by Daniel Defoe
As a young man, Robinson Crusoe sets out to find his fortune, but he seems to sail under an ill-fated star. He’s almost immediately shipwrecked, but this doesn’t deter him from his ocean voyages. On his next voyage, he’s kidnapped by pirates and becomes a slave in Morocco for two years. When he manages to escape from his captivity, he winds up in Brazil and establishes a plantation. It seems like things will go well for him if he just sticks with the land, but Crusoe’s sea-loving gets the better of him and he sets sail once more. Of course, he’s shipwrecked, this time on a deserted island, where he is destined to spend nearly thirty years isolated from all of civilization.
I think that most people are familiar with the story of Robinson Crusoe even if they’ve never read the book. It’s one of those iconic stories that have thoroughly permeated popular culture. Certainly, I’ve been aware of the tale for as long as I can remember, and it was only in the past few weeks that I actually read the book for the first time. It was definitely different from what I expected.
It's an entertaining adventure, I'll give it that. I mean, you’ve got pirates and cannibals and shipwrecks all over the place. Plus, as fans of Man Vs. Wild or Survivorman can attest, using mans’ wits against pitiless Nature is pretty freakin’ cool. But there’s a lot more in Robinson Crusoe than the well-known adventure. For example, I had no idea 'spiritual' the story is. In the book, Crusoe eventually ascribes his good fortune and survival to God, and the miraculous growth of rice, his gunpowder lasting for over twenty years, and so on are all attributed to Providence. His ruminations and observations about God and His role in his life were some of the strongest sections of the book. But page after page of homespun theology made for a very slow middle compared to the first few chapters, when Crusoe’s fighting pirates and escaping slavery.
Crusoe is definitely a flawed man, but a product of his time...and an Englishman of the 17th century would consider himself ethically and physically superior to a native 'savage' without a second thought. I found his condescending attitude toward Friday rather appalling, all the more so because Crusoe never made any effort to understand the native culture that stumbled onto his doorstep. I mean, to be fair, if I saw a bunch of cannibals eating human flesh a few feet from where I live, I definitely wouldn't be, "So tell me about your faith, cannibals," but I was rather disappointed by how quickly Friday was converted, robbing us of opportunities to learn more about him. But Friday's not important to the narrative in that way, now is he? He's almost a substitute child to Crusoe, who acts as the wise Papa to his insubordinate savage. Le sigh. Like I said, the book's a product of its time so you can hardly expect the main character to act like a sensitive, politically correct twenty-first century man. As I finished the book, I was reminded of an old James Joyce quote regarding the story:
"He [Crusoe] is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."
I can appreciate what a great work this is, and how influential it's been on English literature ever since. But it's not a book I feel a need to ever read again.
4 out of 5 stars
PS - Apparently Defoe wrote two sequels to the book. Who knew?
The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe - for those who wanted more adventure
Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe - for those who wanted more of Crusoe's theological philosophy