|This article does not cite any references or sources. (November 2008)|
|Published in||The Cornhill Magazine|
|Publication date||January, 1897|
"The Lagoon" is a short story by Joseph Conrad composed in 1896 and first published in Cornhill Magazine in 1897. The story is about a white man, referred to as "Tuan" (the equivalent of "Lord" or "Sir"), who is travelling through an Indonesian rainforest and is forced to stop for the night with a distant Malay friend named Arsat. Upon arriving, he finds Arsat distraught, for his lover is dying. Arsat tells the distant and rather silent white man a story of his past.
The story that Arsat tells Tuan is about sadness and betrayal. Arsat tells of the time when he and his brother kidnapped Diamelen (his lover, who was previously a servant of the Rajah's wife). They all fled in a boat at night and travelled until they were exhausted. They stopped on a bit of land jutting out into the water to rest. Soon however, they spotted a large boat of the Rajah's men coming to find them. Arsat's brother told Diamelen and Arsat to flee to the other side, where there was a fisherman's hut. He instructed them to take the fisherman's boat and then stayed back, telling them to wait for him while he dealt with the pursuers. However, Arsat did everything but wait for his brother. As he pushed the boat from shore, he saw his brother running down the path, being chased by the pursuers. Arsat's brother tripped and the enemy was upon him. His brother called out to him three times, but Arsat never looked back; he had betrayed his brother for the woman he loved. Towards the end of the story, symbolically, the sun rises and Diamelen dies. Arsat has nothing now; not a brother nor a wife. He has lost everything. He plans to return to his home village to avenge his brother's death, but dies in the process. The story concludes with "Tuan"'s simply leaving, and Arsat's staring dejectedly into the sun and "a world of illusion".
The story is full of symbols and contrasts - such as the use of dark/light, black/white, sunrise/sunset, water/fire, and possibly the most important one, movement/stillness. Arsat's clearing is still, nothing moves, yet everything outside the clearing moves. Earlier in the story, his brother tells Arsat that he is only half of a man for Diamelen has his heart and he is not whole. With Diamelen's death, Arsat becomes a whole man again. At the end of the story, motion finally enters Arsat's clearing. The movement signifies his leaving of "a world of illusion" and the fact that Arsat is finally a "free man". In the story, darkness represents ignorance and denial, whereas light represents enlightenment.
The main theme of the story is that death is inescapable; humans often have the illusion that through "true love" nothing can touch us, and that love makes one whole. However, in order to succeed in life, one must overcome these illusions.
Man does not contemplate his mortality when blinded by youth and courage. The guilt which will inevitably haunt Arsat over this unforgivable act of betrayal is veiled by the illusion that love is worth fighting and sacrificing for. Arsat, like all men, clung to the illusion of Utopia and “a country where death is forgotten—where death is unknown” (Conrad, 1897) with Diamelen, and later found that the guilt of his betrayal both to his Rajah and his brother would hang over him like the darkness of the night or the ghosts which the crew believed would perpetually haunt his dwelling. In an insight into the heart of man, Arsat states: “What did I care who died? I wanted peace in my own heart” (Conrad, 1897). The illusion of peace is an idea which Conrad would be well versed in; a man who led life of torment, who allegedly unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide at a young age, who saw the very animalistic nature of man during his years exploring the uncharted colonies of Great Britain in the Navy and was the victim of a torrid love affair himself.
In a dramatic twist, Diamelen herself loses her vision and consciousness as she is taken by a terrible fever. At the moment of her death, a “column of golden light shot up into the heavens and spread over the semicircle of the eastern horizon. The sun had risen” (Conrad, 1897). In dying, Diamelen was no longer blinded by the illusion of love and immortality which she shared with Arsat. The physical manifestation of the reborn woman is described when “a white eagle rose…with a slanting and ponderous flight, reached the clear sunshine and appeared brilliant for a moment” (Conrad, 1897). Arsat, however still blinded by illusion, does not bear witness to these events. Unlike his lover, Arsat is not blinded by the illusions of love and immortality, but is blinded by the bleakness of the world. “Now I can see nothing—see nothing! There is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death—death for many” (Conrad, 1897). The other remarkable themes of The Lagoon are that the world is unpredictable. Arsat, the protagonist is not ready to accept the suddenity of the world. Love is nothing but an illusion. It makes a person blind and irresponsible to the family and society. Arsat's love for Diamelen makes him blind and he truly becomes a "half man" without any sense and responsibility to family and country.
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- "The Lagoon" by Conrad