Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. One of the most famous novels of all time, and a very important piece of literature! This is the type of novel you’re bound to come across if you study English. But more on that a bit later.
This novel is so famous that you all know what it is about and yet, I’m about to tell you again anyway. The young Robinson Crusoe is very eager to set out to sea. His parents don’t like this idea very much and as it turns out they were right, as parents often are. You should have listened to your parents, dude.
Robinson Crusoe starts on a series of sea-faring voyages that all turn quite horrible. He gets caught up in a storm, attacked by pirates, imprisoned as a slave and finally, just as things are settling, his ship gets caught up in yet another storm and this time he is the only survivor and marooned on an island. What joy!
The island is very hot, sometimes very rainy, and has lots of goats on. So the situation is bad, but not as bad as it could be. We follow Robinson as he sets up home in this new place.
But first, some background context: this story was written in 1719 by a chap called Daniel Defoe and that is a very important piece of information because this book, this beautiful specimen of human creation, is considered by many to be the first novel written in English. That’s pretty cool!
So Defoe, and a few others around the time are responsible for what we know to be a ‘novel’. That is to say, it has some degree of realism about it, so that when you finish the book and you close the end page, these character’s lives continue in your mind.
The novel was first published under the title: The Life and Strange Surprising 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. Wow, I didn’t even need to tell you what the book was about; it’s all in the title!
It was published in this way so that it looked like a true life account of a mariner. This was actually a marketing technique used by the author, because around the time of publishing, the travelogue had become a very popular type of publication. And since then the story of Robinson Crusoe has become one of the most widely known novels in the English language.
For a book this old I was surprised by how introspective it was, I mean, I know it’s a guy living by himself on an island how more introspective can you get? But what I mean is, this situation that Robinson is in, makes him very reflective and so he begins to discuss things like the temptation of man, things like providence, fear of human kind, the ability to create and destroy, deliverance, retribution, cannibalism, colonialism. All these themes are explored in this one little novel, and that must have been, and still is, remarkable.
So, I think this book is deserving of a bit more of my time. Why? Because since I read it I can’t stop thinking about it. I will be pulling a few themes out of this novel that I found interesting, but that means there are a lot of important themes left out of this discussion. So tread with caution, mateys! Do a broader reading than I.
Isolation from Man
First, let us talk about the Island and what that means. Obviously, ‘the island’ is a very common and accessible way to talk about isolation. And most predominantly, this novel centres around the isolation from mankind. Genius Jaymi, how did you figure that out all on your own?
One of the consequences of this isolation is that Robinson draws nearer to God. The ‘island’, still wholly part of the Earth becomes ‘other-worldly’ when there are no people on it and no society on it. In other words, the island becomes ‘heavenly’ and Robinson draws nearer to God rather than what is real.
So when there is a chance that people are on the island again, when he sees that very real footprint in the sand, he turns away from this ‘other-worldly-ness’, he turns away from God. He says: “Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God, which was founded upon such wonderful experience I had of His goodness.” (Defoe, 1719)
I can’t help thinking that this must be a critique by the author on the distance us mortals, us laymen have from what is heavenly. Defoe is saying, ‘yeah- you people in your cultured groups no matter how high you are, you are not so high as God! Only when you are isolated from man, is when you are closer to God.’
So I guess what I am saying, just as God is away from mortals in heaven, Robinson is in the same situation on the island. He has the power to reign, the power to create and destroy and we see a lot of that happening particularly later on in this novel. He says: “I might call myself king or emperor over the whole country I had possession of: there were no rivals; I had no competitor, none to dispute sovereignty or command me.” (Defoe, 1719)
The second consequence of this isolation of man is the utter fear almost phobia of people that Robinson experiences. And you, the reader, also begin to have this fear of people. But why is that? I mean, it can’t just be because we are all book people and so we are afraid to go outside and talk to anyone… Well, that’s probably it to be honest. But, why does he have such a fear of man whilst he is on this island? Just bear with me a minute.
Robinson, for the most part, has this one big fear; that someone is going to come onto this island and destroy everything that he, himself has created. He fears that one man will come and destroy his corn, will come and kill his goats. Robinson knows that it takes one man to create, but only one man is needed to destroy. And I think if you extrapolate this idea, this works for the whole world, no?
There is a part in the novel where Robinson is so fearful that he wants to destroy what he has made himself, before another man can destroy it. And by doing so he can hide himself, by destroying what he has created. So in a sense, if he were to do that, he is purposely seeking to hide himself from the world. He has become an island again. Weird right?
No no no, it gets even more weird! Again bear with me a minute.
Instead of effectively ‘self destructing’ Robinson begins to fortify his home which he calls his ‘dwelling’. He begins to build his wall. His fortified wall with seven muskets poking out of it and into the beyond, so as to protect himself. After he installs these protective devices he begins to refer to his ‘dwelling’ as his ‘castle’. And indeed it is fortified as such, having both an inner and outer wall.
Let us note here, that when a castle is under siege, no one can get in or out. The occupants often surrender as there is no food that gets brought in from the outer wall. In short, the ‘castle‘, Robinson Crusoe’s castle, becomes an island again. Robinson has created an island for himself, on the island. How very very strange. Or is it?
Who knows! What I will say however is that this novel talks a lot about this idea: that the isolation from man causes the fear of man. And a reaction to this fear of man, is even more isolation. Building islands within islands. A cycle that unconsciously continues. And when you become that isolated you turn very easily to what is ‘heavenly’. Robinson is God!
So now we have talked a bit about the island. About isolation and about fear of man. But the novel also has another big theme and that is Deliverance and Retribution. Or as Robinson likes to call it, Providence. What is providence? Fate, destiny? To Robinson, it’s ‘God’s will’ basically.
From the very first we see that Robinson disobeys his parents by setting out to sea. His actions are his own to make, but because he has turned away from the higher influence of his parents, his actions are now very much unguided. And what that means is, his consequence is left very open to chance, to fate, to ‘Providence’.
And when things go very wrong on his voyage he is told to: “Go back to his [my] father and not tempt providence to his [my] ruin.” (Defoe, 1719)
Of course, Robinson does not listen for very long, because he is attacked by pirates, shipwrecked and finally after a few very miserable adventures trying to escape he ends up marooned on a desert island.
The good thing in all of this is that because his misadventures occur on the sea, it didn’t take me long to establish a connection between the sea and providence. And in my eyes at least, they appear to be one and the same.
Physically, the sea is a very tumultuous place to be, it is up and down, unstable, and so it represents a place where Robinson is very subject to chance. The sea is both his demise and his retribution. And there are many examples of this.
The first and most obvious example is when his ship gets caught up in the storm and the sea destroys everyone but him. The sea however, is responsible for delivering him to the shore of the island. The sea destroys his ship, but the sea also saves him.
He says: “My greatest concern now being that the sea, as it would carry me a great way towards the shore when it came on, might not carry me back again with it when it gave back towards the sea.” (Defoe, 1719)
Another obvious example is the very nature of the island. He seeks to go back home to England, but how can this be done? Well, he was brought to the island by sea, and thus he must be delivered home by the sea as well.
There is also this scene where Robinson builds a canoe, and his aim is to circle around the island so that he can have a better idea about its geography. But again, as soon as this poor bugger touches the sea things go horribly wrong. His canoe gets accidently taken out to sea by all the foul tidal currents that Defoe is very descriptive of.
“There was no wind stirring to help me, and all I could do with my paddlers signified nothing, and now I began to give myself over for lost.” (Defoe, 1719)
What does this mean? Surely by the sea taking him out as it did he is closer to home! This is something he wanted when he was on the island. But now that he is away from the island, on the sea and in bleak circumstances he very much wants to be delivered back onto the island again!
“And now I saw how easy it was for the Providence of God to make the most miserable condition worse. Now I looked back upon my desolate solitary island, as the most pleasant place in the world, and all the happiness my heart could wish for, was to be but there again.” (Defoe, 1719)
So the sea is this constant force for Robinson. The force of will. It exists in the story to set things in motion. The sea represents both demise and deliverance and thus Providence.
So that is it. I’ll leave it there. I could probably go on and on. But I think I will save my ideas until I re-read this one. I think that’s why novels are so great- as soon as you try to understand what they’re about you just keep finding out more and more!
If you want to learn more about Robinson Crusoe I was able to find one really good lecture which I will leave a link for here. The lecture is by Dr Susan Oliver of the University of Essex. She discusses other themes that I am rather unqualified to be speaking about but that are very important such as colonialism, cannibalism and slavery.
She talks about Daniel Defoe’s background and how that is very influential to the text. Another idea which she spoke about which I really liked was the island representing the two parts of Robinson’s mind. One rational and the other desire. So if this sounds like your cup of tea, definitely go check it out.
If I have made any errors, or you want to discuss something further, or more importantly if you have any ideas, leave them in the comments and let’s get chatting. You can also talk to me on twitter, you can click here to magically apparate there. Thank you for reading!