Formed by Place: Spatiality, Irony, and Empire in Conrad’s ‘An Outpost of Progress’
Tally, Robert T., Jr.
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In its ironic narrative and distinctive geography, Joseph Conrad’s 1897 short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’ is well suited for geocritical analysis, insofar as Conrad demonstrates the degree to which space and place affect both the characters in the story and style of the text. Focusing on the unique setting—the ‘outpost’—in which the events take place, Rutledge and Tally argue that Conrad’s tale employs an ironic narrator in order to highlight the tale’s distinctive spatiality, particularly with respect to a geopolitical system that too neatly divides the spaces of the globe into civilized and barbaric regions. The spatiality of ‘An Outpost of Progress’ can be seen in the geographical aspects of the narrative, with the specific site or heterotopia of the ‘outpost’ situated at the edge of a territory coded as ‘barbaric’ or ‘uncivilized,’ thus connecting the colonized domain in central Africa to the metropolitan society of northwestern Europe, largely unseen, but implicitly present throughout the story. But this spatiality may also be observed in its formal or stylistic elements, especially in the point of view and voice of the narrator, as the perspective shifts from omniscient overseer to ironic commentator and then to a free indirect style in which the distance between narrator and subject is dramatically reduced. In this way, Conrad produces an ironic, spatial narrative that highlights, in both content and form, the absurdity of the imperialist ‘civilizing mission’ in Africa.