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Joseph Conrad whose original name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, born in Berdichev, Poland (currently Ukraine) on the 3 December, 1857 to a writer and a translator, Apollo Korzeniowski , who encouraged him to read widely in Polish and French. His mother Ewelina Korzeniowska, died of tuberculosis and soon after his father, Apollo leaving him orphaned at the age of eleven. At the age of sixteen he abandoned Poland and for the next four years he enlisted as a sailor in merchant ships, he also joined the British Merchant Navy and received British citizenship in 1886 changing his name to Joseph Conrad. He died in England on 3 August, 1924 of a heart attack.
Joseph Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English literaty history. His life, filled with adventures was the biggest inspiration for the developing of his novels and stories, his political conspiracy works as an inspiration in his novel The Arrow of Gold and his travel to the coast of Venezuela gave him enough material to write Nostromo, considered by most of his critics as a masterpiece. Conrad had the ability to change the perception and the emotions of the reader, reading his works is easy to feel loneliness, fear, mystery and many other things that he cared to preserve in all his works. He can create a universe in which the main character must fight to survive against the dark forces of nature or the evil part of human behavior. These characteristics can describe the literary work of Conrad especially when he refers to the occidental civilization where he tries to show the obscurity of the colonized countries that existed in the mid nineteenth century, like in his novel The Heart of Darkness.
Conrad travelled to the Congo Free State as an ambition of his childhood in 1889, filled with illusions and hopes, but instead of that he returned to Europe with an emotional trauma of the atrocities that he witnessed there. These experiences served as inspiration to write Heart of Darkness and An Outpost of Progress.
This essay is intended to show the criticism to the idea of progress in the short story An Outpost of Progress in which we can notice the depression, the disappointment and pessimism that Conrad had towards the society in the nineteenth century. The story is about two white men, lazy and incompetents, Kayerts y Carlier who took over a trading station in Central Africa, their job is simple; supervise the collection of ivory in the station. The director of the company, whom was aware of the uselessness of those:
Look at those two imbeciles. They must be mad at home to send me such specimens. I told those fellows to plant a vegetable garden, build new storehouses and fences, and construct a landing-stage. I bet nothing will be done! They won’t know how to begin. I always thought the station on this river useless, and they just fit the station!”
Instead of that the director trusted in the will of Makola, a nigger from Sierra Leona who called himself Henry Price who ends up doing all the work. The two white men are unable to do any job, even the simplest task like try to learn the native language and communicate with the others in order to have more people to trust in case of an emergency or explore the surrounding areas. Instead of that they simply stay at the station, doing nothing, just reading the old books that the previous man in charge of the station had, and they convince them to bring to those lands the civilization and progress!
To grapple effectually with even purely material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine. No two beings could have been more unfitted for such a struggle. Society, not from any tenderness, but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could only live on condition of being machines.
Without creativity, without initiative, without intelligence and with a false set of values there cannot be progress, these two were just the opposite of this, they were a waste of a society that needed to get rid of them in order to progress. This type of people who are not capable to take care themselves without help from others.
The days passed by until one day Makola made a trade, he trades the life of the Indians for a big piece of ivory. The lack of moral values and the effects of an African form of capitalism led the white men to a psychological process that ends up tragically. Gabola, the only “friend” of the white inepts, knowing the situation decided to not to take violent measures, he decided to cut the supply of food, they only source that they had. They, sick, confused and demoralized, drinking a cup o coffee started to argue and started a riot because Kayerts denied to give to Carlier a little sugar to sweeten the coffee. That fight finished with the tragical death of Carlier. After the fight Kayerts in his loneliness start to think about what he had done and decided to kill himself, soon after the managing director arrives and the first thing he sees is the crucified body of Kayerts.
They are faulty machines of a society that accustomed their members to not to think, to not fend for themselves, they were taught by a superior to obey orders that they forget the most basic thing of being a human. They lack of human instinct until one of them in a fit of madness and illness decides to kill the other in “self defense” and then find out that the other was unarmed. The new power of Kayerts started to rise, the new wave of thoughts rushing through his head may woke up a glimmer of intelligence in one way but more incompetent and coward that he already was in the other. But it was too late for him, he started to feel fear, thinking about heaven, the rules and the progress of real society was calling to him:
Progress was calling to Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return to that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done.
In An Outpost of Progress, Conrad refers with a little of mockery and irony to the idea of “progression” “civilization” and the progression through Christianity that is celebrated by the Queen Victoria and through Europe. For example; Conrad uses one of the symbols of Christianity, the cross and points out at the beginning of the story:
There was also another dwelling-place some distance away from the buildings. In it, under a tall cross much out of the perpendicular, slept the man who had seen the beginning of all this; who had planned and had watched the construction of this outpost of progress.
And when Kayerts commit suicide and the end of the story:
He had evidently climbed the grave, which was high and narrow, and after tying the end of the strap to the arm, had swung himself off. His toes were only a couple of inches above the ground; his arms hung stiffly down; he seemed to be standing rigidly at attention, but with one purple cheek playfully posed on the shoulder. And, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.
Conrad’s irony is clear, the crooked direction of the cross means that Christianity is useless and irrelevant in a place with different cultures and beliefs, in the hostile African jungle. Also the cross as a symbol of redemption and as a symbol of peace, the opportunity to reborn and eternal life makes Kayerts in his impotence of a though of his own to commit suicide. For Conrad Christianity makes no sense of progress for other civilizations, this is because it is filled with violence, moral failures and economic opportunism as we know the colonization movement in history of mankind, they were filled with bloodshed and unnecessary slaughter of innocent people. Also the political wave of that time with mixed points of view between the socialism and the capitalism as It sees when Makola traded the Indians for a piece of ivory, the material goods as a exchange of human lives. Maybe this is what Conrad saw when he arrived in Congo all his hopes in humankind were lost and that fake sound of progress suddenly appeared when he returned to Europe, seeing the reality of the two faces of the coin, one nation in prosperity and the other paying the price.
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