Why Do We Find Deserted Island Stories So Compelling?

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Ten years ago, the television series Lost was entering its sixth and final season. The story of Oceanic Flight 815, which crashed in the Pacific and stranded dozens of survivors on a mysterious island, caught the attention of millions of people around the world. Even if the finale was something of a letdown for many viewers (I wondered about the reason here), Lost still stands out.

No show comes close to Lost in exploring so many major philosophical themes in a drama (free will and predestination, faith and science, innocence and corruptibility). Lost is unique in that way. But Lost’s premise is common: a group of strangers thrust into a new and mysterious world. That’s the fundamental fact of human experience, recast as a science fiction drama.

The romantic notion of being wrecked on a deserted island—of discovering anew the world around us as the setting for an exciting drama in which we must come to know our neighbors—gave birth to classics like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Lord of the Flies, as well as reality shows like Survivor and true tales of exploration like In the Kingdom of Ice. Lost belongs to a long heritage of old and gratifying stories that lead us to explore the nature and wonder of the world as well as the depths of the human beings we meet.

Thrill of the Deserted Island

More than 100 years ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote about this romantic notion—the secret desire to be wrecked on an island. Why are we compelled by stories of deserted islands? Why is our first response, when we imagine people on an island, to experience a flash of envy? Even when we consider all the inconveniences and problems awaiting the deserted, we thrill at the thought. Why?

Chesterton believes we long for the wonder of separation. When we are separated from the rest of humanity, we are given the opportunity to see each other and see the world afresh.

Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble. We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer.

Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys—instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies.

This is why novels work, Chesterton writes. They appeal to our desire to explore the inner depths of a particular character, and this desire to know someone well—to plumb the endless complexities of a single person—underlies our love for great stories.

Life Is Too Large

In the years since Chesterton wrote this essay, the pace of life has quickened, and the number of people we come across has multiplied. We may not brush up against as many people as our ancestors did who walked down crowded city streets. But even in the most rural of settings our online presence and social media habits bring us into contact with more and more people. The idea of being cut off from society, of being forced to focus only on your immediate surroundings or the people right in front of you, forms the heart of recent calls for “digital minimalism” or the need to be a “tech-wise family.” Why do we feel this need? Here’s Chesterton again:

Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions.

What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity; people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humorist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost.

No Ordinary People

Chesterton warned of superficial connections at the expense of profound exploration. Then, in a phrase that would find second life in C. S. Lewis’s essay The Weight of Glory, Chesterton writes:

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people. That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colorless. But the trouble is that one can so quickly see them all in a lump, like a land surveyor, and it would take so long to see them one by one as they really are, like a great novelist.

He then imagines surveying the street as a landlord who sees all the houses versus being a priest who knows the people who live inside:

If I were landlord of that street . . . I could easily take it all in at a glance, sum it all up and say, ‘Houses at £40 a year.’ 

But suppose I could be father confessor to that Street, how awful and altered it would look! Each house would be sundered from its neighbor as by an earthquake and would stand alone in a wilderness of the soul. I should know that in this house a man was going mad with drink, that in that a man had kept single for a woman, that in the next a woman was on the edge of abysses, that in the next a woman was living an unknown life which might in more devout ages have been gilded in hagiographies and made the fountain of miracles.

Maybe we know too many people. Maybe we don’t know enough people well.

“The individual is so much bigger than the average,” Chesterton writes, “the inside of life is much larger than the outside,” before ending with a delightful thought:

Often when riding with three or four strangers on the top of an omnibus I have felt a wild impulse to throw the driver off his seat, to drive the omnibus far out into the country and tip them all out into a field, and say, “We may never meet again in this world; come, let us understand each other.” I do not affirm that the experiment would succeed, but I think the impulse to do it is at the root of all the tradition of the poetry of wrecks and islands.

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