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A Post-Structuralist Criticism
of the
“THE LAGOON”
by JOSEPH CONRAD

Presented by:

CHRISTIAN EA
Teacher II

Presented to:

APOLO S. FRANCISCO, PhD


Professor/ VP for Academic
Affaiors

APRIL 26, 2019


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I. INTRODUCTION

In this particular literary criticism, this applies post-structuralism as a theory, where we read once again
the short story, “The Lagoon” by Joseph Conrad. We’ll dwell and become post-structuralists who seek to show
that the text is characterized by disunity rather than unity. Thus, in this post-structuralism criticism, it is believed
that there is always inconsistency in every text or, even in its smallest part. Besides, this analysis sees that every
work has internal contradictions. Hence, this study will merely focus to the prominent and salient feature of this
theory which is deconstruction. Post-structuralism embraced Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction which is is a term
for the process or ‘strategy’ of examining the elements (signs) of language in isolation from the other elements,
thus exposing the contradictions inherent within language. Further, this study will just deconstruct the binarism
presented in my structural analysis of the same text by Joseph Conrad.

II. BODY

In contrast with the former criticism I’ve written, I will still be presenting the same different signs and
symbols present in the text and of course manifesting the hierarchical binary opposites which are crucial in the
deconstruction of language later on.

THE GLARING STRUCTURES/Features IN THE TEXT

 Imagery
 Styles
 Figures of Speech
 Signs and Symbols
 Themes
 Hierarchical Binary Opposites
 On Deconstruction

A. IMAGERY
The story starts with a description of nature, as motionless, and undefined as the plot still
is:
“The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent...”
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“In the stillness of the air ... minute blossoms seemed do have been bewitched into an immobility
perfect and final. Nothing moved on the river”.
The "river" imagery stands far away into Arsat's mind to whom we have been introduced because
nothing has happened yet: the forest is static, and the atmosphere prepares us to the story. The only change
in the landscape is performed by the white man in his canoe. This flat character will be the vehicle through
which we will learn of Arsat's story:
“The white man's canoe, advancing upstream in the short lived disturbance of its own making
.”
The writer conveys that we are entering a region Arsat's mind - where action has stopped:
“... seemed to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of motion had forever departed”.
The "river" is personified as:
“... the wandering hesitating river, as if enticed irresistibly by the freedom of an open horizon flows
straight to the east to the east that harbors both light and darkness.”
The river, a way to reach his mind, his subconscious,hesitates and seeks a way out. The east, with
its connotation of mystery and exoticism, is where one finds both/darkness of the subconscious life,
of sin, and light for consciousness and reasoning.The mind longs for liberation from darkness but the
journey continues, and in this gloomy setting we only hear:
“The repeated call of some bird, a cry discordant and feeble, skimmed along over the smooth water and
lost itself .”
This ominous bird creates a true feeling of anguish and unaccomplishment.
“The creek broadened, opening out into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon .”
The "stagnant" lagoon refers to Arsat's present attitude towards life. He will do nothing except
hide from it and from himself. We may say that the "lagoon" is a symbol for isolation, not only physical
but also moral.
B. STYLE
The question may come to one’s mind: What type of style does the author follow to create the
mental image of the world in The Lagoon? If style is that particular use of the components of language
for meaning-making, so a close reading of the text plainly manifests that prose style is narrative, in the
sense that the episodes are carried quickly and as if narrates the experiences of the characters. The
sequential utterances are charged with the quick movement of the characters and things. To verify my
claim, let us quote the following extract from the text.
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“ We crossed the grassy glade. We ran down to the water. I saw a low hut above the black mud,
and a small canoe hauled up. I heard another shot behind me. I thought,‘That is his last charge.’ We
rushed down to the canoe; a man came running from the hut, but I leaped on him, and we rolled
together in the mud. Then we rolled together in the mud. Then I got up, and he lay still at my feet. I
don’t know whether I had killed him or not. I and Diamelen pushed the canoe afloat. I heard yells
behind me, and I saw my brother run across the glade.”
Let us notice first the choice of these verbs like cross, ran down, rush, run, come, leap, roll,
kill, push, etc. All these material verbs charge the whole scene of the race with the physical actions.
Nevertheless, The Lagoon, being a narrative text, is not without descriptive scenes which reflect the
quietness of nature where Arsta lives nearby the lagoon. The extract quoted herewith stands in contrast
with the narration of the race.
“Sounds hesitating and vague floated in the air round him, shaped themselves slowly into
words..”
Through flashback technique, Arsat finally unfolds hisstory to the white man, his friend: before d
aylight (consciousness: reality) comes and the enchantment of love and passion are over with Diamelen's
death "I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak before both night and love are gone - and
the eyes of day look upon my sorrow and my shame, upon my blackened face'
Nature foreshadows the mounting tragedy: "The sun was half-waydown the sky already... " and
Arsat's broter's wife was drowning, too. Arsat's desire for Diamelen was too strong for him to go back.
So, he steps forward in his loss of identity and again, imagery helps to make the scene more realistic: "I
saw a low but above the black mud and a small canoe.
The adjectives emphasize Arsat's descent to his private hell, and with the "small" canoe he will
cross the "river" entering his subconscious world of isolation from where he will only come out after
Diamelen is gone – that will take him to his future "loneliness". The Climax is reached when Arsat, pressed
by passion abandons his brother to the hands of their enemies to escape with Diamelen.
C. FIGURES OF SPEECH

The following are examples of figures of speech in the text:

 Alliteration
Repetition of a Consonant Sound
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somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream.
but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in the gloom,
sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows
He flung his arms wide open, let them fall along his body, then stood still with unmoved face and stony eyes.

 Anaphora
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other

In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute
blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.
A rumor powerful and gentle, a rumor vast and faint; the rumor of trembling leaves, of stirring boughs, ran
through the tangled depths of the forests. . . .

 Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, Than, or As If

the earth . . . became . . . a battle-field of phantoms (Comparison of the earth to a battlefield of ghosts)
Darkness oozed out from between the trees. . . . (Comparison of darkness to an oozing liquid)

 Paradox
Contradictory statement that may actually be true

There's no worse enemy and no better friend than a brother. . . .

 Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, Than, or As If

water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. (Comparison of the smooth water to a band of metal)
a twisted root of some tall tree . . . writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. (Comparison of the root
to a snake)

 Metaphors and Personification

The churned – up water frothed alongside with a confused murmur

The land and the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute
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I fed the hunger of my heart on short glances and stealthy words

Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in in the night. Speak before Both night and love are gone-
and the eyes of day look upon my sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt –up heart

These sequential expressions make one extended metaphor, not to reflect the heightened psychological
traits of Arsat, the Malay, only but to give the setting (location, time, circumstances) a new vision. Here, the water
is designated with confused murmur, and the eye of day looks upon the character’s sorrows and pains- an
associative image which highlights the depths of dark side of human nature. Here, the metaphorical modes, i.e.
metaphor (the hunger of my heart), simile (the carved dragon- like head), and personification ( the eyes of day)
operate reciprocally in the context of situation to create the mental picture of the world: the picture of love, pain,
shame, remorse and finally death in that vast solitude.

D. SIGNS AND SYMBOLS

1. The Lagoon as Obscurity

It is obvious that the most pertinent symbol in The Lagoon is the lagoon itself. As Tuan approaches
Arsat's home, Conrad describes the lagoon:

''Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great
fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous
of impenetrable forests.''

This brief description - only one sentence - uses the word ''darkness'' three times. It paints a picture of
confusion and mistiness; a mysterious atmosphere. This setting suits the story, as Arsat tells his tale of a range
of human emotions and contradicting loyalties, and the difficult, imperfect choices people are forced to make.
Entering the lagoon is like entering a physical manifestation of humanity's complexity.

2. The Lagoon as tantamount to Death

The lagoon is described as a place where nothing moves; a stagnant and still place removed from the
world of motion and activity, like death. This is evident in this line:

''And the white man's canoe, advancing up stream in the short-lived disturbance of its own making, seemed
to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of motion had for ever departed.''
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We can comprehend that the lagoon is compared to death it’s because of the description given and moreover,
the word “departed” is also glaring. One can elucidate the word by connoting one has departed or one has gone.
This line sets apart the lagoon from everything that surrounds it, as it suggests that the canoe is entering ''the
portals of a land'' rather than merely continuing down the river. Also, the phrase ''the very memory of motion''
suggests a place that has been still for quite some time.

3. The Motionless Water

When talking about the scenery of the lagoon itself, the author has evidently written this:

 'In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of
minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.'
 'The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream.'
 'Nothing moved on the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing regularly,'

We can say that, Conrad's choice of phrasing, using words such as 'somber,' 'dull,' 'motionless,' and
'stillness', represents not only the characters' surrounding, but also foreshadows the sadness and despair that
surrounds Arsat, his dying Diamelen and the story he tells about his brother. This is a manifestation of what he
feels inside him. The motionless water also means and can be related to his life, for without his brother and his
loved one, Diamelen, everything is useless and stagnant. Since this somber stillness surrounds Arsat's house, it
might also represent a weight (either of guilt or sadness or both) that surrounds Arsat's life, through the woman's
sickness and his brother's death.

4. The “Separated” Lagoon

When talking about the denotative meaning of a “lagoon”, it is a small body of water separated from a
larger body of water. The key word there is 'separated.' In some ways, Arsat's past has caused him to be separated
from the world outside and everyone in it; he is, in essence, hiding due to his choices: 'I longed to be with her in
a safe place beyond the reach of men's anger and of women's spite.' To Arsat, the lagoon is safe because it's
sheltered.

The lagoon might also be symbolic of issues beneath the surface. Repeatedly in the story, the stillness of
the water is discussed. Yet, beneath any body of water, there's activity, like the story! On the surface, there's a
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quiet meeting between friends and the quiet death of a woman. However, there's much more to the story 'beneath
the surface' of what we see, as Arsat tells of the trauma that led to the woman being at his home--her kidnapping,
their attempted escape and his brother's death, just to name a few.

5. The Sun rises

When Diamelen dies, the sun rises, this represents a new beginning in Arsats life. He looks at the sun and
he sees nothing left, nor brother nor lover. There’s no more regret because he has nothing else to lose. The sun
rises but there is nothing more darkness for him. It symbolizes a new hope for Arsat but Arsat cannot actually
feel the hope inside of him because of his grief to his loved ones who were lost.

E. THEMES

 Repentance

.......Arsat felt remorse and regret for abandoning his brother to the rajah's men haunt Arsat like the ghosts that
the Malay boatmen imagine inhabit the lagoon and the forests around it. He believes his failure to save his brother
caused Diamelen's illness and death. Arsat was truly regretting of what has his life turned out to be.

 Immobility

......Considering the moment when the white man's boat approaches Arsat's house, the author says, "The creek
broadened, opening out into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon." In describing the lagoon as stagnant
(motionless, dead, inert; or putrid, foul, rotting), the author is also describing the life of Arsat and Diamelen since
their arrival at their isolated forest dwelling. Their life together has been lonely, uneventful, and motionless; the
fester of Arsat's guilt has poisoned their opportunity for a contented life just as the mosquitoes from the lagoon
have poisoned Diamelin's veins with deadly disease.

 Egocentrism

.......this This theme is manifested when Arsat claims Diamelen. With the help of his devoted brother, he selfishly
runs off with her without stopping even to come to the aid of his brother. He is so selfish and ego-centric that
even his true-blooded brother, he can outcast or betray him in the name of love.
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 Reminiscing the Painful Past

.......Arsat has been unable to erase the memory of the day when he left his brother behind. So painful is the
memory of that day and so keen is his desire to redeem himself that he deliberately offered up his own life when
fighting with the white man. Arsat says, “You have seen me in time of danger seek death as other men seek life!
A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind!” But
Arsat lives on, as do the ghosts of the past. He is boxed of the past, he can never bring back the past and the only
he can do is to remember it and repent.

F. HIERARCHICAL BINARY OPPOSITES

1. DARK vs. LIGHT

.......Taking into consideration one of the passages in the story which contrast darkness with light, which
symbolizes the world that Arsat left behind for his forest retreat: "In a few moments all the stars came out above
the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an
oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness." When Diamelen
dies, morning light begins to drive out the darkness of the forest, signifying a change in Arsat. An eagle soars
heavenward, symbolizing the rising soul of Diamelen. Here is the passage:

“After a chill gust of wind there were a few seconds of perfect calm and absolute silence. Then from
behind the black and wavy line of the forests a column of golden light shot up into the heavens and spread
over the semicircle of the eastern horizon. The sun had risen. The mist lifted, broke into drifting patches,
vanished into thin flying wreaths; and the unveiled lagoon lay, polished and black, in the heavy shadows at
the foot of the wall of trees. A white eagle rose over it with a slanting and ponderous flight, reached the clear
sunshine and appeared dazzlingly brilliant for a moment, then soaring higher, became a dark and motionless
speck before it vanished into the blue as if it had left the earth for ever. The white man, standing gazing
upwards before the doorway, heard in the hut a confused and broken murmur of distracted words ending with
a loud groan. Suddenly Arsat stumbled out with outstretched hands, shivered, and stood still for some time
with fixed eyes.”

2. Utopia vs. Dystopian World Perspective of Arsat


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Arsat’s love is so great that he thinks that if he can escape from Rajah and his wife’s wrath, he can find a
place, a country where there is no death as long as his peace –Diamelen is with him. This idea that he carries in
his mind constitutes a Utopia for Arsat that he desperately hopes to find. He longs for a place that he can find
peace somewhere outside the control of Rajah which is the reason why in the expense of his brother’s life he
escapes to his utopia in his mind and finds himself confined in the lagoon, which is a notorious and isolated place
nobody except Arsat dares to dwell in. In this respect, although the lagoon becomes a land excluded from the
norms of Arsat’s society and Rajah’s power which makes it a realm isolated from the symbolic order representing
the rule of the dominating power, it fails to realize Arsat’s utopia as it turns out to become a place where fear,
illness, remorse and inequality are encountered as they are in the dystopian world outside the lagoon which Arsat
desires to flight.

Parallelism and similarity of Arsat’s past and present dystopian condition are reflected throughout the
story in order to reinforce the idea that utopia exists nowhere and it is unachievable. This parallelism is conveyed
not only via Arsat’s past and present world but also via the representation of the white man. The white man
embodies the generalization of binaries to the society which Arsat resists, nevertheless; there is no peace in the
white man’s world, as well. He has a prominent influence on Arsat’s becoming aware of his own recurring
dystopian life which is impossible to reverse. This similarity in both Arsat’s and the white man’s dystopian
condition is revealed by the white man’s own words responding to the remorse that Arsat has in his heart for his
brother. “His chin rested on his chest, and [the white man] murmured sadly without lifting his head: „We all
love our brothers”. The agony and the empathy that the Whiteman feels in his heart as well as his dystopian
perception from the very beginning of the story demonstrate that Whiteman‟s world which is diametrical and
outside the lagoon and Malay has similarities in its dystopian features which imply the impossibility of a utopian
place. Whiteman is well aware of this reality, nevertheless; it is through his arrival that Arsat reaches this
awareness. In this respect, it would not be wrong to draw attention to Conrad‟s distinguished writing style.

At the end of the story we observe the mental transformation in Arsat. He recognizes that there is no peace
and nowhere to go in the world to reach his utopian impulse as he says; “„No Tuan‟. . . „I shall not eat or sleep
in this house, but I must first see my road. Now I can see nothing –see nothing! There is no light and no peace
in the world; but there is death –death for many” .Arsat’s last impression of the world as dystopian that he
struggles to exist in, gradually comes closer to the Whiteman’s dystopian perception. As Conrad presents his
readers a wide range of reading alternatives in this short story, we come to realize a Utopian and Dystopian
reflection and binarism in the atmosphere and in the characters he employs. Arsat as a Malay man searches for
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peace, however; at the end he realizes that he lives in a dystopian world. Conrad constructs the steps of his
realization very wisely and melts two different worlds in the same dystopian pot through a Malay and White
character in a colonial framework.

4. Brotherly love ( Europian vs. Malay Binary Opposition)

This binarism is really evident in the short story, for it announces itself, at the outset, as a story of
Europeans and Malays (‘the white man… said to the steersman… The Malay only grunted…) The only
individual named in the opening paragraph is Arsat, and, as the story proceeds, Arsat complicates what begins as
a Europian/Malay Binary opposition. The opening paragraphs describe a journey down river to a sea-reach and
then thought a creek into the lagoon.

“Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed
amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like arrested snake… Darkness
oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze ofg the creepers, from behind the great fantastic
and unstirring leaves; the darkness mysterious and invincible, the darkness scented and poisonous of
impenetratable forests.”

The ‘darkness’ in this story explores, is that of love, betrayal, and death- the darkness of desires and
fears. To begin with, the narrative is presented through a Malay perspective. It constructs a non-European
reality of ghosts and spirits against which the European is defined:

“ White men care not for such things, being unbelievers and in league with the Father of Evil, who
leads them unharmed through the invisible dangers of this world.”

There is a nice vagueness about the invisible dangers: they are ‘invisible’ both beacause they belong to
the spiritual rather than the material realm and because they are unseen by these insensitive, unbelieving
Europeans with their different reality. It is also interesting to note, within this Malay perspective Arsat is presented
as a stranger, who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits
that haunt the places abandoned by mankind. This initial blurring of the binary opposition Is reinforced when the
narratives shifts to European perspective and is focalized through the unnamed ‘white man’: Arsat, who is a
‘stranger’ to the Malays, is his ‘Malay Friend’, and Arsat fought without fear by the side of his white friend.
Where the opening paragraphs presented ‘The White man’ and ‘the Malay’ as a binary opposition, this paragraph
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emphasizes the bond between these two individuals. However, if there is a bond of friendship, this should not be
seen as implying equality; the narrative notes that the white man liked Arsat but not so much perhaps as a man
likes his favorite dog”.

 On DECONSTRUCTION…

As the prime feature of post structuralism, let us analyze when the White man's character is contrasted
with that of Arsat, his Malay friend. Thus this create binarism between them. Conrad is as much a master
at presenting the many facets of the white as he is at presenting variances in the native Malay psyche. To
that end, Conrad's white man (Tuan) and Arsat typify the uncertainty of cross-cultural male bonding. This
is evident in the ff:

‘No, Tuan,’ said Arsat softly. ‘I shall not eat or sleep in this house, but I must first see my road. Now I
can see nothing—see nothing! There is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death—death for many.
We were sons of the same mother—and I left him the midst of enemies; but I am going back now.’

We could tell that, the white man is representing the Western part of the globe and they see themselves as
superior compared to the East which is rrepresented by Arsat. The deconstruction of the binarism can simply be
seen when the white man's response to Arsat is one of his mild notification; he turned out to understand Arsat's
plight but does not fully enter into Arsat's sorrow. In other words, the white man likes his friend the way a man
values an important tool: necessary in difficult circumstances, but expendable in others. This makes the
deconstruction of the binarism between the East and West, for one tries to empathize with the other because the
other is truly unwell because of the gloominess or darkness he has encountered- loosing his Diamelen and his
brother.

“He liked the man who knew how to keep faith in council and how to fight without fear by the side of
his white friend. He liked him—not so much perhaps as a man likes his favorite dog—but still he liked him
well enough to help and ask no questions...”

The deconstruction of the perception of White man versus to the Malay man was also evident when Arsat
tells Tuan that the Malay and Whites positions are similar; they belong to races who take what they want, when
they want it. However, he is under no illusion about White’s fidelity: thus having or making good relationship
with each other.
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'After the time of trouble and war was over and you went away from my country in the pursuit of your
desires, which we, men of the islands, cannot understand...'

I could also note that, the role of the white man is one of illumination: he represents colonial attitudes
toward natives and all the prejudices inherent in the western psyche toward the colonial world. The white man
also highlights colonial insensitivity toward typically Malay attitudes and beliefs. His native servants are
suspicious and sulky in their chores. They do not relish the idea of getting too near a man like Arsat, even though
he is a fellow Malay. After all, his proclamation that "he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the
places abandoned by mankind," smacks to them of spiritual heresy”. Again, the white man's response is one of
apathy. It does not touch his well-being and so the matter does not interest him in the least.

The deconstruction of the binarism is indeed evident to East versus West, “White men care not for such
things, being unbelievers and in league with the Father of Evil, who leads them unharmed through the invisible
dangers of this world. To the warnings of the righteous they oppose an offensive pretence of disbelief. What is
there to be done?”

Another salient analysis of deconstruction starts with the use of the the setting which is the lagoon wherein
it is characterized as dark, motionless like death causing a binarism towards the life of Arsat as dystopian versus
utopian world. The use of the word “darkness” which has a very close meaning to sadness, dystopian, bad, place
of gloominess, then followed by the word “motionless” means stagnant and there is no life at all, and constructed
as this descriptions lead readers to a comprehension that this Malay man is living in a dystopian world.
Nevertheless, the readers will find the fact that this character is the main character of the story and his attitude
towards his life is like a dystopian place where no one lives, no one cares, except for Diamelen. Furthermore, the
fact that his actions in the story are near from the definition of the lagoon- a dystopian since his actions against
darkness can be the deconstruction of how he views his life. The standard concept of the meaning of the word
“darkness” as compared to the lagoon where he dwells is now deconstructed by the fact that the “the lagoon” is a
very nice place for him with his loved one Diamelen, making the lagoon a Utopian world for him. In this case,
we can analyze that the perception of how Arsat view things or the place has been deconstructed from a very dark
lagoon as dystopian to a utopian world where they could leave and escape from the rajah’s rule . The lagoon is
deconstructed as a Utopian world for him as long as you’re in love and as long as he lives with Diamelen.

Nevertheless, the fact that Arsat longs for a Utopian world in the lagoon with Diamelen, he has chosen
still to betray his brother for Diamelen. That is also a proof of deconstruction, that he really wants to be with
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Diamelen even if it is considered to be turning a dystopian world because its his brother’s loved one in the first
place, but in the end he still choose to be with Diamelen.

III. CONCLUSION

In conclusion, it can well be said that the critical practice of deconstruction aims to dig out the

hidden inability of language to convey the single message of sign, signifier and signified. One signifier can have

many signified concepts. It was well seen by applying on the short story, “The Lagoon” by Joseph Conrad.

Moreover, it was well seen that the flexible nature of language and structure can convey any multiple messages

meanings. Therefore, the language is not consistent, as seen by structuralists, but is movable, flexible and

inconsistent as perceived by post-structuralists.

Thus, this short story, is analysed to find the evidence of post-structuralism idea implied in it. By

analyzing this short story based on post-structuralism literary criticism, we get deeper understanding about post-

structuralism. Besides, conducting this analysis also sharpen the our knowledge and ability to criticize texts.

Finally this analysis is expected to help readers to comprehend post-structuralism idea in other literary texts for

future reference.