Joseph Conrad’s short story The Lagoon is an admirably told tale of the frustration of human aspirations. It depicts, in a Malayan setting, the tragedy of a man, Arsat. That Malayan, who loved too well, wished to live in love out of the bound of death and fear.
Arsat, a gallant Malayan native, fought for his ruler’s rights and authority against foreign invaders. Along with his brother, an equally strong and brave fellow, he won honor and renown for his valor and loyalty. But his deep passion for love changed the course of his life. He fell in love with a young woman, Diamelen, perhaps an attendant of the ruler’s mistress. With the aid of his brother, he took her away. But the ruler’s men hotly chased them all. It was a critical situation, but Arsat’s brother made a desperate bid to save the lovers. With his lone gun and little powder, he stood boldly against the determined pursuers. He fired at them, prevented them from advancing, while Arsat and his lover ran away wildly for their escape.
Arsat and his ladylove managed to take refuge in a canoe, but his brother was surrounded and overpowered by the enemy. Arsat ought to have rushed to assist him in his fight against the pursuers. But he did not. Even he did not respond to his call three times, although he had been fighting and dying for the cause of Arsat’s love. Arsat failed to do what he should. He did not turn back to help his brother but rowed away with his Diamelen to a place of safety. Of course, he was no coward, had courage enough to fight, and loved his brother too well. But he longed for love and life more and craved for a life of all peace and love, far from the fear of death. So Arsat let his brother die for his intense zest for life and love. His words echoed his feeling justly- “Three times he called–but I was not afraid of life. Was she not there in that canoe? And could I not with her find a country where death is forgotten –where death is unknown?” His love made him selfish, caring only for his own happiness and peace. His lust for life turned him to the act of betrayal of his brother who stood and fought to save him and his love.
But Arsat suffered from a moral dilemma. He could not forget the dying cry of his brother and justify his own action. He was constantly pricked with a moral failure. He, no doubt, had a love for his brother, but that could be no amends for his selfishness. Arsat’s outburst marked his state of helpless desperation—’ What did I care who died? I wanted peace in my heart‘. But Arsat could not get the long-sought peace in his heart. His heart was haunted with a deep feeling of remorse. He could not but feel himself guilty, and so admitted to the white man that his woman’s death was his own fate— ‘No, Tuan, if such is my fate.’
And fate was unsparing to him. He was guilty of the act of betrayal to his brother by not responding to his call when his life had been at stake for the sake of ensuring the love of his beloved and himself. The act of betrayal was a sin. His sin was accompanied with remorse for he was no deliberate sinner. His conscience pricked him and reminded him of his act of ingratitude and betrayal. He was never at ease, even in the satisfaction of his love.
The story ends with a stark note of tragedy. Sin has its retribution. Arsat could not live in love, far from the valley of death. The nemesis visited him in the form of death and took away his love—his dear Diamelen. His ingratitude, and his faithfulness to his brother, could not ensure peace and love for him. The grim illusions of the world were all too vivid to him-“He stood lonely in the searching sunshine, and he looked beyond the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of illusions“.
The story of Arsat’s tragedy is deeply moving. It is made particularly so by the moral question involved here. The story suggests a moral dilemma- to choose between love and duty. Arsat was confronted with such a dilemma—to run away with his lady-love to a place of peace and safety or to rush for his brother’s help and die with him. His passion for love and life was strong enough to lead him to forsake his duty to his dying brother. The moral dilemma seems almost the nemesis in the poignant tragedy of Arsat, one who loved too well, longed passionately for his love, and lost all with the sad remorse to prick him constantly for his act of betrayal.