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The Society Islands, Bora Bora, 1849

6 Islands in Literature and Why Writers Still Treasure Them


Scenarios endowed with a singular magic, it’s not difficult to guess why islands are among the most recurrent destinations in literature.

“Islands which have never existed have made their ways onto maps nonetheless…” wrote the Australian poet, Nicholas Hasluck. This is especially true in literature, where these dots of land have inspired the human imagination for millennia. In our constant struggle to conquer, outline and possess the universe we inhabit, the quality of these miniature continents seems to comfort us. They allow us the illusion of possession, to confront our demons (who manifest themselves in solitude and isolation), and to perfectly contain perhaps any narrative.

Miniature universes, bridges between the real world and the fantastic, islands are the perfect places for fiction and for mythology. In some works, such territory functions not simply as a scenario, but as characters in and of themselves and even as literary resources. An extensive library of such books might even be built to contain this eccentric species of literary genre.

Islands have been utopias because they’re isolated from human vice. They’re also terrifying places, home to both the unknown and the savage. Like literature’s gardens, literary islands are places with their own rules. They appear and disappear, float on the sea like ships, or provide homes to mythical worlds which, like Atlantis or Avalon, are otherwise lost in time.

Map of “Insel Felsenburg” (Felsenburg island) by Johann Gottfried Schnabel, 1731.

As our own world shrinks and remote islands disappear, what had been terra incognita - distant prisons or the resting places of shipwrecks – today represent rare treasures, the solitude, purity, and silence of which cannot but represent an earthly paradise. As valuable as islands are in the real world, they are likewise in fiction.

These are six islands of literature that provide both setting and character for the narratives contained within them.

Among the countless islands Odysseus visits during his long journey home, Ithaca is the island home of the nymph, Calypso, and the beautiful sorceress Circe. It’s also the island of the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclopes, and the giant Laestrygonians, among others. Ithaca, their island-home, is a symbol, thus, of love and origins.

Like the other utopian territories of its time (the Age of Discovery), Thomas Moore’s is an island upon which the great vices of the old world have been overcome. An egalitarian society which celebrates religious freedom and condemns private property, Utopia still stands out in the catalog of fictitious islands as a jewel representing all that we should be.

The Island of Caliban
The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last work, takes place on a beautiful tropical island, possibly inspired by Bermuda, and home to the savage, Caliban. When his ship wrecks, marooning him on the island, Prospero, who is the Duke of Milan and a sorcerer expelled from his kingdom by his treacherous brother, enslaves the island’s original owner. He uses the island as a base for performing the magic that will carry out his revenge. The island represents two opposites: the wild and uncivilized, and the beauty of the natural.

Robinson Crusoe Island
The island on which Robinson Crusoe spends years after his own tragic shipwreck (another overseas utopia) is a meeting point between unknown civilizations. It’s also the space in which Crusoe, through his work, skill, and intelligence, will survive loneliness and isolation. This island is thus a tribute to the human intellect and, at the same time, a justification for European colonial discourse.

Treasure Island
The story of pirates and treasure buried in the sand, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel laid the foundation for the archetype of the Caribbean pirate island – beautiful, exotic, and profoundly wild – subsequent writers replicated it for decades thereafter. The mere presence of treasure endowed the remote island with its dazzling significance.

The setting for Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, Pala is a paradise of science and religion. It’s a space in which mysticism, psychedelia, and ecology confront one another. The island (where animals speak) is also home to a utopian society in which the best of the East and West come together and where science is a tool for the discovery of spiritual truths.



*Images: 1) The Society Islands, Bora Bora, 1849 / Public Domain; 2) Map of “Insel Felsenburg” (Felsenburg island) by Johann Gottfried Schnabel, 1731.

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