Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Lagoon” is a story of love, courage, and cowardice and of their complex interweaving in the fabric of human behavior. Arsat is acknowledged a great warrior. The rank that he holds in the tribe attests his courage and skill; his daring first escape with Diamelen is further proof that he is a man unafraid to risk his life. However, he is also a man capable of love.

The story he tells the white man is, on the surface, a tale of high romance and adventure, but like the lagoon itself, it is deeper and more mysterious than it appears. The nature of his love is brought into question when he sees his brother fall amid the enemy. At that moment Arsat is faced with a choice. If he goes back to help his brother, he acts with the proper courage of a warrior and a man. However, his courage would be purchased at the risk of losing what he most cherishes—not only his life but also his world, his Diamelen. He must therefore choose between love and honor, fidelity and betrayal. In effect, he can carry off his love only at the price of cowardice. In choosing love, that noblest attribute of man, he has paradoxically bought dishonor, and it is only at the end, when Diamelen dies, that Arsat decides to seek a form of redemption, to regain his honor and courage by returning to his enemies. The problem is that his resolution comes too late. With Diamelen dead, Arsat has nothing to lose. The choice now becomes irrelevant, for his return can be seen not as the pursuit of lost honor and bravery but as an expiation of guilt, an easing of the conscience, even a form of suicide—the ultimate cowardice.

Thus, at the very end of the story, Arsat is motionless, staring beyond the sunlight “into the darkness of a world of illusions.” What is illusory is not love or courage or cowardice, but human beings’ ability to act purely, to conduct their lives without contradictory emotions or damnable choices. Significantly, Arsat’s love of Diamelen allows him to see nothing but her face, hear nothing but her voice, and after her death he tells the white man that he can see nothing. “There is nothing,” the white man responds—nothing but illusion, uncertainty, and the darkness of an impenetrable lagoon.