This book is both a psychological thriller and a political statement. Written in 1896, Joseph Conrad gives an account of two white traders, Carlier and Kayerts, who are out- posted in Africa at a trading station. Although the Europeans do trade goods, their underlying purpose is to export "civilization," from Europe to Africa. Carlier and Kayerts are living in colonial times. England and other European countries have control over Africa. The native people are seen as in need of being civilized.
As the steamer that drops them off fades into the distance, Carlier and Kayerts already begin to feel uneasy. Out in the jungle with no other Europeans to support their views about the world, they sense that they are out of their element, and not up to the task they have been assigned. Their predecessor lies buried at the foot of a crooked cross, having died of a fever. Makola is their native comrade. He is acting as the foreman for ten other natives who jump each morning when the white men ring a bell. These people are not from the immediate area, but are living as imported, miserable, and sick employees.
The belief systems, morals and internal world that Carlier and Kayerts brought with them from England are disintegrating in the isolation of the station. Without the support of the norms and expectations of their culture, they are free-falling in terms of their knowledge of what is right and wrong. Typical colonial Europeans, they are unable to appreciate the land and the culture that surrounds them. They are incapable of perceiving that non-European cultures have value and structure of their own.
Another native, Gobila, comes from a neighboring village. He is imposing his culture's worldview on the Europeans, and cannot see them as they are. In his mind, Carlier and Kayerts are immortal beings. Gobila is waiting to see how their immortality will manifest itself. Meanwhile, he is sending the women of his village to care for and bring food to the white men.
A group of armed natives arrives in camp and begin to make demands. Carlier and Kayerts are basically helpless. The two white men load their revolvers for the first time. That night the forest is full of drumming and yelling. This group of natives state they have more ivory than they can carry, which is of great interest to Carlier and Kayerts, who have yet to make any good trades. Makola offers to secure some ivory and the men agree.
During the night, Carlier and Kayerts hear gunshots. In the morning, they discover all of the native employees have disappeared. One of Gobila's men is dead. Makola tells them he traded the men for ivory. Carlier and Kayerts are angry and upset that their morals have been directly challenged; however, after their initial protest, they quickly rationalize their position. They blame the natives and the country, calling them strange, and decide the ivory will make their director happy.
The men are overwhelmed by their own emptiness. They are unable to describe what they are feeling, but they know they've changed, and not for the better. They are descending into confusion, fear and loathing. Sparked by an argument over sugar, Carlier gives way to his emotions, calling Kayerts a "slave-dealer." Kayerts is unable to accept the truth and responds violently. The two men begin chasing each other around the exterior of their house. Finally, Kayerts shoots Carlier dead.
Kayerts has lost his mind. Makola finds him sitting with the dead Carlier, and points out that Kayerts has just killed an unarmed man. Kayerts disintegrates into a belief that Carlier was just a "noxious beast," and then begins crying out to God for help. The book ends with the Managing Director of the steamship coming through the fog only to see that Kayerts is hanging dead on the cross, having stepped off the burial mound of his predecessor. Conrad leaves us with one final impression: Kayerts' tongue is sticking out.
Chapter 1 Summary
The story takes place in Africa during the time it was colonized by Europeans. The actual date of the events is not included, but one can surmise from the date of publication that it is sometime in the late 1800's. Carlier and Kayerts, two white men, are dropped off at the trading post by a steamboat. They live in a house, built of reeds with a verandah on all sides, which sits in a clearing in the jungle. A native man named Makola lives with his wife and three children, in a hut nearby. Beyond the houses is the grave of a painter who ran the trading post before he died of a fever. Over this grave is a crooked cross.
Kayerts and Carlier do not know how to run a trading post, or even how to live anywhere except in their own country. Kayerts was an employee with the telegraph company, and Carlier had been in a protected branch of the army where he had never seen any combat.
Kayerts has taken this position in order to provide a dowry for his daughter who is being brought up by his sisters. Both men are lazy and unproductive. They sit on their veranda and spent their time talking, smoking and reading, expecting that valuable goods will just appear on their doorstep, brought by the native people. One tribe does appear, and Makola bargains for hours to secure an elephant tusk. Carlier and Kayerts watch the proceedings and make fun of the native people's appearance and language.
Gobila, a native man, visits from a nearby village. He believes the white men are immortals. He sends the women of his village to the Europeans to provide food and palm wine. When the men are sick, the native women nurse them back to health. After five months of living this way, a group of armed natives emerges from the forest. They are strangers to the people in this part of the country. Makola seems afraid of them, and summons his wife to talk with them. The interchange between Mrs. Makola and the group of men is loud and animated. Kayerts and Carlier are scared and begin loading their revolvers. The strangers leave, but Mrs. Makola seems very agitated. Carlier and Kayerts cannot get any information about what is going on from Mr. Makola. That night, they are disturbed by drumming coming from the villages. They think they hear shots fired. In the morning, all of the natives seem very upset about something. Fifteen canoes have crossed the river, something that is highly unusual. Makola is acting strangely. Carlier and Kayerts resolve to keep close to each other.
Chapter 1 Analysis
Kayerts and Carlier are so bound by their own European culture, they cannot see the value and structure of the native culture around them. They continuously stand apart from the native people, and see themselves as being civilized while the others are "savage." Once the friendship, routine and structure of their own country is taken away, the men have only themselves to rely on. Their own fears, insecurities, failings and weakness come to the surface. They feel abandoned by the steamer and frightened by their environment. Kayerts and Carlier honestly believe that Europeans are far advanced compared to native people. Their mission is to bring their way of life to "a savage people."
These characters represent what was going on politically and culturally during the period of European expansion. The great powers of Europe saw it as their duty to conquer and rule countries containing different cultures and races of people. Cultural diversity was an unknown concept. People were placed on a scale of value, from highest to lowest. The people of Africa were seen as the lowest kind of people. There was even debate about whether they were fully human. European colonists believed they were at the high end of human development. They used every kind of coercion to subdue native people. From guns to religion, they thought it was their right, even their duty, to expand European beliefs, values and social constructs all over the world.
Joseph Conrad wants us to see that people are people, no matter what the color of their skin, or the structure of their culture. He is masterful at presenting the darker side of humanity. In this story, nearly everyone is of dubious character. Makola, the band of strangers, Carlier and Kayerts; all are judging one another as inferior. Each of them is trying to overcome the other for his own gain.
In Chapter 1, several symbols that foreshadow the destiny of Carlier and Kayerts are introduced. First is the dead artist, lying in a grave on the grounds of the trading station. The symbolism here is explicit--the two European characters are likely to meet the same fate. Over the grave stands a crooked cross. Again, the symbolism is explicit: The cross is a universal symbol of sacrifice and redemption. Standing crookedly, one can infer that there is something amiss. Who is to make the sacrifice and to what end? Who is in need of redemption? How will those things come to pass in the story? One is warned ahead of time that the sacrifice and redemption will not follow the usual, archetypal path.
The steamer that delivers Kayerts and Carlier to their fate in Africa brings the message that morality and psychological support come and go in the life of a human being. Conrad makes the point again and again, that men are incapable of sustaining their goodness without constant reinforcement and feedback. The steamer simply abandons the men, even though those on board can already see they will not survive. "I bet nothing will be done! They won't know how to begin. I always thought the station of this river to be useless, and they just fit the station." Chapter 1, page 3
As Kayerts and Carlier descend into a psychological nightmare, Conrad brings up the sound of drumming. Drums have the impact of providing a sound track to the narrative. Accepted by native people, the sound of drums brings the feeling of living in a non-civilized land to Europeans. There is a wild, emergent quality of energy that is delivered into the narrative at this point; Conrad tells us that the men are being overpowered by the unformed void that surrounds them.
Chapter 2 Summary
In this chapter we meet ten men who also live at the trading station. These people come from somewhere far away, and have been left by the director to unwillingly serve. They live in straw huts without basic nutrition. Consequently, they are unable to work, but sit passively miserable and weak. Although Carlier and Kayerts ring a bell each morning to summon the men to work, no one responds. They have no control over the men.
Suddenly, smoke rises above the forest. Makola informs the white men that armed men have attacked, capturing women and children and set fire to the village. Carlier and Kayerts learn that the bandits have more ivory than they can carry home. Makola tells them the armed men are bad but offers to get some ivory for them. The Europeans want the ivory.
Makola tells Carlier and Kayerts to keep the station men out of the way, suggesting they get them drunk on palm wine. Sure enough, a big party results. The white men go to sleep having seen a huge bonfire and hearing drumming from the men's quarters. In the middle of the night, Carlier and Kayerts wake abruptly. Terrified, they hear a shot fired and go outside. Makola tells them to go back inside before they ruin everything. They believe that Makola has everything under control.
When they come out the next morning, Makola is carefully washing a small dog. He shouts that all of the station men are gone. Carlier and Kayerts are angry, believing the men have just run away. They believe the men are ungrateful for the care they have provided to them. Makola presents the white men with six large elephant tusks. Then he tells them he traded the station men for the ivory. The Europeans are incensed and go to investigate. Not only are the station men gone, but also one of Gobila's villagers is dead.
Carlier and Kayerts think about what has happened. They cannot condone what Makola has done, but try to rationalize it. Meanwhile, Makola plays with his children as though nothing has happened. Kayerts and Carlier try to put the blame for the kidnapping on the culture, saying, "this is a funny country." They decide they should have nothing to do with the ivory because it is a result of slavery. Makola drags out the heavy ivory to weigh it. Because it is so heavy, Carlier gets involved in picking it up and bringing it to the scale. Once he touches the ivory, he decides that the station men were company property; therefore the ivory is company property.
Gobila and his people are consumed with fear of the white men. They do not go near the trading station. Gobila decides that evil spirits have taken over the men, and he makes extra sacrifices to relieve them. While some of the villagers speak up and talk about killing the white men, Gobila decides that there might be even more dangerous consequences to his people if the Carlier and Kayerts are dead. He leaves them alone, thinking they might just return to the earth, the way the first manager had done.
Months are going by, and Gobila's people remain at a distance. Guilt is slowly consuming the Europeans, although they do not recognize it as guilt. The steamer is late. Their conversation descends into discussions about whether all of the natives should really be exterminated. Each man is now depressed, angry, blunt and guilty. They lose the feeling of being friends, and now feel like accomplices in a crime. When they run out of food, they exist on boiled rice and a small amount of coffee. They save the fifteen remaining lumps of sugar for an emergency. While they wait for the steamer, the clearing in the forest begins to fill with grass; the hunger and the heat are oppressive.
Carlier begins an argument, demanding the sugar. Kayerts refuses and calls up his superior position. In response, Carlier calls him a slave-dealer. Kayerts reacts violently, and Carlier takes a swing at him with a stool. Kayerts responds desperately and attempts to rush Carlier but flees to his room and gets out his revolver while Carlier attempts to break the door down.
Kayerts escapes through a small opening in the wall. Carlier gives up trying to break the door down and runs outside. They chase each other around and around the house until both men drop from exhaustion. Kayerts even has a moment where he realizes that this battle is ridiculous, but concludes he cannot give in on this matter or Carlier will turn him into his slave. The men get up and begin the chase again and run right into each other. Kayerts shoots Carlier. The whole incident is so sudden that Kayerts believes for a moment that it is he who has been shot. When he goes around the edge of the house he sees that Carlier is dead. Makola appears and agrees the other man is dead. Kayerts bursts into a sobbing fit, grateful to be alive. Makola points out that Carlier was unarmed. At first Kayerts is devastated, but he quickly finds his way out. He pronounces that Carlier must have died of a fever; Makola agrees.
Kayerts sits by the dead body of Carlier and thinks. His mind comes apart and he questions everything he has ever thought, experienced or known. At one point, he dehumanizes Carlier and thinks of him as only a "noxious beast." Later, he cries out to God for help. The steamer whistle pierces the fog. Makola goes off to meet the boat. Kayerts sees the cross, surrounded by the mist. He stumbles towards it even as the station bell rings out to greet the steamer.
The Managing Director lands and wonders why there is no one to greet him. He can hear the bell ringing in the fog. The captain and the engine driver run up the hill toward the station, but the Director has already found him. Kayerts has hung himself from the cross. He had climbed the grave of his predecessor and swung off. An Outpost of Progress ends with the image of Kayerts' swollen tongue pointed at his Managing Director.
Chapter 2 Analysis
This chapter reveals the truly ugly underside of humanity, both native and European. Carlier, Makola and Kayerts all decide that commerce is more important than their fellow human beings. Through the process of dehumanizing each other, they manage to descend into the lowest forms of behavior and thinking processes. Makola sacrifices native people in order to provide ivory to the traders at the station. Carlier and Kayerts are initially disgusted with the idea, but then accept the benefit.
This dark spot in their character grows and multiplies in the isolation of the African forest. Once the issue of slavery has been overlooked, their social moorings give way. Everything they have ever believed comes up for scrutiny. In the end, Kayerts and Carlier have both lost their mind. Each one is paranoid and torn apart by guilt. They have lost the capacity to use what moral compass they had. Without the reference points provided by their culture, they become vulnerable to internal urges of violence. On page 12, ivory appears. The idea that the two men are in Africa for benevolent purposes is quickly dispatched. Ivory equals money in Colonial Africa. The appearance of this symbol shifts the story into a downward spiral. One knows ahead of time that the Colonists will do anything to secure the prize.
Joseph Conrad was a revolutionary in his time. The powerful countries of the world accepted the idea of European Expansion. The idea that white people were superior to those of color was nearly unquestioned. This perceived superiority ran very deep. Religion, culture, mores and values were all used to support the idea that Europeans were civilized while people in other countries were not. At the same time, an image of native people began to arise. The theory of the "noble savage," began to emerge. The "noble savage," was not perceived as equal to the white man. Rather, he was a curiosity, something the white man should benevolently protect.
This idea of benevolent protection has survived into our time. As we struggle to understand one another, some have idolized the different. In the civil rights movement, all black people were considered to be good, or all black people were considered to be bad. Joseph Conrad, speaking at the end of the nineteenth century, foresaw these issues. He presented his evidence that all men are equal from the dark side of the equation. In An Outpost of Progress he didn't try to point out the beauty in all people, no matter what their color or culture. Instead, he showed us that all people are capable of evil. In that way, we are also all equal.
As Chapter 2 begins, one is suddenly introduced to the ten native men that have been a part of the trading station since the beginning of the story. Here, Conrad betrays his own racism and ethnocentrism. It is not only the Europeans in his story who hold to the idea that white men are superior to black, but Conrad himself seems to believe this. One has the impression that had Conrad lived long enough, he would have developed into a man who despised racism. But in the end, although Conrad was a man on the forefront of his times, he was still caught by the ankles in his own cultural mire. Conrad writes, "They were not happy, regretting the festive incantations, the sorceries, the human sacrifices of their own land; where they also had parents, brothers, sisters, admired chiefs, respected magicians, loved friends and other ties supposed generally to be human."