introduction to Robinson Crusoe Banner

An introduction to Robinson Crusoe

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.

I first read Daniel Defoe’s novel when I moved to the Stoke Newington area of north London, in 2002. It seemed only polite, as Defoe wrote his classic tale of shipwreck and survival in a house on Church Street. The house has long gone but a blue plaque marks the spot, above the taxi company Defoe Cars (now operating under another name) on the corner of Defoe Road. The Daniel Defoe pub (now also, sadly, renamed) stood opposite. So I started reading Crusoe out of a sense of place, and if I’m honest, a sense of duty and of ticking a title off the canonical list.

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

The iconic frontispiece for the first edition shows Crusoe in his goatskin jacket, with guns slung over his shoulders.

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Yet I was blown away, as millions of readers have been since the first edition came out in April 1719. Defoe was almost 60 by then, we believe, and Robinson Crusoe was his debut as a fiction writer (let that sink in for a moment). Three centuries on, his work is still read and enjoyed for its extraordinary dramatic verve and the vivid depiction of a mind-bendingly strange experience. Crusoe’s consciousness and the arc of his story have been endlessly discussed and studied through the lenses of successive champions, critics and imitators. There is even a literary genre named for the novel: the ‘Robinsonade’, defined as ‘a desert island story’ or ‘castaway narrative’. Recent examples include the novel The Martian (and its successful movie adaptation), the fantasy series Lost (to which I was hopelessly addicted), and the 2018 Netflix drama Lost In Space, a very successful reboot of the 1960s TV Robinsonade of the same name. Notable literary Robinsonades include J G Ballard’s Concrete Island, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and J M Coetzee’s 1986 novel Foe, a brilliant retelling of Crusoe that features Daniel Foe, a money-obsessed writer, as a key character.

Dissenter

Defoe was probably born in 1660 – the exact date is disputed, which seems somehow appropriate, as he thrived on dispute, debate and dissent his whole life. He was a Dissenter with a capital D, born into the Nonconformist, Puritan wing of the English church. That same year the Dissenters were thrown into turmoil by the restoration of the monarchy and subsequently persecuted with revengeful vigour by the established church. Defoe’s early years were fraught and anxious: in addition to religious persecution, he survived the plague that ravaged London in 1665 and the Great Fire that razed it a year later. Small wonder that the novels that emerged from him a half century later – Crusoe, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, Roxana and others – were restless and tumultuous, obsessed with fate, their narratives strewn with catastrophic events and heart-stopping reversals of fortune.

Recipe to cure the Plague

A 17th-century advertisement on how to cure the plague, with a list of those already cured.

Defoe survived the plague which devastated London in 1665. This broadside advertises a cure for the plague which, of course, didn’t work.

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The novel’s action starts with a shipwreck, but not the shipwreck that casts him away for half his adult life. In a passage of hair-raising, stomach-lurching urgency, the young Crusoe is very nearly drowned in a believably apocalyptic storm off the east coast of England, on his very first sea voyage. Born and brought up in York, he has run away from home while still a teenager, setting out to travel by boat from Hull to London, his father’s dire warning that he will perish if he goes to sea still ringing in his ears:

… if I did take this foolish step, God would not bless me, and I would have leisure hereafter to reflect upon having neglected his counsel when there might be none to assist in my recovery. (ch. 6)

So far, so straightforward: we already know from the ‘trailer’, or is it the spoiler, of the title page that the meat on the bone is Crusoe’s ‘eight and twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the coast of America’. We appreciate the dramatic irony of Father Crusoe’s warning and are ready to move on. But Defoe has more to offer than a nakedly exciting narrative, and in the next paragraph he sketches in a skilful image of the father’s anguish. For he has already lost a son, Crusoe’s brother, after failing to deter him from joining up to fight in ‘the Low Country wars’ (ch. 1), and is desperate not to lose Robinson to foreign adventure: ‘I observed the tears run down his face very plentifully, and especially when he spoke of my having leisure to repent, and none to assist me, he was so moved, and broke off the discourse, and told me, his heart was so full he could say no more to me’ (ch. 1).

French edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1720

French edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1720

An engraving showing Crusoe being scolded by his father.

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Slavery and imperialism

Growing up in the 1970s in Liverpool I was dimly aware of the historic centrality of the city to the global slave trade, the economic forces of capital brought to bear on the working class to which I belonged and the exploitation of indigenous peoples in far-flung places. As a professional writer immersed in the politics and economics of his day, Daniel Defoe was attuned to the burgeoning power of British imperial drives and thoroughly familiar with the psychology of the acquisitive colonist – not least because he was one himself. In 1711, while an adviser to Britain’s chief minister Robert Harley, he worked on plans for a colony ‘on the Continent of America, and in the Midst of The Gold, Silver and Other productions with which the Spaniards have So Enrich’t Themselves, and which The English are Much more capable to improve Than They’.

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley, 1703‒14

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley

In this letter, dated 23 July 1711, Defoe outlines his ‘Proposall for Seizing’ and ‘forming an English Collony’ in South America.

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Eight years later, Defoe created Robinson Crusoe and shipwrecked him off the coast of South America. Two centuries on, his great admirer James Joyce delivered a lecture describing Crusoe as

the true symbol of the British conquest … cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a knife-grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence … the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity. Whoever rereads this simple, moving book in the light of subsequent history cannot help but fall under its prophetic spell.

Crusoe is for Joyce a pen portrait of much he despises and admires in the English, the cruel and intelligent subjugator of races (including Joyce’s own, of course, the Irish).

But Defoe does not consciously write about slavery from a political or ethical perspective. Slavery to him is simply part of how the world works in the early 18th century, and many long years before his domination of Friday Crusoe experiences his famous shipwreck – both the undoing and the making of him – on a slaving expedition driven by naked profit. What is perhaps less well known is that in the early part of his first-person account of his ‘strange and surprising adventures’, Crusoe is himself enslaved, when the trading ship on which he is travelling is boarded and ransacked by corsairs, pirates from Morocco. The pirate captain chooses the young Robinson to be his house-boy.

[I] was kept by the captain of the rover, as his proper prize, and made his slave, being young and nimble, and fit for his business. At this surprising change of my circumstances from a merchant to a miserable slave, I was perfectly overwhelmed. (ch. 2)

Engravings of enslaved Europeans in Pierre Dan's History of Barbary and its Pirates, 1684

Engravings of European slaves in Pierre Dan's History of Barbary and its Pirates, 1684

This book describes the customs of North African corsairs who enslaved Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The practice developed around the same time as the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade, but there are few equivalent images of Europeans’ treatment of enslaved Africans.

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This is one of Defoe’s many masterful reversals. Robinson spends two years as a slave, though he is treated well enough. Eventually he makes his escape ... his fortunes rise … he makes a very good living as a plantation owner in Brazil … until the catastrophic decision to mount an illegal slaving expedition to West Africa. So it is that he comes to doom himself to 28 years’ ‘captivity’ on an island off the northern coast of South America.

… as I walked about, either on my hunting or for viewing the country, the anguish of my soul at my condition would break out upon me on a sudden, and my very heart would die within me, to think of the woods, the mountains, the deserts I was in, and how I was a prisoner, locked up with the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness, without redemption. (ch. 8)

The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20

The World Described by Herman Moll

This map shows South America and the tip of Guinea in West Africa. The African coastline is divided by Europeans into zones labelled ‘Grain’, ‘Ivory’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Slave Coast’.

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Money

The author’s own life experience provided the fuel for the burning intensity of Crusoe’s suffering; Daniel Defoe had been imprisoned for debt, and for writing The Shortest Way With The Dissenters, an essay so provocative that he was convicted on the charge of seditious libel. All his adult life had been a struggle – for liberty of religion, freedom of thought and financial security. Defoe had a feverish fascination with all aspects of commerce and investment – but unfortunately he had no talent for any of it: money flowed through his fingers like water, and it is good to bear this in mind when reading Crusoe’s adventures. There’s a wonderful moment during our hero’s titanic effort to salvage every last item from the wreck of the ship when he finds a hoard of coins and is struck by their sudden worthlessness: ‘O drug!’ said I aloud, ‘What art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no not the taking off of the ground …’’ (ch. 4). But old habits die hard, and he takes the coins along with all the presently useful items (scissors, knives and so on). This money is not forgotten and it reappears near the end of the book, ‘so long useless that it had grown rusty, or tarnished, and could hardly pass for silver till it had been a little rubbed and handled’ (ch. 19). Waste not, want not.

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley, 1703‒14

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley

In this letter (written c. May‒June 1704), Defoe alludes to the scandal that led him to prison. He uses an image of shipwreck to describe his many ‘Misfortunes’, worrying that he might not ‘Get ashore again’.

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Influences, motives, legacy

There is still considerable doubt surrounding Defoe’s sources and influences. Where did Robinson Crusoe come from? Was it an entertainment inspired by first-hand accounts of men such as Alexander Selkirk, the famous castaway, who spent four years marooned on a rocky island off the coast of Chile? Was it a spiritual allegory penned by a devout Christian, a kind of cryptically autobiographical thriller designed to offer the reader reflections on divine Providence and the vanity of worldly ambition? Or was Defoe simply a voracious consumer of the travellers’ tales and reminiscences that abounded in early modern London, and fancied writing a fictional one of his own to cash in on the vogue? We do not know for sure. Perhaps it was a cocktail of these motives, and more. The critic James Sutherland wrote ‘Crusoe is not Daniel Defoe. And yet, more than any of his books, it is a kind of day-dream in which the author and his hero dissolve into one another’ (Sutherland, J., Defoe. (1965)).

The story of Alexander Selkirk in Woodes Rogers's Cruising Voyage Round the World, 1712

The story of Alexander Selkirk in Woodes Rogers' Cruising Voyage Round the World, 1712

Selkirk spent over four years marooned on one of the islands of Juan Fernández. In this account of his trials, solitude makes him a ‘better Christian’, like Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s novel.

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What is indisputable is that through a prodigious act of imaginative alchemy, this journeyman political hack and failed businessman created a story that has achieved the status of myth. Crusoe has joined the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Peter Pan and Alice – creations whose fame eclipses that of their creators and have gone on to influence the cultural imagination across the globe.

In 1913, prefacing a new edition of R M Ballantyne’s classic 1858 Robinsonade The Coral Island, J M Barrie wrote: ‘To be born is to be wrecked on an island’. Like Peter Pan, Barrie’s own immortal boy, Robinson Crusoe is forever wrecked, forever imprisoned by ‘the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean’, and even as we gasp at his loneliness, marvel at his ingenuity, recoil at his arrogance and self-regard and cheer his ultimate escape, all the while we understand that much about Crusoe’s solipsism and myopia is what it’s like to be alive.

  • Stephen Sharkey
  • Stephen Sharkey is a playwright. Originally from Liverpool, he has lived in London for twenty-five years. Among his many adaptations and translations for theatre are works by Dickens, Aristophanes, Euripides, Goncharov, Brecht, Dostoyevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. His original play The May Queen was produced at the Liverpool Everyman and is published by Methuen. In October of this year, Kiln Theatre (formerly The Tricycle) will present the world premiere of White Teeth, Stephen’s adaptation of Zadie Smith’s celebrated novel.

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