On Being a Castaway

When the movie Cast Away first came out in 2000, it was widely reviewed and given a five-star rating. It starred Tom Hanks as a trouble-shooting FedEx employee who found himself on an ill-fated flight across the Pacific Ocean. When his plane crashes, he ends up on an uninhabited island where, for the next four years, he’s reduced to having a relationship with a volleyball by the name of “Wilson.”

He talks to no one else, not even to God.  And when rescue comes at last, he returns home to pick up the pieces of his interrupted life.  It struck me at the time as a rather silly movie, sublimely so. And yet, twenty years later, I still can’t seem to get it out of my head.

Perhaps because it reminds me of a very different castaway, one whose predicament our great American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once described in an insightful article called “The Message in the Bottle,” one of a dozen or so essays on language, philosophy, and religion that appeared in a prescient collection bearing the same name.

Percy’s castaway is not at all like the FedEx employee in the Tom Hanks movie.  Having lost his memory in the wreckage, he nevertheless finds human life on his island, indeed, a highly developed and hospitable social environment.  “Being a resourceful fellow,” Percy tells us, “he makes the best of the situation, gets a job, builds a house, takes a wife, raises a family, goes to night school, and enjoys the local arts of cinema, music, and literature.  He becomes, as the phrase goes, a useful member of the community.”

But the castaway does not feel at home because he is not.  In a world perfectly fashioned to suit every human and material need, he nevertheless feels quite lost: “He knows that something is dreadfully wrong . . . he suffers acutely, yet he does not know why.  What is wrong?  Does he not have all the goods of life?”

He is, in a word, a castaway, a stranger to himself who, notwithstanding every possible creature comfort, indeed, spending “a lifetime of striving to be at home on the island, is as homeless now as he was the first day he found himself cast up on the beach.” His home, if there is one, must lie somewhere across the sea.

What, then, should he do?  Here Percy is very clear and insistent that above all what he must not do is to pretend that nothing is wrong, that being a castaway is not “to be in a grave predicament . . . not a happy state of affairs.”  Because to do that is, very simply, to fall into the worst possible state of despair, which is “to imagine one is at home when one is really homeless.”

Here the point of Percy’s story comes beautifully into view, crystallizing around the many bottles washed up by the sea, which the castaway collects day after day while walking along the beach.  Each contains a message reminding him, more or less, of his unsettled status, of his constant if mostly frustrated search of news from the other side, of a possible world beyond the island.  Including, to be sure, the means of securing safe passage to this place, which may finally satisfy this nagging sense of not belonging, of not really being at home on the island.


The modern German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who has cast a very long shadow over modern existentialist thought, coined the term Geworfenheit (“thrown-ness”) to describe the sense of being thrown into the world – cast away – requiring that one bend every possible effort to find out what this means and why.  In other words, we seek to obtain that one piece of saving news that may explain where I have come from, why am I here, and where am I going.

Percy shows that what’s need is precisely news from beyond the sea, not scientific knowledge or “island news”: “It is not news to unfallen man because he is at home in the world and no castaway.  It is not news to a fallen man who is a castaway but believes himself to be at home in the world, for he does not recognize his own predicament.  It is only news to a castaway who knows himself to be a castaway.”

This is why among the many bottled messages washed up onto the beach, only one sort is of real importance to the seeker.  Not random pieces of information, like the temperature at which lead melts (330 degrees), or even matters of riveting historical moment, like the fact the Russians in 1943 murdered ten thousand Polish officers.

The one thing the castaway needs is rather the most vital piece of news possible, because it sheds new light, at every turn, upon the condition and fate of the castaway himself.  If you are stranded on an island, the news you are most eager to obtain is that which tells you how to get home.

For the castaway, therefore, who is anyone with the kind of mind to recognize his predicament, the only message in the bottle that is worth reading, worth heeding, is the news that he has been waiting for all his life, the good news that reveals, says Percy, “where he came from and who he is and what he must do.”

And if, by God’s grace, there were someone commissioned to spread such news to the castaway, who left our place of origin and came to us across the wide blue sea to do so, what then?  “Well then,” concludes Walker Percy, “the castaway will, by the grace of God, believe him.”


*Image: The Castaway (Le Naufragé) by Ambroise Louis Garneray, c. 1800 [Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest, France]

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.