Themes

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

Island: The Complete Stories can be viewed as a series of meditations on the nature of life in the North—in Alistair MacLeod's case, principally Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—and, as with all great writing, on life as it is everywhere. The themes involve isolation, people against nature, youth striving for independence, the changing nature of work over time, the modern versus the old and the resulting culture clash, and the meaning of ethnic heritage. Obviously, those are a great many themes, but not unexpectedly given that there are sixteen individual short stories in the collection. We can look closely at several of them now to see how MacLeod deals with those subjects.

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One of the longer stories is itself called "Island" and concerns a woman named Agnes (misstated on her birth certificate as "Angus") living much of her life alone on an even smaller island off the coast of Cape Breton. Her family are lighthouse keepers, and after her father's death she takes over the job herself. Eventually, she's told by the government that her work will be eliminated through automation. When very young, she has a one-night encounter with a visiting fisherman, who tells her he'll marry her but first is going to work for a period of time on the mainland and in the U.S. Soon after this, she realizes she's pregnant and then learns that her lover has been killed. She gives birth to a daughter, who turns out to be chronically ill and is sent to be taken care of by Agnes's aunt on the mainland. Agnes's isolation increases after her parents die and she is left alone on the island. The daughter becomes almost totally estranged from her. Many years later, a young man arrives on the island, telling Agnes he's her grandson. Shortly before her death she has a dream vision of her lover himself, still youthful, saying that he has returned as he promised.

Most of the themes we've enumerated are dealt with in "Island": the isolation of people in the far north, the changing nature (and difficulty) of work, the bleakness and hostility of natural forces, the Scottish heritage of the islanders, and Agnes's culture clash with the daughter who grows up in mainland Canada.

This last theme is also explored in "The Return," in which a small boy brought up in Montreal whose father is originally from the island...

(The entire section contains 624 words.)

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