An Examination of Figurative and Literal Debris in J.G. Ballards "Concrete Island"

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An Examination of Figurative and Literal Debris in Concrete Island

J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island tells the story of a wealthy architect, Robert Maitland, who is forced to survive on a manmade island in the middle of a motorway intersection following a car crash. As Groes points out in his paper, Ballard’s Concrete Island examines the social and cultural trends in postwar London through an extreme situation experienced by the main character Robert Maitland (2011). It is argued that Ballard’s writing depicts how changes in urban spaces are reshaping social relationships (Groes, 2011). Notably, debris forms as a result of the people and places that have been leftover from rapid societal transformations. Ballard’s Concrete Island examines the importance of literal debris (the wasteland) and figurative debris (outsiders of society) in Maitland’s experiences on the island. Despite being an architect who contributes to architectural changes, Maitland struggles to survive on the island until his encounter with Jane and Proctor. These two characters are the figurative debris in this novel. To demonstrate, Proctor is described as an “aged defective” (Ballard, Concrete, 86), while Jane is said to resemble the “prototypal drop-out” (Ballard, Concrete, 82). In particular, the presence of Jane and Proctor prevents Maitland from dying and his interactions with them allow him to gain a better understanding of himself. Maitland thereupon becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his past life and uses the isolation of the island (the literal debris) to rebuild himself psychologically. Therefore, Concrete Island shows that figurative and literal debris are indispensible for Maitland to rebuild his life.

        The days on the island weakens Maitland physically. However, he survives because he is able to manipulate Jane and Proctor to complete tasks that would benefit him. The existence of these two characters allows Maitland to exercise dominance over them and in effect the whole island. At the beginning of the novel, Maitland uses self-pity to motivate survival. However, after encountering Proctor and Jane, his source of motivation shifts to the cruel exploitation of these two characters (Ballard, Concrete, 139). For example, Maitland’s mistreatment of Proctor is shown in the sentence, “Proctor gestured thickly, his face a planet of creases, like a hungry child unable to accept the reality of a bare cupboard” (Ballard, Concrete, 148). Here, simile is used to compare Proctor to a hungry child that is willing to accomplish almost any task in exchange for gifts. In particular, it provides evidence that Maitland’s manipulation of Jane and Proctor relies on his ability to identify and target the characters’ desires. Moreover, regarding Proctor, Maitland uses knowledge of his past experiences to conduct cruel physical treatments such as urinating on Proctor’s face (Ballard, Concrete, 135). In the case of Jane, Maitland plays with her feelings of guilt in order to weaken her emotionally (Ballard, Concrete, 138). The narrator’s diction choice indicates Jane and Proctor’s acceptance of Maitland’s control. For example, Maitland “steers” Proctor in order to move around on the island (Ballard, Concrete, 143). Furthermore, Proctor easily accepts this manipulation when he steers “himself with his scared hand” (Ballard, Concrete, 144). Lastly, Maitland’s frequent reinforcements that he would not survive without help of Jane and Proctor shows the importance of his dominance over them. To illustrate, Proctor is able to lead Maitland to the food source on the island (Ballard, Concrete, 126), while Jane is able to nurse him back to health (Ballard, Concrete, 96). In fact, Maitland specifically tells Jane “unless [she]’d come [he] would have died there…” (Ballard, Concrete, 83). However, survival is only the initial step that contributes to the change observed in Maitland. The figurative debris also helps Maitland to realize his own flaws.

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        As has been noted, Maitland exploits Jane and Proctor’s weaknesses in order to control them. However, through interacting with these two, he also gains better sense of his own weaknesses. An important characteristic of Maitland is his detachment from others. To emphasize this, he uses the phrase “emotionally loaded transactions” when describing his relationships with Helen, Catherin, and his mother (Ballard, Concrete, 83). The comparison between relationships and transactions is magnified through interacting with Jane and Proctor. For example, when Maitland first meets Jane, he hopes that money will help him escape from the island (Ballard, Concrete, 83). To elicit ...

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