The Semiotics of Shipwreck: A Symposium on the Representaton and Resonance of Maritime Disaster

The Semiotics of Shipwreck: A Symposium on the Representaton and Resonance of Maritime Disaster

Dr Carl Thompson; Prof Bill Niven
National Maritime Museum (provisional)
United Kingdom
Vom - Bis
19.11.2010 - 20.11.2010
Bill Niven

Ever since human beings first began seafaring, they have been fascinated, and haunted, by shipwrecks. For maritime societies especially, these tragedies at sea have been a constant source of anxiety, since they are disasters that potentially devastate not only individuals but also the community or nation as a whole. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that shipwreck is also one of the oldest motifs in art and literature. It can be traced as far back as the second millennium BCE, when a fragmentary Egyptian papyrus tells of a sailor shipwrecked on an island that is home to a giant snake. Thereafter it becomes a key topos in the romance genre, from Heliodorus to Shakespeare and beyond, and recurs frequently in poetry, from Homer's Odyssey and Horace's Odes through to Byron's Don Juan and Hopkins's 'The Wreck of the Deutschland'. It has a Biblical presence, for example in the account of St Paul's shipwreck. And the motif of shipwreck may fairly (if a little paradoxically) be said to have launched the modern novel, in English at least: shipwrecks are of course central to both Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. This fascination with the shipwreck scenario continues right down to the present day, notwithstanding the fact that shipwrecks are today much more infrequent than they were in the past. Although air crashes may have replaced shipwrecks as a key instigator of action in many narrative forms (as in Golding's Lord of the Flies or the TV series Lost), ours is still a culture obsessed, for example, with the mythology of the 1912 Titanic disaster, and James Cameron's 1997 treatment of this tragedy remains the highest-grossing film of all time.

Over the years, accounts and metaphors of shipwreck have taken diverse forms and served various purposes; the iconicity that attaches to the shipwreck motif has also varied significantly across time and between different cultures. Thus in some forms it is fused with Protestant traditions of spiritual autobiography, and comes to denote a cataclysmic, transformative event in the life of an individual. In others, meanwhile, the topos is informed by Horace's famous metaphor of the ship of state, and becomes associated with an act of collective memorialization and mourning. The aim of this symposium is to explore the shifting and multiple semiotics of shipwreck; to trace the evolution of the shipwreck motif over time and across different cultures; and to trace the circulation of accounts and representations of specific shipwrecks (eg the Lusitania, the Titanic, the Gustloff, the Grosvenor and so forth) through culture.

To this end, we invite papers that address the question of the representation of shipwreck from any disciplinary angle, and with regard to any time period or culture. We are especially interested in papers that address the following themes (to supplement papers that have already been confirmed):

The shipwreck poem (eg Falconer, Hopkins etc)
Shipwrecks in classical literature and art
Shipwrecks in non-Western cultures (eg Chinese and Japanese culture, or in traditional, tribal cultures).
Shipwrecks in popular culture and in oral traditions


For more information, or to offer a paper, please contact either Dr Carl Thompson at the Centre for Travel Writing Studies, Nottingham Trent University (email:; or Professor Bill Niven (email:


Bill Niven

Nottingham Trent University

0044 115 848 3232

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprach(en) der Veranstaltung
Sprache der Ankündigung