By Trudy A. Martinez
A civilized society’s failure can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s short story, “An Outpost to Progress”. The story serves as a window to gaze out upon the progressive deterioration of two men; while at the same time glaring back as a reflection upon the society that produces them. The two white men, Kayerts and Carlier, had not been prepared with an assortment of faculties required to achieve the goals of their employer and society. Nor did the “…men realize [as Conrad said] that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, [were] only the expression of their belief . . . in the safety of their surroundings [their society]. The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions, and principles every insignificant thought [belongs] not to [them as] individual[s] but to the crowd [their society] “. (210)
In other words, Kayerts and Carlier’s faculties are fixed and deficient because their society places limitations upon them. Under these circumstances, the men are unable to cope with the diversities of the wilderness; hence, they become the outcasts of progress, destined for failure; and accordingly, the society that produces them unknowingly issues their death sentence. Thereby, it may be said, they are left to the mercy of their new surroundings, unprepared for the new freedoms suddenly placed upon them.
What is convincingly striking about the new freedoms that are suddenly placed upon Kayerts and Carlier is the freedoms give them both an immense amount of leisure time, time they spend in an imaginary world discussing the “plots and parsonages” of some “wrecks of novels” their predecessor left. The characters in these novels became their friends; and thereby, the topic of their conversations (as scandalmonger’s) and their vacuous judgments and suspicions. In the story, Conrad conveys all these things about the two men, and he adds that the men are “filled with indignation” from the “[discounting of] virtues, [suspecting of] motives, [descrying of] successes…or the [doubting of] courage (212-213). Carlier considers the virtues of the people in the books they read as utter “nonsense”; whereas, Kayerts said, “…I had no idea there were such clever fellows in the world”(Conrad 213) They also discover an old “home paper [that] spoke of. . . the rights and duties of civilization, of the sacredness of the civilizing work,…the merits of those who went about bringing light, and faith, and commerce to the dark places of the earth” (Conrad 213). The paper speaks of well-educated, independent men of status who seek gain through “Colonial Expansion”, imperialism. In contrast, Kayerts and Carlier are not of this caliber; they are not imperialistic nor are they working towards increasing colonial expansion. Their director even considers them “useless men”, left in the wilderness to care for a “useless station” (Conrad 210).
Nevertheless, the men take pride in the writing they find in the “home paper” and begin to gain a sense of self-worth. The extension of the awareness of a self-worth benefit can be seen in Carlier’s resulting action. “[He] went out and replanted [a] cross” that stands above the grave of their predecessor (Conrad 213). But this endeavor is the only positive action taken. Conrad makes it obvious from the first day of their arrival that the men have no immediate objective thought in the simple apprehension of their own reality.
Evidence to the fact there is an absence of a sense of reality presents itself through the importance the men place upon beautifying of their new home with pretty window dressings, an attempt they make to make themselves comfortable in their new surroundings. Conrad says, this is an “impossible task” because “they could only live on the condition of machines, incapable of independent thought” (211). In other words, they require repetitious work under supervision with conditions that leave them unable to choose alternatives.
As a subsequent result of their inability to choose alternatives, the men lack initiative. Confirmation of their lack of initiative is made by their statement that they came to the Outpost only because of others in their life, not entirely of their own free will. Carlier gives credit to his brother-in-law for his presence. Whereas, Kayerts said, “If it weren’t for my [daughter], you wouldn’t catch me here” (Conrad 211).
Perhaps then, the men make no progress because they are prisoners with no conception or knowledge of alternative options; and as a result, they are forced to remain within the confines and rules of the society. These facts are the major contributor to the reason why Kayerts and Carlier are unable to adapt or cope with their new environment, and the resulting reason why they lack initiative.
Consequently, the two men find it necessary to rely heavily upon another man, Makola, “a Sierra Leone nigger”. This man “worshiped evil spirits” and “despised the two white men” who are “left unassisted to face the wilderness”(Conrad 209-210) Because of the heavy reliance the two men place on the “Sierra Leone nigger”, an illumination of a conflicting perspective is cast on the story through Makola’s minor role. He does not share the White man’s contemplation that the world will improve merely by the white man’s presence.
Instead, Makola works hard proving the white men unworthy and ridding the wilderness of them. Indirectly through a trading maneuver, Makola works toward doing away with their presence. The trading plan, the slave trading of ten men (men that Makola also considers worthless because they are lazy like the white men and do nothing to improve the station) is his method of accomplishing his goal. When a few natives of a neighboring village get caught up in the slave trade, the neighboring village chief bans trade with the trading post. The two white men are “… [to be] left alone with their weakness” so they can “…disappear into the earth” like their predecessor (Conrad 219-220).
To be sure of their demise, Makola has only to gain the white man’s acceptance of the evil deceitful trade he makes. So, he places his dependence on vice and greed in his efforts to sway the white man’s deteriorating values away from the virtues of civilization. Once the two men accept vice as a method of gain over virtue, they get an “inarticulate feeling something within them is gone, something that worked for their safety” (Conrad 219). Then, they become fearful and distraught, totally dependent upon their own deficient faculties in a struggle for survival (The men effectively strip themselves of the values they previously clung to). Finally, Kayerts and Carlier come to be distrusting of each other, quarreling over any minuet trivial. In essence, they turn into savages. Failure after failure besets them.
All in all, because “society…had forbidden the two white men]…all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and [had forbade these virtues]…under pain of death” (Conrad 211), society did an injustice to the men. Since the same virtues, the same freedoms forbidden within society are necessary for survival in the wilderness; society does not fulfill an ultimate duty bestowed upon it. Freedom is the necessary ingredient closely entwine with the individual faculty of the men that enables them to grow, to change, to adapt, and to blend in the wild. To put it differently, the necessary faculties, had they been present, may have provided the confidence and courage the men needed to succeed and to survive. But because the two white men are lacking these elements, in addition to the capability of independent thought, they come to be the outcasts of progress and a reflection that glares back upon the society that produces them.
Thus when the meaningless death of Carlier emphasizes the extent of the deterioration of the two men’s values Conrad says, “…life had no more secrets. . . So justice [has to] be done” (222-223); and Kayerts, in his last act, takes an initiative to see justice reign supreme. He straps himself to the cross, the same cross Carlier replants in his brief display of self-worth. And then, Kayerts crucified himself in defiance of his employer and of his society. The director, who thought of both men as useless, is now facing his own indignation through the display of a method of justice. Kayerts is “standing rigidly at attention…with… [his]…tongue” stuck out seemingly addressing “his Managing Director” (Conrad 224). “Progress [was] calling to [him] from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society [was] calling to its accomplished child…to be judged…it [was] calling [Kayerts] to return [but he was not willing to return] to the “rubbish heap” of the society that inadvertently brought him to his ruin. (Conrad 223).
Conrad, Joseph. “An Outpost of Progress”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Second Edition. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990. 208-224