Michel Tournier Long Fiction Analysis
Like most educated Frenchmen of his generation, Tournier was influenced by the Surrealist movement of the 1920’s, by the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre’s German predecessors in the 1940’s, and by the Theater of the Absurd of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco of the 1950’s. Certainly one of the greatest influences on many French writers of Tournier’s age was that of novelist André Gide, whose récits, or narratives, say much in little space. Tournier also experienced World War II at an impressionable age, and his profoundly Christian upbringing colors all of his works.
Few Englishmen and Americans realize how popular Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe) has been with the French since it was first translated (1720-1721). In Friday, Tournier uses many of the details Defoe recounts in Robinson Crusoe, but he very quickly begins to create a myth rather than simply reproduce the story told by Defoe. Tournier replaces Defoe’s forty pages of introduction, which tell the reader whence Robinson has come, with an eight-page scene aboard the ill-fated ship in which the captain predicts Robinson’s future with tarot cards, thus symbolically revealing the adventures that lie ahead.
Tournier shifts the date of the shipwreck from 1659 to 1759, to the very heart of the Age of Enlightenment. Robinson, in his despair, is first tempted to return to the primeval slime, but reason soon prevails, and he becomes the logical, thinking man who will make every effort to realize progress by turning his desert island into a replica of civilization as he knows it. Through the cards, Robinson has learned that he is a born organizer who will struggle to conquer disorder only to find his work an illusion. He will wield absolute power with piety and purity, but his austerity will appear to be an affectation. In his efforts to analyze the phenomenon of solitude, he will search for his own origins and, in so doing, become a different man. He will have to fight against chaos in the form of a fiery monster while being turned upside down psychologically.
Tournier’s greatest divergence from Defoe comes with the introduction of the tarot card Gemini, the twins, which will prove to be Robinson’s dual self as well as Robinson and Friday. This is Tournier’s first mention of the phenomenon of twins, which haunts almost all of his subsequent novels. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe passes quietly over the problem of sex, whereas in Friday, the captain maintains that the twins will live in childish innocence in their solar city, having arrived at an androgynous solar sexuality. Robinson will be in great danger but will be saved by a golden child born of the entrails of Earth, who will give him the keys to the solar city. Thereupon the ship is wrecked, and all but Robinson are lost. The irony here, as in Defoe’s novel, is that if the crew had remained aboard instead of abandoning ship, most of them might have been saved.
Robinson’s predecessor dubbed his island the Island of Despair. In like manner, Robinson at first calls his the Island of Desolation, but with incurable optimism he soon changes the name to Speranza, from the Italian speranza , meaning “hope.” He slowly but surely brings order out of chaos, with only his Bible and his dog Tenn to keep him company. The introduction of the Bible follows Defoe’s example, but it also announces Tournier’s preoccupation with theology, which permeates all of his novels. Tournier’s Robinson indulges in a great deal of philosophizing, an occupation totally uncharacteristic of Defoe’s hero. The modern Robinson comes to the startling realization that the absence of others has caused him to doubt his own existence. In his efforts to analyze the relation between the knower and the known, he finally understands that human beings have two types of knowledge of themselves: that...
(The entire section is 3,617 words.)