‘I sat limply in the cane chair, exhausted by this assembling of facts.’1(80)
This note discusses Robinson, Muriel Spark’s version of the castaway tale. Robinson revises or refuses many aspects of the traditional castaway tale – the island as source of productive work and practical reasoning, the contrast between civilization and savagery, the chance – whether taken or abused – for the castaway to make a new home and society on the island. It’s an emphatically social story, concerned with social misunderstanding and deception, and perhaps one with a spiritual dimension, though about this aspect I’m unconvinced. Because it is centred on a female castaway, it bears comparison with the novels discussed in chapter 5 of Castaway Tales.
As the epigraph suggests, Robinson, through its first-person narrator January Marlow, suggests a good deal of unease about work, including the composing of a journal, which is what is at issue in context, and about ‘facts’. The story in its later part swerves into a murder mystery in which the facts are very unclear, and indeed it is discovered that there was no murder; before that the practical materiality that makes for fact, and thence asks for clear description, is less important than the flickering phenomena, the impressions, moods and signs of social behaviour. Spark seems bracingly sceptical of the notion, common enough, in Wells for instance, but given canonical authority in literature just a few years before Robinson (1958) by Lord of the Flies (1954), that civilization is a veneer over natural savagery. Civilized individuals, presenting as social types, are deplorable enough as such: so it can easily be felt reading the first half of Robinson. The interesting question is whether, and how far, the second half causes us to change our mind and subscribe to the thin veneer view of civilization and savagery after all.
Robinson sets itself firmly in and against the tradition of castaway narratives. There’s a very useful map of the island on which everything takes place. Robinson Island is like a human body, like a giant who fell sprawling into the ocean, and it is named accordingly – ‘The North Leg’, ‘The North Knee’, ‘The North Arm’, ‘The Headlands’ and so on. There are plenty of mysteries and hidden spots in this supposedly mapped topography – a number of caves; a kind of volcanic sink called the Furnace, which gives out a sound like a scream or occasionally a sigh when something is thrown into it; an old smugglers hideout. To accompany and oppose Robinson, the lord and owner of the island, who rescues and supervises and bosses the survivors, is our narrator January Marlow. Her first name is surely, in this context, an allusion to Friday’s,2 but very definitely her own name, not given her by Robinson as Friday’s was by Crusoe. This is underlined by a comical exchange in which Robinson cannot understand that January really is saying her name when he asks her for her name (6). She was similarly nonplussed when Robinson told her his name, which is also that of his island:
‘Where am I?’
‘Robinson’, he said
He was short and square, with a brown face and greyish curly hair.
‘Robinson,’ he repeated. ‘In the North Atlantic Ocean. How do you feel?’
‘Who are you?’
‘Robinson,’ he said. ‘How do you feel?’
There is a strand of simple mistaking of meanings in the novel, as with Robinson and January and each other’s names, or Wells seeming to ask about ‘your future’ when he means his magazine, ‘Your Future’ (25).
January questions why Robinson does not cultivate anything on his island, which is fertile, but in the early part of the story she refuses to share in the salvage of useful items from the plane wreck (for instance, 28). There is a network of allusions to and refusals of Crusoe’s activities, and most of this centers on the observant, independent January.
January’s position and history exemplifies women’s double relation to language and culture as feminist critics (for instance, Elaine Showalter) have depicted it: she is muted, pushed to one side, by various males, as well as being in the power of one of them, Robinson, and menaced by another, Wells; but she is also assertive and vocal in a witty and sometimes subversive way. She is a journalist, but she often refuses to write, or at least to write as Robinson orders her to; her journal plays a vital role in the plot, but it almost gets her killed; later when she returns to civilization she refuses to publish her story, but of course she is telling it to us.
January’s being a woman is disturbing for all the men on the island: the charming feckless Jimmie who wants to marry her; the aloof, ascetic somewhat literal-minded Robinson who frowns on her relationship with Jimmie (‘Robinson is not a man for the ladies,’ says Jimmie, 25); the oily Tom Wells who tries to blackmail her into sex. The other males are the cat, Bluebell, and the child Miguel who is Robinson’s ward and has been raised by him. Miguel sets going a number of echoes of The Tempest, and several of these have to do with language. Miguel is a little like Miranda, a little like Caliban and a little like Ariel. Like Miranda, he is being educated in isolation from society by a father figure.3 He is innocent and spontaneous like Ariel, and moves swiftly about the island, because he knows its secret caves (as Caliban is familiar with his island), to which Robinson is slow to introduce the others. He has learnt English but with all sorts of gaps and literalisms – he has no understanding of abstractions, such as ‘Luck’ (Wells is in the business of fake lucky charms and fortune advice), or of symbols. When Jimmie makes a cross as a memorial to Robinson after his disappearance, Miguel thinks it is Robinson and worries that he will get cold at night (136-7). So, as with Caliban in The Tempest, Robinson explores the theme of language and how one is taught it.
January is a social being, very aware of people’s manners and habits and their social attractiveness or unpleasantness, and occupied trying to judge them or work them out. There is a scene where she tries to understand Jimmie and Wells by imitating their faces — whereas she herself misses having her make-up and doesn’t like to present her face to the world without it.4
Robinson encourages January to keep a journal, and she does so, but she is desultory; some days she refuses Robinson’s advice, she is restless with his repeated injunction to ‘stick to the facts’ (65). She is not a fact-oriented person (but then no one on this island is).
Robinson had made it clear that he was not in favour of my relationship to Jimmie. Now it is true that I was becoming rather attached to Jimmie, mostly because of our situation on the island, and the qualities of the island, the colours and the atmospherics and mists, and that sort of thing. (66)
January is not interested in the sober precision of description that is supposed to prevail in island narratives, though it is also true that this island is elusive and changeable. She speculates and fantasises and merges people on the island with people she has known in her previous life. There are puns, mistakes; words and things are continually mislaid or stolen.
It is January and her effect on the others, especially Robinson, and theirs on her, that will need to be interpreted, then. January can be perceptive: ‘After that [she remarks, recalling her quarrels with Ian Brodie, a relative of hers] I seldom argued with Ian lest he should win the argument.’ (82) She can be petty, but in a rather dazzling way:
It is really mortifying to do a small mean injury to someone; [she has been pinching cigarettes from Robinson, their host and saviour] but a theologian once told me that this is not sound doctrine. (67)
We have to recall the doctrinal, rather than the colloquial, meaning of ‘mortifying’, before we can see how January is subverting it. She has a mischievous sense of people’s weak spots, especially Robinson’s. She makes a relationship with his cat Bluebell, playing with it, teaching it ping-pong, and in effect seducing it away from Robinson. She makes Miguel a rosary just because Robinson is against his having one. (Robinson and January, both Catholics, differ on points of Marian docitrine, and this itself is an unusual importation of particulars of belief into the remote island setting.)5 In all this there is a kind of malice, no doubt, as well as an unease with their obligation to Robinson, who rescued and healed them after the plane crash and is now feeding them, if on tinned food. January is someone who is easily bored, and we remember that Suzanne won the sea trip that ended in her being cast away by coming up with a good saying about boredom in men and women for a newspaper competition. Being cast away is supposed to relieve one from ennui, a disease of society and of those who have few material cares. Not so in this island novel: the social seems to have been redoubled rather than suspended. In the early part of the story (phase one of the common castaway narrative according to the schema that was sketched in Castaway Tales) not much happens except petty aggravation among the characters. There’s not much reason for effort anyway: they will be rescued when the pomegranate boat calls at the island in three months time, and have no means of communicating with the outside world before then.
What eventually happens, however, is that Robinson disappears, believed murdered, so that the story tightens into drama. There are plenty of bloodstained clothes left behind, but no corpse. As usual in such cases, everyone has a motive – Jimmie (Robinson’s distant relative and heir), Wells (untrustworthy, a blackmailer in fact) — or at least has means (January tests herself and realizes she is strong enough to have killed Robinson herself). There are scenes of search, then of recrimination. January comes up with some useful analyses of suspicious circumstances and possibilities in her journal (126-8). Meanwhile Jimmie makes a memorial for Robinson, whereas Wells tries to blackmail them all into colluding in the story that the death was an accident. January refuses, and finds herself taking desperate refuge from Wells in the island’s caves, hiding her journal, which records the evidence against Wells. The narrative has twisted downwards into violence and squalor. Then the murder plot is overturned and their reasonings and enmities are rendered moot. Robinson wasn’t dead at all. He faked his murder and absented himself, evidently because he couldn’t bear the others, or perhaps because he couldn’t bear January. The blood left spattered about was that of the goat Robinson killed – we knew about the killing of the goat already, and should perhaps have seen the point of this clue.
This peripeteia sets a challenge for interpretation, and it is arguable that this challenge is the achievement of the novel. Robinson’s action concentrates what was already felt — a sense of disarray and wrongness, compounded both of the strangeness and volatility of the island and of the pettiness and deceitfulness of those on it. No doubt this expresses Spark’s sense that human beings are out of their own control, the more so as they strive for control, as January notices both of herself and of Robinson (38, 83).
Having been sidelined by these squabbling and capricious castaways on his own island and in what (given his name) should be his story, Robinson has perhaps found Crusoe-like isolation, but at the expense of absenting himself from the text, for a while at least. Or perhaps our assessment of Robinson has to be drastically revised, and from having seemed merely stiff and controlling he seems null and arrogant. He is unmoved by the fact that his fake death plunged the others into suspicion and conflict, and left the child Miguel bewildered; for him the responsibility is theirs alone, their behaviour a sign of their lower natures, or so he seems to feel.
But this is only one of the possible significances. The other is that our feeling about January undergoes an overturn. We are challenged to see her from the point of view of the inept, humourless but conscientious Robinson, whose seclusion has been broken by the plane crash and who has done his best to care for the survivors. He hasn’t been able to cope; he has had to flee further inside his own island, faking his own death in the process. January, clever, restless, devious, was too much for him. Perhaps the best way to interpret this, in turn, is as a satire on the confident masculinity of the castaway tradition. After all, there’s nothing so very menacing about January.
I incline to the first interpretation, though which of them one leans towards is less important than that one should feel shocked and challenged to choose, and – in the context set up by the present discussion of castaway tales – should realize that the faults of highly civilized people are at issue, not those of ‘natives’. Certainly January gives better than she gets in her fierce reproachful argument with Robinson after he has revealed himself, in which she mordantly repeats his stultifying refrain, ‘it was only to be expected’. Here they are talking about the effect of Robinson’s absence on Miguel:
‘Miguel is not the same,’ he said.
‘If you choose to depart in a sudden shower of blood, leaving him with strangers, he will of course have reservations on
your return. It was only to be expected.’ (176-7)
So the story ends. The pomegranate boat returns; the events in the text we have been reading are later whitewashed in the interviews Wells gives to the papers before his past catches him with him and he is imprisoned for earlier blackmails. Robinson and Miguel also leave the island, which is sinking into the sea (185).
January, however, concludes her narrative with a wonderful poised allusion to The Tempest and to the last words that Prendick wrote in his narrative of events on the island of Doctor Moreau, which in turn allude to Gulliver’s final misanthropic condition.6 Gulliver and Prendick are each unhinged by human beastliness, Prendick on Moreau’s island, Gulliver among the Yahoos, so that they can no longer cope with life back in civilization, but January is remembering the island as a ‘locality of childhood’.
Even while the journal brings before me the events of which I have written, they are transformed, there is undoubtedly a sea-change, so that the island resembles a locality of childhood, both dangerous and lyrical. I have impressions of the island of which I have not told you, and could not entirely if I had a hundred tongues – the mustard field staring at me with its yellow eye, the blue and green lake seeing in me a hard turquoise stone, the goat’s blood observing me red, guilty, all red. And sometimes when I am walking down the King’s Road or sipping my espresso in the morning – feeling, not old exactly, but fusty and adult – and chance to remember the island, immediately all things are possible. (186)
The very last allusion here, however, is to the Gospel (‘all things are possible to God’). The period of violence and suspicion after Robinson’s disappearance might be seen as equivalent to the state Prendick is in for most of Moreau, or the state Pincher Martin is in for most of his novel, a kind of benighted flailing rationality which cannot fend off a degeneration, for which a good image would be the cave into which January has to flee from Wells. In that case, the revelation that Robinson was not murdered but absent might well suggest that all things are indeed possible, and insofar as it signifies Robinson’s replacement in what had traditionally been ‘his’ narrative it marks a significant revision, in which a fake death comments on all the violent deaths in other novels, and a temporary absence comments on the isolation that so often brings power in other novels. Perhaps the possibility is in the island itself, however, rather than anything the humans on it did or seemed capable of doing: something January still remembers but which was scarcely ever realized during their time on the island.7 She now sees the island as interpreting her, not herself as interpreting the island.
Muriel Spark, Robinson: A Novel, London: Macmillan, 1958, 80
Whether Tom Wells, the name of the most despicable character in the novel, alludes to the author of The Island of Doctor Moreau is less certain. This Wells does edit a magazine called Your Future. Joseph Hynes links January Marlow to Heart of Darkness. The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark’s Novels, Rutherford : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, 23
Joseph Hynes, The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark’s Novels, Rutherford : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, 23.
See 121 and 73.
Martin Stannard mentions that there are several autobiograpical allusions, hidden from the general reader; Muriel Spark: The Biography, NY and London: Norton, 2009, 189-190.
The last page of each text.
There are intimations of a similar kind in several more recent castaway novels. They are less explicit than the passage in Robinson, but striking in view of the violence of the novels in which they occur. They are, however, displaced, in that they mostly concern the sea rather than the island itself. See below, chapter IV: 125 (Moreau’s Other Island), 130 (Lord of the Flies) and chapter V: 147 (Concrete Island) and 154 (The Wasp Factory).