When human beings are torn from society and forced to fight for survival, our true nature is often revealed. With very clear threats to life and limb, and without any need to account for our actions when laws become irrelevant, we can revert to our primal instincts for personal survival. But to what extent is a person willing to go in order to survive? In a kill-or-be-killed situation, are humans actually more highly evolved than other animals? Throughout history, writers have tried to answer these questions, among others, via the art of fiction.
Believed to have been written in 1610 or 1611, William Shakespeare's The Tempest is the story of The Duke of Milan - Prospero - who, along with his daughter Miranda, has been exiled to an island by Prospero's jealous brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero has magical powers and, when he hears that his brother and Alonso are sailing nearby, conjures a terrible storm that lands them on the island with Prospero. The story is filled with enchantment, disguises, spirits, love, and even a monster-slave by the name of Caliban. At the time of its publication, the play wasn't particularly popular, however The Tempest has become one of Shakespeare's most well-know works to date, inspiring thousands of reinventions of the story throughout history.
One of the best known uses of the "castaway" in literature is found in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). In this novel, main character Alexander Selkirk finds himself stranded on an island off Venezuela, his only companion a friendly native to whom he gives the nickname "Friday." Though in this case the protagonist is safely ensconced on an island, not bobbing along at the mercy of the sea, his life is under threat from dangerous native cannibals he must either avoid or fight. Most of the novel consists of his day-to-day life on the island, written in the form of a journal. Robinson Crusoe has the distinction of being one of the original novels in the genre, and The Lifeboat owes a partial debt to this much earlier work of fiction.
In Nobel Prize-winner William Golding's first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), a group of British schoolboys are stranded on an island after their plane crashes. No adults survive the explosion, and the boys are left to organize themselves and recreate their own system of order and social structure - a situation that results in utter disaster. Golding's novel explores the barbarous qualities that lurk deep within all people - even children. The novel questions our notions of authority, innocence, power, and vulnerability.
In Yann Martel's The Life of Pi (1991), Pi, the protagonist, survives a shipwreck by managing to climb into a lifeboat, along with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and orangutan. As in The Lifeboat, the survival instinct is fully explored. The animals in the boat begin consuming each other until only Pi and the Bengal Tiger, whom Pi names Richard Parker, are left. It is interesting to compare The Life of Pi with The Lifeboat, to look at the actions of these fairytale-like animals - who may or may not have been delusions - and how they relate to the human characters in Rogan's novel.
So many works of fiction relate to the themes found in The Lifeboat - everything from The Odyssey to The Swiss Family Robinson and beyond. The settings and situations may differ but one fundamental question remains common throughout: what happens when survival is threatened, and to what extent will an individual go in order to stay alive?
To find more seafaring stories, check out BookBrowse's themed category, "On the High Seas".
This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2013 paperback release.
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