Jill Franks

Islands and the modernists : the allure of isolation in art, literature and science


(North Carolina), 2006
bibliothèque insulaire

parutions 2006

Islands and the modernists : the allure of isolation in art, literature and science / Jill Franks. - Jefferson (N.C.) : McFarland, 2006. - VII-206 p. : ill., map ; 23 cm.
ISBN 978-0-7864-2457-3
ABOUT THE BOOK : This study examines five modernists in different disciplines — biology, painting, drama, fiction, and anthropology — whose work on islands made them famous. Charles Darwin challenged every presumption of popular science with his theory of evolution by natural selection, derived from his study of the Galapagos Islands. Paul Gauguin found on Tahiti inspiration enough to break through the inhibiting traditions of the Parisian art world. John Millington Synge’s experience on the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland gave birth to a new style of drama that defied classic divisions between tragedy and comedy. D. H. Lawrence’s life-long search for a utopian community culminated in his famous short story, The Man Who Loved Islands, that poignantly portrays the tension between idealism and realism, solitude and human intimacy. Finally, Margaret Mead began her career in anthropology by studying the remote South Sea Islands and through her work acquired the sobriquet « Mother of the World ».

The text explores the extent to which islands inspired these radical thinkers to perform innovative work. Each used islands differently, but similar phenomena affected their choice of place and the outcome of their projects. Their examples illuminate the relationship of modernism to alienation and insularity.

Given their bounded-ness and their distance from a mainland, islands suggest themselves as both controllable and paradisiacal. For Charles Darwin and Margaret Mead, the sense of control refers to the careful limiting of their scientific or social laboratory so that hypotheses may be specific enough to be tested thoroughly. For Paul Gauguin and D. H. Lawrence, the fanciful idea of paradise compels, no matter how sophisticated their artists' minds. For John Millington Synge, islands provide a hybrid space between art and science : Aran gives him a language lab where Gaelic is spoken and a rich cultural fabric waiting to be woven into drama for the rest of Ireland to witness. For all five of them, their islands of choice are both literal and imaginative spaces that function as crucibles for their creativity.


One of the more exciting aspects of my research has been making interesting connections across the fields and among the five historical figures involved. For each of these five innovators, the balance between isolation and togetherness, between tradition and innovation, between reality and the imagination was difficult to achieve. Interdisciplinary work share some of the same pitfalls and tensions.


Most single-author books about islands that I have encountered during the five years of my research have been more specific in focus than mine. They have not been interdisciplinary, but written by geographers, biologists, historians, political scientists, and economists. Islands and the Modernists blends the four disciplines of evolutionary biology, social anthropology, painting, and literature.


Islands are the place par excellence of dreams, so universal a symbol that Melville wrote, « in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, » 1 and Dea Birkett echoed him, a century and a half later, with the words, « We all hold a place within our hearts — a perfect place — which is in the shape of an island » 2.

Preface, pp. 1-4
1. « For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee ! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return ! » — Moby Dick, Ch. 58
2. Dea Birkett, « Serpent in Paradise », New York : Anchor books, 1997
I Introduction : The Lure of Isolation
II « Isolated Countries » : Darwin and the Galapagos
III « To Dream Before Nature » : Gauguin in Tahiti
IV « Those Three Lonely Rocks » : John Millington Synge and the Aran Islands
V « The Man Who Loved Islands » : D. H. Lawrence and His Island Scheme
VI « The Cure for a Family Is a Family » : Margaret Mead and Samoa
VII Island Dreams : Pitcairn as Paradigm
Notes and Works Cited, Index
  • John M. Synge, « Les îles Aran » trad. et avant propos de Pierre Leyris, ill. de Jack B. Yeats, Castelnau-le-Lez : Climats, 1990, 2000
  • John M. Synge, « Théâtre complet » trad. de l'anglo-irlandais par Françoise Morvan, Besançon : Les Solitaires intempestifs (Traductions du XXIème siècle), 2005

mise-à-jour : 27 octobre 2017
Jill Franks : Islands and the modernists