Analysis of Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before

The third novel by Italian author Umberto Eco (1932–2016), The Island of the Day Before is another extended meditation on the subjective nature of reality that demonstrates the deceptive nature of all signs and metaphors. Eco presents his historical romance as the collected letters of Roberto de La Griva, a shipwrecked 17th-century nobleman who becomes stranded on an abandoned ship, the Daphne, anchored off a mysterious Pacific island. With no way of locating himself or finding a way home, Roberto abandons himself to philosophical contemplation, roaming the crewless ship and composing letters to his beloved Lilia, a woman he has admired from afar.

The novel intercuts Roberto’s writings with recollections of his earlier life when, as a teenager, he survived the siege of Casale in the Thirty Years’ War. It is during his time in Casale that a fantasy figure from his childhood, his older and illegitimate half brother Ferrante, starts to intrude into Roberto’s reality. A young captain who bears a striking resemblance to Roberto is involved in a treacherous plot to end the siege, and Roberto only just avoids being punished for this interloper’s actions. Even after the war, when he travels to Paris and meets Lilia in the salon of a society hostess, the spectre of his half brother haunts Roberto. When he is arrested on unspecified charges of treason, Roberto suspects Ferrante’s involvement, seeing any adversity in his own life as an attempt by Ferrante to assume Roberto’s place as the heir to the de La Griva estate. However, after his arrest, Roberto is offered a chance of freedom by the sinister Cardinal Mazarin, who sends him to spy on the English attempt to locate the “fixed point” of longitude that allows for the measuring of nautical time. This results in Roberto’s being shipwrecked and finding the Daphne, a ghost ship full of clocks and tropical plants whose absent crew were also engaged in searching for the elusive “fixed point.” Although Roberto’s loneliness is temporarily alleviated by a German Jesuit, Father Caspar Wanderdrossel, the presence of the priest intensifies Roberto’s religious and philosophical confusion until he is no longer able to distinguish reality from fiction.

Like Eco’s previous novels, The Island of the Day Before is told retrospectively but in this case by an increasingly intrusive and anonymous narrator who constantly mocks and parodies Roberto’s words, turning the story into an extended metatextual joke. Roberto’s authority is further undermined by his own attempts at writing, since all narrative is shown to be subjective and open to revision. This is a familiar topic in Eco’s fiction, but the multiple strands of this novel generate further questions about the nature of individual identity and the idea that every person is the author of their own reality.

The metatextual component of the story is further emphasized by its resemblance to several popular early novels, such as Robinson Crusoe, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Gulliver’s Travels. Eco combines elements of these familiar narratives with the dramatic political intrigue and religious upheaval of the 17th century to create an encyclopedic collage or “essay novel” that constantly reworks his favorite themes into infinite variations. This process is mirrored by Roberto’s own writing, in which everything he sees on board the Daphne is transformed into his lost would-be love, Lilia. Even his retelling of his adventures in Casale and Paris concentrates on courtly love and romance, making Lilia the central concern of Roberto’s entire life.

The single-mindedness of his narrative is a source of endless amusement for the narrator, but it also raises issues about the importance of narratorial credibility. Although Roberto is confused or even delusional, his account of his experiences is still entertaining, suggesting that the point of Roberto’s far-fetched romance is to emphasize the enjoyment that can be found in literature regardless of its relationship to reality. This attitude is reinforced by the style of the novel, which is packed with Eco’s usual linguistic puns and intellectual puzzles.

The Island of the Day Before is one of Eco’s more challenging novels, but the complexity of Roberto’s narrative is undercut by the innate humour with which Eco approaches this discussion of linguistic communication. The novel reveals time, space, and even reality to be humanmade concepts that refuse to manifest themselves consistently and continually defy comprehension, but for Roberto the most important consideration is his love for Lilia. So for all his metaphysical questioning and abstract philosophy, human emotions and desires are what motivate Roberto’s narration and serve as signposts by which he can navigate his way through the web of texts, signs, and images that make up Eco’s view of culture.

Bouchard, Norma. “Umberto Eco’s L’isola del giorno prima: Postmodern Theory and Fictional Praxis.” In Umberto Eco, 3 vols., edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, vol. 3: 103–117. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.
Rice, Thomas J. “Mapping Complexity in the Fiction of Umberto Eco.” In Umberto Eco, 3 vols., edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, vol 1: 369–389. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.
Vlasselaers, Jose. “The Island of the Day Before: A Quest for the Semiotic Construction of a Self.” In Umberto Eco, 3 vols., edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, vol. 3: 137–146. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.

Categories: Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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