Michel Tournier Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 which comes from within and that which comes from others. Up to this point, Robinson seems to be a faithful exponent of existentialism as propounded by Jean-Paul Sartre. Contrary to Sartre’s vision, however, Robinson does not fall into the dualism of the self as subject and the other as object. Because his being depends on the existence of others and because the being of others depends on his being, he concludes that the knowledge he has of an object is identical with the object itself, so that in the end the subject and object are one and the same. He is the world, an element in the world.

Concomitant with this regression toward the sources of himself, Robinson descends into the bowels of the island as if returning to the womb of Speranza, only to realize that one cannot be born again. He emerges to seek other means of union and reunion with the world. He finds that he can exist only by fleeing from himself toward others, but the only “other” that exists is the island Speranza herself. He eventually locates a receptive spot and there has sex with the earth. It is almost as if Robinson has heeded John Donne’s exhortation in his poem “Song” (1633)—“Go, and catch a falling star,/ Get with child a mandrake root”—because from this insemination spring pure white mandrakes. The mandrake is a plant whose forked roots were once believed to have magical human attributes, and Robinson discovers that the roots of these mandrakes have indeed taken on the form of a little girl. While Robinson is convinced that a stronger and more powerful link now attaches him to Speranza and that he has succeeded in humanizing the island, he is also aware that he has taken the first step in abandoning his own humanity. The fact is proved when he awakens the next morning to discover that his beard has taken root in the earth.

Defoe did not introduce the character of Friday into his story until two-thirds of the way through the novel. Tournier brings him in at midpoint because Robinson has arrived at the stage where his story can continue only with the appearance of the other. We must all choose, as Albert Camus put it and as Tournier’s Robinson repeats after him, between the side of the victim and that of the executioner. When Robinson sees Friday fleeing his would-be executioners in a ritual sacrifice, he chooses the side of the stronger, the executioner, and takes aim at the victim. At that moment, his dog Tenn bumps his arm, and, by mistake, Robinson kills one of the pursuers and Friday is saved. From this accident stems the rest of Robinson’s story.

At first, Friday seems to be the perfect servant, doing more or less exactly as his master commands and suffering any punishment more or less silently. Little by little, Robinson observes, however, that Friday has an elemental knowledge of the world that his master, with all of his knowledge and skills, has never acquired. At one point, Friday innocently opens the sluice gates of the rice paddy, thus inundating Robinson’s plantation with a virtually biblical flood and ruining the crop. Then, when he is almost caught having a forbidden smoke with Robinson’s pipe, he throws the pipe to the rear of the cave to escape detection. Robinson has stored the dynamite saved from the ship in the depths of the cave, and the lighted pipe ignites the explosives, creating the fiery monster the captain had foretold. All of Robinson’s work is completely undone; hence, because the master no longer has the support of his props, the roles are reversed.

Friday now shows Robinson how to live in fundamental and peaceful union with the earth, while he himself observes the benefits of civilized living. Thus, when deliverance arrives, Friday elects to sail away to civilization while Robinson remains on Speranza, where he will hunt for his salvation in communion with the elements, having become elemental himself. He will not be alone, however, for a young Estonian who was being mistreated aboard the rescue ship sneaks ashore and remains with Robinson, who will call him Thursday, which is the day of Jupiter, the god of the sky.

In this comic and cosmic novel, the reader encounters the familiar adventures of Robinson Crusoe only to see them metamorphose into the myth of Tournier’s Robinson, in which the solidarity with humanity of Defoe’s novel becomes a study of solar and solitary dehumanization. If Tournier’s Robinson seems at times to be a twentieth century French intellectual rather than an eighteenth century English merchant’s son, his adventures recapitulate the efforts of contemporary human beings to define themselves in their relationships with others and with the objects of this world. To become one with the world, Tournier seems to be saying, an individual must first become one with him- or...

(The entire section is 3617 words.)