The theme of racial segregation is the central theme in The Island, and it applies specifically to the apartheid system in South Africa. The system brutally segregated its citizens by color and gave them varying rights according to their ethnicity. This segregation is the reason that Winston and John are imprisoned. By burning his passbook, Winston defied and rejected apartheid, and this defiance has landed him in prison for life. Apartheid hangs over the lives of the two prisoners, an oppressive regime that has changed their lives forever and made their country into an inhospitable home.
Apartheid also informs the Black prisoners' treatment in prison. Black prisoners are regularly abused and mistreated by their captors. Thus we see that the prison is an extension of South African apartheid, a representation of the oppressive state. Apartheid enables the regime to imprison its opponents and dehumanize them once they are imprisoned, all in the name of segregation.
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 opposes the government and its policies. Being against the government is a crime for which a person can be arrested and imprisoned.
Winston has had great faith in political disobedience as a tool of change, but becomes disillusioned when he realizes that because he was trying to effect change, he has changed only his own life, not the world at large. In the play, it is clear that the oppression of the State and its desire to quiet any rebellion is very strong and difficult to overcome.
Conscience and Guilt
There are two examples of the theme of conscience in the play. John and Winston both know that the system of apartheid is wrong, and both feel that they can no longer stand by without trying to change it. They are punished for this, but still, both believe that to ignore their conscience and stand aside while the system continues to prevail would be far more difficult to bear.
Similarly, in the play-within-a-play (Antigone), the titular character is ordered not to bury her brother, but she does anyway because she knows that it is the right thing to do. She is sentenced to death for this crime, but she is unable to go against what her conscience tells her to do. She accepts her fate, because the alternative is worse—just as Winston and John have to accept their fate because they know it is on behalf of a noble cause.
Shared Experience and Brotherhood
John and Winston were not acquainted before their imprisonment, but at the end of the play, they have a brotherhood that is almost unbreakable. When first incarcerated they get to know each other by reminiscing about years gone by, their childhood, and their dreams for the future. They see each other at their weakest moments; each dresses the other's wounds, and the fact that each is the only source of kindness in the other's life is uniquely bonding. Even after the difficult fallout of John's reduced sentence, when Winston becomes completely hopeless about his own plight, they are able to stay connected and loyal to one another.
The title of the play alludes to this theme. The oppression the South African government inflicts on its people has primarily to do with separation. Firstly, apartheid segregates South Africans by race, a way of inflicting racial divisions on its people and isolating certain populations. Then, the two characters, John and Winston, are further isolated in a prison on a remote island, without any contact with their previous lives. It is this isolation that bonds them, as each is the only friend the other has, but it is also this isolation that makes their lives so miserable. The play stages the ways that incarceration is its own damnation: a dehumanizing and demoralizing state of being that strips people of their dignity.
After John has found out that his appeal has been processed and he will be released from prison early, Winston has a difficult time processing his feelings about his friend's release. The devastating thought that he arrives at is the fact that he will inevitably forget all about John and his life before prison. As he has been sentenced to life in prison, he sees his fate stretching out in front of him like a horrifying inevitability. He knows that the worst part of his punishment is that he will not only lose touch with the material reality of his past, but also with any memories of it. Instead he will become beaten down by prison life, losing all contact with his own history.
The play is as much about the play-within-a-play that John and Winston have committed to performing as it is about the events of the two characters' lives. John is very serious about performing Antigone, but Winston is less motivated to do so, primarily because he does not want to have to play a female part. The play Antigone has thematic similarities to The Island, in that they are both plays about people standing up against an unjust state. The two men, who are divided by their very different sentences, are only able to come together through the performance of Antigone, which aligns them once again and helps to remind them of the nobility of their disobedience to South African apartheid.
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...