by Daniel Defoe
One of the most frequent difficulties I have with reading classic works is finding a way to reconcile historical context with reading for pleasure. Like many others, Robinson Crusoe is a book which reflects its times, and receives much of its fame for the literary firsts it accomplishes. That being said, it’s likely to be more enjoyable if read academically, rather than casually. By modern standards, Robinson Crusoe is a long drawn out adventure novel about an English imperialist with more wanderlust than common sense, told in such bland language as to nullify the ‘adventure’ part near completely. There were parts that I enjoyed, but lengthy passages of this novel are so boring that I found myself fighting a yawn every other page. It took me nearly a month to finish reading it, which I did by sheer force of will and the desire to finally be reading something else.
“The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”
Robinson Crusoe is a difficult character to stomach, even with the historical context. He epitomizes English colonial attitudes, racial and cultural superiority, and just plain dickish behavior. Who is he a dick to? Well, everyone, really, except for maybe the Portuguese captain and the widow he entrusts all his money to. He disobeys the wishes of his parents and runs off on a sea adventure, wherein he’s shipwrecked and told plainly by the captain after they make it to shore that he’s going to be unlucky at sea. But he doesn’t listen, and runs off on another voyage where he’s captured and made a slave for two years. Slavery, to Cursoe, is apparently too unbearable for him to deal with for longer than two years (but perfectly fine for other people, later in the book), so he escapes with a boy names Xury, and they rock around the African coast for a while, shooting lions and such, until they’re rescued by a Portuguese captain. (Well, Crusoe is rescued, anyway. He sells Xury with the upstanding promise of the boy’s future freedom if he converts to Christianity. Yay.)
The Portuguese captain then drops him off in Brazil and helps him buy a sugar plantation, which he raises up quite nicely and is, by all accounts doing quite well for himself, until it’s suggested that he needs some slaves to work his plantation. After about two seconds of thought on the morality of that, and no reflection on his own time as a slave, Crusoe agrees to sail to Africa again to pick up some slaves.
Well, wouldn’t you know it but he’s shipwrecked again, and this time, everyone dies but him. He instead washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island where he spends a dreadful few days before picking himself up and pillaging what he can from the wreck before it finally is broken up in a storm. What he manages to collect is, conveniently, everything that he needs to survive, including wood, sails, iron work, some food, seeds, guns, knives and the like. He also picks up a dog and two cats, though the later he is forced to shoot when they breed with the local wild cats and become pests. So he’s a dick to cats too.
He sets up shop in a sort of dug out cave, where he packs in all of his things, but becomes alarmed that lightning might strike all his powder, so he squirrels it around different places on the island. Then he’s nearly killed in a cave in caused by an earthquake, so he picks up his stuff and builds himself a new shelter, where, I’m pretty sure he contracts salmonella from eating a turtle, falls into fever and has a religious experience. Or rather, he realizes “Oh shit, I could die here, I better prostrate myself before God, just in case.” So he reflects on how utterly impious he has been in his life and vows to change that, and thank God for all the small blessings in his life.
For the next twenty or so years, he makes his home on the island, raising goats, grains, teaching himself rudimentary crafts like agriculture, wood working, leather tanning, tailoring, ship building, herding etc. It’s okay if we skip over these years, because the book does too. Suffice to say, he’s miserable, but manages to convince himself he’s not because God.
After these twenty-odd years of living all by himself, convinced there’s no one else around, he finds a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island, and after much hand wringing, he finally goes to spy on the spot and finds that it’s been used by native cannibals as a feast area. Well, this throws him into a panic and not wanting to be discovered he stops using his gun, and takes great caution when lighting a fire so that they don’t see his smoke. At this point I have to wonder: he’s been living there for twenty years, both him and the cannibals going about their business without care of discovery and, strangely, without ever having discovered the other. There’s a lot of contrived events in this story, but this one takes the cake.
Anyway, he waffles for a while between, “I must kill the savages” and “they don’t know any better, poor ignorant fools”, and finally decides on the latter, and resolves to leave them very much alone, until another group of cannibals arrives on his side of the island with their captives to eat.
At about this time, Crusoe begins to fantasize about how nice it would be to have a couple servants in his ‘kingdom’ and puts a plan into motion to rescue one of the captives, which he does by killing all the cannibals. Turns out, their captive is a cannibal from a rival nation, and that just won’t do. So after assuring himself that Friday, as he calls him, is well and truly bound to him in gratitude, he begins his re-education, mainly by informing him that his religion is all a bunch of hogwash meant to keep him subjugated under a ruling class of kings and priests, while Christianity on the other hand, is 100% not that.
Right. Anyway, Friday eats it up and converts and is thus finally allowed to carry weapons, is taught English (along with being taught to call Crusoe ‘master’) and is from that moment on, ordered around like a servant, because that is the natural order of things.
They live like this for another couple of years until they spot some more cannibals with captives. So they repeat the same plan, killing all but two of the cannibals and taking two of their captives, one of whom is a Spaniard, and the other is, conveniently, Friday’s father, only it really could have been any native at all, for all the point their being related has. Crusoe nurses these two back to health and the Spaniard tells them that there are a bunch of other Spaniards on the mainland who have also been ship wrecked. Seeing his escape, Crusoe convinces him that all the Spaniards should be brought back to him so that they can build a boat together and sail to a civilized port. At first the Spaniard isn’t too keen on the idea, but Crusoe reminds him that he owes him his life, so he capitulates in the end, and sails off with Friday’s father to go get the other white men.
While Crusoe and Friday are waiting, an English ship comes into view, and by God, an English ship is like, 100 times better than sailing away with those half civilized, slave owning, inquisition doing Spaniards, so Crusoe goes to make friendly with them. The only problem is that the ship has mutinied, and the captain is a captive.
Well, Crusoe by now is now well practiced in freeing captives, so he does what he does and captures or kills the mutineers and frees the captain who is most gracious and agrees to whatever plan the crazy bearded man dressed in haphazard goat skins lays before him, and before long, they’re all sailing away, happy as clams on the ship back toward England.
But what about the Spaniards, you ask? Fuck them, that’s what. Crusoe doesn’t so much as spare them a thought as he sails away for home.
When he gets there, however, he finds he’s got no money anywhere, which sucks, expect for his plantation. So he goes to see the sea captain, who doesn’t recognize him at first, but then finally does, and is told at length how he might reclaim his portion of the plantation. He does this, and rewards the captain, and the widow who was holding his money for him before, and then heads back to England. But not by boat, because he’s had nothing but bad luck that way. No, he decides to go over land, but because he’s an idiot, who doesn’t take the well placed advice of anyone around him, he decides to hike through the mountains in the middle of winter to get home and he, and Friday and all their guides are nearly eaten by wolves because of it.
But he manages to get home alive, and marries and has some kids before he ever thinks about what may have happened to the Spaniards he’d sent for with an escape plan. So he hires a boat and sails off to them, and finds them still alive, still trapped on the island. To this he thinks, “Huh. All’s well that ends well, you’re now my colony, here’s some livestock and some women. Bu-bye!” He then sails home again, leaving them on the island he has been calling up until the end The Island of Despair and ‘my prison’.
Now, if you’re like me, you may be thinking that Robinson Crusoe is a self-serving asshole who is a master at self justification and selective thinking in which, when bad things happen to him, they are well and truly evil, but when the same bad things happen to other people it’s time to take advantage of their misfortune. I would give the book more credit for having been written in the time it was (published in 1719), however Crusoe as a character is so contradictory, and so blind to his own hurtful hypocrisy that he’s just not likable. I didn’t root for his success at any part of the book. I kind of wanted him to be eaten by his parrot, whom he also abandoned pitifully. He’s arrogant, self-serving, with an admitted lip-service to religion until he very nearly dies; he’s racist and misogynistic, and above all, learns nothing of moralistic value from his hardships.
Stylistically, the book is bland. While Defoe does describe things in great detail, the parts which should have been exciting and adventurous are told in the same tone one might use to describe the weather. What is, for all intents and purposes the prologue and the epilogue are way too detailed, and drag the story out longer than it needs to be with unnecessary events that add little to the character (though if they were meant to showcase the evil morality of imperialism, I could stomach them more). The capitalization of every noun (at least in the edition I read) was also hard to get used to at first, but it stopped bothering me by about halfway through the book.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to, which always upsets me a little. I hate being disappointed by books, especially by classics, but you can’t love them all. I suppose if you take it as a political satire it’s digestible, but on its own it’s not very savory.
Read more pokes and prods at Robinson Crusoe at this nice blog:
and have an academic look at the colonialism and racism in Robinson Crusoe here:
The next book on my reading list is The Man With the Knives by Ellen Kushner.