AD's English Literature : Analysis of Conrad’s “The Lagoon”: The Theme of Death, Love, Courage and Guilt

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Analysis of Conrad’s “The Lagoon”: The Theme of Death, Love, Courage and Guilt


"A belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."

Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1924)

The soul of the short story is brevity, and critics would aver unity, too. Conrad who is usually famous for his novellas uses a relatively shorter from in The Lagoon, but detractors would claim that there is paraphernalia of themes marring the strict unity of effect. Although the short story rarely has the scope for anything more than a bore incident, Conrad’s short story is unique in its portrayal of an almost entire life. It is a sage of life that involves four diverse themes death, love, courage and guilt to select one among the four as the focal theme would appear an impossibility since Conrad’s mastery of the art makes the four themes interrelate each other.

 The entire short story diffuses an atmosphere of darkness and death. At first glance, the story would almost qualify for the Stevensonian tenet that the primary element in a short story may be a distinct atmosphere, the character serving only to enhance the effect. The entry into ‘the portals of a land from which the very moment of motion had for ever departed’ suggests the somber nature of the settling. Darkness appears ooze from the dense forest and when the white man reaches Arsat’s clearing, the first question that the European is whether he is in possession of any medicine. The description of the ill woman suggests the presence of death:
                         “………… on the young face there was the
                           Ominous and fixed expression – the absorbed,
                          Contemplating expression of the unconscious
                           Who are going to die?”
Even the white man is drawn into sympathy and move to horror and fascination at ‘the inspiration and the wonder of death’. The proximity of death which is unavoidable and uncomfortable made the stillness of the surrounding appears “untrustworthy and infamous like…. Unjustifiable violence.” The prince of death inhuman life makes the concept of starlight peace of mockery and the earth appears to be a battlefield of deadly beings. Arsat, after the eventual death of his beloved speaks out with philosophic cynicism:
                   There is no light and no peace in the world,
                    But there is death – death for many.

Yet the tale is even more explicitly one of the desires of man for woman and of woman for man. Even while Arsat is standing by the beloved’s death bed, he decides to tell the white man the long- hidden story of the love: “I shall speak to you of love…….. Speak before both night and love are gone.” Throughout the night he recapitulates as if in a reverie how he could see nothing but one face and hear nothing but one voice, when he first fell in love with Diamelen. With exquisite sensitivity Arsat describes how he fed the longing of his heart on short glances and stealthy words, how they spoke to one another through the scent of flower and veil of leaves and how he finally decided to take the woman with him even at the expense of becoming a social and moral out- cast. The intensity of Arsat’s love is evident in the face that when she has ceased to be Arsat can see nothing:
                          “Now I can see nothing – see nothing!”

The Lagoon is also, in a way, sage of adventure. The tale of his elopement with Diamelen with the assistance of his brother is a romance rarely paralleled in real life. He was a courageous man and he could not bear the thought of not executing his plan of snatching Diamelen from the midst of men: “I began to think of killing and of a fierce death ….” He declares that he belongs to a clan (Race) of people who take what they want. Although the forces ranges against him have ‘might’ and ‘authority’ he has ‘love’ and ‘strength’ and ‘courage’. The brother is even more courageous man, who would like to take his object not as a fugitive or a sneaking thief but in the face of strong apposition. The brave Inchi Midah’s fury and their own ruler’s sword and escape with Diamelen when they are pursued, the younger brother resist still he is struck down, but Arsat and his beloved succeeded in escaping.

The lover and the courageous man that he is, Arsat is seen to suffer from his guilt which so corrodes him as to be deemed (considered) one of the most important themes of this short story. The love between the brothers was so strong as to withstand even the fury of an entire race. His brother’s words still ring in Arsat’s ear: “you take her from their midst we are two who are like one.” The brother, a valiant man who would fain shout defiance resist the temptation and accepts a relatively dishonourable slinking a way only in order to please Arsat. When they are at last spotted, the brother vows to keep their pursuers off until they can launch their boat and to climb in at the last moment. He had only a gun with only a little powder but he managed to stave off the attack for a while. When he finally started towards the boat he stumbled and Arsat pushed the canoe from the shore, disregarding his brother’s fervent cry, he knows that they would not be able to escape if he tried to save his brother. His disquietude is evident in his quite words: “Juan, I loved my brother.”

The germinal idea is perhaps that of love for all the other aspects be it the death of his beloved, the death of his brother, their own adventure and the final sense of guilt are all sub seemed under the motivating principle of love. Arsat may have regrets for his brother, but who can deny that he chose the higher right for a lesser one. Thus in spite of being concerned with almost an entire life like Washington Irvin’s Rip Van Winckle or Maupassarit’s Le Parure. The Lagoon has the unity of a brief story such Lawrence’s The Odour of Chrysanthemums or Poe’s The Cask of Amontodillo.

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