Through his self-reliant protagonist, O'Dell praises the virtues of responsibility. One of the first things readers learn about Karana is that she takes responsibility very seriously, even though she is only twelve. She feels responsible for her tribe and her family, which she shows by gathering food and keeping Ramo out of trouble. She also seems to feel responsible for her natural environment, a sense of obligation that others in her tribe do not seem to share. We learn this when she questions whether it is right to exterminate the otter population in exchange for jewelry and spearheads. When Karana is marooned on the island alone, her sense of responsibility intensifies. She is the only one who can ensure the wellbeing of herself and her pets, and she rises to the occasion admirably. It is possible that Karana copes so well with her difficult circumstances because she was so responsible even before being abandoned.
Although Karana is alone for the bulk of the novel, all of her encounters with outsiders are characterized by clashes between cultures. Cultural differences are partially responsible for her tribe's violent fight with the Aleuts, who do not respect the natives or honor their original agreement. Karana also faces cultural and language barriers when she meets Tutok. In this case, the young women are able to overcome the barriers because they both have patience and good intentions. And while Karana's interactions with her white rescuers are not described in detail, their insistence that she wear uncomfortable European clothes hints that she will continue to deal with culture clashes as she tries to forge a new life on the mainland. Overall, O'Dell suggests that tolerance and understanding for other cultures could help us to be more compassionate.
Through the novel, Karana's conception of family expands, until she realizes that she is connected not just to her immediate family, but to all of nature. Early on, Karana has a very conventional idea of what it means to be part of a family. She has close bonds with her siblings, Ulape and Ramo, and with her father, Chief Chowig. To a lesser extent, she extends these affections to others in her tribe. After she is abandoned on Ghalas-at, she begins to think of her animal friends as her family. As the years go by, she even starts to consider them her children – a replacement for the human children she always wanted. However, she never truly gets over the loss of Ramo and Ulape. In other words, she does not exchange one conception for another, but rather expands the circle of those to whom she feels connected. Through Karana's journey, O'Dell suggests that family bonds are unbreakable – whether they are between blood relatives or between a girl and her pets.
Learning to live and think independently is an important part of Karana's journey. In her time on the island, she gradually learns the survival skills she needs to feed and shelter herself. However, learning to think independently is a bit more challenging. Early in the novel, she must put aside her tribe's law against women using weapons if she is to survive. After this, she gradually begins to reject some of her culture's beliefs. For example, she develops deep friendships with animals, and eventually stops hunting them (with the exception of fish). She knows that her people would not understand this decision, but she does it anyway because she believes it is right. Karana arguably survives only because she learns to prioritizes her own personal values over those of her society.
Karana's tribe has strict gender roles. Women are not supposed to hunt or carry weapons, and the men grow resentful when women transgress these expectations even in times of desperate hunger. But after Karana is abandoned, she must perform both men's work and women's work if she is to survive. Overcoming her tribe's prohibition on women building weapons is a major step for her, because she has been taught that terrible things happen to women who break this rule. Living alone for so long gives Karana a unique perspective on the role of women in society. Although the novel ends before she reaches the mainland, O'Dell hints that these views might cause problems for her, by noting how much Karana dislikes the tight, uncomfortable dresses that the Europeans give her. Overall, O'Dell gently suggests that women are equally capable to men, and that only social prohibitions limit their power.
Living alone on an island for decades is a situation that would test even the strongest people, and in her first months on the island, Karana is only able to survive because she clings to the hope of being rescued. One could understand this initial hope as a type of delusion, a refusal to accept her situation. Eventually, she begins to despair that she will ever escape the island, whether by rescue or her own devices. The delusion leads to desperation. However, she overcomes this despair by watching the blue dolphins that live on the sea around the island. They remind her that she can find joy and beauty even if she must live alone on Ghalas-at. This belief inspires her to do her best to survive, and to persevere despite her deep loneliness. In other words, she exchanges a delusional hope, with a very specific expectation, for a general hope that she can survive. Only in this way does she persevere.
Karana's changing attitude toward animals is an important part of her character development. Early in the novel, she does not seem to care much for animals. Although she enjoys watching the otter and the dolphins, she sees other animals only as sources of meat and tools, and she outright hates the wild dogs who killed Ramo. After she begins to adopt pets, she realizes that animals can provide companionship. Ultimately, they become like family to her. As she slowly discovers that animals have thoughts and feelings just like people, she realizes that she can no longer hunt them, and she switches to only eating fish. This change represents a shift in her attitude toward nature. Now, Karana no longer sees herself as being above nature, but rather as a part of it.
Island of the Blue Dolphins Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Island of the Blue Dolphins is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.