Robinades, Beauty, and Other Things

What is the surname of The Swiss Family Robinson? If you’re like me, you’d assume it is Robinson, but apparently, Johann David Wyss never actually used the name “Robinson” in the book. It turns out that “Robinson” is a genre based on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which started the whole desert island survivalist fiction movement. (Some say Defoe started the whole fiction movement, that Robinson Crusoe is the first real novel, but I don’t really know if that is true. I do know that book-length fiction was called a novel, because it was “novel.”)

I found it interesting that I would come across a mention of this genre right before watching the movie Enemy Mine, which is a robinsonade in a science fiction setting. Dennis Quaid is stranded on a desert planet — an island in space — and in true robinsonade fashion, nature is viewed as harsh and ungiving (as opposed to The Swiss Family Robinson, which views nature in a more benign fashion). Although Enemy Mine doesn’t follow the genre form of building a civilization out of that wilderness, Quaid does find a way to survive and to form a civilization of sorts with his marooned enemy, a Drac, played by Lou Gosset Jr.

The tagline tells the story: Enemies because they were taught to be. Allies because they had to be. Brothers because they dared to be.

The set, designed by Rolf Zehetbauer is magnificent, as is the make-up, but for me the most interesting effect of the movie is the subtheme of beauty and ugliness. (The Terran and the Drac each see the other as ugly.) Every time I see this movie, I am struck by how normal the Drac looks to me by the end of the movie, and I think how seriously damaging it is for us to beatify beauty. Sure, beautiful people are nice to look at, but so are those who aren’t quite so spectacular looking. It might take a while to get to know the person or to become used to a less than eye-catching appearance, but in the end, beauty means nothing. (Well, in the end, we are all worm food or a box of cremains, but let’s not go into that.)

I know one thing, though. If you were living a robinsonade life, stranded on a desert island with a less than attractive companion, as in Enemy Mine, you’d soon focus on what mattered most — survival. It is only in a world where survival is almost a matter of fact (at least for a while) that the differences in appearance can loom so large.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

8 Responses to “Robinades, Beauty, and Other Things”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Reminds me of something I read in school this past semester. Two things, actually: the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, who was held captive by Native Americans for several weeks, and Lost in the Funhouse, a postmodern short story that features a little bit about unlikely allies looking to survive. Funny how that sort of stuff turns up every now and then.

  2. Mike Croghan Says:

    Do you remember “Elephant Man”? I was teaching high school when that movie came out. I remember hearing many “EEEEWWWWWs” whenever the elephant man was in a scene at the start of the movie. They diminished noticeably as the movie went along. At the end, when he is about to lay down to die, a couple of high schoolers were walking down the aisle talking loudly. Others who had been sitting through the movie, likely joining the earlier chorus of “EEEEWWWWWs”, hollered at the boisterous pair, “Shut up, assholes”. ‘Twas a most gratifying comment. A testimonial about how we can get beyond our EWEs is we just come to know one another.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, I do rememember. I was alsto thinking of “Mask” with Cher and Eric Stolz. By the end of the movie, he seemed just another person. I wonder how much our distaste of those who are different is inborn and how much inbred?

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    It would be more accurate to say that Robinson Crusoe is the first novel in English. It is predated by Don Quixote which was eventually translated into English.Before Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote you had your epic poems.

    What changed? In a nut shell education. The novel required a healthier amount of people who can actually read. Poems and edicts can be read out, memorized by those who cannot read and passed on through memory. It is impossible to rely on memory with a novel so you really do need a fairly high population base of actual readers.

    I read Enemy Mine some years ago now. I’ve also seen the movie. Both are good. The Drac remind me of the aliens in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Mating rituals and how alien species go about doing the tango so to speak can be disturbing. I suppose I am still an Earth man at heart.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Good point about education. There’s no reason to write to appeal to large numbers of people if those people can’t read.

      So books were the first television — getting people to entertain themselves alone rather than in a group.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        Yes you could see books that way. In Victorian times novels first came out as chap books. You got a couple of chapters of a yet unfinished novel every couple of weeks. If the chapters proved popular the novel as a whole would be published. The chap books were cheap and very much in demand.

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