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Robinson Crusoe: A world classic

Michael Seidel explains how Daniel Defoe came to write Robinson Crusoe, and why the novel and its protagonist have fascinated readers for centuries.

Daniel Defoe’s The Strange and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) is one of those stories that have wide appeal for the imagining mind. It is even familiar to those who may never actually have read it. Like the Odyssey, Hamlet, Moby-Dick, A Christmas Carol, Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, or key parts of the Bible, the story of Robinson Crusoe is known worldwide and has been translated into hundreds of languages, retold in various media, imitated, expanded and revised in the 300 years since its publication.[1]

French edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1720

French edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1720

Almost as soon as it was published, the novel became an international phenomenon. This is the first French translation and the first to include a full set of illustrations.

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How does a single soul of no extraordinary skills or talents respond to exceptional circumstances? What does a man marooned on an island do for 28 years, first to survive and then to thrive? How does he organise time and space and recast a hostile environment into something secure and satisfying? What frightens him? What calms him? How does island life change his psychological foundation, his spiritual foundation? And what happens when humankind is reintroduced after a quarter of a century of Robinson Crusoe’s going it alone? These questions are engaging, and it is one of the marks of Daniel Defoe's achievement as a novelist that he is so accomplished in answering them.

Defoe as novelist

Other great novelists – among them James Joyce and Virginia Woolf – have recognised Crusoe as a singular innovation in storytelling, a sustained development of circumstantial realism, an intense depiction of human psychology and a brilliant representation of ordinary contemporary phrasings and expressions. The essence of realism for Defoe is probability. His fiction concentrates on aspects of experience that are definable, recordable, seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted. Joyce and Woolf marvel at how fascinating Defoe could be on the details of Crusoe’s island life, on things as simple as the attempt to fashion a pipe out of clay or hack a canoe out of a tree trunk. Joyce called Crusoe the English Ulysses. He certainly did not mean that his adventures on his island were as fantastic as those of the guileful and wondrous Greek hero, but he did mean that Crusoe represented realism in the same way that Ulysses represented the marvellous.

Defoe was a prolific journalist and political poet in England before he turned to the writing of novels at the age of 60. Some of his long-form journalism on subjects ranging from storms to spies, from ghosts to pirates, from family life to commercial entrepreneurism, came close to prose fiction. When, near the end of the second decade of the 18th century, his journalistic career hit a lull, he turned to inventing the same kind of stories he once reported. That would open up terrain for him, free him from the burden of verifiable facts, and play on his great strengths as a ventriloquist of modern idioms of travel, commerce, crime, prostitution and privateering. Crusoe is in this sense just one of Defoe's invented but recognisable characters, a merchant adventurer just as Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack are criminal adventurers, Roxana a sexual adventurer, and Captain Singleton an adventurer pure and simple.

Engraving of Daniel Defoe, 1703

Engraving of Daniel Defoe, 1703

This collection includes Defoe’s hugely popular political poem, ‘The True-Born Englishman’ (1701).

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In representing such a range of contemporary characters, Defoe well understands – and it is one of his great achievements as an early novelist – that characters do not always think and speak in ways that tally with what they actually do. Much of his fiction involves guilt, expressions of conscience and outright denial of actions that were bound to happen one way or another given the impulses of the characters involved. For instance, the crux of Crusoe’s story seems to be his notion that his disavowal of his father’s wishes that he settle at home and root himself locally in the trade economy was the cause of his disastrous adventure. But that kind of prodigal-son thinking misses much of the context and content of the story. Crusoe is an unsettled being. He is given to physical and emotional wanderlust, and he was simply not cut out for the risk-averse life he condemns himself for rejecting. Defoe knows and Crusoe comes to know that his impulse is rather to change his circumstances, to try something new, something different. That is the engine that drives both character and story. Crusoe even has to change his ideas and notions because the ones he has grow stale. He becomes religious in the story primarily because it is something new for him, almost the same way he works with his hands on the island because he had not done so before, or later desires companionship because he is growing bored with loneliness.

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Defoe’s novel was presented as a ‘just History of Fact’, but it exploits the freedoms of fiction.

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Origins of the Crusoe saga

In Robinson Crusoe Defoe wished to reveal the transformative powers of endurance, fortitude and energy. He wanted to invent a character broadened by his island experience and not lessened by it. And the adventure turned out even more extensive than Defoe might have originally hoped. Over the years, Robinson Crusoe has meant many things to many readers, not only an intriguing tale of island exile but an economic fable on utility theory, a religious conversion story, a treatise on Providence, a colonial primer, a self-help manual. Some have even read Robinson Crusoe as an allegorical autobiography.

Defoe was said to have based Robinson Crusoe on the real-life experiences of a Scottish privateer, Alexander Selkirk, on the island of Juan Fernández off the coast of Chile in the Pacific. In 1704 Selkirk asked to be dropped off on the island after a dispute with his ship's captain. He thought that he would be quickly picked up by any of a number of privateers sailing along the same shipping lane. He was wrong. When finally picked up four years and some months later, wearing little but goatskins, he seemed slightly crazed, had lost some of his ability to speak and showed symptoms of the depression that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

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

After spending four years alone, Selkirk was ‘cloth’d in Goat-Skins’ and looking ‘wilder than the first Owners of them’.

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Map of Juan Fernández in William Hack's South Sea Waggoner, 1684

Map of Juan Fernandez in William Hack's South Sea Waggoner, 1684

The maps in this book were stolen from the Spanish by the British, and then hand-copied for King Charles II. This page shows the islands of Juan Fernández, off the coast of Chile.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

For years Defoe had been interested in the coastal ports and colonies of South America. He had pitched proposals for South Sea trade and settlement in various regions (including the Orinoco basin that harboured Crusoe's island) to King William III in 1698 and to a parliamentary commission in 1712. His interest was in extracting raw materials and settling colonies with the help of a native labour force, even though his views on slavery and indentured service were softened by his lifelong political belief in liberty and tolerance. Crusoe's interactions with the rescued native Friday on his island exhibit both Defoe's sense of supremacy and his sense of humanity, a tricky and sometimes unsettling mix.

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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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Defoe wrote in his Serious Reflections on Robinson Crusoe that the story is allegorical as well as historical, and may represent actions closer at hand ‘when you are supposing the scene which is placed so far off, had its original so near home’ (Works, ed. by G H Maynadier, New York, 1903, Vol. 3, p. xiii). Even the story’s timing has autobiographical implications. Defoe placed Crusoe on his island for the 28-year period roughly contemporaneous with the restoration of the Stuart kngs, Charles II and James II, in England and the first 28 years of his own life. As a religious dissenter, Defoe and his family were persecuted by the Stuarts, and all his life Defoe raged against the Restoration (1660–1688) as a period of intolerance and tyranny. Perhaps the timing of Robinson Crusoe suggests that the true English spirit resided outside England while the Stuarts resided in it. Defoe felt about his home island during the years of Crusoe’s island exile what Kent felt about England in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ (1.1.182).

Portrait of King Charles II

Portrait of King Charles II

John Michael Wright’s painting shows King Charles II resplendent in his coronation regalia. The portrait was made to celebrate the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

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Island life

Whatever readers might think of the many ways to read Crusoe’s adventure, everything ultimately takes a back seat to the phenomena of island life as Defoe represents them: loneliness, fear, satisfaction, the learning of crafts, the building of protective spaces, the planting of seed, the fabricating of goods, the raising and herding of stock, the comfort of pets. Large ideas for Defoe tend to dwindle down to practical realities. When Crusoe starts reading the Bible (a copy recovered, along with other supplies, from his wrecked ship), he begins to think that all that has happened to him is the result of God’s providential design. But careful attention to the day-to-day description of life on the island makes it clear that the influence of Providence is pretty much what Crusoe decides to do anyway for other practical or emotional reasons.

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Here, Crusoe lists the pros and cons of isolation on the island, weighing up what is ‘Evil’ against what is ‘Good’.

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What really drives Crusoe are not programmes and ideas but the way his emotions and observations vary according to circumstances. Crusoe's language is marked by doublets and what he calls ‘contraries’, as when he asks his readers to understand ‘my Reign, or my Captivity, which you please’,[2] or ‘as my a Life was Life of Sorrow, one way, so it was a Life of Mercy, another’ (p. 132). Crusoe points out ‘To Day we love what to Morrow we hate; to Day we seek what to Morrow we shun’ (p. 156), and his own consciousness is marked by this adaptation from one mode of behaviour to another. He changes what he first calls his ‘Island of Despair’ (p. 70) into his mock kingdom: ‘I might call myself King, or Emperor over the whole Country’ (p. 128). He began by concealing himself from potential wild beasts within the foliage of his island; he ends by making the island a kind of sovereign domain, with town and country estates, with fortifications, with agricultural territories, with livestock pastures and enclosures.

Defoe even has Crusoe produce double-entry passages in his journal where he draws an opposing comfort out of every disaster that has befallen him. His experience is precisely what turns his misery into his opportunity, or his cave into his castle, or his fear into his salvation. Of course, the process can reverse itself under pressure. Early on Crusoe is stunned to see one shoe of a former shipmate wash up ashore – one shoe without its fellow. The scene depresses him with his sense of the loss of any kind of comradeship. Fifteen years later Crusoe notices a footprint on the beach of the far side of his island and it scares him nearly to death. He comments on the irony that whereas earlier ‘having seen one of my own Species would have seem’d to me a Raising me from Death to Life’, now he ‘was ready to sink into the Ground at but the Shadow or silent Appearance of a Man’s having set his Foot on the Island’ (p. 156). Crusoe’s irony is all the greater in that the footprint turns out to be that of a cannibal. The return of humanity comes with a set of inherent risks. Perhaps that is a measure of what a reader can take away from Crusoe’s story, a story Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘a happy nightmare’. What is the happy part and what the nightmarish is a question that stimulates so many who have either read the book or simply absorbed its compelling circumstances into their own imaginative projections.

Footnotes

[1] Spin-offs vary from John David Wyss’s 19th-century Swiss Family Robinson (1818), which keeps Crusoe’s surname and little else, to Michael Tournier’s Friday (1967), which tells the Crusoe story from the point of view of his native companion for the last four of the 28 years on the island, and to J M Coetzee’s Foe (1986), which tells the story under Defoe’s original family name from the point of view of a woman supposedly cast away on the island with Crusoe.

[2] The Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. by J Donald Crowley (London, 1972), p. 137. References here are to this standard edition.

  • Michael A Seidel
  • Michael Seidel is Professor of English Emeritus at Columbia University. He has written extensively on the history of the novel, on literary satire, on Defoe's fiction, and on James Joyce's Ulysses. He is co-editor of the first two volumes of the Stoke-Newington edition of The Works of Daniel Defoe.

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