Topography and Narrative Structure: Insecure and Uncanny Spaces

1      Almost all castaway novels (see the list at the end of this note) involve the protagonists being drawn to places of security and refuge within the island, or discovering hitherto unknown spaces and places within the island. Just because the island, an enticing microcosm, seems as if it can be wholly known and mapped, there is likely to be some secret or hidden or forbidden place outside that knowledge and control — an island within the island, most often a cavern or grotto, a place that turns its back on the limitless ocean. Why might this be the case? Because it provides narrative friction; there will be no simple idyll of complete knowledge and control. The constructive work of settlement shifts, then, to a preoccupation with security, or a darker demonstration of the limits of the castaway’s knowledge and control follows.

Further, to know, settle and control the island is very often to exert and express the self. In the situation and setting of the castaway tale, the island is the castaway and the castaway is the island. The island is sometimes compared to a body: in Friday, to a headless female body. The island in Robinson is also compared to a body, and in addition it is named for and confused with its owner; the same thing happens in The Year of Grace with Grock’s island. If the island cannot, in the event, be fully known, if it contains hidden or secret places in its quasi-corporeality — ‘fissures, cracks and holes’ in Robinson; ‘dips and hollows’ in Concrete Island —then to that extent the castaway is losing control of the self.

      Here is a quick summary of examples of these places within. For the present, narratives from Robinson Crusoe to the present are grouped together; later it will be seen how the depiction of place changes drastically as castaways degenerate or devolve.

      It is a matter of the development of potentials present from the beginning of the tradition in the topography of the island. It’s not always easy to define what an island is, or when a land mass surrounded by water is felt as an island, but castaway tales in practice define an island as something a castaway can walk around. Once the castaway’s island is divided from the rest of the world (the ocean) by being known in this way, it is then subdivided (particularly in narratives of settlement) — or gaps and unknown places appear in it (in later castaway tales).

      There are Crusoe’s fort which he conceals with trees, and then his supplementary fort, and then his secret grotto. Both forts are given double walls of thickset hedges; and Robinson plants twenty thousand stakes; in addition, he makes a series of enclosures to secure his grain and his goats – five at my count. There is Moreau’s House of Pain, off-limits to the narrator Prendick, but also the dank clefts where the Beast Men live, where Prendick feels he is losing his civilized humanity; there is initially the subdivision of the island in The Mysterious Island (bridge, Granite House, sheepfold), but then the great cavern which yawns below their primary dwelling (Granite House), which the explorers find late in the text, a cavern that harbours their protector Nemo, but causes the explosion that obliterates the island and all their work.2 There is the locked room containing the generator in The Invention of Morel, source of the power that allows a virtual island and virtual inhabitants to overlay the actual island; the womb-like hollow containing a precious residue of water in Pincher Martin; his parents’ laboratory which is off limits to Prabir in Teranesia, and which becomes the place of his primal crime; the eponymous wasp factory in the loft, which is one of a whole series of inaccessible or secret places in Banks’s novel, in keeping with its exacerbation of a range of castaway narrative tropes; the darkness at the heart of the story in Foe, sometimes imagined to be inside Friday, sometimes imagined to be inside the shipwreck which is origin of the story and end of the text: but this is a rich and ambivalent darkness.3 There is Ignacio’s fish tank in Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Death of Doctor Island’, a fascinating example because it reveals how subtilised the trope can become at the selfconscious height of the tradition: the tank was made of glass so transparent as to be invisible, so that water and fish seemed to be part of the space they were separated from; each morning, other fish were caught in the river and fed to the carnivorous fish in the tank, so that the water turned red, and the solitary young Ignacio was affected by this routine.

With its lagoon connected to the open sea by dangerous submarine
passages, Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996) returns to an older island topography (for instance the Water Garden in The Coral Island, chapter VIII), but introduces pain and death. Lord of the Flies at first gives us a pleasant secluded swimming hole, as in The Coral Island, the text it will go on to subvert, but later at the dark heart of the story we have the evil Lord of the Flies which speaks to Simon, the future victim of murder at the hands of Jack’s tribe. The most florid examples of all occur in Tournier’s Friday: the mud in which Robinson lies inert, the womb-like milky hollow in which he curls up, and later the hollow in the tree which he enthusiastically enters, producing (female) mandrakes. By sexualising the island in this way, Friday insists that this Robinson’s island is not mere object, though he had begun by making the traditional attempt to tame and subdivide it, and to act as its aloof and routine-bound governor.

      Even Karana, in the positive and gentle Island of the Blue Dolphins, comes across a cave with the skeleton of one ancestor and effigies of others: this cave, flooded by the tide and very dark, is an ominous third space, after her fenced and carefully planned hut and the cave she has set up as her refuge from intruders to the island: “We will call it Black Cave and never in all our days go there again”. The island had been the home of her people, but now it is hers alone, and she is discovering its hidden parts as castaways often do; but this place, the cave of her ancestors, is off limits. The climax of Terry Pratchett’s Nation comes when Mau and Daphne, the two teenage castaways, lead an expedition into the hitherto taboo and impenetrable Cave of the Grandfathers, packed with the skeletons and withered remains of the male dead of Mau’s people. In this instance the upshot is positive, however.

This summary suggests that almost all castaway novels involve the protagonists being drawn to places of security and refuge within the island, or discovering hitherto unknown spaces and places within the island.

A basic concern for survival, natural in a castaway, can breed a desire for security that in turn exacerbates feelings of insecurity. The desire to use and control can never be completely satisfied. Security and refuge suggest insecurity and threat, and so it very often proves: the castaway can never satisfy himself that he is secure, and the island is indeed often invaded (see ‘Versions of the Invader’ on this site), or becomes the scene of internecine conflict. Perhaps the rage to order, which the castaway can pursue because isolated for an indeterminate time in a limited space, itself breeds its own failure. You need a refuge if your fort is attacked or you are caught outside it, and why not, then, a refuge from the refuge? Leonard Lutwack makes a suggestive connection between Defoe and Kafka: ‘Like Kafka’s mole [Crusoe] is obsessed with building an impregnable hideout, which he calls his castle – he never needs to use it.’4 In The Mysterious Island, when the castaways come to construct Granite House, Cyrus Smith struggles to assert both that the island is isolated in a vast empty sea, so that the colonists are alone and must look only to themselves, and that it is vulnerable to invasion, so that Granite House must be a kind of fortress (book I, chapter XIX). The castaways make Granite House into a fortress, a ‘pentagon’ surrounded by what are in effect moats with drawbridges, but by the end of the story they are thinking of adding ‘a sort of bunker’ to their other house, the palisaded sheepfold.5

The supplementary place exists from Robinson Crusoe onwards, then, and its existence means that the ambition to map and control is unattainable or even self-destructive; there’s almost always a potential for the spatiality of the island to break open, and this is clearly significant in a genre in which images of spatial completeness and boundedness are so important, and, often, satisfying. There is a flaw in the edifice of settlement, which is otherwise very solidly constructed in, for instance, Robinson Crusoe and The Mysterious Island. In The Island of Dr Moreau, Pincher Martin, and The Wasp Factory, the narrative retains the drive to dominate of the narratives of settlement, but in these texts inaccessible or long undiscovered spaces express the failure or madness of this drive. In Pincher Martin and The Wasp Factory it is the main character’s own body that is the innermost site, the location of the secret and the precipitant of his breakdown – in The Wasp Factory, when Frank gets into his father’s laboratory, discovers the secret of the specimen-jar, and realises his fundamental error about his own body; in Pincher Martin, when Martin crawls inside the pink, womb-like hollow: “There is always madness, a refuge like a crevice in the rock”.

In narratives such as Friday, Robinson, The Invention of Morel, and Foe, caves and dark places set limits to the castaway’s power to control, but the control is less fiercely pursued. In Friday, for instance, the movement is down into the island’s hollows and clefts, but afterwards, later in the story when Crusoe becomes Friday’s companion and pupil, rather than his master, the movement is up into the air, closer to the sun.

As for the effect of female castaways on and in this space of masculine work and unease, Robinson, with its female castaway January, repeats the pattern already observed: this island has its bodily hollows and caves, and January flees into one at the crisis of the story. Robinson himself, already settled on the island when the castaways arrive, is arguably the element of elusiveness and instability in this story, though the island, named for him, is equally unstable, given to sighs and tremblings; but Foe, centred on Susan Barton, is in contrast as was just noted, and so is Suzanne and the Pacific. Suzanne is marooned on her island, but she swims easily enough to the one nearby, and it’s not danger that threatens from the sea but the pitiable corpses of sailors killed in a First World War battle and washed ashore, German and English tended alike by Suzanne. The inference in general is that the male castaway’s attempt to establish security and autonomy brings him up against the female that he is supposed to have left behind, because he is continually discovering hollows and secret spaces that elude as much as they assist his efforts to establish autonomy and security. More generally, the enterprise of producing without reproducing, if this be considered a temptation for males – and such texts as Frankenstein and The Island of Dr Moreau suggest that it is sometimes a temptation to which the scientist succumbs – starts to issue in ironies (for instance in the case of the all-male castaways of The Mysterious Island whose work, extensive as it has been, cannot be passed on to any progeny); thence in brutalities – playing God (in The Island of Dr Moreau and The Wasp Factory); campaigns of extermination and devastation (as when Jack and his tribe hunt Ralph and burn the island in Lord of the Flies). The experience of space in castaway tales is never untroubled, then, but it is when the castaway’s subjectivity is flawed and irrational violence takes over that it tends to become dangerous or uncanny, or challenging and ambivalent: comic in Friday, richly suggestive in the images of darkness in Foe, a threat overcome in Island of the Blue Dolphin and Nation.

Castaway Stories mentioned in this note

Friday or The Other Island, Michel Tournier, 1967

Robinson, Muriel Spark, 1958

The Year of Grace, Cristina Fernandez Cubas, 1985

Concrete Island, J. G. Ballard, 1973

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719

The Island of Dr Moreau, H. G. Wells, 1896

The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876

The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940

Pincher Martin, William Golding, 1956

Teranesia, Greg Egan, 1999

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks, 1984

Foe, J. M. Coetzee, 1986

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories,
Gene Wolfe, 1980

The Beach, Alex Garland, 1996

The Coral Island, R. M. Ballantyne, 1857

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell, 1960

Nation, Terry Pratchett, 2008

Suzanne and the Pacific, Jean Giraudoux, 1921

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, 1818 [not a castaway story!]

See Michael Seidel in
Robinson Crusoe: Island Myths and the Novel, 1991, 55-62. ‘Crusoe makes over the remote and wild exilic locale into his place, his home, but preserves its secrecy for his protection. The material design for living that Crusoe projects onto his island partakes of the perfect fantasy: comfort and camouflage.’ (60)

Terry Harpold lists the ‘central living spaces’ which are frequent in Verne, and have a social function in the world of the text; the cavern beneath Granite House, in which Nemo is living in the
Nautilus, is a kind of dark counterpart to Granite House. “Reading the Illustrations of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires: The Example of Le Superbe Orénoque.” ImageTexT 3.1 (2006), note 11, accessed at

In Byron’s ‘The Island’ (1823), a story about Fletcher Christian the Bounty mutineer, the ‘spacious cave/Whose only portal was the keyless wave’ where Neuha and Christian take refuge conforms to this pattern (canto IV, line 121-2). The cave is inside a black rock a short distance off the island where Christian and his men have taken refuge: a refuge beside a refuge, then. Byron notes that the cave is ‘no fiction’ though he has transplanted it to a different island (note on p.904 of Frederick Page’s edition of Byron’s
Poetical Works (Oxford, 1970). ‘The Island’ is a story of South Seas love and rebellion, however, not a castaway tale.

Leonard Lutwack,
The Role of Place in Literature, NY: Syracuse UP, 1984, 7.

The pentagon is at book II, chapter VII, , and the bunker at book III, chapter XIV.