In the world of the novel, death is a physical journey in which a boatman ferries a person across the water (reminiscent of the River Styx) to mysterious island—supposedly the physical location of the afterlife. Throughout the book, Axl and Beatrice frequently hear about this island (a place where people spend eternity in peace), which symbolizes the comforting myths that people tell themselves about death. Beatrice and Axl’s knowledge of the island comes from rumors they hear about what it is like and how to reach it. At one point, they meet an old woman who is harassing a boatman for taking her husband to the island and leaving her behind. From these two, Beatrice and Axl gather that, although the island is highly populated, most people wander it for eternity without encountering another person. In rare instances, apparently, couples who are bonded by love are ferried there together to spend eternity as a pair, but couples whose relationships are more fraught are destined to spend eternity on the island alone. From this, Beatrice becomes preoccupied with the idea that she and Axl must go to the island together, expressing a common human desire not to go alone into death nor leave behind loved ones. As Beatrice’s death approaches, she finds purpose and comfort in trying to deepen her marriage to ensure that she won’t go to the island alone.
However, Beatrice and Axl’s beliefs about the island might not be true—they are based on rumors and hearsay, pieced together from things said by those left behind when their loved ones departed and from the evasive boatmen who ferry people to the island. These are not credible sources, as the boatmen are proven liars (the initial boatman told the old woman he would come back to bring her to her husband, but he didn’t), and the grieving people don’t have firsthand knowledge of the island. Because of this, it’s never totally clear whether the island is a real place—let alone whether it’s actually true that some couples can go there together.
At the end of the novel, Beatrice and Axl stand at the shore with a boatman negotiating their passage to the island. In this moment, Beatrice, who is clearly dying, is able to see the island and is eager to go, while Axl (who still enjoys good health) struggles to see the island at all. This discrepancy lends credence to the notion that the island is perhaps not a physical place (or else Axl would be able to see it, too), but rather a myth or metaphor for death and the afterlife, one that seems more urgent and real to Beatrice as death approaches. Furthermore, their conversation with the boatman (who seems to be telling them what they want to hear in order to coax Beatrice to get into the boat alone) suggests that it might not have ever been true that couples can go together to the island. Perhaps all people are destined to die and spend eternity alone, as Beatrice ultimately does. The reader never learns the true nature of the island—whether it is myth or reality—but its significance throughout the novel seems to be its role in the stories that people tell one another about death. Beatrice’s belief that it’s possible for her to die with her husband lends her comfort, and her quest to recover their memories and repair their relationship gives her purpose, which prevents her from fixating only on her fear.
The Island Quotes in The Buried Giant
“But isn’t it hard, sir,” Beatrice asked, “to see what truly lies in people’s hearts? Appearances deceive so easily.”
“That’s true, good lady, but then we boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travelers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years—that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together.”
“But Axl, we can’t remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us.”
“We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don’t you feel the same, princess?”
“I do, Axl. But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
Yet I was a good knight who performed his duty to the end. Let me say so, and he will see I do not lie. I will not mind him. The gentle sunset, his shadow falling over me as he moves from one side of his vessel to the other.