Each year, with the increase in number of children's books, it is often necessary to retreat from the volume of present publication to reexamine those works which have, for various reasons, endured to become classics. One such work is Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins….
Although the desert island motif has been a standard fictional theme since Shakespeare's Tempest and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, O'Dell is faced with several new problems. Because he is writing children's fiction, he must create a story in which narrative pacing is relatively fast. His specific subject matter, the lonely eighteen years spent by Karana on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, raises difficulties…. For a large part of her story, Karana does very little except engage in the diurnal chores of survival. How, then, has O'Dell created a story which continues to grip young readers fourteen years after its publication?
First, the story of Karana's isolation does not begin until the end of the eighth chapter, after her brother Ramu has been killed by the pack of wild dogs. By so delaying the story of her survival, O'Dell is able to create a sense of the social milieu in which she had developed, a feeling of the fear and distrust of the Aleuts, which she will harbor during her solitude, and a contrast between the activity she had known with the tribe and the desolation she faces alone. Moreover, the basic character traits she exhibits during her eighteen years of loneliness have been clearly established during the early part of the novel.
Second, O'Dell intermingles accounts of Karana's day-to-day activities with the highlights of her adventures. Thus the narrative pace is never allowed to slacken, while at the same time the reader is given a sense of her day-by-day existence. (p. 442)
[The] "how to" selections are rendered interesting not only because they are placed between narrative segments, but also because of the vividness with which O'Dell has presented them. Young readers have an interest in survival techniques, as is indicated by their own attempts to build tree houses and woods shelters. But too often this interest is catered to by such Hollywood claptrap as "Gilligan's Island." O'Dell succeeds so well because of his deep knowledge of his subject. (pp. 442-43)
But the most important aspect of the story, that which has made it the classic it is, is the portrayal of the character of Karana. Prefatory to an examination of her character, we should note two aspects. First, O'Dell very wisely chooses the first person point of view. While Karana's life is interesting, her attitude to that life is much more so. Second, as attitudes are intangible, they must be given objective correlatives in order to be fictionally realized. Thus the book is developed around a series of presentations of Karana's attitudes toward her daily survival activities, inanimate objects, animals, and other people. Each of the chapters thus contains a series of symbolic episodes which illuminate aspects of Karana's character and the changes it undergoes.
Chapters One through Eight present two main character traits which are fully explored in the remainder of the novel: Karana's sociality within her family and tribe and her fear of the Aleuts…. Later in the story, her desire to be reunited with her people will become the motivation behind her drive for survival, and it will create a need for a substitute animal family. Later, her hatred of the Aleuts will be seen as a character flaw she must work to overcome, as she does in her relationships with Rontu and Tutok.
In these early chapters,...
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O'Dell introduces several incidents and motifs which foreshadow and prepare the reader for incidents and themes to be later developed….
[For example], Karana is upset over the slaying of the otters, a fact which presages her growing love for animals and her adopting of Wonanee, the orphaned otter. (p. 443)
The remainder of the book, which deals with Karana's psychic and physical survival and her final departure, can be divided into three major sections, each one tracing a significant phase in her character development…. In each section there are a series of symbolic incidents which reveal aspects of this movement.
On first finding herself alone, Karana's hope is that she will soon be rescued by a returning ship. However, after a year, her hopes are ended and she realizes that she must take definite action herself, which she does by repairing a deserted canoe with which to paddle to a new island. When, in her attempted escape, she loses sight of the island and is forced to retreat, she refers to the island as home for the first time since her lonely stay began. In her withdrawal and return by canoe, we have the second variation on the motif of ships departing from and arriving at the island. Whereas the Aleut arrival had led to Karana's loss of family, this time, her homecoming emphasizes her growing sense of self-reliance. She faces the fact that she is completely alone and devotes her energies to the problems of survival.
In the early stages of her life on the island she has made two significant steps which have led to this position of self-reliance. First, she has turned her back on the immediate past by burning the village, knowing that painful memories cannot help her. Second, she has understood that if she is to survive and avenge her brother's death by wild dogs, she must violate the tribal taboo which forbids women to make weapons. The task is a difficult one, and, after much trial and error making bows and arrows, she decides that to be truly secure, she must make a spear of sea-elephant tusk. As she prepares to dart an arrow at two battling sea-lions, she pauses, allowing nature to take its course. This action reveals her reluctance to kill living creatures and so foreshadows her inability to kill Rontu and her growing love of her animal friends.
Although the chief motivating force behind her actions on the island has been her desire to kill the wild yellow-eyed Aleut dog who leads the pack, she only wounds him, refusing to let fly the fatal arrow…. Her decision not to kill Rontu marks the second major phase of her development. She had earlier learned self-reliance, now she comes to understand that she cannot take another life in the name of vengeance. Moreover, the fact that the dog had belonged to the hated Aleut prepares us for her friendship with the girl. Her decision has been a wise one, for in befriending Rontu, her enforced loneliness has ended, and she has made the first step toward establishing an animal society to replace the human one of which she had been deprived. (pp. 444-45)
The second major phase of Karana's development ends with her friendship to Tutok….
Two of Karana's activities before the arrival of the Aleuts indicate the fact that she still remains a very social being and help to explain why she becomes so close a friend to Tutok. In taming the two birds, Tainor and Larai, she is adding to her non-human family, and in making a yucca skirt and gathering cormorant feathers for a cape, she exhibits the love of fashion she had shown while living with her tribe.
When the Aleuts arrive, Karana hides, noting that "It was the girl I was afraid of."… But when she first sees her, Karana does not shoot…. Just as her mercy to Rontu indicated her forgiveness of the animal who had destroyed her brother, so her actions toward Tutok indicate a larger response, forgiveness of the representative of a group which had been her enemy. At the moment she puts her spear down, Rontu runs eagerly to the Aleut girl, apparently recognizing her. The point is clear: Rontu had been Tutok's dog, and she is the unidentified girl of the earlier Aleut visit. O'Dell has thus used the friendship between Karana and the dog as the preparation for the human friendship between the two girls. (p. 445)
[Karana's] sense of love and confidence in her new friend is so great that she can accept gifts and she can give a secret name knowing that Tutok will not betray her.
With the achievement of this relationship, a life alone can no longer be fulfilling for Karana…. Thus the final seven chapters of the book prepare us for her departure. (pp. 445-46)
The tidal wave and earthquake made evident the danger of future habitation of the island…. Immediately she sets about building a new canoe and eagerly prepares to depart when she sees a ship arriving. Although it departs before she can get ready, she spends the next two years in a state of preparedness, often thinking of the voice of her would-be rescuer calling her. When at last the ship returns, she places on her face the marking of the unmarried girl, as she had done eighteen years earlier, and, in so doing, prepares for reunion with society…. Boarding the ship, she has rejoined humanity, completing the process which had been interrupted eighteen years before.
We see, then, how O'Dell invests the lonely, often monotonous life of a young girl with significance. He presents details with graphic realism, arranges a series of symbolic events, and, from within the mind of his principal character, tells of the courage and love she uses to survive an inner loneliness which is greater than the outer dreariness of her life and of the maturing process in which hatred and fear have been replaced by love and sociality. (p. 446)
Jon C. Stott, "Narrative Technique and Meaning in 'Island of the Blue Dolphins'," in Elementary English, Vol. 52, No. 4, April, 1975, pp. 442-46.