Island of the Blue Dolphins
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Forgiveness and trust
After Ramo is killed and Karana is left alone on Ghalas-at, she has many enemies and no friends. She is harassed constantly by the wild dogs of her island, and lives with the vague fear in the back of her mind that one day the Aleuts that killed her people will return to the island. Eventually, Karana is forced into confrontation both with the wild dogs and with the Aleuts. In each case she has the opportunity to take her revenge, but doesn't. The case of Tutok is the most important of these because it shows the development of Karana's trust in more detail and to a deeper extent (in the case of Rontu, the only thing Karana and Rontu to show trust was refrain from killing each other). In the case of Tutok, Karana is mistrustful because Tutok is an Aleut. She has seen first hand what happens when one deals with these people, and has likely inherited some of the dislike and mistrust her father had for them. Even when Tutok makes friendly gestures, Karana is aloof and assumes that Tutok will betray her to the Aleut hunters. It takes a long time for Karana to see that Tutok has no ill intent, but it is some time before Karana makes a gesture of trust on her own. When Karana reveals her secret name to Turok, it is her ultimate sign of trust, for she ascribed her father's death to his decision to reveal his secret name to someone not worthy of trust. What Karana receives from her trust is a rewarding relationship that she will remember and think about for the rest of the novel.
Loneliness and companionship
Karana progresses through several states of loneliness during her time on the island. When she is first stranded, and he brother is with her, she does not mention feeling any loneliness at all. Though she is worried about herself and her brother, she does not feel any lonelier than she did with her people. This is because she has the benefits both of human companionship and of the hope that the white men's ship will return to take them away. After Ramo is killed, Karana is sad, but still not so lonely, because she knows that any day she could see the white men's ship on the horizon. Karana's first winter on the island is the most difficult for her, because her hope of being rescued any time soon dies with the coming of the first winter storm. This is Karana's point of deepest despair in the novel, when she sets out on her own for the land to the east. When Karana returns from her trials on the sea, she sees her island in a whole new light; she sees it as her home. The familiarity of the island reduces her loneliness, but does not replace what she had before. When Karana meets Rontu, she finally has someone to talk to. Not until then does she realize how lonely she had been on the island. Rontu is nice to talk to, but he never talks back. It is not until Karana meets Tutok that she has someone to talk with. Again, Karana had not known how lonely she had been without Tutok. Each level of loneliness is tolerable until Karana experiences something better. This is a problem for Karana when Tutok leaves, because she now feels the empty space in her life that Tutok had filled. The desire to have someone to talk with lingers with Karana for the rest of he story, and it is probably the main reason she decides in the end to leave her home and go out into the unknown.
When Karana is first left alone on the island, her moral ideology is more or less identical to that of her people. As the story progresses, however, Karana develops her own moral code. The laws of Karana's tribe forbid women from making weapons, a fact that Karana struggles with constantly as she pits superstition against necessity. The first time she makes weapons, she is very fearful; the second time she is less fearful but still nervous; the third time, when she makes the spear to catch the devilfish, she does so without any misgivings. Indeed, she makes that spear almost as a hobby, for catching devilfish is not a necessity. Another way in which Karana departs from her tribe's rituals is through her friendship with Tutok. After the incident with Captain Orlov, the people of Ghalas-at become the sworn enemies of the Aleuts. Karana, however, gives Tutok a chance, even though she is an Aleut and potentially very dangerous. Eventually, Karana eve learns to trust someone she had formerly considered an enemy. A final way in which Karana divulges from the ideology of her people is her decision not to kill any more animals. Hunting and killing animals was a necessary part of her tribe's economy, but Karana no longer wishes to kill animals because she sees them as very much like people. Karana admits that her friends and family would likely find her decision that animals are like people amusing, but she has come to it through her own experience sticks by it.
Many events that occur early in the novel are echoed later under slightly different conditions. For example, the sequence of events that occurs when Karana finds Rontu in the forest under attack by the pack of wild dogs mimics the scene in which she discovers that Ramo has been killed by the pack almost exactly. By making one scene resemble the other so closely, O'Dell evokes the same emotions in the reader for both scenes. In some cases, such as the one above, he is able to evoke the feelings associated with the outcome of the original scene in his description of the second. By changing the outcomes, O'Dell is able to show a progression, make a contrast, or highlight a similarity.
From the very beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, we can see that Karana speaks with a very distinctive voice. She speaks as if the entire world around her is alive. For example, in chapter twenty-seven she describes the giant waves crashing around thus: "The first wave was trying to reach the sea and the second one was struggling toward the shore. Like two giants they crashed against each other." She also tends to ascribe human characteristics to animals—she describes Won-a-nee as looking at her "reproachfully". Such use of language reveals her view of the world around her as living, and more specifically of animals as creatures similar to people, a view she comes to hold later in the novel.
Dolphins appear twice in Island of the Blue Dolphins, once when Karana is returning Ghalas-at after her failed expedition across the sea, and again as at the end of the novel when Karana is watching her island fade into the distance as she rides away on the white men's ship. The first time dolphins appear, Karana explains that they are a good omen, and indeed, she says that, "more than anything, it was the blue dolphins that took [her] home" (chapter ten). They provide the first break in the loneliness Karana has been feeling ever since winter began ad she lost hope that the white men would ever come back for her. The second time Karana sees the dolphins, she does not say much about them, but they became a symbol of good fortune and friendship during her last journey, and so they imply that good thing are in the future for Karana. This second time they appear, the dolphins are following Karana away from the island, whereas before they were following her toward it, and this may represent good fortue in the new land to which Karana is traveling, for she did find good fortune and happy times on Ghalas-at after the dolphins escorted her home.
Karana's secret name
Karana explains in chapter one the power of secret names, and also that she cannot understand why her father gave his secret name to a stranger. When Chowig is killed, many of the villagers, Karana included, believe he died because he revealed his secret name to Captain Orlov. Revelation of a secret name, then, is an important symbol of trust. It is therefore a milestone for Karana when she tells Tutok her secret name.
Tumaiyowit and the underworld
Tumaiyowit is the god who, as Karana explains in chapter twelve, once lived on earth with Mukat, back in the time when there were straight trees on Ghalas-at. Later, when Mukat did not want people to die (as he did) he angrily went down into an underworld, and so "people die because he did." Tumaiyowit and references to the underworld make a number of subtle appearances, most notably when Karana visits some of the caves underneath Ghalas-at. Tumaiyowit is at once a symbol of death and of ancestry, for Karana's ancestors inhabit this underworld.
The Mark of Maidenhood
This is the mark that, when Karana's tribe is leaving Ghalas-at, Ulape makes on her face to signify that she is unmarried. When Karana leaves the island eighteen years later, she also makes this mark on her face. Not only is the mark a symbol of maturity, but it is also a symbol of hope for a new life. Ulape makes the mark when she is leaving for a new place, hoping to start a new life, and Karana does the same. The mark takes on a slightly different meaning for Karana, however. For her, it recalls the day her people left the island, and expresses a solidarity with her tribe.