Joseph Conrad's short story "An outpost of progress". A (post-)colonial Gothic reading

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


Theoretical Approach: Postcolonial Gothic
(Post-) Colonialism
Gothic Fiction
Otherness / ‘Othering’

Joseph Conrad’s “An Outpost Of Progress”
Postcolonial Discourse
The Gothic in the Short Story

Conclusion – A Postcolonial Gothic Reading



At first sight, postcolonial theories and Gothic writing appear to barely have anyfeatures in common. On the one hand, Gothic as a genre flourished with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764, which celebrated irrationality and explored “feelings, desires and passions which compromised the Enlightenment project of rationally calibrating all forms of knowledge and behaviours” (Smith and Hughes 1). In the succeeding decades, numerous writers trail Walpole by publishing their individual Gothic novels, e.g. Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. On the other hand, studies in colonialist discourse contemplate colonialisation and its aftermath on individuals, communities and cultures, emerging in the late 1970s as essence of literary criticism. Although both genres appear to focus on antithetic research domains considering time references as well as contexts, they still share their enthusiasm in questioning conceptions of rationality. Therefore, both study areas challenge issues, of which humans are incapable to explain. Thereby, the creation of an ‘Other’ is crucial. On the one hand, postcolonial and colonial domains challenge and attempt at standing reason for the clash of cultures with which colonisers and colonised people are confronted. On the other hand, emphasising the idea of transgression, Gothic fiction inhabits images of the Other as well, illustrating anew the impossibility for explanation.

Joseph Conrad published his short story “An Outpost of Progress” in 1897 and collected it to his work Tales of Unrest in 1898. “An Outpost of Progress” has become subject to crucial criticism of imperialism, colonialisation and civilisation, by describing the story of two white men, Kayerts and Carlier, who are in charge of a trading post in the Congo cabin. Consequently, the story represents the difficulties between two oppositional cultures and the effects of this encounter. Considering the dark ambience created throughout the story, this short story can be analysed in terms of a postcolonial gothic reading. This paper aims, therefore, to outline main reasons why this short story accords with characteristics of a postcolonial and colonial gothic reading.To clarify this similarity, this paper will separate Postcolonialism and Gothic fiction to outline their individual characteristics. Consequently, the paper starts with an outline of Postcolonialism, subdividing it in Colonialism and Postcolonialism. Second, a detailed outline of the Gothic as a genre will be provided. Having illustrated the main characteristics of (Post-) Colonialism and the Gothic, the similar dealing with the concept of ‘Othering’, i.e. the Other, will be visible and analysed. Afterwards, Joseph Conrad’s short story “An Outpost of Progress” will be taken into account, examining it in postcolonial as well as Gothic context. Finally, this paper will offer an evaluation of the short story as a reading in postcolonial gothic terms.

Theoretical Approach: Postcolonial Gothic

Postcolonial Gothic appears to exhibit oppositional topics in their works. Therefore, it is helpful to outline both areas separately in order to elaborate pivotal similarities. By means of a significant contextualisation, those similarities contribute to the reading of a work in postcolonial Gothic context.

(Post-) Colonialism

Ever since the emergence of the study field, adepts of literary studies have had a vast dispute over a precise definition of (Post-) Colonialism. First, the term needs to be split up by its components, since Postcolonialism concentrates particularly on the effects of colonialisation, while Colonialism rather centralises “the [actual] conquest and control of other people’s land and goods” (Loomba 20). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), colonialism is described as a settlement in a new country … a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state; the community so formed, consisting of the original settlers and their descendants and successors, as long as the connection with the parent state is kept up. (qtd. in Loomba 19)

Remarkably, this definition does not consider any of the aboriginal individuals, who had already been living in those countries. Hence, it effectively avoids the representation of the actual encounter between the settlers and the indigenous, i.e. the actual conquest and domination of the colonists. Notwithstanding, it alludes to practices and processes in order to colonise these communities.Ania Loomba refers to the necessity of “un-forming or re-forming” the already existing nations by the use of “trade, settlement, plunder, negotiation, warfare, genocide, and enslavement [original emphasis]” (20). Consequently, the research area of Colonialism analyses scientific literature, testimonies, official documents and other writings thoroughlyin order to stand for reason of obstacles, apartheid and the native’s difficulties in adapting new cultures. Further, the colonisers’ humiliating power during the colonial era is questioned, since the exploitation of the indigenous people was crucial and relevant for the development of one’s identity.Moreover, in the nucleus of colonialism is the need to differentiate between ancient colonialism and modern colonialism, since colonialism as such has not emerged out of the expansion of Eastern hegemonies, such as Portugal or Spain (ibid.).Before western Europeans expanded to Asia, Africa, and America, the Roman Empire, inter alia, had already had overwhelming power and percolates from Armenia to the Atlantic in the second century AD. Additionally, eleven centuries after the Roman Empire, the Mongols conquered the Middle East as well as China. Hence, colonialism has ever been the essence of the world’s history. Nevertheless, modern colonialism differs crucially to the ancient settlements. Admittedly, the Romans and the Mongols exploited the natives and spoiled all of their goods. However, they did not attempt to construct a new society. Conversely, as Loomba outlines,

Modern colonialism did more than extract tribute, goods and wealth from the countries that it conquered – it restructured the economies of the latter, drawing them into a complex relationship with their own, so that there was a flow of human and natural resources between colonised and colonial countries. (21)

Indeed, modern colonialism symbolises an enormous step towards globalization and global shifts of population, since not only the colonials moved but also the colonisers in order to improve trade affairs as well as to provide necessary regulations for work on plantations (ibid. 22). Consequently, colonialism focuses particularly on the occurrences in the height of colonialisation.

On the other hand, with the prefix ‘post’, Postcolonialism indicates a period ‘after’ colonialism, ensuing in the differentiation between the historical periods of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial (cf. Ashcroft et al. 187).Consequently, adepts cast doubt about the beginnings and ends of each period, since colonialism, as outlined above, can be observed back into to the second century AD. However, according to Ashcroft et al., “post-colonialism … has been primarily concerned to examine the processes and effects of, and reactions to, European colonialism from the sixteenth century up to … the present day” (188). In addition, the essence of postcolonial studies inhabits the disclosure of the main cultural differences between the colonisers and the colonised people, why postcolonial discourse becomes issue in historical, political, sociological, and economic context (ibid. 187). Therefore, scholar Gina Wisker demandsthe necessity of contextualisation in order to comprehend adequately these social varieties “beyond the facts of everyday reality of the differences posed by geography, climate, and history” (“Liminal Spaces” 404). Additionally, postcolonial discourse questions the imposed values of the colonisers and attempts at giving reason to those issues, that do not fit into the already established and known scheme, underliningthe colonials’ difficulties in adapting or rather accepting those new worldviews, customs and practices (Wisker, “Postcolonial Gothic” 168-169).

Gothic Fiction

The Gothic as a genre originated out of pivotal cultural changes in the 18th century. Etymologically, the word ‘Gothic’ is connected to barbarian northern tribes named ‘Goths’, who lived in the Middle Ages and had been a relevant component in the conquest and collapse of the Roman Empire (cf. Punter and Byron 7).Esteeming the fact that this tribe existed in the medieval era, the Gothic in literature adopts the surroundings, meaning the retention of medieval settings such as castles and/or ruins (cf. Khair 5). Further, the public life in the 18th century was mainly determined by a reasonable way of thinking, attempting to explain every kind of human or natural activity in terms of rationality (ibid.).Conversely, having its roots connected to the barbarian northern tribe, Gothic fictioncontrastedentirely with this classical order,as first outlined in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, portraying a family tragedy in a chaotic way. Moreover, in their work, Punter and Byron expand this contrast, outlining, where the classical was simple and pure, Gothic was ornate and convoluted; where the classics offered a world of clear rules and limits, Gothic represented excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and the uncivilized, a world that constantly tended to overflow cultural boundaries. (7)

Thereby, Gothic novels fit into the discourse of transgression and going beyond the limits (cf. Khair 5). Particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus emphasises the aspect of challenging nature, life, environment, and morality by giving life to a creature, or rather a monster. Furthermore, scholars of the Gothic may be aware of the vast ways of reading a Gothic novel, why a certain estrangement and deconstruction of the novel are crucial (cf. Wisker, “Liminal Spaces” 404). At the very core of literary work, adepts are able to reveal and challenge the features of the Gothic novel not only in terms ofsocial and cultural issues, but also in psychological and personal context(cf. Wisker, “Postcolonial Gothic” 168). Taking the myriad of Gothic novels into account, numerous key features are accentuated. Gothic writings are mainly attributed to a dark, misty and gloomy scenery, alluding to decay, terror, madness and death, either psychological or physical. This scenery induces an overall atmosphere of fear, mystery and even claustrophobia, underlined by the frequent usage of the symbolism of the fog. In fact, the “fog is a supremely sublime element”, obscuring the surroundings and prompting visibility difficulties (Mighall 56). In the 16th century, Edmund Burke challenged the established interpretation of the sublime in accordance with the beautiful (cf. Milbank 227). Conversely, he locates the sublime, i.e. the experiences within a novel outlining enormous power working against the readers’ or the characters’ will, entirely in terms of terror and fear, even indicating the ‘King of Terrors’ himself, i.e. Death (ibid.). Therefore, Burke explains, Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a force of the Sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. [original emphasis] (Burke 13)

Consequently, the sublime is characterized as encountering the mighty, the terrible and the awesome, something a human mind is unable to comprehend, outlininga powerful and sensory imagery. According to Milbank, the “power is [therefore] seen to be the essence of the sublime style, which literally ‘moves’ or ‘transports’ its hearers [original emphasis]” (226-227). In fact, given a sublime experience, the reader might await something mysterious to happen.Besides, Gothic writings involve elements of the supernatural, underscoring anew the challenge of rationality and reason and hence, the contrast to classical literature. Unsurprisingly, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, femmes fatales, or the Devil himself, inter alia, portray the main characters within the Gothic story, causing inexplicable events. Especially ghosts are traditionally believed to depict the spirit of deceased persons, haunting places as well as characters and contributing to the creation of the terrifying and suspensefulambiance. Apart from supernatural beings, tyrants, villains, persecuted maidens, mad women and maniacs are represented as the main characters of the novels. Thus, as Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy reinforce, “Gothic novels could be easily identified by their incorporation of dominant tropes such as imperilled heroines, dastardly villains, ineffectual heroes, supernatural events, dilapidated buildings and atmospheric weather” (1).

Otherness / ‘Othering’

In accordance with Gina Wisker and Tabish Khair, (Post-) Colonial studies and Gothic fiction overlap in the theory of ‘Othering’ or ‘Otherness’, meaning the process of categorising a group, an individual or an object as the ‘Other’. In Wisker’s view, the theory of ‘Othering’ “exclude[s] and destroy[s] or recognize[s] the rich differences of an Other we construct in order to somehow feel clearer and more secure about our own stable identities” (“Postcolonial Gothic” 169). Tabish Khair argues “the Other is seen as a Self waiting to be assimilated … or the Other is cast as the purely negative image of the European Self, the obverse of the Self” (4). Hence, the Other is characterised by its inferiority towards the European identity. Bill Ashcroft et al. generalise the term of the Other as “anyone who is separate from one’s self”, underlining the crucial necessity of having an Other in order to develop one’s identity by deciding what is ‘normal’ as well as to find one’s place in the world (169). In general, the process of Othering has been applied particularly to post-colonial studies, depicting the Empire’s ability in creating non-Europeans as the Other due to the Europeans’ inability or intolerance in accepting the extraordinary cultural differences (ibid. 170). Further, scholar Stuart Hall agrees with the portrayal of the colonised people as the Other, examining the core of the Other as a construction built to emphasise the absolute opposite to Western norms (cf. 314). Consequently, a crucial differentiation between black and white people derive out of the depiction of the ‘dark’ side as the Other, describing the Western empire as the prototype and master of civilisation. However, this idea of superiority encounters crucially with the essence of enlightenment and modernity (ibid.). While in Postcolonialism the Other is described as someone from a foreign colony, Gothic fiction writers reinforce the idea of the Other by introducing supernatural or mysterious characters such as exemplarily the Devil, ghosts, vampires, lunatics or madwomen (cf. Khair 6). Unsurprisingly, Khair characterises Gothic novels not only as medium to transgress borders but also as a way of “writing of Otherness” (5). In fact, readers may be in a position to dichotomise the novel into ‘abnormal’ and unknown, on the one side, and ‘normal’ and familiar, on the other side, by analysing the individual elements and characters. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus exemplifies the concept of marginalization and strangeness, ensuing in the realisation of Othering the creature. Therefore, every Gothic novel entailing any kind of strange events or creatures confirms the existence of the Other as well as the process of Othering.

Combining both, Postcolonialism and Gothic fiction, with the concept of Othering, elements of a postcolonial gothic reading become visible. First, considering marginalization as well as depreciation, characters in postcolonial discourse tend to “re-animate the traumas of their colonial past to produce Gothic narratives” (Gelder 181).Consequently, postcolonial writings are comparable with Gothic stories in terms of portraying places and/or individuals being haunted by those spirits, who had been oppressed in the imperial past. Furthermore, Gothic concepts of transgression can be adapted to postcolonial reading by challenging the colonisers’ morality in exploiting not only the Other’s lands and goods, but also devaluating their values and traditions in order to create a community assimilated to the Western World. Thus, while Gothic stresses transgression in terms of challenging nature, reason and rationality, postcolonial discourse transgresses threshold of pivotal humiliation and disregard of general human rights. In addition, the concept of colonial Gothic writing differs in the settings it emphasises. On the one hand, writers can focus on the Other’s influence in one’s familiar surroundings, particularly Great Britain. On the other hand, the story can concentrate on the coloniser’s experiences abroad, indicating the encounter between the coloniser and native people, set in a foreign and strange place for the coloniser (cf. Warwick 261). The coloniser’s experience abroad indicates anew Otherness, meaning, “both landscape and people are seen as uncanny, beyond the possibilities of explanation in European terms” (ibid. 262). In Gothic fiction, the action of the stories moves mainly to foreign countries too. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto takes place in Southern Europe, emphasising the idea that the terror and horror depicted in the story will never come to one’s familiar surroundings. Hence, Gothic novels coincide with the coloniser’s experiences abroad, illustrating the secure distance to these horrifying events.

Joseph Conrad’s “An Outpost Of Progress”

A vast amount of scholars outline Joseph Conrad’s short story “An Outpost of Progress” as a writing criticising pivotally European activities during the colonial era. Joseph Conrad wrote his story in 1897 and collected it to his work Tales of Unrest in 1898. Recognisably, it is drawn by Conrad’s personal experiences, since he travelled to the Congo in order to accept his post in May 1890 (cf. Peters 4). Therefore, John G. Peters, among others, illustrates the significant connection between the short story, Joseph Conrad’s personal criticism and the idea of European imperialism and trade affairs in the 18th century.

“An Outpost of Progress” epitomises the story of two men, Kayerts and Carlier, who are in charge of a trading post in the Congo basin. Kayerts and Carlier, moved by their desperate hope to become wealthy through trading ivory, accept the director’s offer, since “it [is] an exceptional opportunity for them to distinguish themselves and to earn percentages on the trade” (Conrad Part I). Apart from the idea of becoming wealthy, the two men also see themselves as ambassadors of progress in propagating Western values, i.e. establishing a civilisation in European terms. Consequently, the two men encounter the African people, whom they perceive as unbelievably strange and primitive. However, suffering from decreasing provisions, the station workers, i.e. African natives, become too weak to work, why the processing of ivory deteriorates. As a consequence, Makola, a native assistant to Kayerts and Carlier, clandestinely arranges a sale of ten station workers in return for six tusks in order to preserve higher commissions for the company. First, the two white men are shocked and question, whether it has to be reported to the director to silence their conscience; yet, regarding the lucrative profit, they quickly change their mind. Towards the end of the story, becoming too fainéant and indolent, the mental state of both deteriorates rapidly, causing a fight about the last bits of sugar. Eventually, Kayerts ends upshooting the unarmed Carlier. Afterwards hecommits suicide by hanging himself from a cross.

Accordingly, Conrad’s short story illustrates “the moral degeneration engendered by isolation and the nature of the dissemination of Western civilization” (Peters 50). Paradox and absolute converse to the title, this trading station becomes one of regress instead of progress, underlining the idea of the two men becoming ever more uncivilized (ibid. 51). Further analysis will focus particularly on the postcolonial and gothic elements Joseph Conrad used in order to accentuate his impressive critique on European colonialism.

Postcolonial Discourse

“An Outpost of Progress” entails a pithy illustration of Postcolonialism as well as Colonialism. In times past, European’s intention to disperse widely civilized progress was used to justify the brutal process of colonialism (cf. Peters 51). However, by means of crucial satire, the narratorillustrates the absolute opposite, since Kayerts and Carlier’s mental state deteriorates significantly, influencing drastically the decline of the Africans as well. In fact, using satirical images ensures the conveyance of the exact contrary of what is actually said. Taking the title into account, the depicted outpost is far from being one of progress, but rather one of regress. Further, instead of pursuing the initial idea of being ambassadors of progress in propagating civilisation, Kayerts and Carlier become extraordinarily indolent, living “like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact with them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see the general aspect of things” (Conrad Part I). Due to their myopic perspective, both display their insignificance towards their surroundings, stressed by the emptiness of the river and the forest, though filled with life (ibid.). According to scholar Debra Candreva, this blindness outlines the “hallmark of the whole imperial discourse”, punctuating the men’s decline as a consequence from lacking contact with Africa(323 - 324). Consequently, through the illustration of this parochial worldview, the storyteller draws the line between the ‘Other’ and the Western world, laying emphasis on the Europeans’ inability to tolerate or accept difference.Depicting Kayerts hanging from the cross and “putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director”, Conrad stresses this blindness humorously, “by ensuring the overall meaninglessness not only of what has occurred between the two men, but also of the whole enterprise” (ibid. 325).

Moreover, the representation of the Africans in “An Outpost of Progress” is crucial in postcolonial terms. By introducing Makola, “the third man on the staff” (Conrad Part I), the narrator achieves to provide a voice for the African characters, who even demand for an identity (cf. Njeng). Although Makola calls himself Henry Price, “for some reason or other, the natives down the river [have] given him the name of Makola, and it [stick] to him through all his wanderings about the country” (Conrad Part I). In fact, while being multilingual, Makola portrays not only a highly intellectual agent in this outpost, but does also prove his extraordinary ability in commerce and trading affairs. Thereby, the African colonial prevents initially the absolute decay of the outpost, underscoring his capability to manipulate his supposedly white superiors (cf. Njeng).Indeed, evidence is given that Makola’s portrayal is one of a manager rather than of a native or indigenous African by the crucially different depiction of Makola and the white men. Although the narrator introduces Kayerts and Carlier as the chief and its assistant, the reader soon recognises that the true manager of this outpost are, in fact, not the white men, but instead, Makola. Throughout the story, Makola evidently progresses in the increase of his authority and power. Consequently,in comparison to the white men, Makola proves himself and achieves ultimately a “reversal of hierarchical roles” (Bensemmane). Embarrassed and fearing their loss of their position in the outpost, Kayerts and Carlier do not onlydeny Makola’s real name, Henry Price, but do also “[add] an opprobrious epithet” every time they address to Makola in order to “[ease] their conscience” (Conrad Part II). According to Andrea White, “denying him his name serves to neutralize him, a tactic they find helpful in dealing with a native so threateningly atypical” (158-159). Presumably, the most striking notion considering Makola is his commerce with the black slave dealers for enhancement of ivory. However, this trade might “[indicate] his compliance with the Company’s mercantile objectives” (Bensemmane), amplifying anew the idea of Makola’s superiority. Furthermore, the narrator’s portrayal of these hierarchical roles does not correspond with the ancient representation of the white and black relation, underscoring, on the one hand, the effects of the irony used. In fact, at the end of the short story, readers might perceive that the entire trading station has been handed over to an inferior native person. On the other hand, as Makola is perceived as the ‘Other’, it is recognizable that particularly this character is the reason for an entire shift in the hierarchical perspective and even achieves to be on a higher rank than the white men.


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Joseph Conrad's short story "An outpost of progress". A (post-)colonial Gothic reading
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Colonial Gothic, Postcolonial Gothic, Postcolonialism, Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress, Otherness, Othering, Gothic Fiction
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Janine Evangelista (Author), 2018, Joseph Conrad's short story "An outpost of progress". A (post-)colonial Gothic reading, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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