I tell my students that anyone who can read can read the letters that form the words and the words that form the sentences and sentences that form the paragraphs and the paragraphs that form the chapters and the chapters that form the novel, but only a true reader can read in the white space between the lines and the hidden spaces beneath them. It is in those wordless spaces that the treasure that is the meaning and purpose of a novel is often found.
I penned Island No. 6 with two goals in mind. My primary goal was to tell a fast-paced, fun but also a bit scary-to-read story. My second intention was to allegorically explore the application of several divergent social theories regarding mankind’s true essence, which is only exposed and observable when s/he is unpreparedly cast into a state of nature free from any existing social or political contract. This second purpose was most likely the result of the desire to put to use my Jesuit education heavy in both philosophy and theology studies.
Many readers of Island No. 6 have directly expressed to me and through Amazon reviews (Please do leave one!) their enjoyment of the plot, which leads me to believe that, at least to some degree, I achieved my first goal. As to the second, although only two readers have shared their recognition of my thought experiment regarding the contrasting social theories as to man’s default nature, I’m sure more-than-a-few have sensed there was something more happening with the story than the literal plot revealed.
The most important symbols that provide the clues to this deeper layer of meaning appear in the names of several characters, beginning with Police Chief J. P. Sarter, whose name is a scrambling of Sartre, as in Jean-Paul Sartre, the min-20th century French existentialist. Existentialist philosophy generally posits that there is no larger purpose or meaning to any man’s existence beyond that which s/he creates for her or himself. Therefore, many existentialists, like Chief Sarter, doubt or flat out deny the existence of a god who has control over people’s lives or any sort of plan for them. Life is about the choices we make as individuals, and these choices in response to the world, which is otherwise characterized by randomness, chaos, and coincidence, reveals and defines our essence.
Tom Hobbs, the general store owner, is based upon the early 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the man who introduced the idea of social contracts and who argued that at his core man is a selfish creature and that when in the state of nature a person’s primary duty is to oneself, a notion that Charles Darwin would later describe as “survival of the fittest.”
The island ferry owner/operator is named Russo after Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose philosophy was directly antithetical to Hobbes’, which explains the differing strategies for confronting the viral pandemic on the island proposed by the characters of Hobbs and Russo. The original Rousseau was a champion of individual freedom who held a rather romantic view of man in his natural state as living in Edenic harmony and cooperation with his fellow man and nature.
The ever-practical good soldier in the novel is Dr. Jennifer Bentham, a virologist with the Center for Disease Control. My Bentham is based on the late 18th to early 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is considered the founder of modern utilitarianism. His basic ethos was that the morally-correct act is always the one which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Charles King II, the longtime bachelor-mayor on the island, is based upon the late 17th century English King Charles II, who was a bit of a playboy and known as the “merry monarch” by many for his love of the arts and his rather hedonistic lifestyle. Although married, he had no legitimate children but twelve “illegitimate” children to whom he claimed parentage.
Finally, John Patmos is named for John of Patmos, the reputed John of the Christian Gospels and the Book of Revelations. His philosophy, obviously, is based on Christian evangelism and trusting in God’s plan for mankind, a plan over which men have little-to-no actual influence and to which they must simply submit themselves.
When a highly-virulent strain of the bird flu virus breaks out on the island, its population is cut-off from mainstream society by a government-imposed blockade, which casts the island’s denizens into a virtual state of nature. The main question I pose in the novel is which of the philosophies identified above will prove the most accurate representation of mankind’s hardwiring. Is man basically self-serving and independent or is he selfless and communal? Is the purpose of existence the selfish pursuit of one’s own pleasure or is it service to and sacrifice for others? Is life ultimately without a higher purpose and meaning or are those things to be found in the faith-inspired adherence to a belief in a deity and its mysterious plan for all of us?
In order to see these philosophic battles play out, you are going to have to read the novel. If you’ve already read it, I’d encourage you to read it again in light of your new knowledge of these characters’ symbolic significance.
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