The island is meant to represent Robben Island, South Africa's most infamous penal colony. Prisoners on Robben Island were frequently beaten; they were driven to exhaustion by hard labor in blazing heat, and by having to run, in their shackles, after finishing this punishing physical work. More than this parallel with Robben Island, the "island" of the title is a symbol of isolation, deprivation, and being cut off from the life that the prisoners once knew. To be trapped on an island, for John and Winston, is to be hanging in the balance between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Prison is its own isolation, and then the fact that it is on an island makes it all the more isolating and distant from the regular world.
The island not only represents the prisoners' isolation, but also their willingness to stand up for what they believe in during South African apartheid. Winston is trapped on the island for life, because he stood up to the state against apartheid. Because of this, the island becomes a symbol of both isolation and premature death, as well as a place that represents the fact that Winston spoke out against oppression.
Sophocles's Play (Allegory)
Within The Island, John and Winston are performing the play Antigone by Sophocles, which becomes an allegory for their own situations. John, playing Creon, sentences Antigone, played by Winston, to death, for crimes of conscience. This is an allegory for what has happened to the two men; both are non-violent offenders but have been given very long sentences for standing up for what they believe in. In particular, Winston, who burned his identification papers and has been imprisoned for life, becomes a stand-in for Antigone, who goes against Creon's wishes and loyalty to the state in order to bury her brother. Winston's fate—being trapped on the island for life—mirrors that of Antigone, who is buried alive, in that both of them die slow, excruciating deaths, but neither believes that they have done anything wrong.
The character of Hodoshe is a symbol of the oppressive South African regime, the evil system of apartheid, and white supremacy in the country. In the play, he never appears, but is represented by a loud prison whistle. Hodoshe is a Xhosa word for a fly that lays its eggs on dead bodies. Thus, Hodoshe represents someone who disrespects and profits off of the death of others.
Winston Burning His Passbook (Symbol)
The crime for which Winston has been imprisoned is a symbolic act. He sets fire to his identification book, which is seen as a symbol of his intention to threaten the status quo of the country and resist apartheid. Passbooks were designed to make the system of racial segregation easier to police in South Africa. Thus, by setting fire to his book, Winston is explicating his own hate for the system and his disrespect towards the regime that created it.
The power of memory is a motif in the play. When the men first meet as cellmates, they get to know each other by exchanging memories of their childhoods, and their lives before incarceration. They also stay acquainted with their pre-incarceration selves by reminding themselves what their lives used to be like, and of the people they used to be. The memories represent the fact that the men have identities that precede their time in prison and cannot be beaten down by the oppressive forces of incarceration.
As the play nears its close, Winston becomes consumed by missing his life outside, as he comes to terms with the fact that John is leaving. His memories start to weigh on him, as he realizes that his memories of his life will inevitably slip away. This is the nightmare and indignity of imprisonment.
The Island Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Island is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
John and Winston do not have freedom of speech. If they did, they would not be in prison. The regime is oppressive and kills or incarcerates anyone who is in opposition of their government and its policies. Being against the government is not only...