Short Tales of Joseph Conrad
Trapped in Exile: A Comparison between Joseph Conrad’s “Amy Foster” and “An Outpost of Progress”
Born in 19th century Poland, Joseph Conrad experienced a life out of the ordinary as a world traveller. Attracted by reading, maps and the dream of becoming a sailor, Conrad led a multi-skilled life, travelled the world and wrote masterpieces that only a man with such a background could compose. Only once one understands the full and active life of Joseph Conrad, then short stories as “Amy Foster” and “An Outpost of Progress” can be appreciated in their entirety. The latter have the particularity of being established in a foreign setting and their respective protagonists are launched in an unknown environment, a context that will sound familiar to most travellers.
Indeed, in “Amy Foster”, Yanko who comes from Eastern Europe gets shipwrecked in England; as in “An Outpost of Progress”, Carlier and Kayerts, both firmly rooted in Western Europe, find themselves somewhere in Congo. At first, these two destinations do not seem to have anything in common. However, what bonds the central figures of these two tales is that all of them are thrown in a new environment and do not have the choice but confront the unknown. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is firstly to show the main divergences between the two stories and bring them closer, but also to examine their similitudes and finally to discuss whether the protagonists of each story suffer in a similar way from their exile despite the variations due to space and cultures. If one were asked what distinguishes “Amy Foster” from “An Outpost of Progress” or vice versa, answers would be endless. However, a comparison between two opposed things is senseless if they do not have anything in common at all and this explains the necessity of connecting these two short stories in the first instance. Furthermore, some differences between these narratives can be surprisingly erased or at least reduced in some way, such as the places they are set in and the reasons that force the protagonists to travel. As mentioned above, the places where the main characters are, have a priori nothing in common. Yanko finds himself in a British village, Colebrook, an area mostly described as rural; whereas the protagonists of “An Outpost of Progress” travel to a far more exotic place, Africa.
Furthermore, the situations of the protagonists are different: Yanko does not know where he is, as the reader does and on the opposite, Carlier and Kayerts seem to be aware of their localisation when their audience only knows that they are in Congo, a quite vast area. However, it seems that all these variations from one story to another are meaningless as M’hamed Bensemmane explains: “This is deemed unimportant by the narrator, who prefers to focus on the strangeness of the place, and seeks to achieve an effect of de-familiarisation” rather than to target the particularities of both sites (Bensemmane, p. 2). The reasons that force the protagonists to move to their new environment also consist in another divergence between the stories. Indeed, Yanko has no intention to move to England as he initially wants to go to America but gets shipwrecked, contrary to Carlier and Kayerts who are both willing to move to Congo. Kayerts repeats that he came to earn money for his daughter Melie, as Carlier was sent there by his family. Even though the latter first seem satisfied with their new workplace, when Carlier says that “[h]e, like Kayerts, regretted his old life” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, p. 7) and the fact that “[t]he two men […] cared for nothing but for the passage of days that separated them from the steamer’s return” (ibid., p. 8), then their desire to go back home cannot be contested. Consequently, what bounds once again the two stories is the craving of each protagonist for leaving the place in which they are trapped. It can be concluded that there is a divergence regarding the places where the stories are set and the reasons that conduct the protagonists where they are.
Nonetheless, what brings “Amy Foster” and “An Outpost of Progress” together is that all the central figures are thrown in unknown countries and do not have the choice but stay there. Thus, a confrontation of the protagonists’ adventures can be discussed as the short stories converge on central aspects. Indeed, Yanko, Carlier and Kayerts face some similar experiences in their respective new land, such as the cultural and environmental differences, the difficulties linked to the relations with the inhabitants and communication. As a matter of fact, this accumulation leads the heroes of the two stories to a feeling of eternal foreignness, nostalgia and loneliness. Straight away the borders of one’s country are crossed, cultural differences are inevitable and their impact can be surprisingly important for the foreigners. The way to behave, the climate or simply a change of food tastes give the outsider the impression that he or she will never feel like at home. For instance, the distance between Eastern and Western Europe is not very impressive on a global scale. However, in “Amy Foster”, Kennedy relates that for Yanko, “England was un undiscovered country” and that “he might have expected to find wild beasts or wild men here” (Conrad, Selected Short Stories, p. 103). It is also surprising that Yanko knew little about the maritime world when he names ships as “steam-machine that went on the water” or “a great house on the water” (ibid., p. 106). Even basics elements such as earth, grass or trees are unfamiliar to him in this new environment (ibid., p. 114). Culturally speaking, he keeps wondering about the opening hours of the churches in England as they are open only in the weekends. To him, by restricting the opening, the inhabitants of Colebrook also limit the time spent in prayer (ibid., p. 116). As a strong believer, Yanko’s habits of praying before bed is also sceptically seen by the others. Later in the story, when Yanko tries to seduce Amy, he offers her a ribbon as he would have done in his country. The Eastern man is aware that this gift does not have a bigger effect on Amy than any other present would, but in his culture this would have been much more meaningful. What also disturbs Yanko in the British civilization is that he ignores the marriage procedure there (ibid., p. 118). Finally, the most striking example in “Amy Foster” regarding the cultural differences is when Yanko wants to dance and share this tradition with the inhabitants of Colebrook, it is badly perceived and he gets rejected twice. The landlord qualifies this dance as an “acrobat tricks in the tap-room” and the outsider ends with a black eye (ibid., p. 117). Hence, Yanko has no choice but comply with the British culture in order to fit in even if he will never totally succeed. The biggest change between Africa and Europe is probably the climate although Kayerts, barely off the boat, says that it “is not at all worse than home, as long as you keep out of the sun” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, p. 6). It is an ironical assertion knowing how forceful the sun can be there, but also knowing the impact of the Congolese climate on two men throughout the story. Once Carlier and Kayerts arrive, they immediately settle in their new house trying their best to feel at home, “an impossible task” in the narrator’s opinion (ibid., p. 6).
The cultural contrast is less salient in “An Outpost of Progress”, as the protagonists are less confronted to another civilized society as Yanko is. However, they also suffer from their new environment in a certain way: they were used to be conditioned by the European society and once they arrive in this whole new place, they feel like “prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedom” (ibid., p. 6). They quickly feel lost and start missing simple things of their daily lives showing that the peaceful African routine of the two men makes them regret the little spicy things of their European life (ibid., p. 6-7). Indeed, as lazy and unambitious workers, the days of Carlier and Kayerts seem very long to them, even “interminable” (ibid., p. 8). Another difference can be observed in the food. The men are not well-supplied by the Company, a lack that they are probably not used to. Therefore, it is Gobila’s wife that provides them local food (ibid., p. 10), made of new tastes. Regarding the nutritive variation from one culture to another, the narrator also relates the story of certain tribes who had to be fed from rice by the Company, a nutriment they were not used to and that made them “unhealthy and miserable” (ibid., p. 13). In conclusion, Carlier, Kayerts and Yanko, all of them are affected by the cultural and environmental differences in accordance with the country they find themselves in and no matter how hard they try to feel at home, none of them succeed. Another aspect that goes hand in hand with the discovery of a new culture is the acquaintance with the inhabitants.
In both short stories the first contact between the locals and the protagonists is somewhat difficult. Although there is some sort of evolution in each relation, a full integration of the foreigners does not seem conceivable. In “Amy Foster”, the first impression of the inhabitants regarding Yanko is miserable. Indeed, children call him “a horrid-looking man”, some boys qualify him as “a funny tramp”, whereas Smith thinks he is “some nondescript and miry creature sitting cross-legged amongst a lot of loose straw and swinging itself to and fro like a bear in cage” (Conrad, Selected Short Stories, p. 108-9). Yanko is also said to be of “an inexplicable strangeness” and named a “maniac” (ibid., p. 109), a “creature” or finally, a “madman” (ibid., p. 112). Furthermore, as if all these qualifications were not enough, he is often compared to some sort of animal. He gets locked in one of Swaffer’s building, he cleans himself as a cat would do, he is covered with a horse’s covers and is panicked as a bird in a cage would be (ibid., p. 112). Later in the story, the reader learns that once he is a bit more civilized, he is still not allowed to eat on the kitchen table as humans do. Fortunately, Yanko develops special relations with some of the inhabitants. Kennedy becomes his friend and confesses that he never missed a chance to discuss with him (ibid., p. 107). Mr Swaffer is another person who gets interested in Yanko. However, cheap labour is probably the main reason that made him do so. And finally, the mysterious Amy Foster is the first one that approaches Yanko without fear and consequently, appeared to him as an angel.
As mentioned above, the relation between Yanko and the inhabitants of Colebrook evolves. It happens the day when he saves Swaffer’s great daughter and from that moment, Yanko seem to be considered in a more human way. He is henceforth allowed to eat on the kitchen table and is paid for the work he executes (ibid., p. 116). However, despite this slight improvement Kennedy explains that “[a]t last people became used to see him. But they never became used to him” (ibid., p. 116). The best fitting examples are that the inhabitants never accept Yanko’s dances and when he wants to marry Amy and her father asserts that “[Yanko] was very good with sheep, but was not fit for any girl to marry” (ibid., p. 119). Regarding this position in which Yanko is, midway from a perfect stranger but still far from one of Colebrook’s inhabitant, Myrtle Hooper explains: “There is nothing inherently right or superior about the culture [Yanko] encounters: it is simply the case that he must obey its dictates in order to survive. He does so, to an extent, but is never fully integrated: in Krajka’s terms, ‘The English villagers refuse to recognize the new-comer’s cultural ego, despise the values of his ethnos, totally negate all the elements of his ethos’”. (Hooper, p. 54) Besides, it is when Yanko is left alone that he remembers his homeland. For instance, the Norway pines on Swaffer’s property remind him his country and he wistfully considers them like his brothers (ibid., p. 115). It finally seems that rejection leads to nostalgia. In “An Outpost of Progress”, the relation with the natives is limited to Carlier and Kayerts’ observations. This time, it is the foreigners that compare the inhabitants to beasts, calling them “funny brutes” or “fine animals” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, p. 8). They mention their corporal smell with rude comments such as “Don’t they stink!” (ibid., p. 8) and speak of them as if they were cows in a market of livestock. They make fun of their faces and judge their musculature from a superior perspective. They also have special relations regarding some of the inhabitants. Makola, their jack of all trades, is considered in a more human way because he speaks their language, is obedient and helpful. However, he remains one of the most mysterious character of the story and no real friendship is struck up. Carlier and Kayerts also quickly become friends with Gobila, the chief of the neighbouring village. They describe Gobila as friendly, even paternal, and appreciate the furniture he provides them.
There also is an evolution of the relations in “An Outpost of Progress” when Carlier and Kayerts sacrifice indirectly some natives for ivory which put an end to their relationship with Gobila. They then decide to blame Makola for this tragedy in order to lighten their conscience. This is how the protagonists find themselves without any other friends than each other. Like Yanko, it is when the two men are alone together that they wistfully enumerate all the good things they have left in their country, such as “the streets, the pavements, the cafés, [their] friends of many years; all the things [they] used to see, day after day; all the thoughts suggested by familiar things” but also “the clink of sabre and spurs on a fine afternoon, the barrack-room witticisms” (ibid., p. 6-7). Consequently, in both stories some relationships are made between foreigners and locals, they all evolve but unfortunately it seems that they head towards the worst and this is when nostalgia settles.
Linked to human contact, communication also plays an important role in both short stories. Actually, it is its lack that explains the tragic fate of each protagonist. In “Amy Foster”, it is obvious that the inability to exchange is Yanko’s biggest issue and his “speech […] remains the mark of his difference” (Hooper, p. 59). Supporting this idea, the narrator sprinkles evidences of this problem throughout the story. For instance, he compares Yanko’s speech with a “broken English that resembled curiously the speech of a young child” (Conrad, Selected Short Stories, p. 103). The mysterious side of the protagonist can also be seen in his way to communicate when he prays in “incomprehensible words” (ibid., p. 116) or when he talks to himself several times without anyone being able to grasp his intention when doing so. The narrator also highlights the scary aspect of this language when the protagonist is “babbling aloud in a voice that was enough to make one die of fright” (ibid., p. 108) and the story could have ended well if Yanko’s speech was not scaring Amy, particularly after the child’s birth. If Yanko sees in the baby a way to have somebody that could understand him and with whom he could finally communicate properly, this only creates a source of anxiety for Amy. Indeed, Hooper explains that “her fear of Yanko is her fear of foreignness, and her fear of foreignness is her fear of his language” (Hooper, p. 60). Finally, it is essential to remind that the lack of ability to communicate is what leads Yanko to death, when he asks for a glass of water and Amy thinks he is hallucinating.
In “An Outpost of Progress”, the constant incomprehension of Carlier and Kayerts regarding many matters is also due to an absence of communication. They are unable to share anything with the natives who only make “an uncouth babbling noise” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, p. 7) and even if they appreciate Gobila, they “did not understand […] that old and incomprehensible creature” (ibid., p. 9). Idem when they have an unexpected visitor who “made a long speech” (ibid., p. 11), the protagonists only assign importance to his movements and not the content of his discourse. At some point, they even struggle to communicate with Makola who usually masters their language but who “seemed not to understand, seemed to have forgotten French – seemed to have forgotten how to speak altogether” (ibid., p. 12). Furthermore, like Yanko, communication is also what lead the two men to death. Indeed, it starts with an insignificant dialogue about sugar, drifting towards authority concerns, to end in a manhunt. In the end, what happened is that Carlier did not say anything, which made Kayerts think he was armed and he shouted his paterner believing that he was about to be killed himself. In other words, what causes the death of the men is a misunderstanding due to a lack of communication.
Finally, it can be said that Carlier, Kayerts and Yanko, all of them experienced the life of foreigners and undergo the cultural differences, the acquaintance with an overseas population and suffer from an inability to communicate with them. This accumulation of misfortunate experiences form a whole called exile. In his paper called “Yanko’s Footprints: Edward Said and the Experience of Exile”, Mohammed Salama compares Said’s reflections on the subject with the story of Amy Foster. Above all, Said asserts that “[e]xile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience”. He explains next that it consists in an “unhealable rift forced between a human body and a native place, between the self and its true home” (Said, p. 173), an image full of sense once one read both “Amy Foster” and “An Outpost of Progress”. Salama underlines the vision of Said regarding Conrad’s version of exile, finding that: [I]ts ugliness and its stark portrayal of the human condition, a great example of the predicament of the exile, his perpetual foreignness, his constant fear of the failure of communication and ultimately his solitary and unmourned death. (Salama, p. 240) Salama also adds the feeling of homelessness lived by foreigners and explains that when they suffer from that state, “their souls are always nourished by nostalgia for their own lands” (Salama, p. 240). The two short stories which were analysed in this paper fulfil Conrad, Salama and Said’s vision of exile. Indeed, cultural differences lead to an endless foreignness, miserable relations with the inhabitants create nostalgia and the inability to communicate properly conducts to loneliness; in these cases, even to death. This is how a journey can turn into exile.
Joseph Conrad’s short stories “Amy Foster” and “An Outpost of Progress” are not as divergent as one could think. Even if the basic setting seems to separate the two tales, the central figures find themselves in a similar situation: they are launched in an unknown place and are unable to return home. They undergo the consequences linked to their journey: it is difficult for them to integrate their new environment, they struggle to have rewarding encounters and go through a lack of communication. Therefore, Yanko, Carlier and Kayerts, all of them suffer similarly from their exile despite the variations due to space and cultures.
Bensemmane, M’hamed. “Conrad’s Picture of Irony in “An Outpost of Progress”.” Journal of the Short Story in English. Presses Universitaires d’Angers, 11 June 2013. Web. 18 July 2017.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2008. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Selected Short Stories . Wordsworth ed. N.p.: Clays Ltd, 2015. Print.
Hooper, Myrtle. “’Oh, I Hope He Won’t Talk’: Narrative and Silence in Amy Foster.” The Conradian, vol. 21, no. 2, 1996: pp. 51–64. Web. 12 Jul. 2017.
Said, Edward W. Reflections on exile and other essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 2000. Print.
Salama, Mohammad. “Yanko’s Footprints: Edward Said and the Experience of Exile.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 42, no. 2, 2007: pp. 238–253. Web. 12 Jul. 2017.