding of the true nature of The Outpost of Progress, but they all participate in their own form of self-deception. Makola, the local on staff, has this thing with believing in evil spirits. Gobila, an old man from a neighboring village, believes white men are all brothers and immortals.1 Kayerts and Carlier continually kid themselves with regards to their own importance. Carlier says, "In a hundred years, there will be perhaps a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and-and-billiard-rooms. Civilization, my boy, and virtue-and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier, were the first civilized men to live in this very spot!" Carlier forgets that there was a pioneer before them who "died of fever." At one point the two read some literature lying around that contain protagonists with good qualities. Conrard writes that Kayerts and Carlier "discounted their virtues, suspected their motives, decried their successes, scandalized at their duplicity, or were doubtful about their courage." The two needed to discredit imgainary betters to cope with their personal failures.

Kayerts and Carlier are similar but not the same. Carlier is lazy just like Kayerts, but there are clues that show he has an inkling of intelligence. He does not swallow the director's flattery as does Kayerts. Later when they pass the grave of the first person put in charge of the outpost, Conrad's description of Carlier's question:

"He died of fever, didn't he?" muttered Carlier, stopping short.

hints at Carlier's suspicion of the narrative of that death. At the end of the story, Carlier has a moment of clarity. He has an independent thought, takes initiative, and breaks routine. Carlier admits out loud he and Kayerts are slave dealers and goes to get a sugar cube for coffee. In response, Kayerts acts on behalf of society and shoots Carlier.2 Having completed his duty to society, Kayerts hangs himself on the cross over the first pioneer's grave.

An Outpost of Progress is worth a few passes.3 Conrad writes that men are not able to grasp their surroundings, and meanwhile places tiny clues4 that are easily missed. The reader needs to be engaged to avoid the fate of Kayerts and Carlier.

  1. He does not let the death of the first white man from the Great Trading Company shake this belief. []
  2. At this moment Kayerts's level of self-deception becomes so high that he actually believes he has been shot by Carlier. []
  3. I was assigned to read the short story by diana_coma. This is perhaps the first book (albeit it's only ~30 pages) that I read a few times in succession. Conrad puts in foreshadowing that can only be recognized on subsequent rereads. For example, Carlier makes a note to Kayerts about how sturdy the cross is that he put upright and mentions that he was able to hang from it with both hands. This description is ominous when the reader knows Kayerts's fate. []
  4. Such as Carlier's mannerism demonstrating that he questions whether the first pioneer really died of fever. []

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