An Outpost of Progress is a tale by Conrad that shows how controls of a civilization are necessary for the sanity of individuals. Two ordinary white men, Kayerts and Carlier have been posted to a distant trading stop in the heart of Africa. Their job is to supervise the collection of ivory at the stop. In a strange land, with different customs and different people, Kayerts and Carlier are essentially secluded- they depend on each other for any meaningful company.
In this background Conrad exposes how men fall apart if they do not have the strict controls of a society to discipline them. Kayerts and Carlier are seen to simply while away their time, waiting for things to happen on their own, resign themselves to their fates. They are unable to enhance their living conditions, they show no enterprise what so ever and are seen set on a path of gradual degradation.
At the end, we see how these two men, who once had called each other ‘my dear fellow’, are consumed by a mutual distrust and fight over very small things. Ultimately one man kills the other over a unimportant argument and unable to confront the consequences of his action, commits suicide himself.
‘To grapple effectually with already material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine.’ Conrad shows us how these two individuals are unable to continue decent living conditions when left on their own simply because they are completely secluded from a society with its system of reward and punishment. ‘they…do not know what use to make of their freedom’.
The central irony of the tale is that these two individuals had been sent by a civilized European country to a ‘dark’ Africa. Their mission is to bring about ‘light, and faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth’. It is ironical how instead of achieving this goal, the men fell prey to the dark forces of ‘pure unmitigated savagery’, ‘early character’ and ‘early man’. The men lose the values that civilization had taught them and succumb to the dark forces within themselves that the shackles of society had repressed for long.
This irony is a shared theme running across many of Conrad’s tales. Notable among them are Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. In both the tales we see examples of how men who have been posted in colonial outstations succumb to a life of degradation.