Islands and Symbolism in Literature

We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).

A well-known island from Greek mythology is Ogygia, considered ‘navel of the sea’. This island is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as the home of the nymph Calypso. This isn’t your typical rugged island where inhabitants must fight for survival — Ogygia is more like Calypso’s own English country estate where Calypso is an upper class maiden who spends her days singing while she weaves. The island is her house and she is a little housewife.

Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.

Island stories often involve a shipwreck.

Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest
Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest
Howard Pyle 'Marooned'
Howard Pyle ‘Marooned’

Island stories also generally involve fire building. Fires are a sign of culture, dividing humans from other animals (who cannot deliberately make fire).

An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread. This plays into the Protestant idea that hard work brings good things.

Islands in fiction are often depicted as liminal sites. (Liminal = relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.)

Islands are “fertile spaces for the exploration of the shifting sands of identity”. (Mary Thompson)

Island exploration could be a metaphor for childhood and adolescence itself. Island metaphors have made it into English idiom: ‘feeling unanchored, adrift’, being swept away on ‘the rising tide’, ‘turbulent waters/adolescence’.

Islands envisaged in characters’ imagination before they take their full form in the novel’s reality are a recurrent device in children’s fiction.

On islands in children’s stories, the division between fantasy and reality is frequently erased. The island itself is a portal as well as a destination.

To use Foucault’s terminology, the island is a heterotopia.

Islands are, by their definition, separate from the land-mass termed the ‘mainland’. Codes of behaviour acceptable on an island can be viewed as ‘outside’ the norm. This results in a different kind of community and different attitudes about in-group and out-group individuals.

Characters can often feel very possessive about their own island and hostile to newcomers. This makes the island a good setting for exploring themes about homogenous communities and their attitudes to outsiders. Island settings often explore sameness/difference, power/control, order/chaos.

This is why the island setting is often an arena of imprisonment rather than liberation.

Island as Colonial Eden

Imaginary islands often present colonial fantasy, an isolated Eden ready for exploitation by an almost always male character, where the morality of home can be shuffled off, while those whose home has been violated are not even given the dignity of names. Such is in keeping with the pastoral origins of the island-narrative, the myth that such locations are places outside of time and space, simultaneously remote and yet connected by the ocean to every other point on the globe. 

Island Time: On the Poetics of the Isle, The Millions
Leonard Weisgard (1916 - 2000) 1946 illustration for The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown
Leonard Weisgard (1916 – 2000) 1946 illustration for The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown

Tropical Islands

Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.

The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.

R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.

Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.

LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier island
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier

Making The Most of Island Settings

In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.

Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it.

Send the characters to an island. This plays into a widely shared wish fulfilment of self-sufficiency (also at play in reality TV shows such as Doomsday Preppers.)

Create a new society based on different rules and values. For a standout example of that see Lord of the Flies. The children are now in charge instead of the adults, in a dystopian carnivalesque tale.

Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)

Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)

Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or anagnorisis)

Well-known Dystopian Island Settings

  • Lord Of The Flies (not written as children’s fiction — it was never originally written nor marketed for a young audience. )
  • Jurassic Park
  • Cast Away
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Shutter Island
  • The Bridge To Terabithia
  • The Shipping News
  • The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)
Illustration for Robinson Crusoe by Louis Rhead, 1900 — the wish fulfilment fantasy of hanging out with your pets all day.

Islands and Gothic Fiction

For more on Gothic fiction see here.

The Island of the Blessed, 1902-03 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Swedish Finnish painter
The Island of the Blessed, 1902-03 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Swedish Finnish painter
Mason’s Island, Mystic Connecticut, by Garrett Price (1896-1979) New Yorker cover

Well-known Utopian Island Settings

R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.

From the moment young Jim Hawkins first encounters the sinister Blind Pew at the Admiral Benbow Inn until the climactic battle for treasure on a tropic isle, the novel creates scenes and characters that have fired the imaginations of generations of readers. Written by a superb prose stylist, a master of both action and atmosphere, the story centers upon the conflict between good and evil – but in this case a particularly engaging form of evil. It is the villainy of that most ambiguous rogue Long John Silver that sets the tempo of this tale of treachery, greed, and daring. Designed to forever kindle a dream of high romance and distant horizons, Treasure Island is, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, ‘the realization of an ideal, that which is promised in its provocative and beckoning map; a vision not only of white skeletons but also green palm trees and sapphire seas.’ G. S. Fraser terms it ‘an utterly original book’ and goes on to write: ‘There will always be a place for stories like Treasure Island that can keep boys and old men happy.’

On the Island of Earraid, N.C. Wyeth, 1913 for Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped
On the Island of Earraid, N.C. Wyeth, 1913 for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children's book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children’s book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.

This is the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.

Utopia (Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia) is a satirical work of fiction and political philosophy by Thomas More (1478–1535) published in 1516 in Latin. The book is a frame narrative primarily depicting a fictional island society as described by the character Raphael Hythloday who lived there some years, who describes and its religious, social and political customs.

Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in the remake, Anne With An E).

Daniel Defoe relates the tale of an English sailor marooned on a desert island for nearly three decades. An ordinary man struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances, Robinson Crusoe wrestles with fate and the nature of God.

Robinson Crusoe is the most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primitive. It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story*.

*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.

The leaves were cold and slightly clammy. There was no mistaking them. She had seen their likeness painstakingly sketched in her father’s journal. This was his greatest secret, his treasure and his undoing. The Tree of Lies. Now it was hers, and the journey he had never finished stretched out before her.

When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. Searching through his belongings for clues, she discovers a strange tree. A tree that feeds off whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets.

But as Faith’s untruths spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter…

Frances Hardinge created a snail under the leaf setting in her award winning children’s novel.

Identical twin sisters Summer and Winter live alone on a remote island, sheltered from a destroyed world. They survive on rations stockpiled by their father and spend their days deep in their mother’s collection of classic literature—until a mysterious stranger upends their carefully constructed reality.

At first, Edward is a welcome distraction. But who is he really, and why has he come? As love blooms and the world stops spinning, the secrets of the girls’ past begin to unravel and escape is the only option.

A sumptuously written novel of love and grief; of sisterly affection and the ultimate sacrifice; of technological progress and climate catastrophe; of an enigmatic bear and a talking whale—The End of the World Is Bigger than Love is unlike anything you’ve read before.

Five On Kirrin Island Again by Enid Blyton
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
  • The Light Between Oceans
  • To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
  • The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.

The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived there and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.

Swallows and Amazons Map

Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.

At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.

ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Ivan Gantschev
Ivan Gantschev

The Island by Armin Greder

The Swiss-Australian writer and illustrator Armin Greder’s picture book The Island (2007) focuses on the arrival of a stranger, who washes up on an unnamed island only to be confronted by the townspeople’s harsh and prejudicial treatment. The illustrations explore this dynamic in a particularly harrowing manner, with Greder’s expressionistic drawings referencing, in one haunting frame, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893). The picture book explores fear and hatred of the Other, and collective behaviour in relation to island communities. Perhaps inevitably, there are also potential discussions stemming from this work in relation to migration and the treatment of refugees, and it has been used as a text to facilitate such dialogues in classroom contexts in both Australia and the UK. The theme of prejudice is particularly pervasive in this book, and even individuals who, we might assume, would be figures of decency, for example, the priest and teacher, become complicit in the cruel treatment of this stranger on the island. Not a single islander decides to break rank and come to the aid of the stranger, who is taunted, bullied and, in the final sequence, rejected fully and banished, once again into the ocean.

Ben Screech

Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman

Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.

Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.

Tanglewood island

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)

Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.

The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.

The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.

When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)

Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.

Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”

island boy jetty

Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.

But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.

Barbara Cooney wharf dinghy
Barbara Cooney

The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry (ie. by us)

In our picture book app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.

The Artifacts island at sea

A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.

Island in space The Artifacts

ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

The Silent One Joy Cowley cover

The difficulties faced by a deaf boy, who is misunderstood by his village as just lazy, they don’t know what deaf means. And a friend the boy finds in a strange white sea turtle.

The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.

In pulp fiction for kids islands are a recurring setting.

The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.

When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

The story about a young girl who can’t remember anything from her previous summer after a hurricane.

Twelve-year-old Clara lives on an island that visitors call exotic. But there’s nothing exotic about it to Clara. She loves eating ripe mangos off the ground, running outside in the rain with her Papa during rainy season, and going to her secret hideout with Gaynah–even though lately she’s not acting like a best friend.

But this summer is going to be different for Clara. Everyone is buzzing with excitement over a new girl in the village who is not like other visitors. She is about to make big waves on the island–and give Clara a summer she won’t forget.

The only thing out of the ordinary for Clara is that something happened to her memory that made her forget everything that happened last summer after a hurricane hit. Sometimes things come back to her in drips like a tap that hasn’t been turned off properly. Other times her Mama fills in the blanks…only she knows those aren’t her memories and it is hard feeling like she is not like everybody else.

Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the real-world Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — a snail under the leaf setting, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.

There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond–Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together.

But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew on Gingerbread Island. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes.

Bear Island is a heartfelt picture book about healing after loss by Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell.

Louise and her family are sad over the loss of their beloved dog, Charlie. “Life will not be the same,” Louise says, as she visits a little island that Charlie loved.

But on a visit to the island after Charlie’s death, something strange happens: She meets a bear. At first, she’s afraid, but soon she realizes that the bear is sad, too. As Louise visits more often, she realizes that getting over loss takes time. And just when she starts to feel better, it’s time for Bear to bed down for the winter.

Once again, Louise believes that life will not be the same. But sometimes, things can change for the better, and on the first warm day of spring, her family welcomes a new member. Here is a lovely, poignant story about loss and healing that will bring comfort to even the youngest readers.

The breathtaking adventure continues in the sequel to the much-loved Orphans of the Tide.

Orphans Ellie and Seth have crossed an endless ocean in search of freedom and peace.

Arriving on the shores of a colourful tropical island ruled by a mysterious queen, it seems they might just have found the perfect new home.

But there is trouble brewing in paradise and soon Ellie and Seth find themselves caught up in a dangerous struggle for power – and forced to confront terrible truths from their past . . .

Desperate to become a shark caller to avenge the death of her parents, Blue Wing is instead charged with befriending infuriating newcomer Maple. At first they are angry and out of sync with the island and each other. But when the tide breathes the promise of treasure, can they overcome their differences and brave the deadliest shark in the ocean?

CITIES AS ISLANDS

The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.

It can be a city.

The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.

Symbolism of Place
midnight feast lightning
Scene from Midnight Feast. The weather is important to survival on an island, as it is here, in a story set in a city, starring a girl isolated from everything outside her bedroom window.

IMAGINARY ISLANDS

Hy-Brasil was a phantom island off the coast of Ireland, inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a castle. Almost perpetually shrouded in mist, it is visible for one day every seven years.
The folklore of Scotland tells of a mysterious green island that floats beyond the horizon off the west coast and is home to the goddess Beira, also known as the Cailleach Bheur.

VANISHED ISLANDS

Vanished islands are the stuff of terror […] but also the stuff of fantasy; how many versions of Atlantis, we in the West have continually asked ourselves, will sink beneath the waves, and what kinds of creature will stalk through the destroyed columns, the fallen masonry? Well, perhaps in particular 9again in fantasy) those creatures who appear equally at home on land and in water, the totally Other as represented by the crab and the octopus, which returns us in part to the cephalopod or at least to a creature defined by app[endages, limbs which are inconsistent with the human or even the mammalian world.

Weird or What? The Nautical and the Hauntological by David Punter, Fantastika Journal Vol 1, Issue 2, December 2017

RELATED LINKS

L.M.Montgomery grew up in Prince Edward Island, a real place of “politics and potatoes.” But it’s her fictional island, a richly textured imaginative landscape that has captivated a world of readers since 1908, when Anne of Green Gables became the first of Montgomery’s long string of bestsellers.

Elizabeth Waterston uses the term “magic” to suggest that peculiar, indefinable combination of attributes that unpredictably results in creative genius. Montgomery’s intelligence, her drive, and her sense of humour are essential components of this success. Waterston also features what Montgomery called her “dream life,” a “strange inner life of fancy which had always existed side by side with my outer life.” This special ability to look beyond the veil, to access vibrant inner vistas, produced deceptively layered fictions out of a life that saw not just its share of both fame and ill fortune, but also what Waterston calls “dark passions.”

Magic Island explores the world of L.M. Montgomery in a way never done before. Each chapter of Magic Island discusses a different Montgomery book, following their progression chronologically. Waterston draws parallels between Montgomery’s internal “island,” her personal life, her professional career, and the characters in her novels. Designed to be read alongside the new biography of Montgomery by Mary Rubio, this is the first book to reinterpret Montgomery’s writing in light of important new information about her life. A must-read for any Montgomery fan, Magic Island offers a fresh and insightful look at the world of L.M. Montgomery and the “magic” of artistic creation.

Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .

Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams.

Her father dreams of building a quay that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her.

Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast.

But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.(less)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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