Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
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.
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.
Arsat: The protagonist,
a Malay who has been living in a small house on a lagoon with his beloved,
a woman named Diamelen, who was once the servant of a rajah's wife. After
Arsat fell in love with Diamelen, he and she eloped and were chased by
the rajah's men.
mate, who is dying.
Young man who appears in a flashback story told by Arsat. Arsat says he
died while helping Arsat and Diamelen escape from the rajah's men.
The Juragan: Steersman
of the white man's boat.
Oarsmen of the White
Rajah: A ruler in
the land of the Malays. He is mentioned in the flashback story.
Inchi Midah: Rajah's
wife. Diamelen was her servant until the latter eloped with Arsat. She
is mentioned in the flashback story.
Rajah Warriors: They
are mentioned in the flashback story. They chased Arsat, his brother, and
Diamelen and killed Arsat's brother.
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.
will pass the night in Arsat's clearing,” the white man tells the Malay
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.
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.”
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.
a young man with a broad chest, comes out and asks, “Have you medicine,
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.
will she die?”
fear so,” says the white man.
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.
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.
such is her fate,” the white man says.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
flashback, Arsat tells the story of how he eloped with Diamelen with the
help of his brother and how his brother died when the rajah's men chased
dies. Arsat prepares to avenge his brother's death as the white man leaves.
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."
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
are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Repetition of a Consonant
and dull, stood motionless
and silent on each side
of the broad stream.
her big eyes, wide open, glittered
in the gloom,
put out by the swift and stealthy
his arms wide open, let them fall
along his body, then stood
with unmoved face and stony eyes. .
Repetition of a word,
phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the
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
rumor powerful and gentle, a rumor
vast and faint; the
rumor of trembling leaves, of stirring boughs, ran through the
tangled depths of the forests. . . .
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
Darkness oozed out from
between the trees. . . . (Comparison of darkness to an oozing liquid)
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
a twisted root of some tall
tree . . . writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. (Comparison
of the root to a snake)
nibong, nipa: Palm
trees of Asia with leaves that can be used to make a roof.
prau: Malayan boat
with a triangular sail and an outrigger.
rajah: an Indian,
Malay, or Javanese ruler.
sampan: small boat
with a stern-mounted oar used for steering.
sarong: Malay garment
of men and women. It consists of a single length of cloth that is wrapped
at the waist and may extend to the knees or ankles.
tuan: Malay term
for sir or mister.
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."
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,
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
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?
a short essay that explains the change (or changes) that Arsat undergoes.
passage in the story indicates that the Malay oarsmen are Muslims?
out on a world map the general area where the story is set.
you believe the white man regards Arsat as an equal?
a short story that imitates Conrad's writing style. The subject is open.