ABSTRACT

Fictional islands are distinctive, significant literary geographies. This chapter sets out to explore these sites by way of a consideration of ‘island theory’ and Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussions of the chronotope. While the field of ‘island studies’ covers a suitably scattered territory, an archipelago of loosely connected ideas, it is possible to summarize three important and related characteristics of literary islands: possession, separation, and transformation. 1 While the islands of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the castaways who followed him have been understood as spaces seized, mastered and known by their ‘discoverers’, agents of mercantile capitalism or imperialism, possession depends upon the island’s initial separation from other spaces, though this is usually relative rather than absolute. 2 Separation is also what makes the fictional island a space of transformation, a laboratory in which new selves, spaces and ideas are made. Crusoe’s reshaping of the island also allows him to transform himself, for example. This transformative potential is present in many of the most famous fictional islands, which often display elements of the fantastic, non-realist tropes that allow authors to explore the limits of language and representation. 3 The island is a natural setting for the novel of ideas, in fact, because it allows the narration of encounters with otherness, encounters that prompt new experiences and identities. Even Robinson Crusoe, ostensibly a realist narrative, is a fable about individual worth and hard work and “the quarrel over the exact moral which economists might draw from Defoe’s narrative has made the island a field of verbal warfare.” 4