The Island

The Island Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the purpose of the mime scene at the beginning of the play?

    In the mimed scene, Winston and John are digging sand. As they pantomime the action, the pile of sand never gets any smaller and it becomes clear that theirs is an impossible task. The activity is designed to exhaust the men physically, but it exhausts them emotionally and mentally also, wearing down their desire to resist, and also forcing them to conform to the will of the regime. This pantomime helps to contextualize the horrible conditions under which the men live and the abuse they suffer in the island prison.

  2. 2

    What crimes did John and Winston commit that led to their incarceration?

    John was a member of a political group that was against apartheid, and therefore against the government of South Africa. Membership in groups like this was considered a crime. He received a ten-year sentence for his membership, with no other criminal charges, which is why his sentence was commuted.

    Winston's crime is that he set fire to his passbook in front of the police. The passbook was a tool that the government used in order to segregate its citizens by race. Winston setting fire to it demonstrated his opposition to the regime, and because it was a transgressive symbolic gesture, it lands him a life sentence.

  3. 3

    What are the similarities between Antigone and The Island?

    In the play, the two prisoners are preparing to put on a production of Antigone for their fellow prisoners. Sophocles's play has some thematic overlaps with John and Winston's own plight, in that it involves a citizen standing up for what they believe against an oppressive and corrupt state. In Antigone, the title character buries her brother's body, against her uncle and the government's wishes. She does not believe she is guilty of a crime, even when she is sentenced to be buried alive. Thus, the play stages a scenario in which a character is willing to die for their ideals and hold fast to the conviction that they are right, even when the government and everyone around them tells them they are wrong. Winston, who burned his identification papers, is also being metaphorically "buried alive" in his inhumane imprisonment, but he refuses to believe that what he did was wrong. Winston and Antigone are similar in the fact that they both stand up against a corrupt regime, and have no remorse about it.

  4. 4

    What does Winston say about memory when talking to John about his release?

    The most devastating realization that Winston arrives at, in talking to John about the fact that he's being released, is that he will inevitably forget his friend. Memory and disconnection from the outside world is the harshest punishment of their incarceration. Forced to age within the walls of the prison, on a secluded island, Winston knows that he will become more and more disconnected from his past, forget all about John and his former life, and become a shell of who he once was. In many ways, John is not only his companion, but someone who can help him piece together his own story and remember where he comes from. He worries that, once John is gone, he will lose all sense of this.

  5. 5

    What brings John and Winston together, even after they are torn apart by John's imminent release?

    Just at the moment when it seems like their bond will completely break, the play moves forward in time, and we see the two prisoners performing Antigone for their fellow prisoners. In this, we see that coming together to create the performance acts as a kind of balm for their companionship, and helps them metabolize the difficulties of their experience of South African apartheid. By assuming the roles of Creon and Antigone, they are able to act out the dynamics of South African political oppression, and create a cathartic experience together.