Science fiction has reinvented the Robinsonade – a narrative based on the scenario described in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – on numerous occasions and in a variety of ways. We’ve had individuals stranded on a whole planet rather than a mere island (a scenario used, in recent times, as the basis for Andy Weir’s The Martian), and we’ve had individuals stranded on traffic islands in the middle of a busy city (see J. G. Ballard’s 1974 masterpiece Concrete Island).
But H. G. Wells (1866-1946) gave us another take on the Robinsonade. In his 1895 short story ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’, the titular character remains in busy London while his eyes appear to be stranded on a desert island in the Pacific. Or, perhaps more accurately, his eyes are seeing a remote Pacific island, even while they, along with the rest of Davidson, remain in London.
This intriguing premise requires further attention and analysis, but first, here’s a brief plot summary of ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’.
The narrator, a scientist named Bellows, tells of how a fellow student of his at the Harlow Technical College, Sidney Davidson, has a kind of seizure during a thunderstorm while in the laboratory. Davidson claims to be able to see a beach and a ship somewhere far away.
Bellows and a third colleague, Boyce, help Davidson with his affliction, which lasts for three weeks. Davidson is also engaged to Bellows’ sister. Bellows tells us that Davidson’s strange state was worse than being blind, since he can see (and thus be distracted by) things, but not the things in front of him: instead, his eyes appear to be seeing things which are thousands of miles away on this unfamiliar beach.
While he is unable to see what’s around him, Wade, the Dean of the college, suggests that Davidson is carried out into town in a bath-chair, to get some fresh air. While he is out, Davidson sees water approaching, and tells Bellows that it’s as if he is being carried into the sea. He describes the scene in vivid detail:
I kept sinking down deeper and deeper into the water. It became inky black about me, not a ray from above came down into that darkness, and the phosphorescent things grew brighter and brighter. The snaky branches of the deeper weeds flickered like the flames of spirit lamps; but, after a time, there were no more weeds. The fishes came staring and gaping towards me, and into me and through me. I never imagined such fishes before. They had lines of fire along the sides of them as though they had been outlined with a luminous pencil.
After three weeks, Davidson’s sight begins to return to normal, and when he marries the narrator’s sister, all trace of his alternative vision disappears.
Two years later, when the two men are talking to Atkins, a naval lieutenant engaged to Davidson’s cousin, they discover that the ship Davidson had seen on the Pacific island is a real naval vessel named the Fulmar. Atkins had been on the ship during a storm, while it was docked on an island having gone there to collect penguins’ eggs. The incident Davidson witnessed really happened, and was no mere hallucination. They realise that the lightning storm must have caused some magnetic disturbance which shifted Davidson’s vision some eight thousand miles away.
Bellows concludes the story by telling us that he is dissatisfied with the explanation offered up by Wade, the Dean of their college, for what happened to Davidson. Wade’s theory involves the Fourth Dimension (i.e., time), and fails to convince the narrator, who remains baffled and perplexed by the ‘remarkable case of Davidson’s eyes’.
I began this analysis by remarking on the Crusoe-esque details of ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’, but the story is perhaps more mystery story than Robinsonade, and has elements of science fiction (or even fantasy) as well. But is the story a mere piece of entertainment, or is Wells using the ideas of sight and blindness – as he does elsewhere, brilliantly, in his 1904 story ‘The Country of the Blind’ – to make a deeper point?
One of the most prominent aspects of ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’ is Wells’s use of contrasts. The word ‘antipodes’ is used – the actual location of the Fulmar, which Davidson could see, is given as Antipodes Island – and the story explores the gulf between England and the Antipodes, night and day (it’s daytime in Davidson’s sight when it’s night-time in London; and vice versa), and even land and water (such as when Davidson ‘disappears’ into the water while being carried around the town). This obviously makes for confusion and chaos bordering on the farcical.
The story rejects the idea of everything around us being a construction of our own senses (as the reference to Bishop Berkeley suggests): Davidson’s tangible and visual planes are grounded in physical reality, rather than being merely constructed by his mind. This theme is one which we can observe in other Wells stories from this period, including The Time Machine, published in the same year as ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’.
There, the protagonist remains in London, like Davidson, but is capable of perceiving things distant in time rather than location, watching as his Time Machine transports him temporally into the far future of the year 802,701. The Time Traveller describes the changing surroundings of his laboratory (yes, it’s a laboratory again):
As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me.
As with ‘Davidson’s Eyes’, Wells draws attention to the contrast of light/darkness:
The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
In the last analysis, then, ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’ cannot, perhaps, be read as an allegory in the same way as ‘The Country of the Blind’ can. But it does reflect Wells’s interest in displacements of various kinds, and the bringing together of two very different worlds through a remarkable incident which causes them to collide.