Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a merchant, economist, journalist and spy before writing his first novel at the age of sixty. Defoe is considered by many to be the first true novelist in the English language and Robinson Crusoe helped establish a genre of stories about souls lost on distant islands who have to learn to build a life anew. (e.g., The Swiss Family Robinson (family), Blue Lagoon (teens), Lord of the Flies (group of parentless children), and Castaway (individual)---all of which, like Robinson Crusoe, were turned into movies.)
Defoe had first thought of becoming a Presbyterian minister but around 1682 gave up this idea and became a merchant. He traveled widely to France, Spain, the Low Countries and beyond and was intrigued by travel throughout the rest of his life. In 1684 he married and was later jailed for debt. His life was extremely varied and he fought briefly in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion of 1685. He then started writing political tracts and this led to his being fined and then jailed. “Throughout his life he delighted in role-playing and disguise, using it to great effect as a spy, and in his writing he often adopted a pseudonym or another personality for rhetorical effect” (pp. 1-2). He wrote over five hundred books, pamphlets and journals on a wide range of topics including politics, crime, religion, geography, marriage, psychology and the supernatural. Defoe turned to fiction relatively late in life: his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, was not published until 1719. Defoe’s other main works, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year and Roxana, followed shortly after. Robinson Crusoe became an immediate success on its publication and has remained enduringly popular ever since. All quotes I use are from the Penguin 1994 edition of the book.
Defoe starts out with a contrivance to help the reader get more deeply involved in the story indicating that this is a factual account. “A just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it” (p. 7). This trick has been repeated by many authors and is also one of the powerful things about movies. Even through you “know” that it is fiction, you get drawn in and begin to “see” and “feel” the story as though it were happening in real time and often as if it were happening to YOU. (Defoe based his story on the life of Alexander Selkirk but his novel is a fictional account of what it would be like to be stranded on a deserted island for many years.)
The main character of the story, Robinson, is born in 1632 and wants to go to sea. However, his comfortably off parents urge him not to do so and for some time he follows their advice. But finally, at age 19, he takes a short voyage from the area of his home in England to London. A great storm comes up, he gets seasick, and the boat sinks but he survives. In short, he has every reason to reconsider and recognize that his parents were right, that he should not be venturing upon the high seas. However, he goes on a second voyage, this time to Africa, and makes money so that it is a successful venture for him---even though he gets sick on this trip as well. His third voyage, designed to make more money, is a disaster and he is captured by pirates and becomes their slave for two years on the Moroccan coast of Northern Africa. He is finally able to escape in a small boat and, after a number of adventures and dangers, is fortunate enough to be found and taken aboard a ship heading for Brazil.
In Brazil he becomes a planter and is quite successful after working there four years. Other planters encourage him to go to Africa to get slaves to work the plantations and he begins the voyage but his ship is destroyed and only Robinson survives, marooned on an island off the coast of South America. He is now age 27 and it is 1659 and we have spent some 50 pages getting to this point in the novel. All the lead up to this part has been very purposeful and deliberate. Defoe wants you to see how he continually ignored the best advice available and this led him to numerous disasters.
Robinson is able to salvage a number of valuable tools and goods from the wrecked ship before another storm totally destroys it and uses these things to establish his life on the island. He realizes that he most likely will spend the rest of his days there and works diligently to establish a life on the island.
At first he is miserable. How could this happen? Why did it happen to me? Oh woe is me! It is at this point in the novel, on page 66, that Defoe finally lets you know what he is really trying to tell you in this story: “All evils are to be considered with the good that is in them, and with what worse attends them. Then it occurred to me again how well I was furnished for my subsistence, and what would have been my case if it had not happened, which was an hundred thousand to one, that the ship floated from the place where she first struck, and was driven so near to the shore that I had time to get all these things out of her.”
Defoe, who has Robinson engaged in endless projects to improve his estate, is also philosophic about time: “But what need I have been concerned at the tediousness of anything I had to do, seeing I had time enough to do it in? Nor had I any other employment if that had been over, at least that I could foresee” (p. 68).
But these bits of philosophy are but leads to what Defoe really wants to talk to his audience about---and that key subject is God. “I had hitherto acted upon no religious foundation at all; indeed I had very few notions of religion in my head, nor had entertained any sense of anything that had befallen me, otherwise than as a chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God…But after I saw barley grow there, in a climate which I know was not proper for corn, and especially that I know not how it came there, it startled me strangely, and I began to suggest that God had miraculously caused this grain to grow without any help of seed sown, and that it was so directed purely for my sustenance on that wild miserable place…at last it occurred to my thoughts that I had shook a bag of chickens’ (feed) out in that place and then the wonder began to cease; and I must confess my religious thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate too upon the discovering that all this was nothing but what was common” (pp. 80-81).
So Defoe warns us against faulty reasoning and jumping to rash conclusions and attributing miracles of God to natural events that we have yet to understand. Considering that he is writing this in 1719, this is a rather modern approach to God and quite worthy of the most modern thinkers and in fact a better use of reasoning than many religious writers employ to this very day!
Throughout the book Defoe has Robinson consistently reaching out to God in ignorance and fear only to stop doing so when the situation changes for the better. How often in your life have you done the same?
However, over time, Defoe has Robinson start the journey toward an effective appreciation of God. Robinson begins to ask the most basic and profound questions: “What is this earth and sea, of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced, and what am I, and all the other creatures, wild and tame, human and brutal, whence are we? Sure we are all made by some secret Power who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky; and who is that? Then it followed most naturally, it is God that has made it all. Well, but then it came on strangely; if God has made all these things, He guides and governs them all…(sooooooo…) Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus used?” (pp. 93-94).
This is a very ancient as well as current lament that humans make and how Defoe answers the questions are exceedingly important. It is at this point in the story that Robinson has his greatest revelation. He sees that when you set expectations for God to meet, you miss all the other wonders He daily delivers.
God has not created all of his miseries. In fact, he has been exceedingly fortunate. He is the only one that survived the ship wreck. If he had not been able to recover items from the wreck, he most likely would have perished by now. It is all about ATTITUDE. Is the glass half full or half empty? Robinson now sees it as half full and begins to appreciate his life as never before. Earlier he had lamented that he was all alone and felt miserable about this. Now he sees things very differently. He sees that this abandonment upon the island is a blessing for he has been living a life of sin up to this time and he now has found God. “As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it or think of it; it was all of no consideration in comparison to this; and I added this part here to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction” (p. 98).
“My condition began now to be, though not less miserable as to my way of living, yet much easier to my mind; and my thoughts being directed, by a constant reading the Scripture and praying to God, to things of a higher nature, I had a great deal of comfort within which till now I knew nothing of” (p. 98).
In fact he learns that he is blessed by being on the island away from the temptations of civilization. “It was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world” (p. 114).
“I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side; and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet something that He has not given them. All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have” (p. 130).
“And this part also I cannot but recommend to the reflection of those who are apt in their misery to say, ‘Is any affliction like mine?’ Let them consider how much worse the cases of some people are, and their case might have been, if Providence had thought fit.
“I had another reflection which assisted me also to comfort my mind with hopes; and this was comparing my present condition with what I had deserved, and had therefore reason to expect from the hand of Providence” (p. 131).
Meanwhile, the years are rolling by for Robinson---he thought the above when he had been on the Island four years. About half way through the book, Robinson sees the footprint of another person. Remember, he earlier moaned about his solitary state. Now he is in utter fear---is this the print of some savage that will find him and eat him? Defoe has us appreciate the deadly power of fear at this point: “Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God, which was founded upon such wonderful experience as I had had of His goodness, now vanished” (p. 154). Robinson has now been on the island for 15 years and spends all of his extra energy now reinforcing his abode to ward off an attack from the unseen potential enemy and does this for the next two years!
Then he finds human bones on the island and so is sure that these are savage cannibals that have come to feast on human flesh on his island. Robinson’s reaction is one of preparing to attack these savages and kill them all! Instead, with time and more reasoned thought, he realizes he is not the one to judge the behavior of others. “What authority or call I had to pretend to be judge and executioner upon these men as criminals, whom Heaven had thought fit for so many ages to suffer unpunished to go on, and to be, as it were, the executioners of His judgments one upon another…How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences’ reproving, or their light reproaching them. They do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of Divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit” (p. 168).
Wow! Here again, think of when this was written and how we have yet to live up to this acceptance of others. How quick we continue to judge others! How little is our appreciation of cultural diversity! (One of the reasons that Defoe is having Robinson think this way is that Defoe is a Protestant and aware in his time of how the Spanish have butchered thousands of natives in the New World and conducted a bloody Inquisition in Europe.)
During his 24th year on the island another ship is wrecked off its shore and Robinson is able to get some additional supplies from it before it is totally wrecked. Once again, no survivors. During his 25th year he hears the first sound of a human voice other than his own. He sees the savages come with their prisoners to his island to feast upon them. As he observes this from a distance, one of the prisoners runs off and is pursued by two others and Robinson comes to his rescue. Robinson kills one of the savages because he is about to attack Robinson and the prisoner kills the other. The rescued man he names Friday because by his calculations it is a Friday when he rescues him. (At this point we are on page 200, about two-thirds of the way through the book.)
Although Friday is a savage, a native of South America, Robinson accepts him as being totally human. “He has bestowed upon them the same powers, the same reason, the same affections, the same sentiments of kindness and obligation, the same passions and resentments of wrongs, the same sense of gratitude, sincerity, fidelity, and all the capacities of doing good and receiving good that He has given to us” (p. 206).
After several years pass, more savages come to his island with prisoners to eat. Only when Robinson realizes that one is a white man does he attack them and with Friday’s help they kill most of the savages and rescue the white man as well as Friday’s father who they discover was also a prisoner. As they know that other white men who are victims of other shipwrecks live on the mainland not far away, they begin to make plans to join them with the thought of all of them returning to civilization. But before they can complete their plans an English ship comes into view. They discover a mutiny is going on and that the mutinous crew is about to abandon the ship’s captain on the island. Robinson and his group now rescue the Captain and retake the ship and sail off with it to England where Robinson is rewarded for this deed. Robinson had spent 28 years on the island!
Once back he finds that his plantation in Brazil has done very well over the years and that he is a rich man. (Towards the end of the novel he is going by land and is attacked by wolves. The point of this little bit at the end of the book is to let the reader know that horrific events can befall you whether you go to sea or remain on land.) He sells the plantation, marries and has three children before his wife dies. After seven years he returns to his island and the various people marooned there and helps to establish a colony. And that is where he ends the story with a suggestion that he may write, on another day, about the adventures of establishing this island colony.
For me one of the most fascinating things about the story is how it is remembered and how it is retold in movie versions over the years. The point of the book is to give you a more sophisticated philosophical perspective about God and how we need to relate to one another in an accepting and loving manner. Tragically this is not what is remembered so much as an adventure that a man has on an island. Why do you think this is so?