Tantalising Others

‘Dans toute île deserte, il y a un occupant mysterieux’1

Just as the enclosed and delimited nature of the castaway’s island itself seems to stir supplementary, hidden spaces into existence (see ‘Insecure Spaces‘ on this site), so the limitation of the text to one intensively examined subject, the castaway, seems itself to provoke images of the ‘other’2 to this figure, and eventually of intersubjectivity, an end to the notion of the subject as complete and autonomous – a notion which was at least proposed in stories about solitary or dominant figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Doctor Moreau. Verne’s The Mysterious Island, centred on the hard work and successful accomplishments of a group of castaway companions, nonetheless introduces other castaways who stand as limit cases in their isolation: Ayrton, who has been driven into mutedness and brutishness by long solitary sojourn on another island, and Nemo, the hero of Verne’s earlier Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, who haunts and protects the castaway companions, wields technology far beyond theirs, and now lives utterly alone. (He figures for most of the story as a mysterious, hidden benefactor, and is revealed in his underground hideout late in the novel, shortly before he dies.)

The effect is more intense and threatening in those later castaway narratives that descend into violence and madness. In later stories, there is a point beyond which the main character cannot go, no matter how much he has settled and dominated, or, alternatively, how much he has shed, and this point is very often marked by some other character who has gone further but remains opaque, or has ceased to be a subject, or ceased to be sane. That is what this note details.

The naked footprint that announces another human presence on Crusoe’s island after almost twenty years of his solitude is the classic image of the challenging other, the unknown and naked other human being as a threat. When this unknown other materialises as Friday, he is hardly a challenging other, however, though early passages remind us that this good- natured and affectionate man has been a cannibal, or rather has been part of cannibal culture. Later Friday is shut inside his demeaning pidgin and made into a clown, as in the episode with the bear on the journey over the Pyrenees after Crusoe and Friday have left the island.3

      The figure that marks a point – a beyond — that the main character cannot reach is common in J. G. Ballard’s writing, and in ‘The Terminal Beach’ it takes the form of the ghosts of Traven’s wife and son, who have an emotional resonance unlike anything else in this bleak but impersonal tale, and who haunt him, approaching closer and closer but never meeting him:

They were less than ten yards from him, their white faces watching him with a look of almost overwhelming expectancy. Never had Traven seen them so close to the blocks. His wife’s pale feature seemed illuminated from within, her lips parted as if in greeting, one hand raised to take his own. His son’s face, with its curiously fixed expression, regarded him with the same enigmatic smile of the child in the photograph. (152) (The ‘blocks’ are concrete blockhouses; Traven is on Eniwetok Island, site of atomic tests.)

Richard in The Beach is haunted by Mister Duck, who suicides on the opening pages of the novel. Mister Duck migrates from Richard’s fantasy into what has come to pass as his reality. The narrator in The Invention of Morel is haunted by Faustine, the beautiful woman who refuses even to acknowledge his existence and is one of a crowd of presences or ghosts who make the mystery that is explained at the end of the story. Eric in The Wasp Factory, the mad brother of the central character, is another example: an off-stage threat, signalling his approach to the island in a series of sadistic and unnerving phone calls, anarchic where his brother is controlling. Eric’s behaviour is ‘explained’ by a traumatic experience as a medical student, but the explanation is too pat, close to a parody of popular psychoanalysis, so we are left with something irrecoverable in this figure.

In this respect Eric is like Friday in Tournier’s novel, Grock in The Year of Grace, and Friday in Foe, each of them in different ways elusive and unknowable. A site in the structure of the castaway novel, the site of the other, the strange or alien, has developed this depth and uncanniness. In these examples, this is a result of a revision of Friday, Defoe’s obedient indigene. The revision makes Friday a much tougher figure. Significantly, in view of what was just suggested about supplementary island spaces, Foe’s Friday is a person made up of dark places (his tongueless mouth; his castration, if indeed he is castrated), and is also associated with the dark place of the wreck, in the novel’s final passage. Defoe’s Friday is taught English and that confines him in the role of biddable servant and cuts him off from his own culture; Coetzee’s Friday escapes the narrative that Susan Barton is trying to construct. Tournier’s Friday is childlike, unpredictable, one who changes and liberates Robinson but is largely exempt from change, as if living in a different dimension. Only such a one it is hinted, can enjoy an island idyll; Robinson’s attempts to do so are in comparison gross and sporadic; but then it is Friday, not Robinson, who decides to leave the island when a ship arrives, slipping sideways out of the story. Grock, the Friday of The Year of Grace, is comparably paradoxical: a figure of extremity and rough capricious power, beloved of the castaway Daniel, identified with his island, which has taken his name, but losing his identity in Daniel’s at the moment of his death.

It’s worth noting, however, that in all these instances where an other makes its presence felt, the focus still tends to be on Crusoe or his equivalent. Crusoe’s development or devolution remains at the centre of the story. An image in a story by Angela Carter throws a flash of light on this limitation:

Her footprints on damp earth are beautiful and menacing as those Man Friday left.

Here for a second Carter allies Man Friday with all the other outcasts from the normal human whom she vindicates in her stories. Wolf-Alice, who leaves these footprints, is the centre and heroine of the story, at once alien from us and intimate with us, and she is on her way to save the wretched Duke who has become a ghoul. Perhaps it is the continuing power of Robinson Crusoe that prevents the castaway tales under discussion from going as far towards empathy with the other as Carter does in this and other stories.

Richard Parker, the tiger who shares Pi’s drifting lifeboat in Life of Pi, figures as another complex rethinking of this figure of the other, and one that has different bearings. He is emphatically an animal, powerful, different and dangerous, not to be anthropomorphised, but Pi can reason out his treatment of him, and in that sense understand him, he is a companion (as the wit of his ‘human’ name underlines), and he is present from the beginning, as central to this castaway story as is Pi. He is not a supplementary character or one who appears at a certain juncture to define the human castaway’s limits.

Finally there are the aliens in Benford’s Across the Sea of Suns, who bewilder and challenge the main character with their coded messages and their mutations; the São Paulo virus in Teranesia, source of the novel’s scientific mystery, constantly and creatively mutating, tantalising the fallible human characters; and the various benign and powerful creatures of the sea in Cherry Wilder’s Rhomarian novels — the delphin and Vail (these novels are discussed in chapter 7 of Castaway Tales). Here, however, the trope of the tantalising other is being revised, in novels in which the impulse towards practical action is reconciled with a recognition of the limits of knowledge. There is a rethinking of the nature of Nature; these nonhuman others are autonomous rather than uncanny.

Characters or presences such as these are no doubt common in all kinds of narratives; nonetheless they have a special pertinence in castaway narratives. They enter challengingly into a narrative economy with the driven ego of the castaway, with his desire to use and name, to dominate, or, in the later sf versions, with the renewed salience of reason. The task for the protagonists in Across the Sea of Suns and Teranesia is to explain the aliens and the virus, where to explain is to approach closer to their autonomy and their resistance to human uses. In this context, these other spaces and personages suggest the return of a different Nature, one which cannot be worked into order or easily named, one with its own elusive subjectivity and productivity (on this last, the revaluation of nature in castaway tales, see also the note on Diana Souhami on this site).

Novels and stories mentioned in this note

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719

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

The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, 1869

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

The Beach, Alex Garland, 1996

The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks, 1984

Friday or The Other Island, Michel Tournier, 1967

The Year of Grace, Cristina Fernandez Cubas, 1985

Foe, J. M. Coetzee, 1986

‘Wolf-Alice’, in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter, 1979

Across the Sea of Suns, Gregory Benford, 1984

Second Nature (1986) and Signs of Life (1996), Cherry Wilder

Teranesia, Greg Egan, 1999

Jean-Yves Tadié, Le Roman d’Aventures, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982, 117.

In the rest of this discussion I’ll do without the inverted commas on other. I’m using the term to cover a variety of figures who seem to have a similar role in castaway tales: they are strange to the castaway, hard to understand, challenging or elusive.


See 276 and 287 (Friday and cannibalism) and 377-82 (Friday and the bear) in the 1987 World’s Classics edition of Robinson Crusoe.