What’s in Castaway Tales

castaway cover

It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition.

(Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719)

‘Your men on the beach,’ said I; ‘what race are they?’

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

I felt the same anguish, at seeing my deep footprints, when I turned round, as
in seeing those of an unknown man.

(Jean Giraudoux, Suzanne and the Pacific, 1921)

There in the sand beside him Friday saw

A single naked footprint on the shore.

His heart stood still, for as he stared, he knew

The foot that made it never had worn shoe

And, at a glance, that no such walker could

Have been a man of European blood.

(A D Hope, ‘Man Friday’, 1985)

I was playing one of my games, and it required walking in the damp sand by
the shore.

The aim was to leave the perfect footprint, and it was a lot harder and more
preoccupying than it might sound.

(Alex Garland, The Beach, 1996)

He looked down at the sand. There were footprints there, not large, but they
had no toes.

He stood up very carefully, and looked around. The creature with no toes was
watching him, he was sure.

(Terry Pratchett, Nation, 2008)

Castaway Tales discusses the history of the castaway narrative since Robinson Crusoe, with emphasis on the twentieth century and beyond. It traces drastic changes in the castaway’s destiny and behaviour: in shorthand, from settlement and reasoned work to violence and madness, and thence, in the aftermath of this, to reconciliation with nature. Powerful forces and changes in the history of the West – imperialism, reason and science, views of the human and of gender, views of nature – leave their marks on the tradition. But the tradition is also active and critical; it works by revision and parody. Vital cultural and ideological shifts, expressions of an unfolding and troubled modernity, work through precise and easily recognised textual signs: Castaway Tales, vivid, witty, grotesque or scarifying variations on the template founded by Defoe.

Robinson Crusoe introduces a series of compelling narrative tropes that are frequently varied and parodied, and is at the same time unstable both in its imaginary topography (the island’s supplementary and hidden spaces) and its narrative unfolding (the years of solitude followed by invasions of the castaway’s island). Later narratives signal their difference from Defoe by varying or inverting these tropes, and respond to shifting historical pressures by intensifying these instabilities. The result is a fascinating series of revisions, markedly but not exclusively in the direction of violence and pessimism. Castaway Tales traces and interprets these revisions.

Robinson Crusoe is a fiction about Western Man, tracing the use of reason for survival, thence settlement, thence sovereignty. As the castaway story inaugurated by Robinson Crusoe passes through the troubled history of the West, it accommodates shifts in attitudes to Man, the empire, to reason and to nature – and not merely shifts, but revisions and rejections. So the discussion begins with Robinson Crusoe, as legend and as text, the two aspects being somewhat different in this case, since the legend is a remembered extract of some very memorable tropes and features of Defoe’s novel, while the text is more complex and unstable than the legend to which it gives rise (chapter 1). Instabilities and gaps in the text will tempt later revisions; the legend Robinson Crusoe introduces into island narratives, its inventions and tropes, such as the footprint on the beach that so bewilders and frightens Robinson, will provide easily recognisable material for variation or parody.

After a brief consideration of The Swiss Family Robinson and Masterman Ready, retellings rather than revisions, and The Mysterious Island, a text that exceeds and begins to deconstruct Defoe (chapter 2), we reach The Island of Dr Moreau. From this point Castaway Tales concentrates on the castaway narrative and its intertextual relatives in the twentieth-century and beyond. Wells’s novel marks a violent break, and spawns a subset of imitations which are examined for their own variations on Moreau’s depiction of madness, violence, and the hypertrophy of reason, among them Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, Gene Wolfe’s The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and other stories, and Brian Aldiss’s Moreau’s Other Island (chapter 3). The discussion of modern castaway novels in their phase of disillusionment and violence continues with Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin, J G Ballard’s Concrete Island and ‘The Terminal Beach’, Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, Alex Garland’s The Beach, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (chapter 4). By this stage the castaway narrative has passed from reason to madness, from work and constructive settlement to violence, from untouched locations somewhere in empty regions of ocean to repatriated islands crowded with ruins and relics of war.

The marks of modern history are often easy to detect: disillusionment with reason; fear of degeneration; considerations of the West as bearer of progress, deepening into a conviction of its violence. In castaway narratives of the phase of violence and madness, from The Island of Dr Moreau to The Beach, work to survive and settle becomes rage to assert the self and to dominate or exterminate others. There are also subtler signs of historical shifts. In The Island of Doctor Moreau and its progeny work becomes alienated and abstracted, and in William Golding’s revisions of the castaway story the tension between parable and realism gives way to a process in which the symbolic aspects of things and actions dominate. The hidden or supplementary spaces of the castaway’s island were already a destabilizing element in Robinson Crusoe in Robinson’s forts, hideouts, cave and palisades; they tend to proliferate in more recent texts and to haunt the constructive work of the castaway or motivate his destructive actions. In post-imperial versions of the story since the 1950s the island itself is often repatriated, brought back to Britain or nearby, and, from having been a place of new challenges and opportunities, is haunted by old failures and old ruins. The other or stranger, symbolised by the footprint on the beach in Robinson Crusoe but rapidly domesticated in the amiable Friday of Defoe’s novel, takes more elusive and haunting forms.

This is the radically revisionary strand in the modern history of the castaway novel, but it is not the only one. It overlaps with a series of novels that enters a less violent dissent, by introducing feisty female castaways into an emphatically male tradition, and by revising the crucial figure of Friday: Jean Giraudoux’s Suzanne and the Pacific, Michel Tournier’s Friday, Cristina Fernández Cubas’s The Year of Grace, and J M Coetzee’s Foe (chapter 5). These are literary novels, and each involves a sophisticated reconsideration of textuality, stemming from the fact that Defoe’s Robinson keeps a journal, and of language, stemming from the fact that Robinson teaches Friday a version of English. Poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Walcott also figure briefly here for their reimaginings of Friday.

The castaway novel has also been revisited, and revived in genres outside literary fiction, in recent novels for children and recent SF novels (chapters 6 and 7). These versions revive and revise the sense of science as constructive application of reason, reimagine nature as active subject rather than passive object, and revisit the buoyancy and optimism of nineteenth-century castaway stories for and about children by presenting girls or indigenes as their castaways. Recent reconsiderations of nature, gender and the colonial and postcolonial find expression, while some of Defoe’s optimism and buoyancy returns.

Chapter Summary

Chapter 1

The Sea-Captain and the Perfect Mango: Revision and Parody in Castaway Narratives

How Robinson Crusoe introduces a new kind of island fiction.
Typical tropes (salvage from the wreck; the footprint on the beach) examined, with examples of their later variations. Characteristics of Robinson Crusoe as template for later castaway stories discussed: the plain style (clear separation of subject and object, expressing concentration on reasoned work with material things); the two-phase narrative structure (first phase: castaway works for years in isolation; second phase: the island is repeatedly ‘invaded’); the movement of the castaway from survival to sovereignty foreshadowed, with its potential for irrational egotism and violence. Usefulness of the notions of parody and of revision discussed in relation to the tradition of the castaway novel, an emphatically and often explicitly allusive tradition.

Chapter 2

The Swiss Family Robinson to The Mysterious Island and Beyond: Vicissitudes of the Crusoe Template

Discusses a sample of nineteenth-century texts: The Swiss Family Robinson (Johann David and Johann Rudolf Wyss, 1812), Masterman Ready (Captain Marryat, 1841), and The Mysterious Island (Jules Verne, 1876). The first two are examples of the Defoe template ‘routinized’ (Franco Moretti) – varied but not revised. The third takes on and exceeds the template (rational and constructive work on the island) but then pushes it into instability and parody (presence of the mysterious and powerful stranger, and his marvellous technology). The Mysterious Island thus prefigures later radical revisions of the castaway story, discussed in the remaining chapters.

Chapter 3

Moreau and its Progeny: Abstraction and Violence

Discusses The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and its influence, arguing that Wells’s novel is a decisive intervention in the history of the castaway novel. Wells gives us Moreau as a failed God and failed settler, whose work as a scientist litters the island with his unhappy subjects, and Prendick as a failed castaway, whose point of view destabilizes the plain style of the castaway narrative. The result radically shakes up the genre. The progeny of Moreau discussed here are The Monster Men (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1913), The Island of Captain Sparrow (S. Fowler Wright, 1928), The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940), Dr Franklin’s Island (Ann Halam, 2001), The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and other stories (Gene Wolfe, 1980), and Moreau’s Other Island (Brian Aldiss, 1980). Each alludes to or closely imitates Moreau. These stories fix sometimes on the notion of degeneration that Wells expressed both with the beast people and with what happened to Moreau and Prendick (Burroughs, Wright); sometimes on Moreau’s alienation from his experimental subjects and from his island (Bioy Casares); and sometimes on how Prendick’s unreliable experience subjectivizes the narrative (Wolfe, Aldiss).

Chapter 4

Successors of Moreau: Madness and Cannibalism

Discusses Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin (William Golding, 1954, 1956); Concrete Island and ‘The Terminal Beach’ (J. G. Ballard, 1973, 1964); The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks, 1984), The Beach (Alex Garland, 1996), and Life of
(Yann Martel, 2001). These texts return to Robinson Crusoe (though The Wasp Factory alludes to Moreau) but bring to the revision of the castaway or island novel the sense of violence and the scepticism about Western civilized humanity that was so strong in Wells’s novel. The grim nadir of the tradition is reached. The invader or enemy or even cannibal is no longer an indigenous ‘savage’ but the Western castaway or castaways (Lord of the Flies, The Beach). Madness or hallucination is frequent (The Wasp Factory, The Beach, Pincher Martin): the plain distinction between subject and object is gone. The two-phase plot, which structured earlier castaway narratives and allowed time for the sober work of settlement, is discarded. Instead of years of undisturbed settlement, followed by a spate of ‘invasions’, we have mystery or illusion followed by clarification or disillusionment. The island is no longer field for practical work, which is not needed (Lord of the Flies), not attempted (Concrete Island), or parodied (The Wasp FactoryPincher Martin). The island may be repatriated (Concrete Island: London; The Wasp Factory: the coast of Scotland), and is often infiltrated with ruins from past wars (Concrete Island, ‘The Terminal Beach’, The Wasp Factory); war is close at hand in Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin.

Chapter 5

Always Another Island: Females and Fridays

Discusses a set of twentieth-century texts that revise Robinson Crusoe, but without the descent into violence that marks those discussed in chapters 3 and 4: Suzanne and the Pacific (Jean Giraudoux, 1921), Friday (Michel Tournier, 1967 and 1971), The Year of Grace (Cristina Fernández Cubas, 1985), and Foe (J. M. Coetzee, 1986). Suzanne and the Pacific and Foe introduce a female castaway, and dissent from the seriousness and emphasis on practical reason of the Defoe tradition. Friday, The Year of Grace and Foe all radically revise the figure of Friday, with consequent radical changes in the figure of Crusoe. This revision of both Friday and Crusoe entails a rethinking of language and textuality in each of these novels; it opens the question of who controls the narrative and of what kind of language, objective or expressive, might be appropriate to it. Foe in addition rethinks the centrality of the castaway’s island in the story, and also centers on a feisty female castaway whose productivity is in contrast to Cruso’s sterility.

Chapter 6

Recent Children’s Novels: Recognising Indigeneity, Facing Death

Chapters 6 and 7 serve as a coda to the narrative and analysis offered in Castaway Tales. It is suggested that the positive possibilities of the castaway story are revived and explored in fictions belonging to literature for children (chapter 6) and to Science Fiction (chapter 7). Chapter 6 discusses Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell, 1960), To the Wild Sky (Ivan Southall, 1967), Kensuke’s Kingdom (Michael Morpurgo, 1999) and Nation (Terry Pratchett, 2008). These novels shift the centre of the castaway story to the female (O’Dell, Southall, Pratchett) and the indigenous or non-Western (O’Dell, Southall, Morpurgo, Pratchett). By doing this they shake up the template, and release some of the positive possibility that had figured in Defoe and earlier versions, but had been subverted or savagely rejected in much of the modern history of the castaway novel.

Chapter 7

Recent Science Fiction Novels: Science reaffirmed, Nature Rethought

Across the Sea of Suns (Gregory Benford, 1984), Teranesia (Greg Egan, 1999) Second Nature and Signs of Life (Cherry Wilder, 1986, 1996) are discussed. These novels belong to two very different sub-genres of SF. Those by Benford and Egan belong to so-called ‘hard SF’ and those by Wilder to the feminist SF pioneered by Ursula Le Guin, but both sets draw on their generic resources to revise the view of nature commonly found in modern castaway narratives, and those by Benford and Egan in addition rethink the social practice of science and hence the relations of reason and nature.


Living Phenomena

Castaway stories are both seductive and critical. They reflect and express the violences and disenchantments of the history of the West, but seduce with the attractions of independence and making do. They make use of a series of tropes and inventions that can be varied or inverted to look both ways. The persisting readerly power of the castaway story is surely bound up with the fantasy attractions of the cubby house, the small secluded world of childhood play. There’s a clear tension between this aspect and what castaway stories show of the exploitative or violent, colonialist or masculinist. This tension is what continues to make castaway stories gripping and problematic, seductive and entrapping.