Names and Maps in Castaway Tales

      Being cast away gives the castaway the opportunity to explore, map, possess and develop the island, and this is a very important feature of this kind of story and the pleasures it can give. Early in the story, the castaway comes to the realization that he is marooned on an island, and thereafter, by answering the needs of survival and exploring the island, he works out its shape, able to be put into a map, and this is is often supplied in the text (as in The Mysterious Island and Robinson, and in related texts such as Treasure Island). In The Beach, however, a late and violent version of the castaway tale, the protagonist Richard comes into possession of a map of the island before he sees the island itself; this time it’s a map marked with death (suicide), and this alignment of the motif of the map with the genre of the mystery rather than the castaway novel signals Garland’s scepticism. The story of The Beach is from the beginning part of the history of violence (including the Vietnam War) rather than of settlement or exploration.

      The giving of names and the making of maps are easy to understand, and helpful for castaways and readers alike. ‘Naming is of course an aid to memory: attach a name to a place and you have a proto-map.’1 On the other hand, naming can have colonialist implications, as Andrew Martin remarks of The Mysterious Island: “The compulsion to map out the island (‘Lincoln Island’) with language reflects the project of colonization: to name is to strike a claim and appropriate: names constitute a colonial cartography, an index to the otherwise anonymous contents of the world.”2 The island is netted with names given by the castaway, and marked perhaps with his fences and stockades, or, in Moreau’s Other Island, with a giant letter M. Pincher Martin sets himself to make his island into a kind of sign. (Any map is to some degree an abstraction from actuality: Pincher is taking this to an extreme.)

      This exploration and bestowal of names is often the castaway’s first action. It is capable of leisurely and satisfying extension, or, alternatively, metamorphosis into the fixed landscape of obsession, as in The Wasp Factory and Concrete Island. We have practically none of this in Suzanne and the Pacific, nor does Suzanne bother with a refuge or fortress, and her games with language have quite a different quality from that of the naming of landmarks in masculine castaway narratives. This is one way Giraudoux dissents from the more conventional kind of castaway story.

      Often, however, the narrative takes a dramatic turn, and there is invasion, danger, violence. The colonial impulse, the impulse to map and therefore seem not merely to inhabit but to possess, is very often put into question by this way in which the island’s topography is thrown into motion and uncertainty by the action, the danger and contest, which frequently takes over the narrative. There is a strong contrast between the exploration, mapping, and often naming of the island earlier in the story, and the later way this apparently fixed topography is thrown into shifting uncertainty. The story puts the topography into motion and into uncertainty; this is sometimes because the island has been invaded by natives –- cannibals or savages, as they are called in many stories –- but very often it is because the castaways or settlers are contesting with each other. (See also ‘Versions of Invasion‘ on this site. Because the island was uninhabited when he arrived, the castaway can proceed to explore and map it, and can also regard anyone else who arrives as invaders – but this is complicated or turned on its head in many modern castaway tales.)

      Very commonly, as this drama of breakdown or invasion unfolds, the reader now has to bear in mind a kind of kinetic map, as the narrative tells how various protagonists move in relation to each other, and in relation to points whose locations and relations are very often uncertain for the protagonists. Robinson Crusoe knows where everyone is when he fights the cannibals and the mutineers, and he keeps the reader informed. In later texts the reader has to bear in mind the gaps and ignorances of the protagonists themselves, since they lack any overview. Prendick’s panic flight in The Island of Dr Moreau is one example; another is January’s flight into the caves in Robinson; the hunting of Ralph by Jack’s tribe in Lord of the Flies is another. Ralph has no panoramic view, such as a map fixes; in fact he cannot rely on sight at all, but is reduced to the fragmentary information that his ears bring:

He was awake before his eyes were open, listening to a noise that was near. He opened an eye, found the mould an inch or so from his face and his fingers gripped into it, light filtering between the fronds of fern. He had just time to realise that the age-long nightmares of falling and death were past and that the morning was come, when he heard the sound again. It was an ululation over by the seashore – and now the next savage answered and the next. (Lord of the Flies, 212)

(It is characteristic of Golding to emphasise other senses than the visual, the visual being the sense that can lend detachment and control. He does this also in, for instance, Pincher Martin and The Inheritors.)

This way in which the topography of the castaway’s island is first fixed, settled and mapped, and then becomes fluid and uncertain, is often intensified by the disturbing presence of uncanny spaces within the island (see ‘Insecure and Uncanny Spaces’ on this site). A similar development is the presence on the island of tantalising others who also threaten the original castaway’s control (see ‘Tantalising Others‘ on this site).

Novels mentioned in this note

The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876

Robinson, Muriel Spark, 1958

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883

The Beach, Alex Garland, 1996

Moreau’s Other Island, Brian Aldiss, 1980

Pincher Martin, William Golding, 1956

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks, 1984

Concrete Island, J. G. Ballard, 1973

Suzanne and the Pacific, Jean Giraudoux, 1921

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

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954

The Inheritors, William Golding, 1955

Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination, London: Virago, 2011, 74.

Andrew Martin, The Mask of the Prophet: The Extraordinary Fictions of Jules Verne, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 100. (The plot of Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant, the novel on which Verne draws for certain episodes in The Mysterious Island, turns on misinterpretations of a fragmentary document giving where Captain Grant was wrecked; the final misinterpretation was inevitable because Tabor Island – which is the right answer – goes under the name of Maria Teresa Island on all the searchers’ maps.)