This note discusses an aspect of the castaway’s isolation on his or her island: being cast away is like becoming an orphan, and it prompts feelings about the castaway’s parents.
From the beginning castaways tend to be exiled or cast out of house and home. Robinson Crusoe feels he has let down his parents by disregarding their advice and choosing a wandering life. Even in the thoroughly masculine world of The Mysterious Island, Pencroff can feel that the island, which seems to provide for the castaways with such care, is like ‘my poor mother’ (II, XII: 397). Robinson in Friday dreams warmly of his mother and finds substitutes for a womb in the island’s hollows and marshes.
In later narratives the suggestions are more painful. Prabir in Greg Egan’s Teranesia feels he is responsible for his parents’ deaths; in Teranesia the island was literally the family home and the child Prabir had wanted to prevent his parents from exiling him from it by sending him away to school. A complicated set of accidents led to the deaths of both his father and his mother. In a double movement he must later return to confront this past experience and also help to solve the mystery of how nature is mutating, a process which begins from the island and now disrupts temporality itself. The Wasp Factory is about Frank’s (dysfunctional) family, his island is where the family home is, and this was the place of his primal making and unmaking, as he discovers. Frank’s surname is Cauldhame. In The Beach the young castaways are indifferent to the thought of their parents back home – they don’t bother to contact them on their trips to the mainland – but are embroiled in adolescent conflict with the founders, the parent figures who lead the community. They oscillate between obedience to them and an often petty resistance to them. The subtlety of Foe, the exception that proves the rule here, is that the island is not rich, but barren and monotonous, whereas other places in the world of the novel –- England and Bahia — are the places of abundance; but Susan the female castaway in this novel is searching for her lost daughter. The island is actually the castaway’s home in Island of the Blue Dolphins and Nation, where the castaway is an indigene, but when left alone on the island by the departure and the deaths respectively of their own people the castaway in each novel cannot restore this but must make something new of the place.
It’s probably dangerous to draw a general conclusion from these observations. Each story makes its own variation on the orphanhood of the castaway – and of course in some of the earlier, optimistic stories, such as The Swiss Family Robinson and Masterman Ready the castaways include parents. Nonetheless many castaway stories join the huge group of fictions that deal with adulthood as a matter of surviving without your parents. The outcome in hundreds of these fictions is that the main character finds a mate in a person of the other sex; this seldom happens in castaway stories (Terry Pratchett’s Nation is an exception, and so in a complicated way is Teranesia, where the main character is gay and is saved by his sister). Friday, or his equivalent, is the relevant person in castaway stories about males, so we can see why this character is developed and varied in later castaway tales.
Castaway Stories mentioned in this note
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719
The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876
Friday or The Other Island, Michel Tournier, 1967
Teranesia, Greg Egan, 1999
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks, 1984
The Beach, Alex Garland, 1996
Foe, J. M. Coetzee, 1986
Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell, 1960
Nation, Terry Pratchett, 2008
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David and Johann Rudolf Wyss, 1812
Masterman Ready or The Wreck of the “Pacific”, Frederick Marryat, 1841