The Lagoon as a Short Story
Joseph Conrad’s The Lagoon is a striking tale of human passion. It relates lust for life and love and the frustration of a longing heart. The hero here Arsat is made to tell his own dreams of life, and also the shock that he has to the white man who remained all through the silent hearer of a story of an intense appeal of poignant human tragedy.
A short story has a very brief and composite plot. Brevity is always the mark of wit in a good story. This is seen well applicable to Conrad’s, The Lagoon. The plot here is quite limited with the perfect unity of effect. Of course, the story embraces two distinct incidents of two different times. But the plot has the essential unity in the elemental theme of love-love that desires to conquer death-and the defeat of man’s lust for life and love by death. The hero of the story Arsat hoped to live in love, and even allowed his brother to die, without an aid from him for the purpose. but could not win over death that came to take away the woman for whom he had lost and suffered so much and even ungrateful to his own brother. The whole plot is conceived, with a rare human touch, and the sense of unity is nowhere disturbed.
What is, however, remarkable in the story is its organic structure which Conrad is found to have so well achieved. The two aspects of the story are joined and synthesized through the presence of the white man to whom Arsat narrates his past and before whom his present tragedy is enacted. The past and the present are joined, well balanced, and the exposition and the catastrophe never look truncated, cut off from each other. The two sides of the story are harmonized and integrated through the white man who signifies the observer of life, watching and summing up the changing panorama of this life.
A good short story has a few characters. This has hardly any scope for introducing numerous men and women or elaborating and developing any character or characters in particular. The Lagoon has actually two characters only, Arsat and the white man. Of course, the story flashes back on some other characters of whom Arsat’s brother has much significance. In any case, the characters are not many and they remain quite lively, forceful, within an extremely limited space, although there is no attempt at elaboration. What is more is that the important characters of the story particularly bear some symbolic significance. While Arsat stands for love and remorse, his brother signifies faith and fidelity. The white man has almost the function of the chorus, observing and commenting. Here, again. The Lagoon seems to be a story, enriched with a precise yet effective characterization. Arsat’s beloved woman stands for love that is transient.
Moreover, the economy in the mode of story-telling which is an important requisite in a good short story is well perceived here, although Conrad’s story is rich in the description of the Malayan region. This description, however, is not long, but vivid and precise and according to the specific requirement of a good short story. Moreover, this is much in tune with the theme of gloom of the tale. An instance may be cited here as a specimen “The ever-ready suspicion of evil, that growing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness, profound and dumb and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous.” The Lagoon remains successfully a story of an exceedingly limited range, despite the scenic background and the narration of the flight and the fight. The colourful and graphic representation of the Malayan region is, no doubt, another additional feature of the story and serves to add to its gracefulness.
A good short story is an art, an impression, and The Lagoon undoubtedly leaves a profound impression like other good short stories, such as The Fly. It has a tragic note of a universal significance and brings out the irony of man’s littleness in the hands of the mighty force of the universe. The story brings out the inevitable note of human frustration and restlessness. It is a brief epitome of man’s dreams and desires, love and losses, of his life so full of sound and fury, without any real significance. Indeed, this is a story, well conceived and told, that leaves a lasting impression.
In fact, The Lagoon is a successful feat of Conrad as a story writer. The tragic effect is successfully produced through a moral undertone in the theme of his story which he communicates precisely and admirably in the stylistic pattern of a good short story.