“The Lagoon” was one of the first short stories that Joseph Conrad wrote and was his second to be published. The story is set in the Malay Archipelago, which also features in the novels Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896). This location is also the backdrop for “Karain: A Memory” (also 1897), which develops more fully the enigmatic ending of “The Lagoon.” Both stories appeared in Conrad’s first anthology, Tales of Unrest (1898).
“The Lagoon” represents one of Conrad’s earliest experiments in what he later described as the “several ways of telling a tale.” Though the story introduces themes that Conrad would pursue in other works, “The Lagoon” lacks the technical and intellectual complexity of his later fiction. As Conrad himself wrote, the text features “the usual forests river-stars-wind sunrise . . . and lots of secondhand Conradese” (Collected Letters, 301). Despite Conrad’s self-deprecation, the story (along with “Karain”) was well received following its publication in the Cornhill Magazine. As one contemporary reviewer commented, these stories “brought the East to our very doors.”
Though “The Lagoon” has as its narrator an anonymous white traveler to whom a tale of violence and passion is told, it differs from “Karain” by being narrated in the third person and by not having a closing frame. Consequently, there is little interaction between either the listener and the storyteller or the author and the reader. The potential ambiguity of the tale is also diminished: It becomes something more easily read and consumed. (Conrad’s intention, in part, was to benefit from the huge financial rewards associated with the magazine market.)
“The Lagoon” begins with a white man sailing upstream. He instructs his native crew to tie up for the night in a clearing near where his old companion, Arsat, lives. Arsat is loathed by the sailors not only “as a stranger” but also because “he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places abandoned by mankind.” The crew refuses to leave the boat, so the white man goes alone. When he arrives at the hut, he finds Arsat’s lover, Diamelan, mortally ill. Unable to help her, Arsat and his visitor sit in silence until “A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and startling, as if the great solitudes of surrounding woods had tried to whisper into his ear the wisdom of their immense and lofty indifference.” Arsat is now spurred into recounting how he fell in love with Diamelan, a serving girl, and how he and his brother, sword bearers to a tribal chief, had planned to kidnap her from her mistress. When their attempt was discovered, Arsat abandoned his brother to his fate and fled with Diamelan. Arsat is guilt-ridden and convinced that Diamelan’s death is retribution for his cowardice. The story’s constant suggestion of a supernatural world also hints that the cause of Diamelan’s illness is the avenging spirit of Arsat’s brother. Nonetheless, this reading remains only a tantalizing possibility, as does Conrad’s closing reference to a metaphysical “world of illusions.” Though atmospheric, “The Lagoon” is underdeveloped in its symbolism, and contemporary critics have argued that its unsophisticated use of exotic locations erects a safe boundary between the white reader (for whom it was written) and the non-Western, colonial subject.
Conrad, Joseph. Collected Letters. Vol. 1. Edited by Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
———. Tales of Unrest. London: Fisher Unwin, 1898.
Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. The Strange Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad: Writing, Culture, and Subjectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Karl, Frederick R., and Laurence Davies, eds. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.