Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was first published in 1719, and you probably think you know the story. Daniel Defoe’s novel, you imagine, relates the tale of a castaway lost on a desert island, where he saves the life of a fellow unfortunate, a black man he names Friday after the day he saved him. This is both true and ridiculously surprisingly not at all what the novel seems to be about as you read it.

First, Crusoe has some not-so-minor adventures long before he’s shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela. He runs away from home as a teenager, because his parents don’t want him to go to sea. Almost immediately he’s caught in a storm that gives him some pretty serious second thoughts. But with the calm return his romantic notions, and he sets off. Captured by pirates, Crusoe is enslaved by Moors. Were you expecting that? Or, rather, should I have been?

Crusoe is a slave for two years, which pass in the space of about a page, until he manages to escape with a young boy. They sail along the African coast for a time, witnessing exotic sites, before being picked up by a Portuguese ship with an extremely kindly captain who helps Crusoe get back on his feet again. Crusoe makes for Brazil, where he starts a sugar plantation and does pretty well for himself.

It’s only after Crusoe has been settled in Brazil, again for years, that he goes on the voyage that will make him famous, so to speak. On his way to Africa to purchase slaves, he is shipwrecked, finally, on the desert island we’ve been waiting for. And guess how long he spends there? Years! Guess how long before Friday shows up? Years! And I mean, more than twenty! Crusoe is alone, on the island, for decades—and he’s busy, growing crops and keeping livestock and building a pretty unbelievable fortress. It also takes him years to discover that he actually needs the fortress (though he built it anyhow), because occasionally cannibals land on the island to dance, eat their enemies, dance some more, and then leave.

It’s a very weird book. This is the early novel, you know. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about the didactic element of Robinson Crusoe, because that’s important to the issue as well, so I won’t get to the whole “super early novel what the hell is this” question so much until Wednesday. But it’s pretty strange (though not terribly surprising) to read a book like this when we take so much about the novel for granted—and when we think we have a pretty decent handle on the plot. And I didn’t even mention that the book pretty much ends in France. Yeah.

Defoe also published a follow-up to the main Robinson Crusoe story, which I did not read. My understanding is that The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, though included in my free Kindle edition of the book without a very clear delineation between the two parts, is not so historically or literarily important, and by the time it rolled around I was pretty ready to move on. But dear readers, do let me know if this is not the case. I can’t say I would get to it anytime soon if you recommend it, but I will at least not write it off entirely in my mind.

3 comments to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

  • If you look at 19th century responses to RC, it is clear that they are including the second book whenever they are talking about Crusoe or Crusoe. I am basing this on the additional material in the Norton Critical Edition.

    But the sequel has faded away. I haven’t read it. The Norton does not include any excerpts. I suppose the second book is mostly more stuff like the useless beginning and ending of the first book.

  • If I ever make it past page 16 of Robinson Crusoe, I’ll have to bake myself a cake for the occasion. I’ve tried three times and three times I’ve found myself casting the book aside by page 16. I know one day I’ll have to read this annoying excuse of a book (what with the whole “early novel” thing going for it… pfff, as if that’s anything special!) but I’m trying as hard as I can to keep that day at bay…

  • I tried reading Defoe’s Moll Flanders and didn’t stick with it – so I left Defoe off entirely. This is probably a mistake. A mistake I’ll try to correct once I get in an 18th century mood again. Maybe in 2012?