The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad | Critical Analysis

The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad | Critical Analysis

The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad Analysis

Joseph Conrad’s first work, Almayers Folly, was published in 1895. His short story ‘The Lagoon‘ was published in 1897. So it is one of his earliest stories. It has the exotic Malayan setting to which he often returned in his imagination. About it he himself remarked: ‘It is, of my short stories, the one I like best myself.’ After reading this short story many readers will agree with his view.

Like many of his tales ‘The Lagoon‘ has the authentic Malayan setting. As a sailor he made many voyages through the Malayan archipelago. So his description of men and country is from firsthand experience. From his we come to know that rice is the staple food of the Malayans. Their national dress is sarong. Both men and women know how to paddle boats or sampans. The rich use praus which require more men and run faster. The country is not efficiently administered, for the people often have to pass through times of war. In peace time their main pastime is dear-hunting, cock-fighting or fishing by torch light. The Ruler seems to be despotic in nature but he is afraid of Inchi Midah’s cunning and temper. None can take away a slave girl whom she wants to keep. There are separate quarters for women and bath-houses for slave-girls. Men are passionate by nature and killing is common. Though men of distinction show loyalty and respect to the Ruler and are rewarded in return, still they believe that there is a time when a man should forget loyalty and respect’. To abduct a woman in daylight and to shout a cry of challenge at the enemies are considered heroic.

The jungle setting of the story, though, somewhat romantic, is perfectly attuned to its theme. The forests, sombre and dull, stand motionless and silent. The river flows with inexplicable lethargy. The creek is tortuous and fabulously deep. At the foot of towering trees, trunk less nipa palms rise from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves that are heavy and enormous. There is stillness reigning far and wide. In the stillness of the air every tree, leaf, bough, tendril and petal seem to have been bewitched into an immobility that is perfect and final. Immense trees soar up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, a twisted root of some tall tree, caught in a tracery of small ferns, looks ‘black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake’. Darkness that is mysterious and invincible, scented and poisonous seems to ooze out from between the trees. Darkness brings out the ever-ready suspicion of evil that flows out into the external stillness profound and dumb and makes it appear untrustworthy and infamous. There is then the lagoon which perfectly reflects a patch of the gleaming sky. But it is also of weird aspect and ghostly reputation. People like the paddlers of the canoe and the juragan do not like to spend a night there. They are afraid of man like Arsat who dwells there after repairing a ruined house. They believe such man can change the course of fate by their glances of words or can wreck malice on them with the help of their familiar ghosts.

The weather of the tropical country has also been depicted with great fidelity. It is hot and sultry. A column of golden light suddenly shoots up in the sky clearing away a chill gust of wind. Then the sun appears with all its brilliance. At noon the weather is so oppressive that waterfalls from one’s face like rain from a cloud. In the afternoon the heat clings to one’s back like a flame of fire. At sunset one looks fascinatingly at the enormous conflagration in the sky which is swiftly put out by shadows that spread across the sky extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. At night the glitter of the stars streams through the stillness of the earth ‘enfolded in the starlight piece.’ As the night advances a mists drifts over the lagoon and a great expanse of white vapour covers the land making Arsat’s hut to float on an illusive sea and the distant tops of trees to stand on a deceptive shore. Then a breeze comes in fitful puffs and the stars grow paler to welcome the golden brilliance of the morning. The night also brings in mosquitoes (a sure presence in a tropical country) which must be driven out with smoke. Bamboo and cane are also in large use in such a country. The hut, the platform, the wall and the cot on which Diamelen sleeps are all made of bamboo while the sampitan is a hollowed cane through which a poisoned arrow is blown.

We get a touch of cosmopolitanism in the story. The white man and Arsat (and his brother too) are bound in bonds of intimacy. They become friends in war through dangers of life and they remain friends in times of peace. The white man has paid a number of visits to Arsat’s hut when he had occasion to visit the area. In fact among hundreds of enemies of his own land the white man remains a true friend to him.

The story is highly interesting. Arsat in love with a slave-girl decides to carry off Diamelen against the wishes of the Ruler and particularly of the formidable lady Inchi Midah who is unwilling to release her hold on her slave. His brother comes forward to help him when he tells him of this. They steal away one night when the Ruler is busy with the Rajahs in a fishing expedition by torchlight. The brothers paddle their canoe as fast as they could. At midday they take rest on a white beach after some thrifty meal keeping Diamelen to watch. But no sooner has Arsat closed his eyes than she makes a shout of warning. They see the Ruler’s prau coming at them beating the gong. They have blocked their escape route via the sea. His brother asks Arsat to rush along a narrow path through a wooded strip of land beyond which they will find a fisherman’s hut, a canoe and a broad river. He tells them to wait for him there till he joins them by running. But before that he intends to keep their pursuers back by his gun and a limited number of shots. When they hear the third shot they see the mouth of a broad river and canoe hauled up on the muddy bank. They hear his last shot by which time Arsat outpowers the fisherman and pushes the canoe afloat with Diamelen’s help. Then he throws her into the boat and leaps in himself. He looks back and finds his brother to have fallen with men closing round him. But he stands up and shouts. ‘I am coming! Without waiting for him, he pushes the boat into deep water. His brother calls his name twice but he neither goes to help him nor looks back. He asks Diamelen to take the paddle and he strikes the water with his. He hears voices shouting, “Kill! Strike!” But he does not turn back His brother shouts his name for the third time and his life goes out with a great shriek. He explains to the white man that he was not afraid of his life but had to be careful for the women placed under his charge the woman to get whom he would have faced all mankind the woman for whom he must find a country where death is forgotten, where death is unknown. The lagoon finally proves to be such a country–a stagnant lake where they practically lead a life of outcasts, alone and feared’ by the occasional (wayfarers) who are compelled to spend a night there. The author nowhere mentions that they enjoyed a life of peace and happiness there. The sin of the betrayal of the brother begins to persecute them. Diamelen soon falls seriously ill, hears voices calling her from the water and struggles against Arsat’s attempt to hold her. She finally burns no more, dying far away from her motherland. Arsat finds his face shared and heart burnt out. For the sake of love he betrays his most loyal, brave and loving brother and now that crime takes his love away and haunts him till he thinks of taking of violent steps to atone for it. “The Lagoon’ is thus an exciting story of love and frustration, of crime and punishment.

Apart from presenting a sensational story set in an exotic background, Conrad in this short story reveals his serious interest in some moral dilemmas. It shows that a crime or a shameful act even when committed in the name of high love does not let go its doer unpunished. It haunts him, otherwise a good, brave and honest person, till the remainder of his life, and the guilt of the act eventually contributes to his destruction. After Diamelen’s death the awareness that he has betrayed his brother persecutes Arsat acutely and relentlessly. This consciousness of betrayal gives rise to remorse and even in the searching sunlight Arsat is enveloped with an uncanny darkness. He finally finds that only retribution can make him get rid of the piercing shafts of remorse. So he decides to go back to his country again and to strike-to strike against the enemies that killed his brother. In such a mood he finds that there is no light and no peace in the world, but there is ‘death death for many’. ‘The Lagoon’ thus shows Conrad’s strong preoccupation with the great themes of betrayal, remorse and retribution. There is another important issue involved in this story. It is ‘the corruption of idealism under the strain of actual experience’.


From the story  we come to know that Arsat had no intention of betraying his brother. He wanted to be loyal and faithful to him and to be always by his side at the time of danger. However under the tension of love and duty of pleasure for himself and offering help at great personal risk, he failed to do what he all along thought he would unhesitatingly do, come what may. It is perfectly clear when he said, “what did I care who died? I wanted peace in my own heart.” At the time of crisis we, thus, find him pushing the boat into deep water instead of coming to the aid of his dying brother. This moral failure raises in him a deep need for rehabilitating himself before his eyes, an urgent necessity for gaining back self-honour that he has lost through his failure to maintain the idealism that he expected all along to keep untarnished. It is this need for reclamation of self-honour that he repeatedly says before the white man: “I loved my brother. I was not afraid of life.”

Conrad has also left his sure mark as an author in the sphere of characterization. Arsat has been drawn as a passionate young man who can do anything for love. His brother is a representation of bravery and loyalty, patience and wisdom. Diamelen is one who loves and suffers dumbly. The white man, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, observes, comments and moralizes, though obliquely. His presence prepares the principal character of the story to disgorge matters lying in the deep recesses of the heart. Besides showing man’s vulnerability and corruptibility Conrad leaves for his characters a standard loyalty to fellow men-by which they rise or fall.

The author’s narrative technique is also worthy of notice. He does not narrate in a direct way, making himself an omnipotent observer. He introduces a character (the white man, for example) to whom the hero tells his story. This oblique method makes clear the motive of doing something as well as the effect that action produces on the doer. Consequently the story becomes highly interesting from the standpoint of psychological exploration. The author also succeeds in creating by various ways an atmosphere that creates perfect harmony with the theme of the story

His style is personal but not eccentric. His careful attention to grouping of words in similar patterns, use of rhythm, and employment of the literary device alliteration has made his prose akin to poetry.


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