I look’d now upon the world as a thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no expectation from, and indeed no desires about: In a word, I had nothing indeed to do with it, nor was ever like to have; so I thought it look’d as we may perhaps look upon it hereafter, viz. as a place I had lived in, but was come out of it; and well might I say, as Father Abraham to Dives, Between me and thee is a great gulph fixed.
—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
The female narrator of Foe, J. M. Coetzee’s 1986 reimagining of Robinson Crusoe, wonders “by what right” her island prison belongs to the man called Cruso: “by the law of islands? is there such a law?” I was untroubled by such nuances of maritime code when I laid claim this summer to my own desert isle in the Hudson River. I had appropriated a kayak from the tool shed of my cousin’s ex-wife (by what right: said cousin’s enthusiastic encouragement) and soon landed on an island near the mouth of Stockport Creek, ringed with undulating green masses of the invasive European water chestnut. It was state land, so I could not pretend, like Defoe’s hero, that I was “king and lord of all this country indefeasibly.” Yet it was a meager little plot, without even a charred log or a crumpled Bud Light can to suggest that anybody used it, so I hung a hammock in lieu of a flag and called the place mine.
Be pleas’d, as Crusoe might say, to take a sketch of my island as follows. On three sides it was choked with weeds and wildflowers—cattails, elderberries, goldenrod, purple loosestrife, jewelweed (a remedy for poison ivy), and sneezeweed—and on the westward-facing shore a narrow beach, shaded by a gnarled maple, collected tideworn bricks from the long-defunct Empire Brick Company. Seagulls, spiders, bees, the occasional monarch butterfly, and clouds of flies like airborne dandruff were the only fauna to be found. The seed pods of the water chestnut, black and spiny and seemingly designed by H. R. Giger, either bobbed in the surf like enemy mines or washed up to be stepped on, drawing blood and torrents of profanity. As I’ve said, it wasn’t much of an island—but at the right time of day, with the flood tide rolling and the sun glittering on the water like television static, it was beautiful.
It was the bricks that put me in mind of that greatest of castaways, Robinson Crusoe. My hammock was from Walmart, but the bricks, being fruits of the sea, made me daydream about how chance and ingenuity might provide for the improvement of my island. I wanted to build a hearth; after collecting bricks for a few days I had enough at least to make a bench (with a driftwood board) and a decent fire ring. Then came the oddly intoxicating idea of being trapped on my island, of living on fish and birds and berries, of lashing together crude structures with branches and reeds. It was difficult to imagine myself as Crusoe—what with planes passing overhead, cargo ships scudding by, and Amtrak trains blaring their way along the shoreline—but I could content myself with reading about him and the literary heirs to his splendid and not-so-splendid isolation.
To the proposition that no man is an island, I wanted to ask: Says who?
The genre inaugurated by Daniel Defoe’s breathlessly titled Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself (hereinafter just Robinson Crusoe, for God’s sake) was first called the “robinsonade” by the German writer Johann Gottfried Schnabel in 1731. Its popularity has never ebbed. Some of the best-known early examples include Schnabel’s Island Stronghold (1731), Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1812), R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857), Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874), and Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s Blue Lagoon (1908). (This is a small sample, of course, and an exhaustive survey might even include pre-Crusoe works such as Homer’s Odyssey, the Book of Jonah, and Shakespeare’s Tempest.)
Nearer the present day we find examples of the robinsonade that do not cleave so strictly to Defoe’s program. Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast (1981) follows the unforgettable crank Allie Fox on his quest to separate himself and his family from civilization, with disastrous results. Hatchet (1987), Gary Paulsen’s Newbery Honor–winning young-adult novel, is also a robinsonade without an island, though it treats the same issues of survival and ingenuity as Defoe’s classic. Where Paulsen substitutes the Canadian wilderness for an island, the science fiction writer Andy Weir, the author of 2011’s sensation The Martian, substitutes the whole of the red planet. The recent film adaptation of The Martian, starring Matt Damon, suggests that the public has not tired of Crusoe’s story, even if it must be set in space.
This is not to say that the traditional coconuts-and-cannibals island robinsonade has lost its savor. Cast Away (2000), whose only characters were Tom Hanks and a volleyball, was a major box office and critical success, as was the long-running television show Lost (2005–2010). And the one robinsonade that every American of any age has encountered takes place on a tropical island: William Golding’s dystopian novel Lord of the Flies (1954). Everyone knows who Robinson Crusoe is, but few have read Defoe; yet every schoolchild in the United States, perhaps in the Anglophone world, has actually read about Ralph, Jack, and Piggy, the conch, the specs, “sucks to your ass-mar,” and the indelible image of a pig’s head impaled on a stick.
If ever a book served as bad publicity for nature—both human and of the “red in tooth and claw” variety—it is Lord of the Flies. Early on we are shown a “bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coconuts and palm saplings. Behind this was the darkness of the forest proper.” The darkness of the forest proper is the novel’s true subject, whether the literal forest and its promise of an elusive but malevolent “beastie” or the forest of man’s postlapsarian soul. These twin forests are so much at the forefront of Lord of the Flies that it is a book almost devoid of subtext. Though richly imagined and beautifully written, it is marred by symbols and symbolic episodes—such as the hallucinated dialogue between Simon and the pig’s head—that are heavy-handed even for a genre that comes with much of its symbolism ready-made. It nevertheless says most of what it attempts to in an effective and memorable way.
If someone has read Lord of the Flies in high school, and he almost certainly has, he probably remembers it first as an allegory about the darkness of human nature and second as a frank defense of civilization against barbarism. It drives home the point to its mostly young readers that they are no less predisposed to being nasty and brutish for being short. (This is intended as a warning, but given the behavior in most American middle and high schools it is just as likely being read as a permission slip.) Meanwhile, civilization asserts itself again and again in the book. When it is decided that there should be a “chief,” anarchy being untenable, Jack nominates himself on the grounds that he is “chapter chorister and head boy” and “can sing C sharp.” Ralph, when he is made chief by vote, proposes the use of the conch—the book’s most enduring symbol of law and order—because “like at school” the stranded boys “can’t have everybody talking at once.”
The book’s two most poignant invocations of civilization are also its most pitiful and most superstitious appeals to civilization’s power. The first is when Ralph reassures the boys: “My father’s in the Navy. He said there aren’t any unknown islands left. He says the Queen has a big room full of maps and all the islands in the world are drawn there. So the Queen’s got a picture of this island.” (His expectation is evidently that no island will be left unsearched.) The second is when Ralph addresses one of the younger children, or “littluns,” at assembly:
“Now tell us. What’s your name?”
“Percival Wemys Madison. The Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, Hants, telephone, telephone, tele—”
As if this information was rooted far down in the springs of sorrow, the littlun wept. His face puckered, the tears leaped from his eyes, his mouth opened till they could see a square black hole. At first he was a silent effigy of sorrow; but then the lamentation rose out of him, loud and sustained as the conch.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
Percival Wemys Madison would not shut up. A spring had been tapped, far beyond the reach of authority or even physical intimidation. The crying went on, breath after breath, and seemed to sustain him upright as if he were nailed to it.
Ralph’s belief in the omnipotence of the adult world is embarrassing in a boy as otherwise sage and resourceful as he is. Percival’s faith, suddenly and utterly frustrated, in the power of what amounts to a magic spell—the words he must recite to an adult if ever he should find himself lost—is downright heartbreaking. We see not only that these boys are naïve and frightened but also that they are badly prepared to deal with the darkness dwelling in some of their own peers. That darkness, the entirety of Lord of the Flies seems to tell us, is always present and always just barely held in check by the strictures of civilization. “I should have thought,” says the British naval officer who at last rescues the boys from the island and from each other, “that a pack of British boys—you’re all British, aren’t you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that.”
Reading this ending as a young person, I felt rather uncomplicated relief, coupled with a vague sense of embarrassment for the boys. I don’t recall taking notice of the ironic reversal Golding effects with the scene: that the officer, turning away from the boys, gazes at the “trim cruiser” that symbolizes the adult barbarism of warfare. With this reversal, Lord of the Flies goes from an advertisement for civilization to a sort of nihilistic denial that it is possible at all. This denial is not particularly compelling, though, for it is easy to see how civilization has enabled the Ralphs and Piggies of the adult world to keep the Jacks and Rogers in check, rather than ending up beheaded by them on a beach.
Ultimately, Lord of the Flies succeeds as a simple defense of civilization and not as a sly critique of it. In fact, the highly imperfect sort of civilization that rescues the boys from their incipient savagery might be preferable to the one that Ralph, Percival, et al. yearn for—that is, a truly godlike one that sees all, knows all, and solves (or presumes to solve) all. It is the ascendancy of just that kind of civilization—technocratic; heavily automated; contemptuous of individuality and privacy; materialistic; spiritually vacuous; infantilizing—that makes even the most dystopian robinsonade read not as a terrifying misadventure but as a glimpse of a condition almost, dare I say it, enviable.
“This is real exploring,” says Jack in Lord of the Flies, as some of the boys make an early survey of the island. “I bet nobody’s been here before.” It is in moments like these, sometimes benign, sometimes ecstatic, that the novel conveys the awe and joy of a pure encounter with nature. Swimming, figuring out how to make sound with the conch, learning to hunt with a spear—these are the activities that arouse the reader’s acute envy. What if one were able to disappear from the radar of modern life and indulge in this simple existence all the time? What if one could forget the NSA and Google, targeted marketing and iPhones, and immerse himself in what is real, solid, substantial in every sense of the word? What if meaningless work could be replaced each day by high-stakes challenges?
That is the fantasy held out to today’s reader by Robinson Crusoe. Living without human contact—to say nothing of clothing, medicine, a varied diet, a sex life, and so on—for decades is admittedly not the rosiest prospect. But what Crusoe’s life lacks in all that, it makes up for in a host of other ways, and these have special resonance for anyone sunk in twenty-first-century existential dread. He has time to think without interruption—no texts, no “pings,” no requests to “reach out” or “circle back.” His labors tax his mind and body to the utmost, but they are for his benefit and his alone. He learns something new every day. He works with his hands. He grows to understand nature. If this isn’t exactly selling it, he also drinks a ton of rum.
Robinson Crusoe is at the outset a cautionary tale. Crusoe goes to sea against the advice of his father: “He told me it was for men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprize, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road . . . that mine was the middle state . . . which he had found by long experience was the best state in the world.” Crusoe’s rejection of contented mediocrity leads first to his being made a slave and later to his being shipwrecked, alone, on his own island. The guilt he feels at having let pride and ambition ruin him will be all but incomprehensible to a modern reader, but it introduces a fascinating religious dimension to the narrative.
That said, most of Robinson Crusoe is about doing, not thinking. Crusoe manages to retrieve supplies from the wreck of which he is the sole survivor, but these only go so far. If he wants to live, he will have to work:
I must needs observe, that as reason is the substance and original of the mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by reason, and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanick art. I had never handled a tool in my life, and yet in time by labor, application and contrivance, I found at last that I wanted nothing but I could have made it, especially if I had had tools; however I made abundance of things, even without tools, and some with no more tools than an adze and a hatchet.
Crusoe’s gradual accumulation of skills and knowledge is impressive to see. He builds a fortified dwelling. Having learned to trap and husband goats, he makes primitive candles from their tallow and prehistoric-sounding apparel from their skins. His larder is stocked with the corn and barley he grows and the raisins he makes. Rafts, canoes, and pottery also belong to his repertoire. To Defoe’s celebration of human resourcefulness and imagination, his tribute to stoic self-reliance, he adds meditations on the management of fear. This ability is front and center in Lord of the Flies, too (“Of course we’re frightened sometimes but we put up with being frightened”); it is easy to imagine how indispensible it is in the face of prolonged isolation.
Fear is one thing, though, despair quite another. Andy Weir’s The Martian, though in most respects patterned on Robinson Crusoe, is very much of its time—our time—in lacking the theological or spiritual dimension of Defoe’s book, which grapples with despair at every turn. Mark Watney, the Crusoe of Weir’s novel, reckons with fear using science and rationality. Yet the original of Watney, who takes a more expansive view of reality, must also ask himself what, if anything, his life means. It is instructive to view the two books side by side. Defoe’s brims with questions of providence, punishment, and gratitude, while Weir’s takes a grimly materialist view of man’s role in the cosmos. Weir’s is entertaining, even inspiring, but it is never spiritually enlarging in the same way Defoe’s is.
Robinson Crusoe is a tutorial in gratitude. Upon washing ashore, Crusoe composes a pro and con list (the headings are in fact GOOD and EVIL) with which to put his misfortunes in perspective: “I am cast upon a horrible desolate island, void of all hope of recovery” on the one hand, but “I am alive, and not drown’d as all my ship’s company was” on the other. This urge to “look more upon the bright side of [his] condition, and less upon the dark side; and to consider what [he] enjoy’d, rather than what [he] wanted” begets an unintentionally comic and then refreshing refrain. It is Crusoe’s effort to see the good in his circumstances that keeps him from going mad, and that permits the reader to imagine how a life with less—less company, fewer possessions—might in fact be more rewarding.
By contrast, The Martian teaches the reader that reliance on technological solutions is always the best course. What matters to Mark Watney is getting back to Earth—a goal that any Earthling can easily relate to, and an excellent subject for a science fiction novel, but not by any means a transcendent program. Where the traditional robinsonade offers the modern reader a fantasy of removal from the scrutiny of surveillance, The Martian fosters a happy dependence on the Eye in the Sky that many have come to loathe. Mark Watney survives primarily through his own ingenuity—he spends every second of every day troubleshooting or fixing things—but he would never make it home without the intercession of, for instance, spying technology, satellite support, other astronauts, and even a more or less hostile foreign government.
This is not to denigrate Weir’s achievement. Considered purely as a paean to ingenuity, it far outstrips Robinson Crusoe and indeed any island robinsonade. The problems Watney contends with—cultivating potatoes in his own waste in the limited space of a tiny habitat; breaking down substances (such as rocket fuel) into their constituent elements; keeping his solar panels functioning with the sun blotted out by an apocalyptic dust storm—are vastly more complex than catching goats or learning to make his own boards or boats. Among Mark Watney’s tools are good cheer and a pronounced sense of humor—granted, a sense of humor that recalls Michael Scott from The Office (2005–2013)—and this, too, is a tool that only human beings possess. Like the astonishing astronauts of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979), Watney is a model man, one of the best the human race has to offer.
Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Watney will die if he cannot escape from Mars. He has to go home, the home where bureaucracy, technology, and transparency prevail. This means that The Martian lacks something today’s reader can find in the traditional robinsonade: the pleasure of imagining himself in the world as a full and active participant and yet somehow not quite of it. There is a unique joy to being alone on a beach, far from the reach of civilized concerns, contemplating how he might take full and lone command of his affairs. There is something seductive about the prospect of falling away from the world as the rest of the world knows it. Whether or not this impulse is an entirely healthy one is an open question, but it is impossible not to feel at times.
Paddle down the Hudson River near my town and you see the evidence of this impulse everywhere. Peer through the reeds and trees of the great dredge island Middle Ground Flats and you will see shacks and camps at regular intervals, lovingly handmade and in varying states of disrepair, hung with American flags and, in at least one case, the fiercely independent Gadsden flag. Or glide beneath a trestle bridge to enter the Furgary (as in “Where the Furg-ar-we?”), a veritable village of crumbling fishing shacks; its resident Crusoes, though long since evicted, have never given up on preserving it. Its name amounts to a question Crusoe had countless opportunities to ask: Where are we? What are we doing here? But more to the point, why would we ever want to be anywhere else?