Significance of Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Lagoon’: Theme of ‘Betrayal, Remorse, and Retribution’.


           Significance of Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Lagoon’: Theme of Betrayal, Remorse, and Retribution.

Joseph Conrad entered English literature as a foreigner who told fantastic stories about ‘strange’ people living in exotic places situated in the well-defined territory of the British Empire. He began writing exclusively for the English people and touched on the very soft corner of their aesthetic sensibility, which had an age-old thirst for the ‘strange’ or ‘alien,’ associated with the Orient. To some extent, this determined the nature of his works, especially the earlier ones. People back in England not only relished the accounts of ‘strange’ landscapes and the natural world but also, wanted to know more about the ‘strange’ accounts of the lives of people living in an ‘alien’ culture. In his brief but illuminating introduction to Conrad’s short story “The Lagoon,” Michael Thorpe, the editor of ‘Modern Prose,’ has justly remarked that in this early sketch, the author remains preoccupied with themes of betrayal, remorse, and retribution.

The short story “The Lagoon” which was one of the earliest ones, may be said to represent those typical aspects of Conrad’s art. The greatness of his art lies in making the natural setting contribute to the more general and graver aspects of human life, the moral ambivalence of man in the grip of passion and in the face of danger. In fact, “The Lagoon,” in its treatment of the theme of betrayal, remorse, and retribution, may be said to have anticipated Conrad’s almost obsessive preoccupation with the theme of the guilt-shame-guilt cycle in his subsequent mature works like ‘Lord Jim’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’. The title of the story, “The Lagoon” alludes to the confined ways of life, caught up in the history of its own past. That Conrad took a lot of care in writing this short story is evident at the outset from his description of the natural surroundings. The emphasis on the stillness prevailing in the natural world appropriately prepares the reader for a world inhabited by a man and a woman with a terrible history.

Just like the waves of Lagoon, which has been estranged from the sea, the time has got locked up in the guilt-shame cycle and has stopped running for the man and woman. It is to be noted that inertia in nature disturbs the mental balance of both the Malay and the reader as both are going to “enter the portals of land from which the very memory of motion has forever departed.” Appropriately enough, the setting of the sun here is made to mimic symbolically the impending death of Diamelen. For, along with this, Arsat’s hopes and dreams are also going to end suddenly. In this, the world of pastoral retreat-the lagoon is made to reflect his inner state. As the evening settles down with darkness all over the world, Arsat’s dark history begins to unfold. His confession becomes necessary as he finds himself caught up in the guilt-shame-guilt cycle. He knows that,

A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind!”

As the confession begins, it becomes more and more evident that the story is dominated by the strange power of violence. Arsat and his brother took part as unwilling members of the kingdom, once ruled by their race, and waited for an opportunity to come. Their total endeavor was, however, disrupted by Arsat’s look at Diamelen who inspired love in his heart. It was his brother who encouraged him and made arrangements for the elopement. Love is admittedly a possessive instinct, but in Arsat’s case, it had been cruelly selfish too-so selfish that he had not hesitated to leave his brother behind at the hands of his enemies to kill him. Now his heart is heavy with the thoughts of his sin and betrayal. He finds himself caught up in the guilt-shame-guilt cycle, in which the thought of past guilt produces shame, which, in turn, produces guilt in a cycle process and gives birth to a complex in the guilty person’s mind. Perhaps he looks towards Diamelen’s death as a kind of way of release from the cycle; For, with her death he loses the thing, for which he had betrayed his brother, and feels punished. That is why with the sunrise he can see this destiny clearly: he understands that the root of all lies with the malevolent reign of the ruler. But this does not release him from his history, and he takes an oath of avenging his brother’s death, which is also an act of self-annihilation. Though the sun shines in Nature, the sun of his life is extinguished for him forever. The significance of human existence in this world remains as mysterious as ever:

“He stood lonely in the searching sunshine, and he looked beyond the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of illusions.”

So, to conclude we can find that Arsat’s moral disquiet is comparable to that of Martin Decould in ‘Nostromo’ and Axel Heyst in ‘Victory.’ Benita Parry is of the view that Conrad is the artist of ambivalence and the divided mind, a writer, who discerned and gave novelistic life to those binary oppositions constituting the phylogenetic inheritance of the species and defining its existential condition. Parry’s observation throws light on the final posture of Arsat. Arsat is troubled by the moralistic consciousness of betrayal of his brother and he wishes to go back to do penance by avenging his brother’s death. But Arsat’s final attitude of looking out fixedly at the heart of illusions appears to belie promises of the fulfillment of such a wish. But critics, however, find such optimism unconvincing. They are of the that the end is too bleak to raise any hope of possible redemption. Even if Arsat returns, he will receive little consolation from his act; the price for betrayal has already been exacted. So, in such a situation and an attitude he rightly realizes:

“There is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death -death for many.”


                              The Work Cited Page
1. Conrad, J. (2023) The lagoon. London: Penguin Books.

2. Ingersoll, E. (1988) Explores Journal- volume 66.

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