The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad


Short Story: ‘The Lagoon’ by Joseph Conrad.

Examine the role of the White Man in Conrad’s short story “The Lagoon.”
Ans Though predominantly a tale of Arsat’s love, the Whiteman’s role in ‘The Lagoon’ is no less significant. Basically, the story owes its theme and inspiration to Conrad’s long intimate experience of the seas. rivers, forests, and native people of the Malay Archipelago. Obviously, the Whiteman of the story is the author’s alter ego. His presence in the story is always felt along with the exotic surroundings with its mystery and magic. It is his quest to explore the primeval depths of the human unconscious, the location of selfish passions that lie hidden under the veneer of human gestures. So, his role is of three folds–as an observer, a describer, and a commentator. Moreover, ‘Tuan’ (the White Man) is a thematic necessity, as, without him, the delineation of the incident would have been almost impossible and the story would lose much of its gravity, dignity, and profundity.
The Whiteman, sparingly but strategically evoked, comes across as a figure of Authority who is given to taking decisions and making statements. The story begins with his directive to the steersman:

‘We will pass the night in Arsat’s clearing. It is late.’

We catch in his clipped accents the inflexible inflections of a speaker, used to being obeyed. When the steersman, reflecting the Malay reservations about Arsat, mentioned their desire to stay off the clearing, the White Man merely said, ‘Pass my blanket and the basket,’ expressing with a minimum number of words his difference as well as the distance from the Malay people, their conditioning, and beliefs.
Arsat’s anxious query in lieu of a greeting upon meeting his European friend at once establishes the tenuous equilibrium of the interracial encounter:

Have you medicine, Tuan?

He asks the Whiteman involuntarily conceding the limitation of a primitive way of life without modern amenities. The racial equation is again overtly alluded to in Arsat’s deference to the Whiteman’s perceived superiority of knowledge and Judgement. He asks him quite simply.

Tuan, will she die?’

So, the Whiteman has become for Arsat, a referral figure with near-oracular powers. In a sense, the European visitor is present as a donor, deliverer, and confident.
At this point, the author makes some vague doubtful comments about the character of the Whiteman and his nature of love for Malay:
‘He liked him-not so much perhaps as a man likes his favourite dogs…’
This avowal of respect does not bear scrutiny for it does not fly by any means, guarantee equality in the relationship, but as a damning observation made by the third person narrator. So, the Whiteman liked Arsat as one who knew ‘how to keep faith in council and how to fight without fear by the side of his White friend.’ So situated firmly at the centre of his universe and preoccupied with his own ‘pursuits’ the Whiteman tended to see Arsat
at the edges of his vision, occasionally blurred with distortions of distance and relegation. So, the image ‘favourite dog’ not only enforces the ruler-ruled or master-chattel dichotomy but dehumanizes the colonized ’other’ in a violent detraction of dignity.
But instead of that Whiteman is an ideal listener to Arsat’s tragic history because he had seen both Arsat and his heroic brother who has sacrificed his life for his brother’s happiness and ‘the lady with the veiled face.’ But the Whiteman cannot solve Arsat’s conscience-born conflict and does not attempt to offer any suggestion. He is a spectator of line, rather a detached observer of the world around him. From this angle, the Whiteman may be deemed as the chorus of the tragic tale represented in ‘The Lagoon.’
Towards the end of the story, he as his true friend who has every notion to help him in his distress only said:

‘If you want to come with me, I will wait all the morning.’

But Arsat has refused to go with him as has made up his mind to take up his neglected duty of revenge with his love resources. For him, the company of the Whiteman is no longer needed, and the latter is going to deport like a sad understanding friend. So, his reserve and sharp reticence stand as a sharp contrast to Arsat’s emotion and eloquence.
So, to conclude, we can say that the very anonymousness of the Whiteman somehow helps to extend the appeal of the story, making it appear as a document of fundamental human interest on which the Eastern and the Western, the primitive and the sophisticated, might concur.


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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