Written by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Island of the Fay” is a short story that is hard to sum up as to what it’s about. As for plot, it is mostly about the narrator’s musings about science and the divine. Then, the narrator finds an island and watches a Fay circle around an island in a boat, until the Fay ultimately disappears into the shadows. However, amid this short narrative, we can interpret the themes in two ways, which I will endeavor to do so. Before I begin, I do feel I should note that literary interpretation is fairly individual, so I encourage you to read the piece for yourself and take my personal analysis of the piece with a grain of salt.
To begin, one can interpret the piece as a showcase of the divide between science and fantasy. The piece even begins with a poem that is pretty telling of this: “Science, true daughter of old Time thou art, / Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes! / Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” (368). The beginning of this poem flat out describes science as a vulture. This is a fitting description due to the fact the growth of science tends to offer up logical explanations for things that were once a mystery; the poem even hints at this by implying understanding science changes how one perceives the fantastic elements brought before them. Of course, for artistic people like the narrator who want to appreciate the fantastic world around them, this is a lamentable thing; by understanding something, it loses a spark of magic.
If this is the interpretation one wishes to go with, this makes the ending very impactful. In this ending, the Fay circles her island of light and darkness several times. The narrator notes that with each passing through the darkness, “there was more sorrow about her person, while it grew feebler, and far fainter, and more indistinct” (372). At the end, the Fay disappears completely into the darkness and the narrator ends the story commenting how she can no longer be seen. If one views this piece with the lens of it being about science vs. fantasy, we can see a direct dichotomy. As each year passes for the Fay, knowledge and experience are gained; however, each rotation slowly eats away at the Fay. In other words, the passage of time (and by consequence science as implied by the poem), is slowly eating away at the fantasy and spark of inspiration it gives. Inevitably with this interpretation, the story makes a dire prediction: eventually science is going to kill a lot of the wonder of life, thus making a dark situation for creative pursuits. While the story does not necessarily imply science is a bad thing, it definitely is lamenting that fantasy loses its charm because of it.
However, this is not the only manner one can interpret this piece. There is a specific musing from the narrator that involves delving into the divine and a bit of astronomy. After going on about the greater universe and its relation to God, the narrator makes this stunning proclamation.
In short, we are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast “clod of the valley” which he tills and contemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more profound a reason than that he does not behold it in operation. (368)
While at first this specific musing in general may be a bit confusing in the larger scheme, this end statement hints at another underlying theme to the piece: man’s arrogance as it grows more attached to science.
This, in turn, changes the dynamic of the ending scene. The narrator alone witnesses the essential death of the Fay, with enjoyment in solidarity being a key point in the very beginning of the story. In essence, it is as if only the narrator alone is left to appreciate what is still wondrous about the world, since everyone else is busy with other pursuits. Thus, though the narrator witnesses this wondrous event, the general time passage of the world causes the Fay to fall into darkness. Due to the relevance of the narrator’s solidarity and the fact they’re half asleep at the time, one can interpret this in a specific way related to man’s arrogance. Since the majority of man would no longer give something like the Fay relevance to the world, she slowly passed out of existence and man’s conscience. However, the narrator demonstrates this is a lamentable matter, and that by embracing science in such a blind and disregarding way, they are sacrificing dreams (represented by the Fay) and the divine spark that first inspired them to pursue science. Additionally so, science is causing them to forget their own place within the larger world.
Whichever lens you wish to view the piece through, it is definitely reflective of continuing world problems. The dichotomy between science, religion, creativity, and the like are continuing issues we face as our technology outgrows us each and every day. While the piece itself makes no particular judgement on the matter, it is certainly lamenting the rise of science coming at the cost of being mystified by the world. Whether or not we should slow down our scientific pursuits is probably an individual decision, but it is worth remembering that we should not decide everything that isn’t science isn’t worthwhile.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Island of the Fay.” Edgar Allen Poe Complete and Unabridged. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2006. 368-372. Print.
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