The Man Who Loved Islands

by D. H. Lawrence

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Last Updated July 2, 2024.


D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Man Who Loved Islands" is a chilling tale of isolation and descent into madness. Lawrence was a prominent British novelist known for his exploration of human emotions and societal issues during the early 20th century. Published in 1927, this story exemplifies the genre of modernist psychological fiction, where the protagonist's deteriorating mental state is laid bare through his introspective thoughts and struggles.

The story takes place on three increasingly remote islands. Lawrence's choice of setting reflects the growing disillusionment and anxieties of the inter-war era, where characters often grapple with solitude and the search for meaning.

Plot Summary

There is a man obsessed with islands. He yearns for a world he can control. He desires an island small enough to be an extension of himself. Fate offers him a chance: a 99-year lease on a modest island.

The island is quite small, only four miles around, with a gloomy house, a farmhouse, fields, and three cottages. Despite its unassuming features, the island offers a sense of self-sufficiency and isolation, perfect for the man's dream. There are two other islands nearby. One larger and one much smaller.

The islander enjoys the changing seasons and feels deeply connected to the natural world. However, this connection takes a dark turn at night.

The island's isolation exposes him to a sense of "infinite time." He becomes aware of the ghosts of past inhabitants—Gauls, priests, pirates—haunting the island, which unsettles him. He feels himself becoming a "single point in space," vulnerable to the vastness of time.

To escape these unsettling feelings, the islander tries to create a perfect world on his island. He renovates the house, hires staff, and populates the cottages with a skipper, a carpenter, a mason, and their families.

The island becomes a self-contained, idyllic world. Everyone has a role and seems content. The protagonist is now addressed as "the Master," indicating his position at the top of the island's society. This creates a sense of hierarchy, with everyone deferring to him.

The islander's utopian dream quickly sours. Despite his efforts to cultivate a happy community with lavish parties and shared knowledge, the islanders remain subtly mocking and prioritize their own agendas. The island itself seems to harbor a dark secret. Every glimmer of joy is extinguished by misfortune – a dead cow, a wrecked yacht. Yet the islander remains blind, clinging to his vision while the island silently devours his fortune.

Years later, forced to sell his failing paradise at a loss, he watches in bitterness as the once idyllic island becomes a commercialized resort for honeymooners and golfers. His dream is transformed into a monument to his naiveté and the island's cruel indifference.

The islander, defeated on his larger island, relocates to a much smaller, rocky one in the second chapter. He brings a small group of loyal people: the carpenter couple, a widow and her daughter, and an orphan boy. The island is tiny but beautiful. The islander settles into a simple life and finds solace in isolation.

Life here is peaceful and quiet. The carpenter works tirelessly, the widow and her daughter care for the islander, and everyone respects his privacy. They call him "Mr. Cathcart" rather than "Master."

The island is no longer a grand dream but a refuge. The islander spends his days writing, the sound of the typewriter blending with the natural sounds of the island. However, this tranquility is shattered when he becomes intimate with Flora, the widow's daughter.

He feels conflicted about the encounter, believing it was driven by her will rather than genuine desire....

(This entire section contains 959 words.)

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This experience destroys the sense of peace he had achieved and leaves him feeling shattered and self-loathing.

Unable to cope, he abandons the island and wanders to the mainland. When he learns Flora is pregnant, he impulsively buys another even more remote island: a desolate, rocky place with no buildings or trees.

He returns to Flora and marries her. Despite initial attempts to maintain a relationship, his desire fades completely. He feels trapped and humiliated by the situation.

A nurse and doctor join them for the birth of their daughter. Flora remains oblivious to his unhappiness, her eyes filled with adoration. He cannot bear it any longer and arranges for her financial security before leaving for his newly purchased island, this time completely alone.

The islander settles into his new, even more remote island in the third chapter. He lives in a simple hut and enjoys the vast emptiness and silence around him. He no longer works on his book and finds comfort in the endless ocean view.

His desire for solitude is so strong that even the presence of his cat and the sheep becomes unwelcome. He dislikes their noises and finds them repulsive.

When a ship arrives with supplies and takes away the sheep, he experiences a deep aversion to the interaction with the men and the animals. Any contact with the outside world feels like a violation.

As winter sets in, the islander descends further into physical and mental decline. He experiences chills and hallucinations and forgets basic tasks like keeping track of time. He finds satisfaction in the thought of all life disappearing with the harshness of winter.

A heavy snowfall isolates him completely, trapping him inside his house. He struggles weakly to clear the snow around his house and reach his boat, but the elements overpower him. He finds brief moments of strength to perform basic tasks but seems resigned to his fate. Despite a fleeting moment of delusion where he imagines summer and a sail on the horizon, reality sets back in. The story ends with the islander feeling the chilling breath of the approaching snow, suggesting his surrender to the unforgiving elements.