Joseph Conrad’s short narrative “An Outpost of Progress” follows the lives of two civilized men, Kayerts and Carlier, stationed at a trading post in Africa. Between the departure and return of the Company steamer, Kayerts and Carlier are free from civilization’s rules, morals, and beliefs that facilitate a chain of command, trade, and comfortable living. When they are forced to live without society, the men slowly descend into madness. I will argue that “An Outpost of Progress” illustrates humanities propensity to fall to fall from civilization when free of a conventional society.
Early in the short narrative, evidence of civilization exists around the men. The narrator writes, “There were two white men in charge of the trading station. Kayerts, the chief. . . Carlier, the assistant. . . The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price” (Conrad 3). This system imitates bureaucracies of a civilized world. There is a white man in charge, someone working under him, and a lower level often consisting of natives.
However, this broken bureaucracy is the first sign of Kayerts’ and Carlier’s fall from civilization. When men from the coast arrive at the trading station, Makola (Henry Price) converses with them about trading for ivory. When Kayerts questions him the next day, Makola eludes all attempts to close with him (Conrad 12). Makola, the lower level of the chain of command, avoids reporting to Kayerts, the chief in charge.
This breakdown if also evident during Kayerts’ and Carlier’s argument over sugar. Following a civilized bureaucracy, Carlier should accept Kayerts’ refusal to let him put the sugar in his coffee. Instead, Carlier shouts, “Who’s chief? There’s no chief here. There’s nothing here: there’s nothing here but you and I. Fetch the sugar – you pot-bellied ass” (Conrad 20). Carlier’s statement implies that, away from society, no chain of command exists. The Director is not there to enforce Kayerts’ role as chief; therefore, Carlier openly challenges it.
Trading also represents civilization as one often follows the other (Conrad 25). Kayerts’ and Carlier’s main function at the trading post is to facilitate trade with the natives. However, during their interactions with the natives, the civilized men maintain a safe distance. Carlier states, “Fine animals. . . Look at the muscles of that fellow – third from the end. I wouldn’t care to get a punch on the nose from him. Fine arms, but legs no good below the knee. Couldn’t make cavalry men of them” (Conrad 7-8). Carlier’s diction separates the civilized men from the savage natives. The natives are “fine animals,” not human beings. Carlier also elevates his own status as a former Officer of Cavalry (Conrad 4). He is capable of doing something the natives are not.
Later in “An Outpost of Progress,” trading transforms into the catalyst that separates the agents from civilization. After Makola trades the Company’s men to the...