Tuesday, July 7, 2015


James V. Morrison, Shipwrecked. Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and the Modern World. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. x, 242. ISBN 9780472119202. $75.00.

Reviewed by Miklós Péti, Károli Gáspár University (peti.miklos@kre.hu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Shipwrecked presents a wide-ranging treatment of the theme of shipwreck in literature and cinema; it can justly lay its claim to be "the first comparative study" (4) of its kind. Morrison, an established classicist,1 in this monograph ventures far beyond the disciplinary boundaries of classics, and certainly beyond the narrow limits of "the literary" to comment and reflect on narratives in which such naval catastrophes occur and are of central importance. The central theses of the book are demonstrated in the close consideration of three major European literary works, The Odyssey, Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but throughout the book Morrison traces characteristic patterns of shipwreck narratives in a great variety of genres and artistic forms ranging from ancient Egyptian tales to modern science-fiction films and even television series. The book is based on wide research in the classics, modern literatures, cultural studies, as well as literary theory (with well over 200 items in the bibliography), but the author keeps the discussion lucid throughout. As a result Shipwrecked will be of interest not only to specialists, but also a wider audience interested in fundamental patterns and problems underlying shipwreck narratives.

These fundamental patterns and problems are enumerated in Chapter 1 ("Shipwreck Narratives") serving as theoretical introduction to the subsequent discussion. Morrison identifies several common features in shipwreck narratives (e.g. the motif of the storm, the bewilderment the survivors are cast into, or the epiphany they are bound to experience), but also calls attention to how all such stories focus on, and problematize, identity. The opportunity (or, in some cases, specter) of refashioning or changing one's identity, or even building a new society is certainly one of the key elements ensuring the "enduring fascination" (3) with shipwreck scenarios, and one may add that due to their long embeddedness in human experience these stories perhaps require less "suspension of disbelief" than similarly designed utopian or dystopian narratives. The main body of the book follows up on these identified motifs and themes not only in the three classic works by Homer, Shakespeare, and Defoe (epic, drama, and novel, respectively), but also in their resonances and reinterpretations in literary and cultural history. Throughout the book Morrison adopts the same strategy: a chapter focusing exclusively on one of the emblematic narratives is followed by detailed reflection (in another chapter) on their reception and adaptation. The result is, therefore, not a chronologically progressive discussion of the "development" of shipwreck stories (although some sort of historical scheme is implied in the arrangement of the material), but a varied collage of both ancient and modern texts and other media, which demonstrates both the historic provenance and the contemporary significance of such narratives.

Chapter 2 ("Shipwreck and Identity in Homer's Odyssey" presents a close analysis of two scenes from the epic: Odysseus's being cast on the Phaeacian shore (Book 5), and the hero's story of his arrival at Calypso's island (Book 12). Drawing on a wide range of Homeric scholarship (most prominently recent narratological analyses of the Odyssey) Morrison here argues that Homer "connects arrival by shipwreck with the potential assumption of new roles" (10), but he also provides important subchapters on Homer's "fantastic geography" as well as the possible role of Odysseus as a "proto-colonialist" figure. Chapter 3 builds on these findings and demonstrates how Homer's powerful narrative strategies may be found in earlier shipwreck accounts (the Egyptian "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor"), as well as Hellenistic literature, or even, most recently, Derek Walcott's stage version of the Odyssey. 2 Morrison's closing reflections on how Walcott challenges Western perspectives also nicely pave the way for the discussion of Shakespeare's Tempest.

Chapters 4 ("The Struggle for Power in Shakespeare's The Tempest") and 5 ("Salvation, Power, and Freedom: Saint Paul, Caliban, and Voyages in Outer Space") present an in-depth reading of Shakespeare's play alongside critical reflections on its literary and cinematographic adaptations (or, in the case of the Acts of the Apostles, its possible antecedent). The chapter on Shakespeare is in many ways the centerpiece of the volume: Morrison convincingly demonstrates the remarkable versatility of Shakespeare's treatment of the shipwreck theme, and in the process also provides a useful overview of influential recent critical positions on The Tempest. What is more, in two important subchapters the author situates the play within early modern discourses about the New World, and considers in detail the motif of shipwreck in Shakespeare's other works. Chapter 5 complements these observations by tracing the origins or the transformations of some key Shakespearean themes (such as, among other things, the rescue of all the passengers in Acts (91), the delusion of the shipwrecked characters in Césaire's A Tempest (92), or the strange fusion of Caliban's and Ariel's characteristics in the invisible "id monster" of the 1956 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet (99-100).

Chapters 6 ("Culture and Spiritual Rebirth in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe") and 7 ("The Struggle for Survival in Philoctetes, Cast Away, and First on Mars) deal with the third fundamental, and perhaps most well-known shipwreck-story, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and its reverberations through the ages. The novel, Morrison argues, by providing an emblematic example of the personal transformation characteristic of other shipwreck narratives, especially since Crusoe's metamorphosis, and by culminating in a "spiritual rebirth," goes beyond the stories of Odysseus or Prospero (117). Again, useful subchapters discuss related aspects of the novel (such as Crusoe's journal or his relationship with Friday), and consider possible historical sources of the novel by comparing and contrasting it with the account of Alexander Selkirk's shipwreck. In the conclusion of the chapter Morrison extrapolates from Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero to describe Crusoe's character, providing a neat transition to the following chapter on the "precursors and successors to the story of Robinson Crusoe" (138), which starts with a discussion of Sophocles's Philoctetes. In the latter chapter Morrison enumerates "counternarratives" to the success story of Crusoe; besides the ancient Greek tragedy he also discusses the 2000 film Cast Away as well as a 1957 sci-fi film, First on Mars. The "less romantic pictures of hard-won survival" (156) in these works provide powerful contrast to Crusoe's recreation of European civilization on his island.

Chapters 8 ("Competing Narratives in Walcott's Pantomime and Coetzee's Foe") and 9 ("Conflict, the Common Good, and Redemption in The Mysterious Island, Lord of the Flies, Lost, and Gilligan's Island") showcase alternatives to the three classic works at the heart of the discussion. In Chapter 8 Morrison first reflects how Walcott's radical rewriting of Robinson Crusoe's story, and the Crusoe-Friday relationship in particular, serve the traditional purpose of exploring identity, while in the second part of the chapter he considers Coetzee's innovations in the representation of shipwreck scenarios. These include the introduction of a female castaway figure, and the attempt by the characters to gain control over the story of the shipwreck itself. Chapter 9, by contrast, investigates the problems recurring in stories of group shipwreck. The key question in these narratives becomes the survivors' ability to cooperate and establish order, and the selected examples – ranging from Verne's Utopian world to the violence in Lord of the Flies, or the comic world of Gilligan's Island where no transformations take place – show the variety of solutions artists might propose to this problem.

The book's final chapter ("Shipwreck and the Selling of Paradise") starts from addressing the question of how traditional shipwreck narratives differ from real-life scenarios. The differences between historical and fictive accounts become especially intriguing in the use of the shipwreck theme for contemporary marketing purposes, in the representation of tropical islands as little paradises. Besides reflecting on how this vision is challenged in the work of Walcott, Morrison also uses this chapter to recapitulate his earlier arguments about the basic patterns of shipwreck narratives, and provide some possible answers to the enduring appeal of such stories. Repeating his earlier point about the shipwreck providing a possibility for the transformation of identity, Morrison concludes that the shipwreck theme is also alluring because it constitutes a "controlled experiment" in human behavior (220), and because of the unquestionable aesthetic attraction of the situation represented (220-221).

All in all, Shipwrecked lives up to its promise and delivers a thorough treatment of this fascinating theme in literature and other forms of narrative art. Morrison is of course quite aware that the plethora of such narratives makes it impossible to provide a full account of the subject, yet his focus on the three classic works and their adaptations and variations make up a coherent and comprehensive picture. Morrison's book (impeccably produced, with several illustrations) guides the reader through four thousand years of literary and cultural history with erudition and ease. Critics and scholars specializing in one of the many authors and artists discussed may find individual chapters informative, but the non-specialist reader also will enjoy this account of how humans have experienced, imagined, and represented the catastrophe of shipwreck.


1.   His works include Homeric Misdirection. False Predictions in the Iliad (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), and Reading Thucydides (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006).
2.   The Odyssey: A Stage Version. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.

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