Robinson Crusoe and Early Novel Syndrome

So the religious/didactic element is a definite sign of Early Novel Syndrome, as is, I believe, the issue of time passing strangely that I wrote about a bit yesterday. Two more posts on two more symptoms of ENS should do it for Defoe, for now, and then I’ll try to perk us up next week. Ha, we’ll have to see with what.

The structure of Robinson Crusoe is kind of a mess. For a while on the island, he keeps a journal, and his journal is inserted into the main text of his narration, which is clearly done after the fact of his rescue. It’s pretty uneven and rudimentary for the epistolary form, at least in my experience. But I want to look at something smaller.

When Crusoe first finds himself alive and on the shore of his desert island, he is overcome with emotion.

I walked about on the shore…reflecting upon all my comrads that were drowned, and that there should not be one soul saved but myself; for, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.

I quite liked that, and I think it’s a popular quote; I think I have seen it before. It has an inkling, at least, especially in the “that were not fellows,” of first-rate novelistic detail. But Defoe isn’t really up to that just yet. This is really just a list, and there are a lot of lists.

The next one is a bit further down the page: “I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco pipe, and a little tobacco in a box; this was all my provision….” Later, he begins salvage operations, which provide obvious opportunities for listing. When he begins to build things, more listing. When he begins to husband animals, more listing. It’s never too long before we are reminded of Crusoe’s provisions, or what is stored up in his house, and how many bushels of corn he plants and saves for the off-season.

I feel like I should be put in mind of Laura’s Pa, and the wonderful things he knows how to do and the wonderful descriptions she gives of him making and doing all sorts of things. Wilder is expressing a childlike wonder as well as the process of growing up and becoming a competent adult. Certainly, as I discussed in my post on religion, Crusoe’s work is vital to his conversion story. But the actual method or technique of these lists simply seems less well-formed or well-developed. What is included or excluded doesn’t really make sense or bear on anything. It becomes, I suppose, the opposite of novelistic detail: lists to give the appearance of exhaustivity and, I think more importantly, realism. Funny how it turns out we find it more realistic not to do this.

2 comments to Robinson Crusoe and Early Novel Syndrome

  • Although really this is proto-Enlightenment Defoe, his portrait of homo economicus, it also reappears in post-modern fiction. Those guys love their lists. Thus, James Woods’ label “hyper-realism”.

  • I am a huge, huge fan of the listing technique when done right (Swift’s list of solutions he doesn’t want to consider at the end of “A Modest Proposal”! Matthew Arnold’s list of the world’s failings in the final stanza of “Dover Beach”!), but when done wrong it just comes off as tedious or random. Sounds like Defoe is walking that line here, often on the wrong side.