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Reconstruction in ‘The Survivor’ by Julian Barnes

Reconstruction, destruction : une relecture de ‘The Survivor’ de Julian Barnes
Helen E. Mundler


Ce récit constitue le quatrième chapitre de A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters de Julian Barnes (1989), un ouvrage qui réécrit et reconfigure le mythe biblique de Noé de diverses manières. The Survivor peut être lu dans le contexte d’un grand nombre de fictions contemporaines basées sur l’histoire de Noé qui ne se réfèrent que de manière oblique au récit biblique. La ‘survivante’ éponyme est une jeune femme qui redoute la guerre nucléaire et croit que l’Apocalypse est imminente. La forme double du récit permet de raconter deux histoires simultanément, l’une dans laquelle elle prend la mer pour échapper aux retombées d’une bombe nucléaire et une autre où elle est internée dans un hôpital psychiatrique et reçoit un traitement pour sa paranoïa. Cet article propose une relecture de The Survivor à la lumière du travail récent portant sur l’écocritique, la critique de la « littérature nucléaire » et les « critical animal studies ». Il analyse à la fois la forme du récit et le commentaire que le roman apporte du monde contemporain.

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Recent Reconstructions of the Noah Myth

  • 1 Iser defines the repertoire as ‘all the familiar territory within the text,’ adding: ‘This may be i (...)

1A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) belongs to a generation of rewritings of the Noah myth (Genesis 5: 32–9) which has been much worked over: established writers such as Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson (Boating for Beginners, 1985), Timothy Findley (Not Wanted on the Voyage, 1984), and Sarah Maitland and Micheline Wandor (Arky Types, 1987) come into this category. A second generation of such rewritings has recently emerged, and includes texts by beacons of their generation such as Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, 2003, The Year of the Flood, 2009 and Maddaddam, 2013), and Maggie Gee (The Flood, 2004), and also lesser-known writers, among them Samuel Taylor (The Island at the End of the World, 2009), Nathaniel Rich (The Odds Against Tomorrow, 2013) and Claire Morrall. (Even if this last author comes into the category of what Northrop Frye calls those who ‘proceed as if the Bible did not exist’ (Frye xxi), failing to reference the Noah myth at all, she nonetheless entitles her 2016 novel When the Floods Came, and the reader has the option of mobilising the biblical story as part of his or her Iserian ‘repertoire’1). While these newer texts certainly open interesting areas for critical investigation, it seems legitimate to return to Barnes’ work and to ask how previous critiques may be developed by the deployment of new strands in literary criticism which have arisen since the text was published. This paper seeks, then, to offer a re-reading of ‘The Survivor’, some thirty years on.

  • 2 For an analysis of the similarities between Noah and Jonah, see Mundler 79.

2The biblical myth of Noah’s Ark has been exploited in contemporary fiction in three main ways: a first category is made up of novels which, while they include the word ‘Noah’ in their title, make little, if any, overt reference to the biblical story. Into this category falls, for example, Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass (2009), which includes one, short passage in which Noah’s Ark is used as a metaphor in the protagonist’s development (Tyler 219). The ageing and divorced protagonist, Liam, talking with his young grandson, whose name happens to be Jonah2, says Noah’s ark did not need sails, and Noah didn’t need a sextant, because ‘he wasn’t going anywhere […]. There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat’ (219), an allegory, or perhaps an extended metaphor of how Liam feels about his own life. Another example is Barbara Trapido’s Noah’s Ark (2009), which makes no overt reference to the biblical Noah other than to name a character after him, although Helen Dunmore, in her introduction to the novel, sees a Noah-related metaphor underlying the text:

When the first Noah made his ark and failed to invite the neighbours in, he turned a practical ear to the voice of God. Only so many could come on board before the overloaded ark sank to the bottom of the sea, leaving no survivors at all. (Dunmore vii)

3Thus Trapido’s Noah selects who may and may not be saved, a reference perhaps to the description of Noah as ‘a just man’ (Genesis 6: 9).

4A second category involves the retelling of the biblical story closely, episode by episode, in something vaguely understood as biblical times: God speaks, the ark is built, the sons, their wives and the animals board, and so on. The particularity of such narratives is that they fill in the interstices of history, giving voice to those characters overlooked by the biblical account, notably Mrs Noah and her daughters. An example of such a novel is David Maine’s The Preservationist (2004), in which the unnamed daughters-in-law of the biblical account become Ilya, Bera and Mirn. A third and last category includes highly metafictional parodies, which mix up events, temporalities and characters, using the Noah story as a fluid frame of reference: Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby (1998) comes into this category, as do the aforementioned novels by Timothy Findley and Jeanette Winterson. Into this category also comes A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

5A History of the World is considered a masterpiece of what might be termed reconstruction. By questioning the authority of the Genesis, a giant among the grand narratives handed down to us, it acknowledges that the human experience of the past is not directly accessible, but can only be reconstructed. The processes of reconstruction are constantly foregrounded in all eleven parts of the book, through various metafictional devices, from iconoclasm to ‘correcting’ the narratives of the Bible, through creating doubt as to the authority of a contemporary narrative by setting it against a conflicting version of events, this last being the main technique used in the fourth part of A History of the World, on which I will focus here. However, while the book as a whole has always attracted much critical attention because of these techniques, as Vanessa Guignery points out (Guignery 63), it has been unevenly accorded to the chapters of, or stories within, Barnes’ work, and the fourth part, entitled ‘The Survivor’ has often been passed over.

  • 3 As Lionel Kelly points out, the disaster which is to befall the reindeer, as a species, in the four (...)
  • 4 In this I disagree with Claudia Kotte, who describes Kath as ‘an Australian woman’ (Kotte 111, 121) (...)

6First of all, it is useful to establish that while ‘The Survivor’ proposes a highly-allusive reconfiguration of the events of the biblical story of Noah, its principle characteristic is its particularity of form. Importantly, this text relies on a constant process of deconstruction on the part of the reader, since it recounts two contradictory narratives which the reader must strive to reconcile. Firstly (in that this is the story which begins first), a character named Kath Ferris, who is in her late thirties, is much affected, mentally if not physically, by the Chernobyl disaster, which took place a few years prior to the events of the narrative, in 1986. She worries, about the long-term effects this had on the animals, particularly the reindeer, which became radioactive and were killed and fed to mink.3 Kath lives in New Zealand,4 and escapes nuclear war by setting sail, in a stolen boat in which her boyfriend, Greg, has shares, in the direction of Guinea. With her she takes the couple’s cat, Paul, and another cat she picks up along the way, a female whom she names Linda. Kath sails on for some time, catching fish to feed herself and the cats, and eventually lands on an island where she sets up camp. Throughout this time, she reflects on the destruction which has been wrought upon the world. She is troubled by nightmares in which she is restrained in some sort of cage, and visited by a number of men who annoy her with their questions and observations. She also suffers certain symptoms of radiation sickness: for example, her hair falls out, and the skin peels off her hands.

7This first narrative competes with another, in which Kath is a patient in a psychiatric hospital. She has been discovered ‘About a hundred miles east of Darwin. Sailing round in circles’ (109)—a statement to which I will return—accompanied by two very thin cats. There has been no nuclear war, since something was ‘sorted out’ (108). She is kept in a barred bed, and visited by psychiatrists who try to make sense of a backstory which involves violence towards men, and something called ‘persistent victim syndrome’, in which she only imagines herself to be the victim of violence perpetrated by men. Her skin is peeling off from stress (109), and her hands are kept bandaged to prevent her from pulling out her own hair.

  • 5 While it has been pointed out that Kath’s boat can be read as her ‘ark’, many critics have pointed (...)

8Each of the two narratives which make up ‘The Survivor’ has its own ark, a point which has not been dwelt on by previous critics.5 The ark is represented by the sailing boat in the first narrative, with Kath and the cats functioning as a sort of synecdoche: she represents the entire Noah family as she tries to escape a global and cataclysmic disaster, while the two cats stand for the entire cast of animals. In the second narrative, Kath’s position within the ark changes, as becomes apparent in the following exchange between Kath and one of the psychiatrists:

‘How are you tonight, Kath?’
‘[…] We in the zoo are fine, thank you very much’.
‘What do you mean, the zoo?’
‘The bars, stupid.’ I didn’t really think it was a zoo […]
‘We can’t watch everybody, Kath. There are many others in the same boat as you’. (101, emphasis added)

9Metaphorically, Kath shifts from steering the boat, with the cats as token animals, to being in ‘the zoo’, among the animals in the hold, who need to be ‘watched’, since she is deemed to be highly unstable, if not insane.

  • 6 See 87–90, 93–94, 96–98, 100–102, 103–104, 105–110 and 111 for the passages of first-person narrati (...)

10The two variations on the Noah myth function as ‘mutually enfolding’ narratives (Connor 233), but are not exactly equal. In terms of the events of the story, it is perfectly clear that Kath, for all her bravado and repartee (she casually calls doctors ‘stupid’ [101], and tells them to ‘go away’ [103]), is more helpless than Noah—that is to say, that the first narrative of escape is largely fantastic, while the second, the rescue story, is intended to function as the ‘true’ version (although this by no means detracts from the importance of the first narrative, a point to which I will return). However, the two are very difficult to separate out, and the fact that the act of ventriloquy through which Kath’s voice seems to be channelled is split between the two narratives tends to destabilise the reader. Kath is a partial narrator of both stories, and so her point of view remains privileged in both,and the alternation of first and third person does not coincide with the alternation between the two chronotopes.6

11The sense of uncertainty about which fiction-within-the-fiction is ‘true’ is maintained right to the end: ultimately, the text does not allow the first version of events to become entirely subsumed into the second, since it ends with Kath back on the island in the Torres Srait (a stretch of water between Australia and New Guinea) with Paul and Linda, who are thriving. The ending stresses ‘happiness’ and ‘hope’ (111), when Linda gives birth to five kittens. Thus, the story remains indeterminate, right up to the last word.

  • 7 The term ‘fabulation’ also has other definitions, both literary and current.

12The process by which the ‘real’ narrative of Kath’s time in the psychiatric hospital is transformed into the ‘unreal’ version of her time in the sailing boat and on the island is accounted for in the text by a reference to a process called ‘fabulation’, which is defined, as it is used here,7 in the following exchange between Kath and one of the doctors (the doctors are unnamed and largely undifferentiated), when she is told the purportedly genuine story of her rescue:

‘And how do you explain that I remember very clearly everything that’s happened from the news of the war breaking out in the north to my time here on the island?’
‘Well, the technical term is fabulation. You make up a story to cover the facts you don’t know or can’t accept. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them’. (109)

13In keeping with the principle of the double narrative, Kath is instantly able to turn this around and use it against the doctor: ‘“Well, I admire your fabulation,” I said, using the technical term back to him. […] You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them—exactly what he’d done’. (110).

  • 8 Vanessa Guignery terms the woodworm “[un] narrateur icoloncolaste” (Guignery 2003, 152).
  • 9 Patricia Waugh defines metafiction thus: ‘[M]etafiction […] simultaneously [creates] a fiction and (...)

14Ultimately, neither narrative can be pinned down, and exactly what did and did not happen is left open, which sets up a meta-narrative of uncertainty. Vanessa Guignery comments on the destabilising mix of historical narratives and fiction in the novel, arguing that ‘the confusion between invention and reality fails to grant credibility and verisimilitude to the fictional world, in contrast to what happens in traditional historical novels’ (Guignery 2006, 67). Frederic M. Holmes’s position concurs with this: he states that the book ‘sets out explicitly to demolish any confidence that readers might have in the objective, seamless truth of recorded history’ (Holmes 81). This is achieved, Holmes says, through ‘textual fragmentation or deformation of a sort that is incompatible with a totalising representation of the past’ (Holmes 81), and through a refusal ‘to construct a stabilising hierarchy of meanings’ (Holmes 82, emphasis added). These techniques offer a series of self-reflexive allusions to the instability of the biblical narrative of the Noah myth, one of the many which A History of the World contains: the ‘stowaway’ woodworm, in the first few paragraphs of its narrative, observes, ‘I realise that accounts differ’ (History 4). The importance attached to fabulation continues the ‘iconoclasm’ of the rewriting of the Bible in the first part of the book,8 and makes an oblique commentary on the authority, or otherwise, of Genesis as reference. At the same time, it provides an elucidation of the illusion of veracity allowed by fiction, the problematisation of which is a constant preoccupation of metafiction.9

Reading The Survivor in the Light of Recent Critical Movements

  • 10 I use the term ‘nuclear criticism’ to refer to literary criticism of those texts defined by Daniel (...)
  • 11 Cary Wolfe places animal studies among the ‘philosophically ambitious and ethically challenging’ mo (...)

15In light of these remarks, ‘The Survivor’ can be read as a remarkably successful experiment in narrative form. However, this does not mean that other aspects of the text should be neglected, and it may be asked how the double narrative form affects the exposition of certain ideas that it raises. How can this text be reread, some three decades after publication, in the light of more of recent critical theory? I would like to propose a rereading through ecocriticism, nuclear criticism10 and animal studies, three of the many new movements which are currently seeking to bring about renewals in literary critcicim.11

16‘The Survivor’ seems to posit an interesting set of binaries regarding both gendered behaviour, and gendered stances towards ecology. The way Kath is presented as a woman is, at first reading, disconcerting: Greg, her boyfriend, is given to misogynistic remarks, answering her worries about politics and nuclear war by telling her politics is ‘men’s business’, and enquiring as to whether she has PMT (88). However, Kath also references domestic violence: for example, ‘when he slapped me around’ (88). This is all of a piece with Greg’s uneducated and insensitive persona: he threatens to castrate Paul, the cat, with a pair of scissors (88), and owns a baseball cap with a scatological slogan which makes him laugh out loud (92).

17Kath makes no comment to condemn domestic violence—it seems to be simply part of Greg’s character, and she mentions it only in passing, within the context of an argument the couple have on whether or not Paul should be neutered—as Kath sees it, a more noteworthy act of violence. However, the reference to domestic abuse is countered within the text, and the opposing narrative tells a different story regarding this aspect, too: one of the doctors at the hospital tells Kath, ‘You’ve been attacking men’ (98), and so the effect is reversed, and it would seem that Kath is perpetrator rather than victim. Thus, another position in the story finds its opposite, as part of the continual series of questioning reconstructions the text sets up. It is as if the story could be turned inside out, and read from both sides, in an effect which recalls a Moebius strip.

18However, this text raises a question about gendered positions which arguably cannot be neutralised or dismissed by looking at the other side of the figurative Moebius strip. From the beginning of the story, Kath’s resentment of men is evident, for example, in the statement ‘Father Christmas ran an all-male team. Typical. Absolutely bloody typical’ (83). While this appears to be a joke—Kath’s narrative is often wryly humorous—, as the story goes on it becomes apparent that nuclear conflict is caused by men, rather than women. The blame is laid squarely at the door of the male gender: the decision-makers are described as ‘men in dark-grey suits and striped ties up there in the north’, triply removed from Kath by virtue of their gender, their part in the establishment and their geographical position.

19Three interesting questions arise here. The first concerns whether Kath, as a woman, is particularly in sympathy with nature, and for this reason a ‘natural’ opponent of nuclear war. In other words, do her general ecological awareness and her anti-nuclear stance arise inevitably from her gender? Kath counters the PMT remark in a way which suggests that she believes this to be true:

Once I said maybe it was premenstrual tension […] maybe women are more in touch with the world […] women, are more closely connected to all the cycles of nature and birth and rebirth on the planet than men. (88–9)

  • 12 I disagree with Connor’s contention that Kath’s narrative ‘is founded not on making connections but (...)
  • 13 This argument is pursued in The Otherworlds of Liz Jensen, in which the question of both female and (...)

20The opposition of the two narratives within ‘The Survivor’ does not overtly debunk this position, as it debunks the idea of Kath as a survivor of domestic violence by repositioning her as perpetrator. Rather, Kath’s ability to see and feel ‘connections’ is highlighted (‘Everything’s connected […] Everything is connected, even the parts we don’t like, especially the parts we don’t like’ [84]),12 which can be interpreted as a further suggestion that as a woman she occupies some sort of privileged position in relationship to the earth.13 Her objection to what Simon Estok calls ‘ecophobia’ (Gifford 716) that is, anti-environmental practices, thus seems, in effect, to derive from her gender.

21The position which is attributed to Kath recalls that of some ecocritics who have, in the past, argued for a privileged relationship between women and the Earth, arguing, for example, that women ‘flow with nature’ (Salleh, quoted by Davion 22). However, questions of gender in ecocriticism have moved beyond the masculine/feminine dichotomies predicated on biological realities, and what Deborah Slicer terms, with some scepticism, ‘nature feminism’ (Slicer 33) has undergone a process of problematisation and deconstruction. It has been recognised that not all women feel ‘connected to nature’, that some men may also feel this, and the fact that ‘connected women’ are reduced to their biological, reproductive, function has been acknowledged. Thus ‘The Survivor’s’ tendency to attribute ecological sensitivity to its female protagonist, and to lay the blame for nuclear annihilation firmly at the door of ‘the men in grey suits’ (93) can be read as a dated position, which has been invalidated in the time since the story was published.

22Be that as it may, the problem of gendered positions in this text may be problematised using a second approach, that of ‘nuclear criticism’, which has grown in recent years, and which, in this case, allows for a different reading. Kath appears to be suffering from some sort of mental illness: ‘They say I don’t understand things. They say I’m not making the right connections’ (97). In this case, the definition of ‘they’ is nebulous, and can be taken to mean people in general, but when she finds herself in the psychiatric hospital, elements of a diagnosis are suggested: ‘Severe stress in the private life coupled with a political crisis in the world outside. We always get an increase in admissions when things are going badly in the north’ (110). The suggestion here, as elsewhere, is that Kath is mistaken in believing a nuclear war has taken place (see also 107). This is apparently not unique to her:

‘You’ll be telling me next there were dozens of crazy people going round in circles in the sea’.
‘A few. Four or five maybe.’ (110)

  • 14 For a discussion of the position of the female within the male-dominated medical establishment, see (...)

23The fact that Kath has been driven mad by the threat of nuclear war is nonetheless treated as a flaw in her mental health or character: she is portrayed as insane, in need of rescue, or even domination, by a rational, medical institution which will be able to cure her of her delusions (it is also a male-dominated medical establishment—the psychiatrists in the hospital are ‘men […] always men’ (96), implying that part of Kath’s problem is her femaleness14). However, the problem of the reaction of the population to the nuclear threat is one which has recently attracted critical attention. In his study of late Cold War Literature (in which A History of the World is included, although not specifically discussed [see Cordle 209]) Daniel Cordle offers an analysis of the affects of the threat of nuclear war on human beings, initially describing the physical effects:

The human subject is shown to be vulnerable in a number of ways in nuclear literature. Most obviously this vulnerability is manifested in the fragility of human flesh in the face of nuclear blast, its tendency to burst into flame, melt or vaporise when subjected to nuclear heat, and the porousness of skin to radiation or of the body to radioactive fallout. (Cordle 68)

24Cordle goes on to analyse the impact of nuclear violence on the psyche, and in particular on the sense of self of the threatened person:

Our tendency to conceive of our human subjectivities as, in part, constituted by discrete, physical spaces, sharply defined by the boundaries between them and the universe through which they move, is challenged by nuclear materials and their consequences in the world. (Cordle 68)

25For these reasons, according to Cordle, the existence of the nuclear bomb has led to ‘a profound existential crisis’ (Cordle 68). He reinforces this position by referring to Joseph Masco, who writes about a sense of the ‘“nuclear uncanny” brought about by “the consciousness of living within the temporal ellipsis separating a nuclear attack and the actual end of the world”’ (Masco 28). Cordle and Masco are not the first to write about such aspects of literature—Steven Connor has discussed ‘The Survivor’ as nuclear literature, and I will return to his analysis below. However, what is important here is that such analysis lends a legitimacy to Kath’s experience of nuclear fear, and allows the text to be read in a new way, as part of a movement which expresses the conflicts and unease of a particular period. This approach allows ‘Cold War literature’ to be recognised as a movement, with its own characteristics and raison d’être, much like First or Second World War literature. As Daniel Cordle puts it, referring to the 1980s, many people ‘imagined themselves to inhabit […] a temporal space bracketed between World War II and World War III’ (Cordle 9).

26This leads, albeit indirectly, to the third question defined above, that of the status of the non-human in ‘The Survivor’, which can be approached by means of the island which Kath believes she inhabits, when she escapes from the blast. The animals in the text have not generally been the primary focus of analyses of this work. What, then, is their significance? From the first pages of A History of the World, Barnes problematises the status of the animals, with the woodworm in ‘The Stowaway’, once more addressing the reader, commenting ‘I know your species tends to look down on our world’ (Barnes 10), and thus referencing what seems to be the irreducible human-animal dichotomy which dominates in western civilisation. This is a binary which has been much brought into question by recent work in critical animal studies: for example, Mario Otriz Robles demonstrates (following Derrida’s invention of the word ‘animot’ [Derrida 2006, 11]) that the divide between animal and human is ‘a figment of our imagination, a conceit that, by creating a rigid binary, in fact denies difference on a larger scale’ (Ortiz Robles 4).

27A binary is often suggestive of a hierarchy, and the animals in the ark tend to assume a secondary, even humble, role, whether in the biblical Noah narrative or in the retellings: shut away in the dark in the bowels of the ark, they are often merely extras in the human drama. The woodworm in ‘The Stowaway’ even hints at Noah’s cruelty towards them: ‘There was strict discipline on the Ark […] there were also punishments and isolation cells’ (4). In ‘The Survivor’, however, animals are constantly in Kath’s mind, and she is greatly in sympathy with their cause. From the beginning of the story, her preoccupation with the reindeer is a dominant theme, and, still dwelling on the treatment of the radioactive animals after Chernobyl, she comments as follows:

I think they should have buried them. Burying things gives you a proper sense of shame. Look what we’ve done to the reindeer […] Why are we always punishing animals? […] We’ve been punishing animals from the beginning, haven’t we? Killing them and torturing them and throwing our guilt onto them? (87)

28Using very violent language—‘punish’, ‘kill’, ‘torture’—Kath thus decries the human tendency to treat animals as lesser, in a way which seems designed to foreground the problem. Barnes’ text thus works against the principle of ‘anthropocentrism’, which Weitzenfeld describes as follows: ‘For several millennia, humans—at least those of Western cultures—have assumed a staunch anthropocentric orientation, the effect of positioning humans as the centre of meaning, value, knowledge and action’ (4). (In support of this, Weitzenfeld quotes Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ [5]). Certainly, this is the case in the biblical narrative, in which the main preoccupation seems to be that, post-deluge, Noah is given the authorisation to eat animal flesh, and animals will be in ‘fear and dread’ of humankind (Genesis 9: 2–3). Barnes is by no means alone in raising these questions, and some rewritings of the Noah myth elevate the animals in various ways—for example, Timothy Findley has the cat, Mottyl, talk, while in Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby, a Moroccan ape known as the Gentleman Monkey is even raised above the human, by means of his intrinsic virtue.

Kath’s Island: Reading the Animals

  • 15 See Chantal Foucrier for a discussion of the centuries-old tradition of imaginary islands and socie (...)

29It can be argued that the island, a much-used trope in utopian-dystopian fiction,15is of particular significance in the portrayal of animals in ‘The Survivor’. Kath envisages her island thus: ‘She didn’t think she was going to land on some undamaged island where you only had to throw a bean over your shoulder for a row of them to spring up and wave their pods at you’ (92). Although Kath ‘doesn’t think’ this, an Edenic, even magical, vision is nonetheless conjured up by means of denegation, with a passing reference to the fairy tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, minus the threats from the giant (see Jacobs 31–34). A similar process operates with the other things she does not expect, but which the reader is invited to imagine, and so are in a sense present in the story:

She didn’t expect a coral reef, a strip of sand from the holiday brochures and a nodding palm’ […] She didn’t imagine some good-looking fellow turning up after a couple of weeks in a dinghy with two dogs on board, then a girl with two chickens, a bloke with two pigs, and so on (92, emphasis added).

  • 16 The multiple arks here recall the flotilla mentioned by the woodworm in ‘The Stowaway’ (Barnes 4).

30In terms which posit and negate at the same time, the island, and the procession of small arks, are brought into being,16 on an ontological plane which is slightly removed from the surrounding text.

31The island, then, is the locus of the imaginary in the story, and it functions as a fluid construct, without particular rules. It can be argued that Kath is the antithesis of Robinson Crusoe—arguably always an implicit intertextual reference for island/survival narratives, even if Defoe’s novel is not directly mentioned—with his counting of days and measuring of time, and general control of the situation:

  • 17 See also Defoe 79 for the significance Crusoe attaches to the marking of time.

After I had been there about ten or twelve days, it came into my thoughts that I should lose my reckoning of time for want of books, and pen and ink, and should even forget the Sabbath days; but to prevent this, I cut with my knife upon a large post, in capital letters—and making it into a great cross, I set it up on the shore where I first landed—‘I came on shore here on the 30th September 1659.’ Upon the sides of this square post I cut every day a notch with my knife, and every seventh notch was as long again as the rest, and every first day of the month as long again as that long one; and thus I kept my calendar, or weekly, monthly, and yearly reckoning of time (Defoe 48).17

32In contrast to Crusoe’s methodological time-keeping, Kath chooses not to ‘keep count of the days’ (93), commenting as follows:

There isn’t any point, is there? We aren’t going to measure things in days any more. Days and weekends and holidays—that’s how the men in grey suits measure things. We’ll have to go back to some older cycle, sunrise to sunset for a start, and the moon will come into it, and the seasons, and the weather. (93)

33In another context, Ortiz Robles makes an interesting point about Crusoe, arguing that Defoe’s novel maintains ‘the strict separation of human and non-human worlds’, regarding this as a ‘structural necessity for first positing, and then advancing, the idea of civilisation’ (Ortiz Robles 4), and suggests that the novel shows that Crusoe must ‘reinvent his life by wresting from nature the means to satisfy his basic needs and, in doing so, to re-establish his difference from nature, thereby claiming the authority granted by civilised life to control it’ (Ortiz Robles 4).

34Kath, however, assumes another position. Her desire is not to separate herself from the natural world, but to be at one with it. For this reason, she not only puts aside what she sees as intrusive techniques of measurement and analysis—there is no point, she feels, in keeping count, because there is no ‘normality’ to go back to – but also refuses the separation, and opposition, of human and animal. It is notable that the cats are ‘raised’ to the level of human (if humans can be said to occupy an elevated level in a text in which their main characteristic is their ability to destroy their own world). This is evident from their very names: when Paul is first introduced, the reader is likely to assume that he is Kath and Greg’s child—‘We got on fair enough. Argued about Paul, of course’ (87)—and the female cat, Linda’s, name is similarly human, while Kath’s own name is only one phoneme away from ‘cat’. According to her account, Kath feeds the cats the first fish she catches, serving herself last (93), and, as mentioned above, the story ends with the ‘happiness’ and ‘hope’ of the birth of Linda’s kittens (111)—which contrasts sharply with Crusoe’s killing of the kittens he judges to be supernumary. Kath’s story—the story she herself believes—thus brings into question the human/animal dichotomy, but since Kath is to some extent discredited, as a highly unreliable narrator, the status of this commentary remains open to question.

Nuclear Literature: an Inevitable Textuality

35Finally, I would like briefly to consider the problems raised by the portrayal of nuclear war within this text—and, to some extent, within text in general. Kath’s nuclear fears tend to be dismissed, not only within the story itself, by the medical establishment, but also in criticism, which tends to focus on the supposition that Kath is imagining nuclear war, rather than on nuclear war itself. However, as established above, literary criticism is now beginning to treat Cold War literature as a genre. What can also be considered are the implications for textuality of literature which evokes nuclear war.

36Steven Connor sees in texts which deal with nuclear war ‘an intolerable contraction’ of time (201). He comments that the great ending, brought about by nuclear war, ‘seems to deny the possibility of narrative consolidation, interrupting the very continuity of prolongation of the personal and social imaginary beyond its own cessation’ (201). The narrator of the Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (another key text in Connor’s analysis) emphasises the fact that Angela Lamb, an aspiring novelist, has no time to write, since she is up against the ticking clock of the imminent end of the world (it may be said that in this sense the novel she is engaged in writing is already burning). The text twice repeats, in its closing pages, as part of a meta-narrative which seems to come from ‘beyond’ the diegesis of the novel, ‘Words beat on against death’ (303; and the last, unnumbered page, in which fragments of text are presented within the outlines of doves).

37Texts which engage with nuclear war, Connor says, must ‘imagine and narrate the unimaginable and the unspeakable’—while paradoxically there is a demand that they not do this (201), since denial is the most widespread and acceptable response to the threat, as critics such as Wojcik, and Lifton, point out (see Wojcik 108, 129). ‘The Survivor’, with its construction of a double narrative which both recounts and retracts, is a perfect example of the paradox pointed up by Connor, which can only be resolved in what Derrida calls the ‘textuality’ of nuclear war: ‘Nuclear apocalypse is “a phenomenom whose essential feature is that of being fabulously textual, through and through”, there being no other mode in which to represent it other than fable and fiction’ (Derrida 1984, 23; Connor 202).

38Thus, although it is difficult to represent nuclear war within a text, text is the only means of representing it at all, an additional paradox in the light of which ‘The Survivor’s’ construction of events must be understood. The vague, even laconic language through which it become apparent to Kath that a nuclear conflict has taken place, bears out these contradictions:

She hadn’t expected neat mushroom clouds on the horizon. She knew it wouldn’t be like it was in the films. Sometimes there was a shifting of the light, sometimes a distant rumbling noise. Such things could have meant nothing at all; but somewhere it had happened. (91)

39This passage both recounts events, and Kath’s experience, by denying them (‘She hadn’t expected’, ‘she knew it wouldn’t be like’, ‘could have meant nothing at all’), and describes events so allusively as to be almost poetic (‘a shifting of the light’).

40Nuclear war both draws on the biblical paradigm of the journey from creation to Apocalypse, and adds to it, by concretising the ‘how’ of apocalypse. Wojcik puts it thus:

[T]he prophetic apocalyptic imaginings of the past have become secular apocalyptic realities in recent decades […] Apocalypse is no longer a dark shapeless terror, but a statistically documented event, complete with date, time, and place. (Wojcik 98)

However, as Wojcik argues in his article, the new, secular apocalypse is without redemption: ‘Instead of faith in a redemptive new reality to be established after the present world is annihilated, secular doomsday visions are usually characterised by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism’ (97).

41There will be no ‘new world’ after Kath’s ‘flood’, no God-given kingdom following the flight of the dove. Short as it is, this is a text which takes in the whole sweep of the existence of humankind. There are implicit references to Eden—an Edenic, unspoilt world in which Chernobyl and nuclear war never happened exists, by implication, against the nuclear trashscape seen through Kath’s eyes; and Kath’s island can be read as a return to Eden, as can her referencing of ‘the old ways’ (96), to which she intends to go back. Her love for the cats and concern for the reindeer are also significant here: she conjures up not only a pre-deluvian but a pre-lapsarian world in which humankind and animals live in unseparated harmony. Thus, this story pulls in both directions, towards Apocalypse, and back towards the origins of humankind, and as such it is an extremely ambitious reconstruction of history. At the same time, through the use of irony between the two strands of the text, it debunks itself: Kath is discovered, and rescued, ‘about a hundred miles east of Darwin. Going round in circles’ (109, emphasis added), a line which can be read as a mockery of human aspiration, with the coming-into-being of many centuries, the long, slow separation from the lower, animal, orders, threatened by the ability of the species to provoke its own annihilation.

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1 Iser defines the repertoire as ‘all the familiar territory within the text,’ adding: ‘This may be in the form of references to earlier works, or to social and historical norms, or to the whole culture from which the text has emerged’ (Iser 69).

2 For an analysis of the similarities between Noah and Jonah, see Mundler 79.

3 As Lionel Kelly points out, the disaster which is to befall the reindeer, as a species, in the fourth part of the book is prefigured in the first part, in which the reindeer in the ark prove anxious: ‘[T]he reindeer were troubled with something deeper than Noah-angst, stranger than storm-nerves, something […] long-term. […] As if they were saying, You think this is the worst? Don't count on it. Still, whatever it was, even the reindeer couldn't be specific about it. Something distant, major […] long-term’ (Barnes 12-13; Kelly 4).

4 In this I disagree with Claudia Kotte, who describes Kath as ‘an Australian woman’ (Kotte 111, 121). It can be inferred that Kath comes from New Zealand, or at least lives there, by the references she makes to “north” and “south” (for example, “Down south” [87]), New Zealand being made up of North and South islands. This is confirmed when she refers to “men in dark-grey suits and striped ties up there in the north taking certain strategic precautions” (89), the administrative capital of the country, Wellington, being in the north.

5 While it has been pointed out that Kath’s boat can be read as her ‘ark’, many critics have pointed out the ark as recurrent motif in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (see, for example, Salyer 225), the second ark which I identify in ‘The Survivor’ has not been highlighted.

6 See 87–90, 93–94, 96–98, 100–102, 103–104, 105–110 and 111 for the passages of first-person narration.

7 The term ‘fabulation’ also has other definitions, both literary and current.

8 Vanessa Guignery terms the woodworm “[un] narrateur icoloncolaste” (Guignery 2003, 152).

9 Patricia Waugh defines metafiction thus: ‘[M]etafiction […] simultaneously [creates] a fiction and [makes] a statement about that fiction. The two processes are held together in a formal tension which breaks down the distinction between “creation” and “criticism”’ (Waugh 6).

10 I use the term ‘nuclear criticism’ to refer to literary criticism of those texts defined by Daniel Cordle as ‘nuclear literature’—that is, the fiction of the 1980s which either has ‘a nuclear theme’ or contains ‘revealing flashes of Cold War and nuclear concerns’ (Cordle 2).

11 Cary Wolfe places animal studies among the ‘philosophically ambitious and ethically challenging’ movements, which are ‘often taken to be the latest chapters in the academic assimilation of the so-called new social movements (civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay and lesbian activism, and so on) that have fundamentally reshaped the study of society and culture over the past thirty years or more’ (Wolfe 127). Ecocriticism and nuclear criticism can be included in this category.

12 I disagree with Connor’s contention that Kath’s narrative ‘is founded not on making connections but on suppressing them’ (Connor 235).

13 This argument is pursued in The Otherworlds of Liz Jensen, in which the question of both female and male characters’ affinity to the Earth also arises. See Mundler 2016, 186–88.

14 For a discussion of the position of the female within the male-dominated medical establishment, see for example Monika Kaup, who writes on ‘the intersection of women and madness’ in the twentieth century.

15 See Chantal Foucrier for a discussion of the centuries-old tradition of imaginary islands and societies.

16 The multiple arks here recall the flotilla mentioned by the woodworm in ‘The Stowaway’ (Barnes 4).

17 See also Defoe 79 for the significance Crusoe attaches to the marking of time.

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Helen E. Mundler, « Reconstruction in ‘The Survivor’ by Julian Barnes »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Helen E. Mundler

Helen E. Mundler obtained her doctorate in Strasbourg and her HDR in Nanterre. She has been maître de conférences at UPEC (Université Paris-Est Créteil) since the year 2000. She has published two critical books, Intertextualité dans l’Oeuvre d’A.S.Byatt (Paris, Harmattan, 2003), and The Otherworlds of Liz Jensen: a Critical Reading (New York, Camden House, 20016), as well as a number of articles on a range of contemporary novelists and short story writers, including Anita Brookner, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Alison Lurie and Fay Weldon. She participates regularly in conferences, and gives papers both nationally and internationally. Helen E. Mundler also writes fiction and has published two novels (Homesickness, UK, Dewi Lewis, 2003; L’Anglaise, Holland House, UK/USA, 2018).

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