The Idea of an Island: Robinson Crusoe vs John Donne

The Idea of an Island: Robinson Crusoe vs John Donne
  • 2023-24

The idea of an island has many resonances. Treasure Island. Atlantis. Love Island. Bikini Atoll, where the atomic bomb was tested. Skull Island, home of King Kong. The Mediterranean islands, where many of you will have holidayed during the summer.

I was conscious from an early age of living on an island, the island of Great Britain. History lessons at school reinforced the sense of separation and independence that my homeland enjoyed, with only the Romans under Julius Caesar and the Normans led by William the Conqueror managing successful invasions.

Many films as I was growing up made it clear that not even the military might of the Nazis, with their Luftwaffe and V2 rockets in the Second World War, could compromise British sovereignty.

This fierce defence of the nation from foreign invasion did not of course mean that the British were themselves averse to conquering others and accumulating colonies across the globe.

This same spirit of patriotism was used to sentimentalise the arguments for Brexit. A nostalgia attached itself to memories of the dwindling British Empire and the historical power that went with it – the imperial pink colour inundating the world map.

When it comes to thinking about islands, my earliest conception was inspired by The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The series played on TV every summer holiday during my boyhood. I loved watching and re-watching each episode, enchanted by the theme tune, the pet parrot, and by the performance of Robert Hoffmann as Robinson. 

Shipwrecked on a desert island, Crusoe builds himself a shelter, carves weapons, hunts animals, tends livestock, then takes on a slave in the shape of the Black Man Friday.

My favourite scene showed Robinson finding human footprints on the sand. He is both excited and terrified by the thought that there may be someone else on the island - only to realise he has been tracing his own footsteps made some hours before.

Years later, when I studied the text by Daniel Defoe at university, I came to understand that the novel, published in 1719, also operated as a model for the growth of an economy and colonial rule. The theme of self-reliance was clear. You can survive on your own. You should not rely others – excepting servants who can do the menial work.

The second and opposing notion of an island comes almost one hundred years before from the poet John Donne. In one of his Meditations, Donne wrote this:

 No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

According to Donne, then, you cannot survive on your own because we all exist in relation to each other, forming a complex human network, so that to separate any one part is to diminish the whole. People need other people to live a meaningful existence, Donne insists.

Both Defoe and Donne invoke God in different ways. In Robinson Crusoe, God is on the side of the hero, giving him strength to pursue his personal mission. Donne instead stresses the importance of a community united by shared values.

Who is right? Is Defoe correct to stress individualism and self-sovereignty, or is Donne more accurate in asserting our essential interdependence as a species.

The debate is highly politicised, of course, because Defoe’s position represents a right-wing tradition of championing the rights of the individual as part of a capitalist economy, while Donne’s position is more recognisably left-wing, asserting the virtues of fraternity and human unity.

As always, it is more fruitful to find a position that manages to blend the best elements of both, establishing a balance between the nobility of individualism and the warmth of communal belonging, rather than having to choose between a competing set of values.

Independence of thought and action can be good. They promote enterprise and innovation, and allow individuals to aspire to bettering themselves. But it is also true that we cannot operate successfully in the modern world without a strong sense of relation with others.

Within the school, we try to get the balance right. We encourage healthy competition in sport, music, and academic subjects. At the same time, we promote cooperation as the best way to achieving something larger than ourselves.

We need leadership, but we also need teamwork. We must focus on personal progress, but also take time to join together in assembly. 

The dangers of not cooperating can be seen clearly in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, where a troupe of schoolboys – members of the choir, no less – are marooned on an island following a plane crash during a nuclear war.

The boys rapidly turn savage, the layers of civilisation quickly peeling away to reveal the self-serving instincts beneath.

It is the job of a school to create a space in which civilised values are strongly communicated, and civilised habits made part of a routine. Sometimes this can represent an act of resistance to the poor behaviour of role models beyond the school gates.

As the poet W.H. Auden famously wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939, ‘We must love one another or die.’

Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies are infused with the hope of rescue and redemption. There is a need, urgently felt, to keep a fire burning high up on the island as a signal to passing ships.

And like a deus ex machina, at the end of each novel, a ship does appear on the horizon to rescue our heroes, to restore order, and to reunite the island’s fugitives with the rest of humankind.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

British School - IB School in Italy - Best IB Results in Italy - Top School in the World

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