The Castaway’s Island: Confinement, Transformation, Abundance


Castaway stories are emphatically stories about a place, the island. Many castaway stories (though not Robinson Crusoe) begin when the castaway arrives on the island, treat his or her dealings with it – settlement, domination, defence and so on – and end when he or she leaves the island. This note discusses a couple of complications in the treatment of the castaway’s island – more are discussed in ‘Insecure Spaces‘ elsewhere on this site.

Places on the castaway’s island are dynamically unbalanced, and this, under control in earlier versions of the story, later opens the way to changes and problems. The confinement of the island, its limitedness, gives value and weight to a finite number of things, whether features of the island (the peak, the cave, the lagoon and so on), or artefacts salvaged or made (in Lord of the Flies, for instance, the spectacles, the shelters, the spears). Life of Pi makes the same point in a bleaker context:

Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher. (217)

You’ve got only what you’ve got in (in this case) the boat, and have to make do with that. This confinement is so strong and persistent a feature in castaway narratives that it can provide a kind of basis for contrasting transformations of the island: transformation towards abundance, firstly, in the broadly optimistic colonial versions of the narrative, such as Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and The Mysterious Island, and also in the dissent from the narratives of settlement and work, in Suzanne and Friday, where the island is already abundant. J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’ may in turn be read as a parody of this abundance: in the seemingly endless vistas of concrete blockhouses, left over after the island has been used as an atomic
test site, the abundance of the traditional castaway island has become the endlessness of abstract geometry. Or from this basis there is a different transformation towards the uncanny – the various beasts that seem to come from the sea or the sky in Lord of the Flies, the invaders (pirates, natives), real or feared, from Robinson Crusoe onwards, whose increasing importance and complexity is discussed in ‘Invaders’ elsewhere on this site. The same place and situation, that is, island plus castaway plus, usually, salvage from the wreck, is satisfyingly enumerable and satisfyingly abundant, or, contrariwise, it is frighteningly uncanny, that is, of limitless threatening possibilities. Another way to put this is to say that the castaway narrative comes to be infiltrated and sometimes captured by the Gothic, the genre that deals with hauntings and with relics of an unresolved past, rather than with new beginnings; a significant swerve, given that novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Masterman Ready are about as far from the Gothic as could be.

Castaway stories mentioned in this note

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001

    The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David and Johann Rudolf Wyss, 1812

The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876

Suzanne and the Pacific, Jean Giraudoux, 1921

Friday or The Other Island, Michel Tournier, 1969

‘The Terminal Beach’, J. G. Ballard, 1964

Masterman Ready or The Wreck of the “Pacific”, Frederick Marryat, 1841