Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and the Modern World

Subjects: Classical Studies, Greek, Literary Studies, Literary Criticism and Theory, 19th Century Literature, 16th and 17th Century Literature, Media Studies, Cinema Studies
Hardcover : 9780472119202, 256 pages, 15 Figs., 6 x 9, April 2014
Open Access : 9780472902101, 256 pages, 15 Figs., 6 x 9, March 2020

This open access version made available with the support of libraries participating in Knowledge Unlatched.
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Four thousand years of shipwrecks in literature and film

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 Shipwrecked: Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and the Modern World presents the first comparative study of notable literary shipwrecks from the past four thousand years, focusing on Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. James V. Morrison considers the historical context as well as the “triggers” (such as the 1609 Bermuda shipwreck) that inspired some of these works, and modern responses such as novels (Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Coetzee’s Foe, and Gordon’s First on Mars, a science fiction version of the Crusoe story), movies, television (Forbidden PlanetCast Away, and Lost), and the poetry and plays of Caribbean poets Derek Walcott and Aimé Césaire.

The recurrent treatment of shipwrecks in the creative arts demonstrates an enduring fascination with this archetypal scene: a shipwreck survivor confronting the elements. It is remarkable, for example, that the characters in the 2004 television show Lost share so many features with those from Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

For survivors who are stranded on an island for some period of time, shipwrecks often present the possibility of a change in political and social status—as well as romance and even paradise. In each of the major shipwreck narratives examined, the poet or novelist links the castaways’ arrival on a new shore with the possibility of a new sort of life. Readers will come to appreciate the shift in attitude toward the opportunities offered by shipwreck: older texts such as the Odyssey reveals a trajectory of returning to the previous order. In spite of enticing new temptations, Odysseus—and some of the survivors in The Tempest—revert to their previous lives, rejecting what many might consider paradise. Odysseus is reestablished as king; Prospero travels back to Milan. In such situations, we may more properly speak of potential transformations. In contrast, many recent shipwreck narratives instead embrace the possibility of a new sort of existence. That even now the shipwreck theme continues to be treated, in multiple media, testifies to its long-lasting appeal to a very wide audience.


James V. Morrison has taught at Georgetown University and Davidson College and is currently Stodghill Professor of Classical Studies and Humanities at Centre College.

"Shipwrecked lives up to its promise and delivers a thorough treatment of this fascinating theme in literature and other forms of narrative art. ... Morrison’s book (impeccably produced, with several illustrations) guides the reader through four thousand years of literary and cultural history with erudition and ease. Critics and scholars specializing in one of the many authors and artists discussed may find individual chapters informative, but the non-specialist reader also will enjoy this account of how humans have experienced, imagined, and represented the catastrophe of shipwreck."
---Bryn Mawr Classical Review

- Miklós Péti, Károli Gáspár University

"Centering his work on the Odyssey, Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe--but also delving into epic poetry, drama, novels, sci fi, movies, and even television--the author demonstrates that humankind has had a continuing fascination with the idea of shipwrecked and stranded individuals confronting nature and the elements ... Recommended."--Choice

- M.J. Smith