Robinson Crusoe and Other Gripping Shipwreck Tales

Robinson Crusoe and Other Gripping Shipwreck Tales

Happy Robinson Crusoe Day! February 1 marks the anniversary of the 1709 rescue of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who’d been marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific and lived for four years as a castaway. The incident directly influenced Daniel Defoe‘s novel, which tells a very similar story about a stranded sailor’s struggle to survive on an island, except with the addition of cannibals.

Robinson Crusoe wasn’t the first, or last, great shipwreck tale in our literature. Something about the shipwreck set-up—a storm at sea, waking on a beach, warring with bonobo monkeys over scarce food and water—appeals to our taste for stories of adventure, solitude, and survival. Here, we’ve rounded up Crusoe and other shipwreck classics that’ll captivate, transport, and inspire.

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    1. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

    Defoe’s 1719 novel has become a classic, if cartoonish, symbol for the archetypal shipwreck adventure story. And while it certainly deserves that status, the book packs narrative riches that are less frequently discussed. For one, it’s an incredibly detailed account of survival on an island—as technically precise and immersive as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. If you are indeed ever stranded on an island with one book (as the hypothetical question often goes), make that book Crusoe. The novel is also notable for what it has to say about belief, religion, and solitude. The isolating effects of the island initially throw Crusoe into despair, but eventually he comes to design a kind of personal religious practice that motivates him to work, have faith, and survive.

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    2. The Odyssey

    Homer‘s The Odyssey is probably the earliest example of shipwreck lit, and boy, do a lot of ships get wrecked. The epic poem describes the many trials that the solider Odysseus and his compatriots encounter as they journey home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War. Their troubles begin when their 12 ships are driven off course and they land on the island of the indolence-encouraging Lotus Eaters; later on, all but one of their ships are destroyed in the harbor of an island of cannibals. By the time Odysseus returns to Ithaca, his own ship has been destroyed, and he’s being transported by the good grace of Phoenician mariners. With so much shipwreck material to go around, it’s no surprise that The Odyssey‘s influence can be detected in many tales of disasters at sea by later authors.

  3. 3. Life of Pi (Movie Tie-In)

    Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel (which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film) opens with a storm at sea that leaves a 12-year-old boy stranded in a lifeboat with only a tiger for company. The situation doesn’t look hopeful at first—in the middle of the ocean food tends to be scarce, and tigers tend to get hungry. But, amid dire circumstance, the boy and the tiger develop an unlikely friendship, and their experience at sea—though dangerous and isolating—ends up also being fantastical, fun, and life affirming.

  4. Shakespeare’s comedy of love triangles and cross-dressing begins when Viola (who’ll later be masquerading as “Cesario”) shows up on the shore of Illyria after a shipwreck. It’s not the first time that W.S. uses the shipwreck as the plot device: His play The Tempest also begins with a nautical disaster that stirs up trouble among characters.

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    5. Gulliver’s Travels

    Gulliver’s Travels, an epic parody by the great 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, features as many if not more ship snafus as The Odyssey—all of them resulting in strange and comedic circumstances. The work opens when Gulliver, a lover of travel, is shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput, where everyone is six inches tall. Next, a sea storm throws Gulliver off course again, leaving him to be rescued by a 72-foot tall farmer in the land of Brobdingnag. To this day, the adjectives Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian are used to connote tininess and giganticness, respectively.

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    6. The Island of the Day Before

    This novel by the famed Italian postmodern writer Umberto Eco is in some ways a classic shipwreck story and in others a marked departure from the genre. The story takes place in the mid-1600s in the South Pacific, where a nobleman, in the throes of a storm, abandons his own ship and finds shelter on another—an abandoned vessel named the Daphne in the harbor of a tropical island. As Robert explores the ship, his journey becomes less one of survival in a strange place than a dreamlike journey through time. The questions the novel raises are big—what does the Great Flood have to do with the four moons of Jupiter?—and the fun pomo gimmicks will keep you guessing to the end.

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    7. The Lifeboat

    When Charlotte Rogan‘s debut novel The Lifeboat was published in 2012, it become an instant favorite among the book club set, owing to its themes of love, survival, and womanhood. The novel tells the story of Grace Winter, a 22 year-old newlywed and widow who, after a shipwreck, spends 21 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. The real drama, though, begins when she returns to New York—and has to stand trial for the actions she took to survive.

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