Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At the beginning of this story, the narrator comments that it will show that an island must be tiny before it can be filled with any one person’s personality. The islander, who dreams of creating the perfect world, ends up being his islands’ victim, not their master. It is as if the islands have a life and power of their own. The narrator comments that going to an island is like jumping off a secure little point in time into a timeless world in which the present moment begins to expand in great circles and the solid earth is gone: The usual crutches of time and space are knocked away. The myriad spirits and infinite rhythms of centuries dwarf and overwhelm the individual who tries to assert his individuality over the island.

On the first island, his perfect world crumbles when the island’s people, events, and spirit prove beyond his control. On the second island, he attempts to create around him a still and desireless space but is defeated by his sexual desire. On his third and last island, he wishes to avoid contact with anyone or anything that disturbs his isolation or intrudes on his perfectly ordered existence.

Each island is more bare and less populated than the last, but Cathcart still fails to impose his own identity on them. His circle of influence decreases to the size of his tiny hut, and even then, he constantly feels under threat from outside influences. As his environment progressively slips out of his control, he becomes angrier and more malevolent. He ends up a sick, shattered wreck of a man, vainly struggling against the ebb and flow of life.