Robinson Crusoe overview
Robinson Crusoe tells the ‘true story’, narrated retrospectively in the first person, of a young Englishman who, against the wishes of his parents, sets sail on a dangerous sea voyage. Daniel Defoe’s novel draws on contemporary travel narratives and tales of real-life castaways, such as Alexander Selkirk.
On his travels, Crusoe is shipwrecked several times, always resolving to set out again, until one especially dangerous journey – to procure slaves from Africa – when he is shipwrecked on an island off the coast of South America. Crusoe is the wreck’s sole human survivor (a dog and two cats survive along with him), and, grateful to be alive, he sets about making himself as comfortable as he can in his new home with provisions rescued from the ship before it sinks and survival tactics honed during previous voyages.
A large section of the novel is devoted to Crusoe’s journal, in which he describes his daily routine on the island, his difficulties acquiring food and how he begins to read the Scripture and find solace in Christianity. After two years on the island, Crusoe reflects ‘how much more happy this Life I now led was, with all its miserable Circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable Life I led all the past Part of my Days’.
Slavery and British colonialism are key backdrops to the novel, informing nearly every aspect of the plot, characters and ideas contained within. Over 20 years go by before Crusoe spots a human footprint, not his own, on the sand; it turns out to belong to a visiting cannibal, a group of whom sometimes come to the island to kill and eat prisoners they have captured at sea. Several more years pass before one of those prisoners escapes and becomes Crusoe’s attendant. Naming him ‘Man Friday’, after the day of the week he finds him, Crusoe converts Friday to Christianity and teaches him the English language.
Ultimately, after 27 years on the island, Crusoe is able to negotiate passage on an English ship which stops by. He returns home, only to find he has been believed long since dead by his family, and disinherited. He continues his life and travels (by land) as a colonial trader, and the book ends with the promise of narrating more of his escapades in the future. These went on to be published as The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719).
Robinson Crusoe’s reception
Defoe’s book was instantly popular, inspiring a number of responses and imitations which have continued to the present day. Its methodical and detailed structure makes it the prototype of the English realist novel. It is still studied for its interrogation of the limits of human resilience, and its treatment of ideas of ‘civilisation’ and ‘brutality’. In the 20th century, Robinson Crusoe was important to post-colonial and Caribbean literature.
Adrian Mitchell's play Man Friday (1972) retells the narrative from Friday’s perspective, while Derek Walcott’s play Pantomime (1978), set in Tobago, addresses colonial relationships and explores Friday’s voice through the characters of a Caribbean servant and white expatriate hotel owner.
- Article by:
- Stephen Sharkey
- Rise of the novel, Travel, colonialism and slavery
Playwright Stephen Sharkey describes his own first encounter with Robinson Crusoe and examines how the novel was shaped by Daniel Defoe's religious dissent, imperialist beliefs and fascination with money.
- Article by:
- Abdul Mohamud, Robin Whitburn
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery
With a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn trace the history of Britain’s large-scale involvement in the enslavement of Africans and the transatlantic slave trade. Alongside this, Mohamud and Whitburn consider examples of resistance by enslaved people and communities, the work of abolitionists and the legacy of slavery.
- Article by:
- S I Martin
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery, Language and ideas
By 1780, Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000 people. S I Martin describes how four writers, taken from Africa as children and sold into slavery, grew up to write works that challenged British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade.