By Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
......."The Lagoon" is a short story with elements of realism, adventure, and romanticism. Joseph Conrad completed the story in 1896 and published it in Cornhill Magazine, a distinguished London periodical that featured poems, essays, short stories, and serialized novels.
.......The story is set in Southeast Asia (on the Malay Peninsula or in the Malay Archipelago) on a river flowing eastward to the ocean, on a creek flowing inland through dense forest, and at a small house on a lagoon. The action takes place in the last half of the nineteenth century after Europeans colonized southern Asia and after the Malay kingdoms of Wajo, Soping, Boni, and Si Dendring fought wars over who should succeed as rajah of Si Dendring.
The White Man: Traveler who captains a sampan propelled by Malay oarsmen. He is unidentified by a given name or surname. A Malay friend, Arsat, addresses him as Tuan, a title of respect meaning sir or mister.
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.......On both sides of the river in the land of the Malays in Southeast Asia, not a leaf rustles in the windless forests as oarsmen paddle a sampan eastward, away from the setting sun, toward the sea.
.......“We will pass the night in Arsat's clearing,” the white man tells the Malay steersman.
.......The steersman plunges his paddle into the water and turns the boat into a narrow creek running into the thick forest. When the creek widens and the water becomes shallower, the crewmen pole their way to a wide lagoon. In the distance is a house resting on piles.
.......The Malay crewmen would rather break their trip elsewhere, for they believe spirits haunt the darkness around the lagoon. These spirits do not bother the white man, the Malays believe, because he and others of his kind are “in league with the Father of Evil, who leads them unharmed through the invisible dangers of this world.”
.......The boat pulls up at the piles next to Arsat's canoe and a bamboo platform, and the crewmen shout his name. After the white man climbs a rope ladder to the platform, the juragan (steersman) tells him that he and the other crewmen will eat and sleep in the boat. They pass a blanket and a basket up to the white man.
.......Arsat, a young man with a broad chest, comes out and asks, “Have you medicine, Tuan?”
.......The visitor says no, then goes inside to see what prompted the question. On a couch, a woman is lying unconscious under a red sheet. She is burning with a fever, and her eyes are staring blankly upward. The Malay reports that her illness began when she heard voices calling her from the lagoon. Now, after spending five sleepless nights watching over her, the Malay says she is unresponsive.
.......“Tuan, will she die?”
.......“I fear so,” says the white man.
.......For years, Arsat had been a faithful friend of the white man, even fighting by his side when the need arose. The white man likes him—“not so much perhaps as a man likes his favorite dog,” the narrator says, but well enough to come to Arsat's aid.
.......The white man goes back outside. Darkness is overcoming the last of the light, and in a short while the lagoon reflects the stars. He opens the basket and eats supper, then gathers twigs and builds a fire on the platform to create smoke to repel mosquitoes. While the white man sits smoking, Arsat comes out and reports that his woman continues to burn with a fever and asks again whether she will die.
.......“If such is her fate,” the white man says.
.......Arsat goes back in and tries to rouse her. She does not respond. He comes back out, sits by the fire, and speaks of the old days when he and the white man fought together. After the fighting was over, he recalls, the white man went his way, and Arsat and his people lived in peace under the rulership of a rajah. In time, Arsat says, he fell in love with a young woman named Diamelen, the servant of the rajah's wife, Inchi Midah. Diamelen returned his love. One day, he eloped with her with the help of his brother. Taking with them some rice, they fled to the nearby river and paddled their way to the sea. His brother had the gun that the white man had once given him. Chased by the rajah's men, Arsat and his brother paddled furiously along the coast through the night and into the morning. Weary beyond measure, they stopped on the sandy beach of a bay to rest and eat rice. While Diamelen kept watch, the brothers lay down to rest. But just as they had done so, she cried out. The rajah's men were approaching in a prau. Arsat's brother, who knew well the area along the coast, urged Arsat to run into the forest with Diamelen. "I shall keep them back," Arsat's brother said, "for they have no firearms, and landing in the face of a man with a gun is certain death for some. Run with her. On the other side of that wood there is a fisherman's house—and a canoe. When I have fired all the shots I will follow. I am a great runner, and before they can come up we shall be gone."
.......With Diamelen, Arsat did as his brother suggested. At length, while hearing the ring of his brother's gunshots behind, they came to the fisherman's house at the mouth of a wide river. A man came out of the house. The Malay overpowered him, and he and Diamelen paddled away in the canoe. When Arsat heard shouting, he turned around and saw many men chasing his brother.
I heard him cry my name twice; and I heard voices shouting, "Kill! Strike!" I never turned back. I heard him calling my name again with a great shriek, as when life is going out together with the voice—and I never turned my head . . . Three times he called—but I was not afraid of life. Was she not there in that canoe? And could I not with her find a country where death is forgotten—where death is unknown?.......Arsat then says regretfully, “'What did I care who died? I wanted peace in my own heart."
.......Arsat goes inside to check on Diamelen. As the white man sees dawning light on the horizon, he hears a groan. Arsat comes back out and announces that Diamelen has died. The white man invites Arsat to come with him, but the Malay declines, saying,
I shall not eat or sleep in this house, but I must first see my road. Now I can see nothing—see nothing! There is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death—death for many. We were sons of the same mother—and I left him in the midst of enemies . . . In a little while I shall see clear enough to strike—to strike. But she has died, and ... now ... darkness.When the white man and his crew leave, he looks back and sees Arsat “still looking through the great light of a cloudless day into the hopeless darkness of the world” as he plans to avenge the death of his brother.
.......Remorse and regret for abandoning his brother to the rajah's men haunt Arsat like the ghosts that the Malay boatmen imagine inhabit the lagoon and the forests around it. He believes his failure to save his brother caused Diamelen's illness and death.
.......When the white man's boat approaches Arsat's house, the narrator says, "The creek broadened, opening out into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon." In describing the lagoon as stagnant (motionless, dead, inert; or putrid, foul, rotting), the narrator is also describing the life of Arsat and Diamelen since their arrival at their isolated forest dwelling. Their life together has been lonely, uneventful, and motionless; the fester of Arsat's guilt has poisoned their opportunity for a contented life just as the mosquitoes from the lagoon have poisoned Diamelin's veins with deadly disease.
.......Arsat claims Diamelen. With the help of his devoted brother, he selfishly runs off with her without stopping even to come to the aid of his brother.
The Ever-Present Past
.......Arsat has been unable to erase the memory of the day when he left his brother behind. So painful is the memory of that day and so keen is his desire to redeem himself that he deliberately offered up his own life when fighting with the white man. Arsat says, “[Y]ou have seen me in time of danger seek death as other men seek life! A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind!” But Arsat lives on, as do the ghosts of the past.
.......Joseph Conrad tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling the narrator to reveal the thoughts of the characters, as in the following passage presenting the feelings of the Malay boatmen:
The polers ran along the sides of the boat glancing over their shoulders at the end of the day's journey. They would have preferred to spend the night somewhere else than on this lagoon of weird aspect and ghostly reputation. Moreover, they disliked Arsat, first as a stranger, and also because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places abandoned by mankind. Such a man can disturb the course of fate by glances or words; while his familiar ghosts are not easy to propitiate by casual wayfarers upon whom they long to wreak the malice of their human master. White men care not for such things, being unbelievers and in league with the Father of Evil, who leads them unharmed through the invisible dangers of this world.Midway through the story, the omniscient narrator presents lengthy quotations in which Arsat tells the most important part of the story—about the death of his brother during Arsat and Diamelen's escape from the rajah's men. Arsat's account is of course in first-person point of view. Shifting from one narrator to another is a favorite technique of Conrad. In his novella Heart of Darkness, for example, Conrad opens with a first-person narrator who sets the scene, then shifts to another first-person narrator who tells the main story. (For further information, see Heart of Darkness on this site.)
Conrad divides the story into three main sections:
1...The white man travels to Arsat's dwelling and discovers that Arsat's wife is dying. In this section, the narrator establishes the somber tone and atmosphere of the story.
.......The climax occurs when Diamelen dies. Her death forces Arsat to confront his inner demons and to prepare himself for avenging his brother's death. Arsat says, "We were sons of the same mother—and I left him in the midst of enemies; but I am going back now. . . In a little while I shall see clear enough to strike—to strike."
.......Conrad, a highly talented stylist, developed the foreboding atmosphere of "The Lagoon" with imagery that emphasizes the somber stillness and motionlessness of the forests and waters, foreshadowing the stagnancy of the lagoon and the spiritless life of Arsat in his lonely wilderness retreat with Diamelen.
At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling, poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless nipa palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves enormous and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of eddies. In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.As Conrad draws the reader deeper into the story, he mixes into the stillness the darkness of the forest, which symbolizes the darkness in Arsat's heart.
Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick and somber walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests........Several passages contrast darkness with light, which symbolizes the world that Arsat left behind for his forest retreat: "In a few moments all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness." When Diamelen dies, morning light begins to drive out the darkness of the forest, signifying a change in Arsat. An eagle soars heavenward, symbolizing the rising soul of Diamelen. Here is the passage:
After a chill gust of wind there were a few seconds of perfect calm and absolute silence. Then from behind the black and wavy line of the forests a column of golden light shot up into the heavens and spread over the semicircle of the eastern horizon. The sun had risen. The mist lifted, broke into drifting patches, vanished into thin flying wreaths; and the unveiled lagoon lay, polished and black, in the heavy shadows at the foot of the wall of trees. A white eagle rose over it with a slanting and ponderous flight, reached the clear sunshine and appeared dazzlingly brilliant for a moment, then soaring higher, became a dark and motionless speck before it vanished into the blue as if it had left the earth for ever. The white man, standing gazing upwards before the doorway, heard in the hut a confused and broken murmur of distracted words ending with a loud groan. Suddenly Arsat stumbled out with outstretched hands, shivered, and stood still for some time with fixed eyes. Then he said—Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream.Anaphora
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, Than, or As If
the earth . . . became . . . a battle-field of phantoms (Comparison of the earth to a battlefield of ghosts)Paradox
Contradictory statement that may actually be true
There's no worse enemy and no better friend than a brother. . . .Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, Than, or As If
water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. (Comparison of the smooth water to a band of metal)Vocabulary
nibong, nipa: Palm trees of Asia with leaves that can be used to make a roof.
.......Diamelen apparently dies of malaria, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of the female anopheles mosquito. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water, and the stagnant lagoon beneath Arsat's dwelling is infested with the insects, as the narrator indicates in this passage: "The white man had some supper out of the basket, then collecting a few sticks that lay about the platform, made up a small fire, not for warmth, but for the sake of the smoke, which would keep off the mosquitos."
.......Joseph Conrad, one of the most important novelists in English literature, was born in 1857 to Polish parents in Berdichev, Ukraine, a country in eastern Europe that was annexed as part of Poland in 1569 but incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th Century. Ukraine is now an independent country. Conrad’s birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.When he was a child, Conrad learned about the great English authors—including Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott—from his father, a poet who also translated English books into Polish and French. Young Joseph could read translations of these authors in both of those languages. His parents, devout Roman Catholics, raised him in that religion. When he was still an adolescent, his father and mother died, and thereafter his uncle saw to his upbringing and schooling. In 1874, Conrad abandoned his studies to fulfill a longing to go to sea. Subsequently, he served on French and British merchants ships, sailing around the world. During this time, he became not only a master mariner (acknowledged with a British certificate in 1886) but also a master of the English language. He also became a British subject. In the late 1880's, he began to write. In 1890, he traveled up the Congo River from the Atlantic coast, then back, on a four-month journey. The trip provided him all the background he needed for Heart of Darkness. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895, marking the first time he used the name “Joseph Conrad” instead of his birth name. Many other distinguished works–including The Nigger of the Narcissus, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Typhoon, and Nostromo—followed within a decade. The British government invited him to receive knighthood in his later years, but he declined the honor. He died of a heart attack in 1924 at Bishopsbourne, England.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1...At the end of the story, the reader learns that Arsat plans to avenge the death of his brother. Would his plans be the same if Diamelen had lived?
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