I tried to read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe some years ago, but, even though I know to be patient with older classics, I was bored to tears and never finished it. When I listened to The Moonstone recently, one of the characters in it referred to Robinson Crusoe quite a bit, and I thought, that’s it, I have got to finally read this thing. I did not find it hard at all to get into this time. I think listening to an audiobook, read by David Warner’s easy-on-the-ears voice, helped immensely. I read parts in the online version on Project Gutenberg.
All I knew about the story was that Crusoe went off to sea in rebellion to his father’s wishes and somehow landed on a deserted island – deserted, he thought, until he had been there alone for some years and then was startled one day to find a single footprint that he knew wasn’t his, and that later he finds a black man whom he names Friday who becomes his servant. I didn’t realize that there were other adventures, both before and after his time on the island. In fact, the original (and very long) title to this book was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Quite a mouthful! These days it’s usually shortened to The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe or just Robinson Crusoe.
Wikipedia says this book, published in 1719, “is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre,” and Sparknotes comments, “His focus on the actual conditions of everyday life and avoidance of the courtly and the heroic made Defoe a revolutionary in English literature and helped define the new genre of the novel. Stylistically, Defoe was a great innovator. Dispensing with the ornate style associated with the upper classes, Defoe used the simple, direct, fact-based style of the middle classes, which became the new standard for the English novel.”
The story opens with a bit of background of Crusoe’s family. “Being the third son of the family and not bred to any trade, my head began to be filled very early with rambling thoughts.” His father wanted him to go into law, but Robinson “would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea.” His father earnestly admonished him that he had an opportunity for a comfortable life that had none of the problems of the very poor or very rich, and that he feared that if Robin persisted in his plans, it would come to no good end. Robin listened and waited a year, but in all that time could not make himself settle down to a profession. When he was nineteen, an opportunity arose for him to go out on a friend’s father’s ship, and “I consulted neither father nor mother any more, nor so much as sent them word of it; but leaving them to hear of it as they might, without asking God’s blessing or my father’s, without any consideration of circumstances or consequences,” he went.
His first journey is beset by storms and seasickness; his second journey ends with the ship being overtaken by pirates and his being made a slave. After a while he escapes with a young boy named Xury, whom he makes his servant. They are rescued by the captain of a Portuguese ship, which takes him to Brazil. He sells Xury to the captain, obtains a plantation, and gets on fairly well for a number of years. Then he goes out to sea again with some others to obtain slaves, and that ship wrecks in a storm and Robinson lands, alone, on the island where he will spend the bulk of his life.
A great part of the story is taken up with his management on the island. He’s greatly afraid at first until he explores enough to find that he is alone and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of dangerous creatures. He fashions a raft and gets as much as he can off the ship before it’s broken to bits. Then he sets about making a shelter and planning how to ration his supplies and supplement them with what he can find on the island.
He calls it the “Island of Despair.” Many times he feels bad about his situation and prays to God for help, but he’s not really repentant yet. He’s like the stony ground in the parable of the sower in which something seems to be growing at first, but as the bedrock beneath has never been broken up, spiritual life doesn’t really take root. It’s not until some time later when he is very sick with ague that he comes to the end of himself and truly repents and turns to God. The book is surprisingly frank and orthodox about spiritual issues (surprising in the sense that a book this close to Biblical truth, and, in fact, somewhat didactic at times spiritually, has been so popular for hundreds of years. I’m glad – just surprised. Even the Sparknotes and Shmoop commentaries handle this aspect with being derogatory). When he gets discouraged, he makes up a list of the bad and the good: I’m alone on a desert island/at least I’m alive; I don’t have clothes/but I’m in a hot climate where I don’t need them, etc., and thus he is encouraged.
As first Robinson is in bare survival mode, but after a while his skills and possessions increase. He knows he must make provision for when his supplies from the ship run out. He throws out some leftover seed from a bag and is surprised when corn and barley grow from what he thought was just dust and feed remains, and he thanks Providence. He finds some birds which are good to eat, as well as turtles (which he cuts open to gather their eggs). He is pretty ingenious: one thing he lacked was any kind of iron. Once when cooking something in an earthenware pot he made, a piece of it broke off in the fire and became hardened. He began to try ways of heating his clay creations to make hardened, watertight vessels. Much of this and the rest of his work was trial and error, and many things took a great deal of time. Much of the middle section of the book is his dealing with these kinds of things and musing to himself.
He learns to be pretty content expect for the lack of companionship and sometimes feels like “my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island.” He even makes different areas to live, calling one his castle and another his “country house.”
But the pivotal moment comes when, after years on the island alone, he unexpectedly finds a man’s footprint in the sand. Further investigation leads to a site where cannibals have had a disgusting feast. Robinson determines to prepare for the next time they come to the island and kill them all, but then he wrestles with his conscience about whether that would be the right thing since they don’t know they are doing wrong. When they do come again, one of their prisoners breaks away. Robinson rescues him, names him Friday (that being the day of the week he found him), and makes him his servant.
This is one area that would offend modern sensibilities: Crusoe’s making Xury and servant and then selling him, and then making Friday a servant. Friday seems happy to be a servant in exchange for his life having been saved, but it seems arrogant and ungracious for one person to enslave another. It was the way of the world then, but Sparknotes makes this interesting analysis from Chapters 24-27:
The affectionate and loyal bond between Crusoe and Friday is a remarkable feature of this early novel. Indeed, it is striking that this tender friendship is depicted in an age when Europeans were engaged in the large-scale devastation of nonwhite populations across the globe. Even to represent a Native American with the individual characterization that Defoe gives Friday, much less as an individual with admirable traits, was an unprecedented move in English literature. But, in accordance with the Eurocentric attitude of the time, Defoe ensures that Friday is not Crusoe’s equal in the novel. He is clearly a servant and an inferior in rank, power, and respect. Nevertheless, when Crusoe describes his own “singular satisfaction in the fellow himself,” and says, “I began really to love the creature,” his emotional attachment seems sincere, even if we object to Crusoe’s treatment of Friday as a creature rather than a human being.
Robinson begins to teach Friday about God and Christianity, which Friday readily seems to accept.
What happens to Crusoe and Friday, what other visitors come to the island, and their other adventures off the island, I’ll leave for you to discover.
I’m glad to finally know the story of Robinson Crusoe. Have you read it? What did you think?