Symbolism in the short story ‘ The Lagoon’ by Joseph Conrad.


Symbolism in the short story ‘The Lagoon’ by Joseph Conrad

Without writing a single line of poetry, Conrod through his stories, has impressed us as a genuine poet both by his choice of highly imaginative and emotive ideas, and his style and imagery. Inevitably his novels and short stories are pregnant with symbols of various ranges. Moreover, since he is a tragedian and a ‘chronicler of line consciences,’ there is an additional allegorical depth in his interpretation of characters and incidents. “The Lagoon” comprehensively unfolds these marvelous characteristics of his literary art.
His brilliant symbolism, partly discussed in various chapters like those on the title, on Arsat and the Whiteman, on the short story, on the narrative style, strung together and forms a unit of logical assessment of the symbolic and allegorical connotation of the story. But this truth is that Conrad’s rich and powerful imagination, and his commitment to a serious interpretation of the struggles and sufferings of man, made his expressions habitually symbolic and allegorical.

The place of action in this story is a Lagoon, deemed as ghostly and avoided by local habitants. The setting has something exotic and Conrad tells his tale against such a setting and the theme of his story is one of human passion and human frustration.
The hero of the story is a Malayan native, Arsat who lived in a secluded place, near a lagoon. It belongs more to shadowy spirits than to human beings. It represents a mysterious borderland between life and death, where the boatmen fear to tread.

Love in Arsat is symbolic of discard and revolt rather than a sweetly harmonious impulse. The injunction prevailing in the tribal land against the marriage of a girl of superior status with a man of interior standing has the ring of an archetypal myth. The idealized figure of Arsat’s brother is a symbol of supreme courage, skill, and nobility of mind. He is sacrificed sinfully, and the sin must be paid for. Arsat’s betrayal of his brother, and his failure to come back to his aid against the attackers, is the ‘Sin of Cain.’ Diamelen, whose very name is, symbolic of the sweet but sad melody of the violin, must die because Arsat and she are instrumental in making the noble brother die for their cause.
Again, the characters of the short story may also lie interpreted symbolically, as they signify some aspects of human life, manifested in different traits of human nature. While Arsat stands for love and remorse, his brother signifies faith and fidelity. Diamelen represents rather the ideal of life manifested in love to be pursued by man. The Whiteman has almost the function of a chorus, observing, commenting, and behaving passively, just as the chorus of the Classical Tragedy.

The symbolic aspect of the story is also noted in the very title “The Lagoon.” The word ‘Lagoon’ that comes from Spanish ‘Laguna’ means a stretch of salt water, separated from the sea by a low sandbank. This, however, has a meaningful application. The term ‘Lagoon’ implies enclosed seawater within the ridge of some rock on sand rather than a detached stretch of water from the main. The hero of the story Arsat too had a detached isolated life with Diamelen in an old hut by the side of the Lagoon. Their life is also isolated from the life of the main islands. Arsat’s life in the Lagoon is like that of the stagnant Lagoon. He remained alone after the death of Diamelen, in the darkness of the world of illusion. Indeed, the Lagoon, which forms the title of the story, is closely related to the thematic aspect of the story and may be taken to symbolize the tragic state of the hero’s life.

Everything in nature and every gesture of man in the dramatically conceived atmosphere of the story lends itself to a symbolic and allegorical interpretation, as they do in Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’: The forces of oozing darkness in its fearful intensity are symbolic of the rising gloom and mortification of Arsat:
“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.”

“…a twisted root of some tall tree”, which is ‘writhing’ yet ‘motionless’ and looks ‘like an arrested snake’, offers parallelism to the tortured, immobilized condition of the hero. Hunted and chased by enemies, Arsat has embraced the haunt of spirits. It suggests symbolically that he is a ghost of his former self, and the ghosts can be ‘familiar’ with him. The ‘two tall nilong palms’ carry a suggestion of ‘sad tenderness and care’ for the man in distress. The black and impalpable vapor about the lagoon overpowering the ‘crimson glow’ of the setting sun, is symbolic of the vanquishing of hope for a new human heart and becomes a ‘mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears.’

Arsat’s passion, inner conflict, error of judgment, physical suffering overshadowed by his internal agony, and his final resolution to commit himself to the terrible task of sacred vengeance, is a saga of the eternal human tragedy of love. So, the tale is concerned with the consequent punishment, repentance, and ultimate preparation for purification through self-sacrifice.
Indeed, in “The Lagoon” Conrad tells a simple Malayan tale about the frustration of the life of a good native who sought a life of all love, in total peace, free from death. But with the death of Diamelen, there remains nothing for Arsat to love and look forward to, since he had already lost his brother, the only object of love. Hence the dark blindness that descends on him, making him see nothing, not even the rising sun, is symbolic of the meaninglessness of what is positive and hopeful for other men. That is why when White Man, his old friend departed in the morning, “Arsat had not moved. 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.”


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

2. Ingersoll, E. (1988) Explores Journal- volume 66, p. 105.

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