The Island of the Blue Dolphins: Essay Q&A
1. Give a synopsis of this novel.
This is narrated in the first person, by Karana, and recounts the story of the survival of this young woman who is left to fend for herself on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. It is based on a true story of a person who is known now as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas and she lived alone on the said island from 1835 to 1853. O’Dell reveals this detail in an author’s note and not in the main narrative.
The novel begins with Karana and her younger brother, Ramo, spotting a ship. The passengers of this ship go on to hunt the sea otter in the vicinity and fight and kill many of the men of the island. The devastation caused by these hunters is sufficient to drive the rest of the islanders away. Karana is on the ship sent by the chief of the villagers when she notices Ramo has been left behind. Her request for the ship to turn back is refused and so she swims back to shore to stay with him. After wild dogs kill Ramo, she lives alone on the island for many years until she is taken to the mainland. The narrative focuses for the most part on how she survives during this time and also on how she comes to befriend the animals around her.
2. Analyze the depiction of concepts such as trust and kindness.
When Karana’s father gives his secret name to Captain Orlov, he is seen to be open and trusting of this newcomer. This is a clear representation of how the inhabitants of the island and, more widely, native American Indians have been exploited and then massacred by those who have abused the trust given to them.
Karana is seen to maintain a sense of trust, not for the Aleut men of course, but a reserved sense of belief in Tutok and more fully in her tamed wild dog, Rontu. Although she is able to survive alone, it is only when she befriends the animals around her, and Tutok as a visitor, that she is seen to engage with the world. Trust and kindness are depicted as essential qualities and this is brought to bear when she decides to never kill another animal for adornment or pleasure again.
3. Consider the portrayal of hunting in this novel.
Hunting is portrayed as cruel and destructive and with the Aleut men it is seen to be a form of excessive greed. It is of note that these same men who make money from the pelts of the massacred sea otters go on to massacre the majority of men on the island. Hunting, in this light, is only one move away from committing murder of humans. In addition, Karana turns her back on the destruction of animals and so we are once more invited to question their mistreatment.
Prior to her decision, though, the narrative is full of stories of animals she and others have killed. She kills a number of wild dogs before she repents and this allows the novel to have both an element of adventure and danger, as well as showing how skilful she is in self-sufficiency. By killing so many animals, she is seen to be equal to the men who used to be the only ones who were allowed to hunt.
4. Discuss the structure of the society that Karana is raised in.
The society is described as patriarchal and the labor is divided along gender lines. Boys and men are seen to take priority over females and this is made evident when Ramo and Karana are alone and although he is the younger of the two, he expects to be named the chief of the island now he is the only male present. This idea of his is depicted as child’s play, and a game that Karana indulges in rather than believes, but yet it is in keeping with the gender divisions that have already been highlighted.
The society is usually led by a chief, which had been Karana’s father until the arrival of Captain Orlov, and he is seen to make the final decisions for the group. Once Karana is alone, she must necessarily make all of her own decisions and demonstrates her ability and independence all the more.
5. To what extent does this novel question patriarchal values?
By focusing on a female sole protagonist, O’Dell is able to question the gender distinctions such as the division of labor once she is alone. She survives alone for a number of years and her resourcefulness and acquired skills reiterate the fallacy of patriarchal views. In simple terms, she reveals through her strength how flawed the argument is that claims women are inferior to men.
The mythic quality of the division between men and women is emphasized in her father’s story that warns against women making weapons. He has told her that if women make weapons, they will break when they are most needed. Because of necessity, she makes her own bows and arrows and spears and by using them effectively she breaks the taboo and challenges the patriarchal power that is male domination.