Joseph Conrad close reading

a tutorial in close reading and analysis of a text

In literary studies there are various types of close reading. It is possible and rewarding to scrutinise a text closely, keeping any number of its features in mind. These can reveal various layers of significance in the work which might not be apparent on a superficial reading. You might focus attention on the text’s – Joseph Conrad close reading

  • language
  • meaning
  • structure
  • philosophy

The most advanced forms of close reading combine all these features in an effort to reveal the full and even hidden meanings in a work. The following tutorial shows a very simple form of close reading. It pays attention to the first two of these approaches – looking at the language that Conrad uses and how it is closely linked to what we know about the text.

This type of exercise can only be successful once the text has been read in its entirety. You need a grasp of the events and the story as a whole before it is possible to see how its meaning(s) are built up from small linguistic features of the narrative.

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once observed ‘Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only re-read it’. What he meant by this apparently contradictory remark is that the first time we read a text we are busy absorbing information, and we cannot appreciate all the subtle connections there may be between its parts – because we don’t yet have the complete picture before us. Only when we read it for a second time (or even better, a third or fourth) are we in a position to assemble and compare the nuances of meaning and the significance of its details in relation to each other.

This is why the activity is called ‘close reading’. You should try to get used to the notion of reading and re-reading very carefully, scrupulously, and in great detail.

The extract which follows is the opening of Conrad’s early story An Outpost of Progress, first published in 1897. It deals with two European characters who have recently arrived at a trading station somewhere in central Africa. If you wish to read the complete story in conjunction with these tutorial notes, it is available free at Project Gutenberg.

redbtn An Outpost of Progress


Joseph Conrad close reading


An Outpost of Progress – the opening lines

There were two white men in charge of the trading station. Kayerts, the chief, was short and fat; Carlier, the assistant, was tall, with a large head and a very broad trunk perched upon a long pair of thin legs. The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price. However, for some reason or other, the natives down the river had given him the name of Makola, and it stuck to him through all his wanderings about the country. He spoke English and French with a warbling accent, wrote a beautiful hand, understood bookkeeping, and cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits. His wife was a negress from Loanda, very large and very noisy. Three children rolled about in sunshine before the door of his low, shed-like dwelling. Makola, taciturn and impenetrable, despised the two white men. He had charge of a small clay storehouse with a dried-grass roof, and pretended to keep a correct account of beads, cotton cloth, red kerchiefs, brass wire, and other trade goods it contained. Besides the storehouse and Makola’s hut, there was only one large building in the cleared ground of the station. It was built neatly of reeds, with a verandah on all the four sides. There were three rooms in it. The one in the middle was the living-room, and had two rough tables and a few stools in it. The other two were the bedrooms for the white men. Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture. 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. There was also another dwelling-place some distance away from the buildings. In it, under a tall cross much out of the perpendicular, slept the man who had seen the beginning of all this; who had planned and had watched the construction of this outpost of progress.


Close reading

01.   ‘White men’ is significant because the story is about the exploitation of black Africans by white Europeans. And ‘in charge’ is mildly ironic because we rapidly learn that they are only nominally in charge. It is their African assistant Makola who really determines what goes on, whilst they are hopelessly incompetent.

02.   The names ‘Kayerts’ and ‘Carlier’ tell us that the setting of the story is the Belgian Congo. Carlier is a French name, Kayerts is Flemish, and these are the two linguistic groups which comprise Belgium. The physical descriptions contrast the two men in a way that makes them slightly ridiculous, rather like the fat and thin man of comedy stereotypes. The term ‘perched’ reinforces this.

03.   ‘Maintained’ suggests just the opposite – that Makola has given himself the name Henry Price because he wants to identify his interests with those of his European employers. Conrad’s use of the racist term ‘nigger’ would have been considered unremarkable in 1897 when he wrote the story.

04.   The natives call him ‘Makola’ — and so does Conrad, which reinforces our interpretation of the previous sentence. His ‘wanderings’ suggest that he is experienced.

05.   Makola speaks two foreign languages in addition to his own native African language and his wife’s, which would be different. He is also a skilled clerk. Thus he has absorbed European culture, in contrast to the two Europeans, who are completely incapable of absorbing his culture. Yet he still worships evil spirits. He has a foot in both cultures.

06.   Loanda is on the coast of Angola, close to what was once called the ‘Slave Coast’. This is why it is ‘Mrs Price’ who understands what the slave traders are saying later in the story.

07.   ‘Rolled about’ suggests that the children are at ease in their natural environment. ‘Shed-like’ tells us how poor their accommodation is.

08.   ‘Impenetrable’ (a typically Conradian term) suggests that he keeps his feelings and motivation well hidden. It is a similar term to those which Conrad uses later to describe the topographical surroundings – ‘hopeless’ and ‘irresistible’. Such details contribute to why Africa in a moral sense defeats Europe in the story. ‘Despised’ however is a key insight into Makola’s judgement and feelings: this points to the element of racial conflict in the story.

09.   We notice that the ‘trade goods’ are an assortment of cheap rubbish. They are being traded for ivory, which is a precious commodity in Europe. The Africans are therefore being cheated by the Europeans. But ‘pretended’ tells us that Makola might be engaged in a little cooking-of-the-books on his own account.

10.   ‘Only one large building’: this is a very undeveloped trading station, and its isolation is emphasised.

11.   ‘Neatly’ and ‘verandah’ contrast sharply with Makola’s ‘shed-like’ dwelling. In other words, the Europeans have the better accommodation.

12.   The furniture is sparse, but the two men have a room each.

13.   The mosquito net would be very important: they are close to the equator , and therefore a long way from their European homeland.

14.   Notice how the two men do not know how to look after themselves. The floor is ‘littered’ with their ‘broken’ and ‘dirty’ goods. And how inappropriate some of those goods are: they have brought ‘town wearing apparel’ when they are in the tropics.

15.   ‘Dwelling place’ is another irony of Conrad’s as the narrator of the story. What he is referring to is the grave of the first station chief who has died of fever. So, Africa has already killed off one representative of Europe when the story opens.

16.   Conrad piles on more grim humour with the expression that the first director ‘slept’ under the cross – an ironic euphemism given that the director is dead. There is also a neat structural link here – because this is also the location of the story’s ending, where Kayerts will commit suicide, hanging himself on the cross.


Joseph Conrad close readingStudying Fiction is an introduction to the basic concepts and the language you will need for studying prose fiction. It explains the elements of literary analysis one at a time, then shows you how to apply them. The volume contains stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Charles Dickens. All of them are excellent tales in their own right. The guidance notes on this page were written by the same author.

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Joseph Conrad close reading

Joseph Conrad’s writing table


Further reading

Red button Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.

Red button Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Red button Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010

Red button Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977

Red button Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Red button Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985

Red button John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940

Red button Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958

Red button Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.

Red button Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990

Red button Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008

Red button Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976

Red button Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985

Red button Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.

Red button Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.

Red button George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.

Red button John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Red button James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Red button Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966

Red button Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.

Red button J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Red button John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.

Red button Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.

Red button Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980

Red button Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.


Joseph Conrad – video biography


Other writing by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Lord JimLord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Joseph Conrad Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2014


Joseph Conrad links

Joseph Conrad - tutorials Joseph Conrad at Mantex
Biography, tutorials, book reviews, study guides, videos, web links.

Red button Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas
Brief notes introducing his major works in recommended editions.

Joseph Conrad - eBooks Joseph Conrad at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of formats.

Joseph Conrad - further reading Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
Biography, major works, literary career, style, politics, and further reading.

Joseph Conrad - adaptations Joseph Conrad at the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production notes, box office, trivia, and quizzes.

Joseph Conrad - etexts Works by Joseph Conrad
Large online database of free HTML texts, digital scans, and eText versions of novels, stories, and occasional writings.

Joseph Conrad - journal The Joseph Conrad Society (UK)
Conradian journal, reviews. and scholarly resources.

Conrad US journal The Joseph Conrad Society of America
American-based – recent publications, journal, awards, conferences.

Joseph Conrad - concordance Hyper-Concordance of Conrad’s works
Locate a word or phrase – in the context of the novel or story.


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