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Last Updated January 27, 2024.

“The Lagoon” is a short story written by Joseph Conrad in 1896. Many of Conrad’s stories take place during the colonization of Africa and wrestle with themes of race, Indigenous cultures, human psychology, and the morality of European occupation of Africa, India, and other parts of the world. Although his stories document very real events of British domination at the turn of the century, his style is often dreamlike and surreal. Although “The Lagoon” is one of his shortest stories, it contains many of the thematic and stylistic elements of his longer pieces.

 The story opens as a white passenger and a Malaysian steersman travel down a river in a canoe. The sun is setting, and the white man suggests they spend the night in Arsat’s clearing, to which the steersman begrudgingly agrees. The narrator comments on the stillness of the setting, a forest of palms and flowers, thinking that the canoe and the men occupying it seem to be the only things moving amid the peace of the forest. 

The steersman steers the canoe against the river’s current, rowing it into a dark, foliage-covered creek. As the foliage clears, they find themselves in a lagoon that, at its far side, houses a small, raised hut adorned with two palm trees. Announcing that they have reached Arsat’s, the steersman leaves the white man to climb the ladder to Arsat’s home and quickly retreats into the water, intent on spending the night in the canoe. As he does, the narrator explains that the steersman and his poling crew refuse to spend the night at Arsat’s as they believe his home to be haunted and the man himself to have eerie powers. 

As the white man arrives at the door, Arsat opens it, addressing the white man as Tuan (a title of respect) and asking if he has brought medicine. The white man replies that he has not and is curious as to who needs it. When he enters the house, he finds a woman on a bamboo couch nearing death. Arsat explains that he has stayed up for five nights trying to care for her, yet despite his efforts, she has recently entered a state of catatonia. 

Arsat asks if the woman will die, and the white man says it is likely. The white man then looks back on his friendship with Arsat, which has lasted for many years. He recalls staying with Arsat and his woman many times, wondering idly about what the couple’s life must have been like. 

Pensive, the white man leaves the hut to watch the sun sink below the horizon and eat some of the provisions he brought with him from the boat. He smokes as he does, and then makes a small fire to drive away the mosquitos. Shortly after, Arsat joins him, reporting that the woman is still breathing and, desperately, asking again if she will die. The white man responds coldly, saying only: “If that is her fate.” Arsat goes back inside, addresses the woman as Diamelen, and then, grief-stricken, demands she speak. When she does not, he leaves the hut and rejoins the white man outside.

The men sit in silence, staring into the water and at the canoe. Raised from a dreamy meditation by Arsat speaking, the white man listens as the man relives how he came to be with Diamelen. He explains that, after having met the white man, Arsat and his brother became sword-bearers for the ruler of their island, Si Dendring. 

They served during a time of peace, so Arsat soon grew idle and found himself falling for...

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Diamelen, a servant of Si Dendring’s wife, who was already promised to another man. Their love grew, yet they seemed destined to be apart. However, one night, the court was preoccupied with a fishing excursion, so Arsat and his brother snuck away under the cover of the excitement and rowed their boat back to shore. Diamelen came to them there and joined them in the boat. Together, the three rowed away, knowing they could never return.

Arsat recalls how they rowed all night and well into the next day to get as far away as possible. Yet, when they pulled onto a beach to rest, they only got a wink of sleep before one of Si Dendring’s canoes arrived. Arsat’s brother encouraged them to run across the island to a fisherman’s hut; there, he knew, was a canoe they could use to escape. 

Armed with a gun, Arsat’s brother stayed behind to hold off their pursuers, promising to catch up to them after all of his shots were fired. Arsat ran with Diamelen, attacked the fisherman, and stole his canoe. As he did, Arsat’s brother fired four shots and ran to catch up with them. However, Si Dendring’s men overtook him, and though he called desperately for Arsat, his brother did not come to his aid. Instead, he paddled away with Diamelen, leaving his brother to his fate and never looking back.

His betrayal revealed, Arsat grieves his brother but again affirms that he made the correct choice—he could not live without Diamelen, but to do so, he left his brother to his fate. Even after all these years, he has not made peace with this decision and, after Diamelen’s death, now must account for his choices. The white man suggests that Arsat accompany him, but Arsat declines, saying that he is now enshrouded in darkness and cannot move forward until he can see the light, referring both to the physical light of dawn and the emotional light of mourning. 

Arsat adds, too, that when the darkness subsides and he can once again see, he will go back to avenge his brother and “strike” back against those he betrayed. The white man leaves him to his grief and climbs back into the canoe. From the canoe, he looks back at Arsat, who remains frozen, searching for sunshine.