Been stranded without a flight home? Consider the fate of famous castaways in literature, from Robinson Crusoe onward
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge
In Coleridge’s epic 1798 poem, a guest is waylaid on his way to a wedding by an old sea dog who “holds him with his glittering eye”. This “grey-beard loon” tells him a long story about a voyage he once took that became cursed after he shot the albatross, the crew’s good luck totem. There is some wonderful imagery as the mariner describes the ship entering a pitiless, parched landscape (“The very deep did rot: O Christ!”) and his mates perishing one by one. Eventually, after a decidedly dark voyage of the soul, the mariner makes it back to land.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Golding’s first novel describes the ghastly fate that befalls a group of British schoolboys when they are stranded on a desert island (Golding was a prep-school teacher when he wrote it). At first, the boys set about creating an ordered society, with the good-natured Ralph as chief. But a dissident faction emerges and seizes power. Ralph, together with his myopic sidekick Piggy, wants the group to concentrate on getting rescued; the other lot just want to hunt. The boys’ descent into savagery symbolises mankind’s innate capacity for evil.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This 2002 Booker-winner is set mainly on a lifeboat that the novel’s 16-year-old narrator, Pi, shares for 227 days with a 450lb Royal Bengal tiger. This comes about because the ship on which Pi and his zookeeping family are travelling sinks, leaving him the sole human survivor. A zebra, hyena, orangutan and tiger clamber on board the lifeboat and proceed to devour one another, leaving just the tiger. Pi manages to keep the tiger at bay and he eventually makes it to Mexico, where two rescue officers don’t believe a word of the story he tells them.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
This fictional autobiography, published in 1719 and claimed by some to be the first novel in English, is the original island adventure story (unless you count The Odyssey). Probably inspired by the true-life tale of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who spent four years on a Pacific island, it chronicles Crusoe’s life from his childhood to his 28-year involuntary stint on the “Island of Despair”, off the coast of Venezuela. Crusoe’s adventures with his sidekick, Friday, whom he rescues from a group of cannibals, have inspired countless films.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
The twice Booker-shortlisted writer’s new novel (out next month) is set in 1799 on the tiny island of Dejima, a Dutch trading concession off Nagasaki. The book follows Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who becomes stranded when war between the English and the Dutch breaks out. It’s a detailed, richly imagined tale thoughtfully examining clashing cultures. Dejima was the notoriously repressive Sho dynasty’s one point of contact with the outside world and Mitchell shows how it became a portal for western ideas to be smuggled into Japan.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Eggers applies his novelist’s skills to telling the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Muslim who, post-hurricane Katrina, elects to stay behind in New Orleans to protect his properties and help those stranded by the catastrophe. When Zeitoun is arrested on suspicion of looting his own house, it brings into relief the book’s underlying purpose, which is to indict the Bush administration not just for its inadequate response to the disaster, but for its xenophobic, anti-Muslim and militaristic view of the world.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Inspired by the teachings of John-Jacques Rousseau, this 1812 novel is the wholesome saga of a family’s 10-year sojourn on a deserted island. When the Robinsons’ boat is shipwrecked, things look bleak, but the island is blessed with a cornucopia of natural resources and the brave family survives and builds a successful colony. Incredibly, the worst thing that happens is that their donkey gets eaten by a boa constrictor. When help eventually arrives, some of the Robinsons decide to stay put in their tropical paradise.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Does being a survivor of global apocalypse qualify as being stranded? Not if the word implies having a normal life to get back, but yes if it means being marooned in a wholly unfamiliar and terrifying situation. McCarthy’s acclaimed novel tells the story of a father and son who, following an unspecified global catastrophe, endlessly cross a ruined American landscape, assailed by gangs, “each other’s world entire”. McCarthy describes their plight in prose that soars, at its best, to remarkable poetic heights.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Originally called Ten Little Niggers, Christie’s 1939 novel is the bestselling detective story of all time. Eight guests are invited to stay on an island, where they are entertained not by their expected hosts but by another married couple. They discover that the boat normally delivering supplies to the island has stopped arriving; then, one by one, they start being murdered. All 10 die, leaving a tantalising mystery that Inspector Legge, with his customary ineptitude, fails to clear up.
Concrete Island by JG Ballard
Ballard’s 1974 updating of Robinson Crusoe sees rich young architect Robert Maitland, marooned not in some far-off place but on a traffic island under three converging motorways outside London after his Jaguar crashes over a parapet. Unable to climb up the embankment to safety, Maitland finds himself imprisoned and the novel becomes a record of his struggle to survive using only what he finds in his car. Ballard suggests that Maitland’s imprisonment is as much psychological as physical; it’s weird, gripping stuff.