- "The Broken Telescope":Misrepresentation in The Coral Island
"I have always laboured to be true to fact, and to nature, even in my wildest flights of fancy," claims Robert Michael Ballantyne in his autobiography when he tries to explain an inaccuracy in The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean(Author's Adventures 13-14).1 Controversies surrounding the idea of "fact" have resounded through critical analyses of Ballantyne's novel until the present day. Underscored by being published just one year before Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), Ballantyne's novel is perceived as a reflection of Victorian discourses on British subjectivity and Empire. The heroes help to bring the light of western civilization to the savage native, ostensibly legitimizing the colonial expansion which occurred throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Contemporaneous with this is the shift in children's literature around 1850 toward a belief in the inherent purity of children. Jacqueline Rose is one of the critics who suggests that this shift is inherited from Rousseau and the Romantic age. According to Rose, realism in children's literature is offered as a transparent window of truth, where child and language angelically adjoin.2The Coral Island first appeared, therefore, within the context of what is now considered to be the first golden age of children's fiction—a genre in which moral goodness is aligned with childhood, radiating its influence to the surrounding world. However, Rose's stress on "truth" and an "undistorted registering of the surrounding world" in her reading of The Coral Island appears to me to ignore a fundamental point: Ballantyne's novel is wrought with a plethora of destabilizing ironies. As a result, The Coral Island is a highly self-conscious text that fragments a perceived reality by implementing a retrospective narrative gaze. Ballantyne's novel is not, as Rose and other critics—including Susan Naramore Maher—claim, a simple reflection of western truth defeating native falsity. Rather, it is an extremely complex engagement with such ideology that creates interstices of instability and tension throughout the novel. This textual ambiguity occurs both within and without the novel. For example, The Coral Island describes itself as being viewed through a misrepresentative narrative gaze, referred to as "the broken telescope" (Coral Island 280). Moreover, when researching for his text, Ballantyne himself relied upon books, not first-hand experience, which creates textual ambiguity.
What I would like to contest in the following, then, is the idea that by constructing a story that simply reflects ideology in a representation of alleged fact, Ballantyne's novel supports dominant Victorian discourses on both colonialism and childhood. Rather, in my view, The Coral Island constitutes a text that intervenes in these debates by providing its own ironic perspective. The text is not a mirror image of absolute authority, but is a shattered textual lens that self-consciously probes the verisimilitude of narrative within the realms of an escapist fiction layered with sailors' yarns. As Joseph Bristow points out in Empire Boys, "The Coral Island often invites an interpretation that runs against the values it sets out to uphold" (107). I would like to take Bristow's comment a step further by providing a detailed analysis of the novel. I concede that much of the ambiguity I detect in The Coral Island will undoubtedly have been unconscious on Ballantyne's part, but I believe that to fully appreciate his novel's contradictory impetus, one must acknowledge that the text itself incorporates a fragmentary and distorted narrative gaze, one that views the entire adventure through a "broken telescope" (Coral Island 280). It is this pivotal detail that reinforces the ambiguity inherent in Ballantyne's own comment quoted at the beginning of my essay. By suggesting an indelible affinity between "fact" and his "wildest flights of fancy," Ballantyne hints at language's intrinsic unreliability and inveterate tendency to subvert the allegedly transparent signifiers of realism. As a result, The Coral Island represents more than a straightforward childhood adventure. The text opens up complex tensions between adult narrator and child character, within which the latter must inevitably appear as an imaginative projection and performative misrepresentation. Thus, Ralph can...