The Lagoon as a Story of Moral Dilemma
In his brief but illuminating introduction to ‘The Lagoon‘ Michael Thorpe, the editor of Modern Prose, remarks that this short story has the exotic and romantic settings of Conrad’s earlier Malayan tales as usual, but it has an additional element too: in it Conrad has revealed a serious interest in moral dilemmas. Indeed the story would not have been so appealing had it simply remained a tale of love and frustration (or death). It has reached the high standard of a tragic story on account of the moral dilemmas it involves.
Basically the dilemma centres round the tension between duty and longing. In Diamelen’s case it is not so strong or prominent as it is in the case of Arsat, the central character of ‘The Lagoon’. On the one hand she has to detach her connection with Inchi Midah, a veiled woman whom even the Ruler of the land fears, and on the other she has to weave it round Arsat whom she does not know well (their regular meetings could not take place because others kept watch on them) and with whom she must go to a distant land leaving behind her known surroundings and life of luxury.
That their life on the lagoon, ‘alone and feared’, was not up to her satisfaction has been subtly suggested by her intent to respond to the voices calling her from the water and her struggle against Arsat who wants to hold her against her will. It is not difficult for us to imagine that the relationship of the long-haired woman with an audacious face with her lover would have turned far worse on account of her living a lonely life in a repaired hut on the Lagoon had not death in the meantime snapped her mortal coil. Besides Arsat promised her a country where death and fear were unknown, and the lagoon could hardly be its equivalent to a young beautiful big-eyed woman accustomed to living in the royal household.
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In case of Arsat’s brother the dilemma centres round the conflict between loyalty and affection. On the one hand he has to think of his fidelity to the Ruler who has made him one of his sword-bearers, a distinguished post, and on the other he has to think of helping his brother (though two, they were like one, he thought) flee away from the country with Diamelen, a slave-girl who belongs to Inchi Midah whom even the Ruler fears for her cunning and temper. On the one hand he has to prove disloyal to the Ruler, abandon his friends neighbours and countrymen, and give up all hopes, dreams and ambitions, and on the other he has to protect his brother from friends who have suddenly become enemies.
Again, Arsat has to give up his manliness (such as taking the woman in daylight or shouting the cry of challenge) in the name of his brother’s love. Still after he decides his course in favour of his brother, he does not move an inch from it. To let the lover’s escape he endangers his life by choosing to fight against many. He could have joined his brother by running had he not in the meantime pushed the canoe into deep water. His breach of the Ruler’s trust finally recoils on him in the form of his own brother’s betrayal. We, thus, witness the fall of a great man for his giving greater weight to fraternal affection than loyalty to the Ruler (who by extension stands for the country and the nation).
Finally, we see Arsat involved in great moral dilemmas. One of it centres round the conflict between duty and passion. He realizes that abduction of Diamelen will go against the interests of the Ruler (who made him a sword-bearer) and Inchi Midah, yet cannot desist doing that. This is clearly a breach of trust for the sake of love. He knows that the royal pursuit will soon begin when Diamelen’s absence will be reported. Yet he involves his own brother in it without thinking about his safety. This shows that his craving for selfish pleasure becomes greater to him than his loyalty to the brother. By not looking back at his brother when he shouted his name, by not helping him in any way when he was surrounded by the enemies (which he could have avoided had he chosen not to facilitate the lover’s escape), and by pushing the canoe into deep water thereby making it possible for his brother to join them, Arsat not only acted cowardly but also betrayed most criminally a brave brother who sacrificed his life to ensure their escape.
To absolve himself from this sin and particularly to rehabilitate himself honourably once more before his own eyes, Arsat repeatedly says “I loved my brother” before the white man (who fittingly and cuttingly remarks, “We all love our brother“), but we know this is nothing but the failure or ‘corruption of idealism under the train of actual experience’. In Arsat’s case, therefore, the moral dilemmas centre round the conflicts between duty and passion, between craving for self-pleasure and loyalty to the brother, and between idealism and its failure under the strain of actual experience.