What a novelty it must have been for readers in the early 18th century to experience Robinson Crusoe’s survivalist struggle! Today, the novel is something of a slog, but the idea of the novel (i.e. its realist narrative style and its captivating theme of one man, alone at the ends of the earth) remains a potent story worth considering in the canon of contemporary literature.
Robinson Crusoe is a characteristically modern novel. It claims to be a true history told as a reflection of one man’s remote survivalism. We imagine the book as a kind of fictional journal of his experiences. Indeed, the novel offers entire sections claiming to be Crusoe’s personal diary from his time on the island, before his ink supply runs dry.
Who is Robinson Crusoe? He is a kind of every-man character. His family’s original surname was “Kreutznaer” that was later changed from the German to “Crusoe” when his father settled in Hull, England. At the outset of the novel, Crusoe is a young and restless boy in search of adventure. Despite his father’s better advice to stay rooted, find a home and a wife, and build a business; Crusoe escapes to sea in the 1650s (an act he later regrets). On his first voyage, his ship is wrecked, but for some ill-fated reason, Crusoe decides to venture out again on a ship, but this time he is captured and enslaved by Moorish pirates. After years of enslavement, he gains the trust of his master and ventures out on a small boat with the hopes of escaping with a fellow slave, “Xury.” They sail down the coast of Africa, fearing to stop along the shore, which is filled with the threat of “savages,” until they are rescued by a Portuguese ship. Crusoe reluctantly sells Xury to the captain and, with substantial help from this kind and generous captain, Crusoe buys a large plantation in Brazil where he settles. He grows tobacco and leads a comfortable life.
After years go by, Crusoe decides to leave his plantation in Brazil because he does not feel at home. He joins a ship headed for Africa for the slave trade, but the ship is wrecked and he alone survives, along with several animals from the ship. Suddenly, he finds himself alone on an entirely remote island. Thankfully, he is able to salvage a great deal of munitions from the ship before the next storm blows through. Long and detailed passages are devoted to Crusoe’s struggles as he builds a remarkably fortified dwelling, hunts along the inside of the island, and eventually he discovers cannibals who frequent the island. His initial reaction is to attack the cannibals for their wickedness, however life on the island has tempered his conquering spirit. He realizes they do not share his customs, so he does not attack the cannibals. However, one of their prisoners escapes and Crusoe decides to help him. He kills the two cannibals who were chasing the poor man, and he befriends him. Crusoe names him “Friday,” for the day of the week he presumably has arrived. Crusoe takes time to teach Friday the English language, hunting, farming, and he converts Friday to Christianity. Friday calls Crusoe “master,” despite Crusoe offering him his freedom, and this new hierarchy returns Crusoe to his conquering spirit. Crusoe comes to light as something of a reluctant or perhaps altruistic conqueror. Even on this remote island in the Pacific, once two men join together in a hierarchy, the shadow of Western civilization reveals itself.
Again, cannibals come to the island and this time Crusoe and Friday kill them all. Perhaps the lesson of the novel is the inevitability of civilization and its violent order imposed upon nature. They save two prisoners: Friday’s father and a Spaniard, and the group devises a plan wherein the Spaniard will return to his cohort along with Friday’s father and come back to Crusoe and Friday to build a boat to collectively set sail for Spain. However, before the Spaniards can return, an English ship appears on the horizon. A plot has been hatched aboard the English ship by mutineers against the captain, but Crusoe strikes up a deal with the captain to regain the ship and maroon the mutineers. When their plan succeeds, Crusoe teaches the mutineers how he survived on the island. He reminds them that another ship will come (Crusoe actually does them a favor, for a terrible fate awaits them if they return to England as mutineers). Before departing, Crusoe takes with him his goatskin cap, umbrella he created, and his pet parrot. Here ends the edition I recently read with my wife, however Defoe penned several additional tales of Crusoe. The edition I read included an epilogue in which Crusoe returns to his island with Friday in 1695 to commemorate his time.
In later editions, Crusoe and Friday sail for England and arrive in 1687. Crusoe’s family has believed him to be dead so he was written out of the will. Nearly impoverished, Crusoe seeks out his wealthy and successful plantation in Brazil via Portugal (without traveling by sea anymore). He also continues on an adventure through the Pyrenees with Friday.
In total, Crusoe spends 28 years, alone on a remote Caribbean island. Survivalism has long been a titillating topic in Western literature. What are the limits of civilization? Will Robinson Crusoe devolve like Caliban in the Tempest, into an unrecognizable, slavish creature; or will he overcome his imprisonment and find a way back home like Odysseus -unlike the abominable Polephemus?
Robinson Crusoe is surely a modern epic, however unlike Homer or Beowulf or Gilgamesh, it is a fictional memoir, a style choice that increases its ‘believability’ or verisimilitude. The modern problem is characterized by its lack of faith in authorship, or authority, thus literature becomes more epistolary, historical, documentary, and above all it strives to achieve ‘realism.’ The modern mind is seeking truth because it has an unnatural Cartesian skepticism which demands greater believability.
Robinson Crusoe is also an explicitly imperial novel, as Crusoe comes to represent the view of the slave-owner, the conqueror of nature, even though he is often reluctant and apologetic for superiority. He sets out seeking riches and adventure, longing to be at sea, and he winds up being a plantation owner and even joining up with the African slave trade (after suffering as a slave, himself). However, Crusoe’s restless spirit can still be tempered. His wreckage on the island is a kind of penance for his conquests. In fact, he praises his solitude (despite wishing he had never left Hull) and he claims that his time on the island has made him a better Christian. In a way, Crusoe found the life his father had hoped for him, only it is a life of complete solitude and survival on a remote island. Romantics, like Rousseau, read Robinson Crusoe as the ultimate test of civilization, the height of spirituality, the transcendental goal of the adventurer; while so-called Realists suggest a moral lesson in Robinson Crusoe – his life on the island was a great tragedy that ultimately turned him back home where he began.
The story of Robinson Crusoe is loosely based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish privateer who was marooned on a deserted island in the Pacific for four years beginning in 1704. He survived the ordeal, but returned to the shipping business. He dies years later of a tropical disease. Like Selkirk, Crusoe becomes a devout Christian on the island and dressed himself in goatskins (though this would likely have been an odd choice for the tropical weather). At any rate, the original title of Defoe’s novel was: “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived eight and twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the Greater River of Oroonoque; having been on shore by shipwreck, wherein all the men perished but himself. With an account how he was at last strangely deliver’d by pirates. Written by himself.”
Defoe, himself, was a fascinating man. He was born in 1650 as Daniel Foe, but later changed his name to “Defoe” to sound more regal. His family had a history of nonconformity, the Foes (appropriately named) were of Flemish descent. Defoe had a quality education and initially sought a career in the Presbyterian ministry, but changed course by 1683 and became a merchant. The idea of trade and economics was his lifelong passion. However, apparently, he was a risky investor and went bankrupt at several points in his life. He lost a great deal of money in shipping insurance at the height of the English war with France. His creditors dogged him all his life, and Defoe was also a political rabble-rouser (for which he was imprisoned). Defoe was a notorious pamphleteer (he wrote voluminously throughout his lifetime under hundreds of different pen-names), and he was a critic of the Catholic King James, but a defender of William of Orange. Defoe harshly criticized anything or anyone that claimed racial purity or superiority -he was an anti-Tory writer, or a “Whig.” Later, he was imprisoned several times for his debts, politics, and religious controversies. He married one woman, Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a merchant. Together, they had eight children. Defoe traveled widely in his lifetime. During his later life he turned to writing novels, the most famous of which are of course Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, both of which concern somewhat relatable characters placed into isolating situations, and the style appears as if the reader has uncovered a unique, first-person, narrative hidden deep in a solitary journal. Defoe died in 1731.
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