When I read the blurb of this Penguin edition of Robinson Crusoe, my first thought was: hang on a minute! They’re saying THIS is the first English novel, now? I thought it was The Pilgrim’s Progress! According to my bookish timeline, The Pilgrim’s Progress was published long before Robinson Crusoe. I guess it depends how you define “novel” when it comes to deciding which one was “first”. Apparently, there’s been some in-fighting at the Penguin editorial offices! Either way, I knew I was in for another shipwreck novel, and I hoped fervently that this one would work out better for me than Lord Of The Flies…
Defoe was remarkably prolific over the course of the last decade or so of his life. He published Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of sequels, but still managed to die in debt, in hiding from his creditors. The introduction hastens to reassure me that Robinson Crusoe isn’t all that representative of his body of work; he got into writing for the money (ha!), and this is just one of many books he wrote because he sensed there’d be a market for it. Among those other works of his, the one that caught my eye was a beauty published in 1727, titled Conjugal Lewdness; or Matrimonial Whoredom, A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. I literally snorted aloud when I read that title (and again when I realised you can still buy copies in print!).
But to the book at hand, which was, incidentally, originally titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Defoe had clearly done his keyword research). The titular character is part of an illegal expedition to purchase slaves, but winds up shipwrecked, and forced to work as a slave would to keep himself alive (only he gets a much happier ending than most slaves did, naturally).
“Crusoe’s transformation from terrified and confused survivor to colonial master and avenging overlord of his island marks Robinson Crusoe as one of the key modern myths of English and even European culture.”p. xxvii
Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. In particular, there was a Scottish sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who was stranded for four years on the (until then) uninhabited island of Mās a Tierra, which has since been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, in honour of the novel that immortalised it. Defoe was notoriously secretive about the sources of his inspiration, but we can be pretty confident that Selkirk was his model for the hero of his book. In fact, there’s a whole body of work investigating and documenting Defoe’s muses, including Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe.
If you’re going to give this one a go, you need to be prepared: there’s no chapter breaks (just like The Pilgrim’s Progress), so it reads as one long block of text. But I’ll be breaking it down for you, so never fear 😉
It starts with a young Robinson Crusoe telling his parents to fuck off, and taking to voyages at sea against their wishes. He has a lot of rotten luck with shipwrecks and describes a few, including the story of how he came to own a Brazilian plantation as a result of one of them, before he gets to the main event…
He joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but winds up shipwrecked on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco River (serves him right, to be honest). He, and three animals – the captain’s dog, and two cats – are the only ones to survive. He manages to salvage a bunch of tools, guns, and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks entirely.
And then he gets to work. He builds himself a “home”, of sorts, a rudimentary gated community. He figures out how to make a calendar, with blunt marks on a wooden cross. He hunts, raises goats, cultivates barley and rice, dries grapes to make raisins (but not wine? wtf?), and figures out how to make pottery with the limited tools and materials he has within reach. He also sits around reading the Bible a whole bunch, and talks ad nauseam about how grateful he is to God that he survived. As far as Crusoe can see, he’s pretty well set; the only thing missing is a little human connection.
Years pass, and Crusoe notices that “native cannibals” (his words, not mine) occasionally visit the island to kill and eat their prisoners. Naturally. He gets all worked up about it, and makes a plan to kill them in turn for committing such an abomination. Then, he thinks the better of it (what a guy!). He turns his efforts to freeing a prisoner or two, so he can put them in his own employ as servants and talk God with them on the long, cold, lonely nights. Eventually, one prisoner does escape his captors, only to end up in Crusoe’s clutches. He is christened “Friday”, after the day of the week he “appeared”, and Crusoe teaches him English and brainwashes him into converting.
I don’t think I even need to say it, but I will anyway: gross. So gross. Colonially gross. And every restaurant or other business that has referenced “Friday” in this regard is gross, too.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, so let me continue: more “natives” show up and apparently partake in a cannibal feast. Crusoe and Friday forget all about how they’ve decided it’s “not their place” to take vengeance, and they kill most of them, sparing a couple of prisoners – one of whom is Friday’s father, and the other a Spaniard, who tells Crusoe all about his ship that wrecked back on the mainland.
Crusoe’s cogs start turning: he devises a plan to head back to the mainland with this Spanish guy, and Friday’s father, and bring all of the remaining crew back to Crusoe Island. Then, they’d work out how to build a new ship, set sail, and return to a Spanish port. Great plan, guys! Seriously! Flawless!
Then another ship shows up, an English one (it’s like that island from the TV show Lost, ships just keep showing up even though they’re apparently uninhabited). Mutineers have taken over the vessel, and their intention is to ditch their disgraced Captain on the island and sail on. Crusoe, ever the opportunist, strikes a deal with the Captain that he’ll help him take back the ship, on the condition that they leave the mutineers to suffer in their jocks on the island as he’s had to do all these years, and they’ll sail back home together. In an odd moment of Christian charity that seems otherwise completely out of step with his character, Crusoe takes the time to show the ditched mutineers how he survived on the island, and promises them that he’ll send a ship back to retrieve them later (wouldn’t hold my breath).
And, just like that: Robinson Crusoe is rescued! After “eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days”, he heads back to England. His family have long assumed him dead (understandable, really), so there’s nothing left for him from his father’s will, and not a whole lot else to keep him there. He heads for Lisbon, to claim the profits of his estate in Brazil, and goes to great effort to transport it all back over land. He’s determined he’ll never go near the goddamn sea again (once again, understandable). Friday accompanies him all the way *cough*Stockholm Syndrome*cough*, and they have one last adventure together fighting off hungry wolves in the Pyrenees. I must admit, I skimmed through that part – I was pretty over it.
When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, it was a smash hit. The initial print run of 1,000 copies sold out straight away. To meet the demand, the printer issued five more runs, marking some of them as new “editions”. He wasn’t real crash hot at his job, though, because he managed to introduce new errors every time. The text for the edition I read is based on a photocopy of one of the first-first editions held in the British Library. Interestingly, it credits the author as being the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, leading many readers to believe it was a real-life memoir type of thing.
Even with the errors, all the new editions sold out, too. Defoe quickly wrote a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he claimed would be the last of the Crusoe stories… but, being the money-hungry bugger he was, he couldn’t resist releasing a third, Serious Reflections During The Life And Surprising Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe: With His Vision Of The Angelick World the following year. By the end of the 1800s, there was no other book that had more editions, spin-offs, and translations – more than 700 of them!
So, let’s break down (some of) the ways in which this book is extremely problematic, shall we?
Crusoe sees himself as King Of The World (the world being his island), and imposes all of his European technology and agriculture upon it, basically just trying to re-create his homeland. He goes so far as to explicitly refer to the island as his “colony” by the end of the novel. And, of course, a large part of that is his exploitation of Friday, who is – no bones about it – his actual slave. Defoe went out of his way to idealise their master-servant relationship, because it played well for the predominant worldview at the time. He couldn’t risk losing book sales just to make a political point about human rights, now, could he? I respect the hustle, I guess, but I just can’t get past how gross it was. Here’s Crusoe, the “enlightened” European, redeeming the “savage” from his “barbarous” way of life through enforced assimilation. Ugh.
It’d take thousands of words, probably a whole book, for me to break down this bullshit, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people (far smarter than me) who are better able to identify and articulate all of the relevant issues. For now, let me just say: if those themes bother you, Robinson Crusoe is a book you want to back up slowly from and never look at again.
Those attitudes weren’t just dreamt up by Defoe to make for compelling fiction. In real life, he was a Puritan moralist (remember that other book of his I mentioned up top?), and mostly he wrote about how to be a good Christian. That’s why so much of Robinson Crusoe focuses on the main character ruminating about providence and penitence and redemption. Crusoe really hammers home Defoe’s believe in an absolute morality – we can see that in the way he treats cannibalism, declaring it a “national crime” on the island he
stole settled, and forbids Friday from practicing it (even though, as I read it, the poor guy had no intentions of eating anyone).
If you can get past all that – and hats off to you if you can, because I really struggled – there’s a bunch of other ways to read this book, which is probably why it has endured as long as it has. It could be read as an allegory for how civilisation develops, a manifesto for neoliberal economic individualism, the importance of repentance, the strength of religious faith, etc. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre, so (even for all its sins) we owe Robinson Crusoe a pretty huge debt. Defoe spawned many imitators, and castaway novels became extremely popular in the 18th and 19th century. Stories along these lines, of shipwreck and humanity’s triumph, are now called “Robinsonade”. Most of them have fallen into obscurity in the intervening centuries, but Swiss Family Robinson is still kicking – and its homage wasn’t subtle, Johann David Wyss literally borrowed Crusoe’s first name for the family in his story (as the title suggests). And Gulliver’s Travels, which was published a few years after Robinson Crusoe, has largely been read as a rebuttal of Defoe’s optimism. Having read them both now, I can totally see that. A more recent example would be Cast Away, the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who winds up stranded on an island alone for many years.
Look, I didn’t hate Robinson Crusoe. I certainly read it more eagerly than I did Lord Of The Flies. I’m just not on board with the colonialist bullshit it espoused, even in context. I did appreciate the psychological and behavioural struggles that Defoe depicted (with startling accuracy, given that psychology as a field wasn’t born until about three hundred years later), in terms of the effects of isolation on Crusoe’s habits and emotions. For instance, the scene where birds were pecking at his burgeoning crops – a banal regularity for most agricultural farmers – was terrifying and emotionally devastating for Crusoe, alone on an island with few tools and no help, entirely dependent on that crop for his future food security. I was pretty moved by that part, actually, even if he was a racist dickhead.
Most importantly, however, just as reading The Martian convinced me that I couldn’t possibly survive on Mars, reading Robinson Crusoe convinced me that I would never survive being shipwrecked alone on a desert island. I’ve made my peace with it. If it happens, I’ll just drink whatever booze I can pull off the ship, and meet my maker tipsy shortly thereafter. It sounds preferable to fart-arsing around building shelters and fires – I know my priorities.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Robinson Crusoe:
- “Soooo unhappy with this! Was NOT Robinson Crusoe as ordered but inside government was one world government propaganda. :(“ – Jennifer Kline
- “This version (hardback, Sterling) is actually pretty nice itself! Good binding, pretty art on dust jacket, and artwork throughout.
AS FOR THE ACTUAL STORY, it’s awful! What was Daniel Defoe thinking? First novel? Yeah, we can tell, buddy! You just have a 26-year-old white dude stranded on an island for … a long time, and it’s just 150-ish straight pages of us reading how he tames goats and figures out how to grow grapes. Whoop-de-friggin-do! Don’t bother. Read “The Female American” instead. It’s got its own problems, but it’s a heck of a step up from this. My coworker Taylor recommended this to me, and now I know why everyone hates her.” – Cat Grass
- “Don’t waste your money. I bought this book before reading the reviews and it was the worst mistake of my life. Because I didn’t read the reviews, I have to now get another book.” – Hope Y. Parrish
- “Christmas gift for grandson…get him off the computer.” – Amazon Customer
December 18, 2019 at 7:11 PM
I never understood why this was so popular, other than the prevailing belief that England was superior to all native races and therefore had a duty to convert them all to the English way of thinking. Despite that we keep getting new versions including the odd one set in space. I read it when I was young and found it almost impossible going, I suspect I never got to the end. However it is interesting how this attitude to “foreigners” now seems to be prevalent in the media again. Although now we label them as “immigrants” or “terrorists” perhaps to distance ourselves from those terrible colonial attitudes of the past. However interesting to see how recent voting trends have been influenced by attitudes not massively dissimilar to those.
December 19, 2019 at 1:09 PM
The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? Colonialism is a monster of many faces.
December 19, 2019 at 4:01 PM
Brilliant wrap-up! It was another text I studied in my teens, and you’ve reminded me how it goes on and on and on with no page breaks or stops for breath. Quite amazing that there was such a big market for all Defoe’s RC spin-offs, as if #1 wasn’t enough for its audience by the time they turned the last page. I’d forgotten the nature of his slave trade journey at the outset. Sure is sickening. Yet he was a pioneer of the castaway genre, and even corny old Gilligan’s Island fits the bill, and mentions RC in its lyrics (not to mention all the ships and boats that come and leave during the series, yet the team stays unrescued.) In fact, the older shipwreck text I can think of is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and RC surely isn’t that far behind.
December 20, 2019 at 12:51 PM
I just did a quick google, looks like Shakespeare got in about a century before Defoe – and yet, you’re right, it’s still Defoe’s work that is kind of definitive of the genre. (And a sad confession: I’ve actually never seen a single minute of Gilligan’s Island 🙈😂)