Civilization Versus Savagery
The descent of Kayerts and Carlier seems to reflect the notion that there exists in every ‘‘civilized’’ person a potential for savagery that is kept at bay by the comforts of modern society. The men are described as ‘‘two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds.’’ According to the narrator, ‘‘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.’’ The narrator also notes that ‘‘the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart.’’ Without the restrictions and rules of society, the men begin to ignore rules of politeness, cleanliness, and ultimately, basic human rights. In the end, an inconsequential argument results in a violent physical confrontation that leaves Carlier dead.
Physical and Mental Decay
The two main characters in the story show a direct link between their physical and mental states. Optimistic and hopeful when they arrive, Kayerts and Carlier are also at their healthiest.
The longer they spend at the station, the sicker they both become. After several months, Kayerts has difficulty walking. As their stay drags on, their mental states deteriorate. Carlier becomes paranoid and quick to anger, and the small amount of respect he once offered to Kayerts as his superior disappears completely. After shooting Carlier, Kayerts becomes so deranged from fear and guilt that when the company steamer finally arrives to take him back to civilization, he decides to kill himself rather than face judgment for his actions.
Though the subject is only explicitly mentioned once, colonialism is a theme that runs through the story. Colonialism is the expansion of an empire’s territory by establishing colonies in other regions. People who already live in the region are generally placed under the rule of the colonizing empire. Kayerts and Carlier are operating a trading station in Africa, but in essence, this is a colonial outpost established by Europeans to maintain economic control over the area. As with many colonialists, Kayerts and Carlier view their actions as beneficial to the locals—they see themselves as part of a force that brings progress to a desolate and backward region. Carlier even describes himself and Kayerts as ‘‘the first civilized men to live in this very spot.’’ The pair reads an old newspaper article from back home that applauds the efforts of men like themselves, who ‘‘went about bringing light, and faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth.’’ Near the end of the story, the trading company is even referred to by the narrator as the Great Civilizing Company.
However, this positive view of colonialism runs contrary to the men’s actions and attitudes while at the station. Instead of bringing civilization and progress, they bring about the enslavement of their own workmen and the death of a friendly local villager. In addition, the two men never make any improvements to the station or to the area in which they live, nor do they make any effort to learn how to communicate directly with any native peoples.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2010