Symbolism in The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad

Symbolism in The Lagoon

Symbolism in The Lagoon

Ordinarily speaking, a symbol is something that stands for something else. In literature, a word standing as a symbol is not the vehicle for a simile or metaphor, for it lacks the paired object. It is often what it literally means and yet it is patently more than that. It is only when it includes a large number of ideas, attitudes and references that it becomes a rich and complex symbol. In Conrad’s The Lagoon‘ a number of symbols play their part to make it highly interesting and extremely delightful from the standpoint of literary experience.

The story has an exotic and romantic setting in the Malayan jungle. The forests, sombre and dull, stand motionless and silent on either side of the broad stream. At the foot of towering trees trunkless nipa palms ‘in bunches of leaves enormous and heavy’ rise from the mud of the bank. In the stillness of the air every tree, leaf, bough, tendril and petal seem to have fallen into an immobility perfect and final.’ The river flows lazily and hesitatingly. The narrow creek is tortuous and fabulously deep. Immense trees soar up, keeping themselves invisible behind the hanging curtains of creepers. Near the water of the creek sometimes the twisted root of some tall tree, caught in the tracery of small ferns, appears ‘writhing and motionless like an arrested snake’. Darkness seems to come out from between the trees through the tangled maze of the creepers-darkness ‘mysterious and invincible’, ‘scented and poisonous’. Undoubtedly such a setting serves as perfect symbol for rumination of some sorrow and shame that a person in subjected for some flaw in his character. Such a setting can act as one of the finest symbols for a story of love that is blasted and of fraternal loyalty that ends in betrayal.

In the story lagoon, again, is used as a symbol. A lagoon, we know, is a salt-water lake surrounded by a sand-bank or a coral reef and consequently remains isolated from the sea. Arsat brings Diamelen to the lagoon and thereby they become separated from the land of their birth, their neighbours, relatives and friends. They, thus, lead a life as isolated as the lagoon. They are, again, isolated from those who occasionally spend  a night in the lagoon, cook and rest on their sampan. To their eyes Arsat on account of his living in a ruined house after repairing it and his proclaiming that he is not afraid to live among the spirits is not at all a likable man. They also fear him and avoid his company for they believe that he can disturb the course of fate by his glances or words, and wreck malice upon casual wayfarers with the help of his familiar ghosts.

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Hence, like the lagoon ‘with a weird look and ghostly reputation’, Arsat is left ‘feared and alone’. The water of the lagoon is, again, salty for which it is unfit for human consumption. Arsat brings Diamelen to the lagoon expecting it to be a paradise of love and peace, a place ‘where death is forgotten—where death is unknown’. Contrary to his expectation, it is here that Diamelen to get whom he would have faced all mankind breathes her last leaving him covered in darkness’ and with a view that “there is no light and no peace in the world, but there is death- death for many.” Arsat’s life of loneliness and frustration, therefore, finds a perfect symbolic representation in the lagoon.

The lagoon, further, seems to be a symbol of the miniature universe totally unconcerned about the joys and sorrows of tiny human beings who inhabit a small planet. In the words of the author, after the departure of the daylight ‘all the stars come out above the intense blackness of the earth and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of the night sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness’. The lagoon may also serve as the very heart of Arsat. Just as murmurs and whispers, mist and vapour, stillness and darkness, illusion and deception far outweight the other features of the lagoon, so frustration and despair, remorse and need for revenge, failure of idealism under the weight of actual experience and need for self-rehabilitation crop up in Arsat’s mind in a far greater way than chances of love, hope and peace.

The characters of the short may also be interpreted symbolically. Arsat may be taken as a symbol of frustration in love and breach of trust: his brother as a symbol of courage and loyalty and Diamelen as a symbol of love and dumb suffering. The white man may also be taken as the chorus that sees dispassionately, comments (“We all love our brothers”), and makes moral observations (such as Arsat’s going back to his country in order to strike will merely lead him, despite the great light of a cloudless day, ‘into the darkness of a world of illusions’).

Finally the whole story- Arsat’s escape with Diamelen, his leaving his brave and loyal brother in the hands of enemies, frustration of his hope and happiness with Diamelen’s death, his sorrow, and his desire to rehabilitate himself before his eyes which makes him decide to go back to his country and strike against the killers of his brother–may be symbolically interpreted as a tale of love and betrayal, remorse and retribution.

We are, therefore, of the view that Conrad’s short story ‘The Lagoon’, apart from its exciting story element, has attained high success on account of its symbolic richness.

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