OWL Magazine Korea

Joseph Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress”

Our lives are deeply influenced by the environment in which we live. Humans, as beings, are also a part of the natural environment. Constructing cities and achieving civilization within this environment is no easy task. It requires a significant amount of time and effort.

Modern society exists within civilization, or perhaps under the protective shield of civilization. However, if we were to abandon this shield of civilization and return to nature, could we build a new civilization on new land with the greatness we have accumulated from civilization?

“What would happen if the shield of civilization disappeared, leaving us exposed to the wilderness?”

Joseph Conrad’s work “An Outpost of Progress” might provide some answers to this question. The story unfolds against the backdrop of a trading post somewhat detached from civilization. Here’s a summary of the plot:

The two white protagonists in the novel, Kayerts and Carlier, seem to be struggling to adapt properly to the civilized world. Under the guise of pioneering and spreading civilization, the two men are appointed to a remote trading post in the African wilderness.

Kayerts is there to make a dowry for his daughter, while Carlier, a retired soldier, is assigned there. They are appointed because the previous manager of the trading post died of fever. In reality, the one actually running the affairs of the trading post is the enlightened native Makola.

The two white men pass their time reading books, marveling at the mysteries of civilization, and showing signs of awe only after reading books that seem to have been written in the past. Their somewhat foolish appearance and the atmosphere that they seem to have been poorly adapted to the old world somehow led to their placement in such a remote location.

One day, Makola, who handles the affairs of the trading post, faces an unfavorable situation after exchanging ivory and laborers with the neighboring natives. Their interaction with the neighboring indigenous people, who used to show them friendliness, is cut off, and their relationship turns hostile. Eventually, tensions escalate over a trivial dispute involving a piece of sugar, leading to a standoff with guns pointed at each other. In the end, during the confrontation, Carlier is shot and killed by a bullet fired by Kayerts, who then commits suicide by hanging himself, bringing the story to a close.

“A Critique of Civilization and Imperialism”

This work contains a critical perspective on civilization and imperialism. One might speculate that the author’s purpose was to show the foolishness inherent in human nature.

By depicting the ineptitude of the two white men when faced with the wilderness, Conrad creates ironic scenes. Despite being dispatched to expand civilization, the two men are far removed from it, perhaps conveying a critical message about imperialism, which constantly seeks to expand territories and civilizations.

“An Important Figure in Establishing Modernism: Joseph Conrad”

Joseph Conrad is known as an important figure in establishing modernism. His works exhibit three prominent characteristics:

  1. Conradian Narrative: Conrad portrays the indifferent nature of the divine, leading to an evaluation of his works as containing modernist elements. Conrad depicts an indifferent god in his works, stating that the universe is incomprehensible, contrary to the worldview where God controls and protects everything.
  2. Grotesque: The grotesque represents the coexistence of two incompatible values. Conrad skillfully incorporates various conflicting values into his works, highlighting these aspects.
  3. Imperialism: Protagonists like Kayerts and Carlier can be seen as sacrifices of imperialism. Not only them, but also the laborers who work like slaves at the trading post, can be considered as a dark aspect of imperialism. Conrad vividly portrays the exploitation of resources and labor in the New World for the development of the Old World’s civilization.

“An Outpost of Progress” was published in “1897.” As it was published 100 years ago from now, it might be somewhat challenging to understand the work from the perspective and viewpoint of today’s era. Therefore, the critical elements regarding imperialism may not directly resonate in today’s society. The time in which the author lived was influenced by imperialism, which may explain such themes in his works.

As a short story dealing with the dark side of civilization expansion, “An Outpost of Progress” prompts various thoughts and reflections.

“An Outpost of Progress”

  • Author: Joseph Conrad
  • Publication Date: 1897