An Outpost Of Progress Summary

Joseph Conrad

An Outpost Of Progress

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An Outpost Of Progress Summary

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The short story “An Outpost of Progress,” by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, originally appeared in a periodical in 1897 and was subsequently included in his collection of stories Tales of Unrest in 1898. “An Outpost of Progress” has frequently been compared to Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The author cited the short story as the best of his pieces. It tells of a pair of European men, Kayerts and Carlier, who have been assigned to work at a trading post in an African jungle. Their responsibilities are not specifically defined and they become more and more alone as time passes.

The white traders Kayerts and Carlier engage in the trading of goods, but underlying their presence at the trading post is the goal of bringing what is considered “civilization” to the continent of Africa. It is the time of colonialization in Africa, and the European countries that are in control view the native populations as needing to become civilized. As soon as Kayerts and Carlier have been dropped off and see their ship disappear in the distance they begin to have feelings of discomfort. There are no fellow Europeans in the jungle with them with whom to interact and they wonder if they will be able to perform the tasks they have been sent to do. The trader they are replacing died of an illness and is buried near a cross.

Kayerts and Carlier work with a native named Makola who oversees ten additional natives; they arise and report for work each morning when the European men ring a bell. While considered natives, the workers are not actually from the local area, and have been imported to serve the white traders. The world as Carlier and Kayerts know it seems to be disappearing around them. They feel the absence of the norms of their European lives and, in a land of different belief systems, are losing focus in their vision of what is morally just and unjust. They fail to see, as is typical in those colonizing foreign lands, that there is value in cultures that are different from their own.

Gobila is another native. He arrives from a nearby village. He sees things from his own culture’s point of view. To him, Kayerts and Carlier are immortal. He sends women from his village to tend to the white men and to provide food for them. Meanwhile, other natives come to the camp. They are armed and begin making demands. Kayerts and Carlier find themselves feeling vulnerable. For the first time since their arrival, the two men load their guns. The sound of drums, along with shouting, comes from the forest at night. The natives indicate that they have amassed more ivory than they are able to carry. Carlier and Kayerts are intrigued by this, as they have to this point been unable to make any decent trades. Makola offers to help them get some ivory and they agree readily.

Gunshots are heard by the traders during the night. The next morning they see that the natives who had been working for them have all disappeared. One of the men who had been with Gobila is dead. Carlier and Kayerts learn that Makola traded the men for the ivory. This angers the traders, who feel that their code of ethics has been violated. Their opinion quickly changes, however. They are able to convince themselves that the situation is not their fault, but the fault of the natives and their country’s culture and values. They realize that their director will be pleased with the ivory they have gained. Still, they sense an emptiness and, while they cannot really define their feelings, they are aware that a change has come over them and that it is not a change for the better. An argument erupts between them, with Carlier calling Kayerts a slave dealer. The altercation becomes physical and ultimately Kayerts shoots Carlier, killing him.

Kayerts has lost control of his faculties. When Makola finds Kayerts with Carlier’s dead body, he tells Kayerts that he has killed a man who was not armed. Kayerts, though, has come to believe that Carlier was nothing more than a beast, and cries for God’s help. At the end of the story, the director of a steamship that is approaching finds Kayerts hanging dead from the cross with his tongue sticking out, having hung himself from his predecessor’s burial mound.

Many find “An Outpost of Progress” to be a parody, as well as a criticism, of the traditional type of colonialist adventures written by authors such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, who make colonizers heroic and exalt their actions. Conrad uses irony to show that the acts of those trying to take over and “civilize” new lands bring negative results while seeking progress, and that the culture they view as backward is actually more astute than the one from which they come.