The story of The Coral Island is narrated by the adult Ralph Rover, who is reflecting on an adventure he once had as a young boy. After journeying to the Pacific on a simple discovery mission, Ralph’s ship is a met by a storm which leaves him, along with his two friends, Jack and Peterkin, shipwrecked on a coral island.
The friends manage to adapt to life on the island really quite admirably and, at points, do not even seem to miss their English homes. To understand the tone of The Coral Island, it’s not an entirely useless practice to invert that of The Lord of the Flies, for whilst Ralph and his friends do meet tragedies, particularly towards the end of the novel, the story of The Coral Island is surprisingly positive, perhaps due to the fact that it was aimed at children. Golding’s later novel takes these events, along with the tone of the novel, and completely inverts them. So, whilst this is essentially a book about survival, it is missing the severity implied throughout The Lord of the Flies.
Nevertheless, this is a very thrilling tale, as Ralph and his friends struggle against starvation, isolation, pirates, and even cannibals!
The Victorian period was a time of constant change. The invention of steam, along with other technological advances, made travel – as well as global trade – far easier. This meant that people were able to travel more, both for business, and for pleasure. Ralph appears to travel to the coral islands out of pleasure; he is only a small child when he sets out, and although he may have been employed on deck, it seems as though he is taken to the islands at his request. The Coral Island thus helps to reveal the advances made to transportation during the nineteenth century. It becomes interesting from a critical point of view, revealing how accessible exotic places were becoming.
More interesting, though, is Ballantyne’s presentation of the natives on the surrounding islands. It is important to remember that, whilst travel was becoming more popular during this period, there were still many people who had never left Europe. This meant that a lot of fears began to circulate: people did not really know what other countries were like – they were only hearing stories about them from the rich and the adventurous. This is why the villain in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is from a foreign country; people didn’t understand cultures that were different from their own, and this allowed beliefs in the supernatural to flourish.
Of course, the natives depicted in The Coral Island are not entirely like Bram Stoker’s vampires. After all, Ballantyne does not engage with the supernatural. At the same time, though, it can be argued that the xenophobia present in Dracula is also apparent in The Coral Island. The natives depicted in this book are truly brutal; they rip off each others’ limbs (before toasting and eating them), burry men alive, and become very formidable enemies for Ralph and his friends. Whilst elements of these behaviours may have been demonstrated in some colonies during the nineteenth century, it is almost certain that the natives would not have been this ferocious. Ballantyne exaggerates certain villainous characteristics in order to build on contemporary fears regarding travel and exploration. In the process, he creates some truly terrifying villains.
One of the major themes in The Coral Island is religion; one reason for travel during the Victorian period was to spread the Bible and its teachings to other countries, and this missionary work becomes really prominent in Ballantyne’s writing. At first, however, it is only a minor theme; Ralph carries a Bible with him, but although he has promised his mother that he will say his prayers every day, he quickly becomes distracted by the drama unfurling around him. As the narrative goes on, however, Ralph appears to recognise the value of religion, particularly when he meets Bill, a kindly pirate and atheist who envies Ralph’s faith. The book takes on a very different perspective after this. It is distinctly Christian, and although the change in the writing style can seem a little abrupt, it reveals a lot about contemporary beliefs.
Yet whilst The Coral Island is an extremely interesting book from a critical point of view, it may not be the easiest narrative to enjoy. One reason for this is the sudden change of perspectives, as, towards the end of the novel, Ballantyne focuses on the perceived importance of religion. Another reason why readers may not enjoy The Coral Island is that the pacing changes towards its conclusion, too; the narrative turns from the coral island to new, more inhabited islands. As it does so, it introduces a lot more action into the novel. This is a strong contrast to the rest of the book and it gives the impression that the story was being rushed to a hasty conclusion, almost as if Ballantyne suddenly realised that he only had fifty pages left to use.
This, along with the distinctly moral message that appears tacked onto the conclusion of The Coral Island really takes something away from the rest of the story. What started as a compelling adventure about travel and survival becomes something much more moral – and much less enjoyable.