Themes and Characters
Karana, the main character of the story, exhibits extraordinary courage and resourcefulness during her years alone on the island. The characters who make up her family appear only in the story's beginning and are presented with no real depth: her father, Chowig, is the dignified, wise chief of the village; her older sister, Ulape, is intelligent, but more flirtatious than Karana; her brother, Ramo, is an endearing mixture of pride, ingenuity, and mischief.
The narrative focuses on Karana's mental and emotional reactions to her predicament. Initially, she experiences a sense of loss—the loss of loved ones, of the security of a social structure, of reliable sources of sustenance. Through her ordeal, Karana gradually achieves a sense of self-reliance and acquires a degree of order. The need for some kind of community leads the girl to form a "family," by rescuing and taming wild creatures: an orphaned otter, two birds, and, most significantly, the wild dog that she initially sought to destroy in revenge for its pack having killed her brother. She names the dog Rontu, and he becomes her friend and protector.
Karana's growing aversion to unnecessary killing develops the theme of community. She chooses to rescue and domesticate the otter—a gesture of protest against the Aleuts and Russians who come from the north to massacre the otters for their fur—and decides not to shoot an arrow at a sea lion that could provide her with ivory needed for implements. She waits until two battling male sea lions provide her with a dead animal in the natural order of things. These decisions culminate in her refraining from killing the enemy Aleut girl, Tutok. Even though Karana is especially afraid of the girl, who might betray her to the other Aleuts, she withholds her weapons, and a fruitful friendship ensues. In the cases of both Rontu and Tutok, Karana's ability to put compassion and forgiveness above vengeance is rewarded by friendship. But her friendship with Tutok causes Karana to feel more deeply her need for human society, and after her friend's departure, Karana looks forward with renewed intensity to the day of her rescue.
The novel's primary concern is Karana's personal development. Living under conditions of extreme duress, she gradually sheds attitudes and traits that inhibit the full growth of her mature personality. In overcoming her earlier limitations—feelings of hatred and desire for revenge—she acquires the virtues of understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and love.
Island of the Blue Dolphins reflects O'Dell's concern about the natural world and people's tendency to exploit and destroy the environment—especially the wanton killing of sea otters and other forms of wildlife. Drawing on French philosopher Albert Schweitzer's concept of "reverence for life," O'Dell emphasizes the importance of taking from the environment only what one needs in order to live and of learning to cherish and live amicably with the other creatures of the world. He...
(The entire section is 1,322 words.)