Omniscient Point of View
‘‘An Outpost of Progress’’ is told through an omniscient, or ‘‘all-knowing,’’ point of view. With an omniscient narrator, the reader can be given insight into the thoughts of many different characters, rather than just a single viewpoint character. For example, the story begins by providing a glimpse of the world through Makola’s perspective, but later reveals the thoughts and feelings of Carlier, Kayerts, and—at the end—the director of the trading company. The narrator also offers insights into the thoughts of the village chief Gobila, as well as an explanation for the general discontent and illness among the company workmen at the station. An omniscient narrator may also provide information that does not come directly from any character. For example, the narrator notes that the physical appearance of both Kayerts and Carlier changes dramatically during their first five months at the station, but neither man notices the change in the other. The narrator also provides a small amount of background information about the previous station agent, who is dead and buried before the story begins.
‘‘An Outpost of Progress’’ contains numerous examples of irony. Irony is a literary device where the author deliberately creates a disparity between what is said and what is meant, or where the author reveals crucial information to readers that is not revealed to one or more characters. The first type is known as verbal irony, while the second type is called dramatic irony. Foremost among the many examples of verbal irony in the story is its title. The author sets the reader’s expectations by describing the station as an ‘‘outpost of progress’’ but quickly reveals the description to be entirely untrue. The main station house is filthy and unkempt: ‘‘The plank floor was littered with the belongings of the white men; open half-empty boxes, torn wearing apparel, old boots; all the things dirty, and all the things broken, that accumulate mysteriously round untidy men.’’ The station chiefs make no effort to improve anything while they are there, though the director has given them a list of projects to complete. The men themselves seem not to progress but to regress, losing the basic social skills and courtesy that allowed them to exist in society.
Similarly, at the end of the story, the narrator refers to the trading company as ‘‘the Great Civilizing Company (since civilization supposedly follows trade),’’ even though the opposite has proven to be the case over the course of the tale. In reality, trade brings nothing to the locals but death and treachery. No attempt is even made to help ‘‘civilize’’ them, and the natives’ profits from trade consist of what Carlier refers to as ‘‘rubbish’’ and ‘‘rags.’’
Dramatic irony also appears in the story, such as when the narrator reveals that the steamer has been delayed due to complications with another boat, and that the director is busy supplying his more important trading stations first. Kayerts and Carlier only know that the boat is long overdue and have no idea when— or if—it will return for them.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2010