Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

As in any good survival story, the protagonist must learn to accept the forces of nature and accommodate himself to them. At first, Abel resents nature when it conflicts with his will. He imagines the rain as inconsiderate when it interrupts his picnic, and he resents the power of the...

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As in any good survival story, the protagonist must learn to accept the forces of nature and accommodate himself to them. At first, Abel resents nature when it conflicts with his will. He imagines the rain as inconsiderate when it interrupts his picnic, and he resents the power of the flood-swollen river, resolving to beat it. Gradually, he becomes attuned rather than resistant to the rhythm of the seasons: He passes the winter months in a mostly somnolent state, then revives with the spring, dancing and yodeling for the sheer joy of living. He loses his city-bred taste for mushroom omelettes and caviar and enjoys the fresh taste of strawberries and cherry birch bark, which he is somewhat shocked to learn that his own teeth are ideally adapted to gnawing. Perhaps the most significant example of Abel’s growing acceptance of the natural order of things is the attitude that he demonstrates toward the two predators he faces in the course of the novel. He sees the owl as a personal enemy. His deep hatred for the owl motivates him to fight back not only with weapons—his pocketknife tied to a stick to make a spear—but also with bloodcurdling curses chanted over the owl’s feathers, kept for their talisman-like power. Months later, Abel’s reliance on instinct rather than anger to elude a hunting cat and his matter-of-fact acceptance of its predatory behavior as simply part of its makeup suggest a mouse who has become wise in the ways of the natural world.

Psychological survival and maturation are just as important to Abel’s success as physical survival. Although Abel is an adult when circumstances take him from his home, inherited wealth and a pampered lifestyle have allowed him to remain immature. Discovering that he can provide his own food and shelter gives him a warm sense of accomplishment. Never having worked before, he now finds in himself artistic ability, which he takes pains to develop. Also, he lessens his loneliness by developing a warm friendship with Gower, a creature whom he would formerly have felt to be beneath his acquaintance. Finally, he strengthens his will to continue his solitary existence by speaking aloud to himself, his sculptures, his birch tree, and his special evening star.

When Abel speaks aloud to his star or the statue of Amanda, he often does so to commune with his beloved absent wife. One important theme of Abel’s Island, unusual for a children’s novel, is the power of conjugal love. Paradoxically, Abel’s yearlong exile is both more painful because of his separation from Amanda and easier to endure because of his certainty of a continued link with her through his dreams and spoken thoughts.

It is primarily Steig’s style, which has been described as remarkably literate, even courtly, that allows him to handle such mature themes as married love and the growth of the artist. Few authors of children’s literature can broach such challenging themes naturally while still making them accessible to young readers. One example of this thematic depth occurs when Abel grapples with God’s motives for creating owls, snakes, and other predators, thereby becoming a mouse-sized Job in quest of metaphysical meaning.

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Critical Context