Title: Robinson Crusoe
Author: Daniel Defoe
Type of Text: Novel
Main Characters: Robinson Crusoe (narrator and protagonist); Friday (‘savage’ turned servant and companion).
Genre: Adventure, Confessional
Narrative Style: First-person retrospective (largely chronological), with Crusoe’s long isolation obviously limiting the possibility of dialogue; very introspective, with significant theological digressions. Presented in a preface as a true story and first-hand account, a common conceit of literature of this period. No chapter breaks, and although there is an attempt at variety through the insertion of a diary, this mostly goes back over what has already been said and is anyway very short-lived.
Themes & Imagery: Divine providence and religious salvation; the inner soul of man, apart from society; the dangers of not being satisfied; basic needs; importance of hard work and keeping busy; loyalty and good deeds being rewarded; differences between cultured people and “savages” and slaves, and questions over how far these later can be held to the same moral standards or can be converted towards Christianity.
Synopsis: From slavery to solitary shipwreck on an island frequented by cannibals, Robinson Crusoe maintains his optimism and drive to survive. Crusoe starts out as a young man from a good family in the north of England with a natural tendency to make bad decisions, starting with an ill-advised sea voyage. The first chunk of this novel follows Crusoe from minor shipwreck to slavery and his escape with a young Moor named Xury, to his success as a plantation owner in the Brazils, and then the disastrous trading expedition which sees him shipwrecked again, this time the lone survivor on what he takes to be a deserted island; and then the action slows right down. For over two decades and half the novel, nothing but Crusoe’s growing survival skills (related with charm and ingenuity) and eventual religious awakening. Eventually the action picks up again, when Crusoe saves the life of a savage he christens Friday and starts to plan a proper escape from the island, and after so little momentum for so long, the plot rushes on almost too quickly to keep up.
Personal Response: A major strength of this text is the tone of the narrative voice: although Crusoe does describe times when he felt fear and despair, he is rarely self-indulgent in this, and the general tone of the retrospective narration is optimistic, with a frequent willingness to see a subtle amusement in misfortune which makes for an enjoyable read. That being said, I had quite a few problems with the style and pacing. This can certainly be a difficult novel to get through, because so little happens for so long. I enjoyed much of the description of Crusoe’s cultivation of the island, but it was often so repetitious and so undifferentiated that at the start of each reading session, it took me several pages before I could work out what I had already read and what I hadn’t. I found much of the theological discussion tedious and somewhat dated, although other readers may disagree on that. I’m willing to give Defoe the benefit of the doubt and say that the long delay before Crusoe’s discovery of the famous footprint in the sand, and the even longer delay before the eventual arrival of Friday, force the reader to experience Crusoe’s own long solitary stint on the island and his subsequent fear of encountering any savages; but I did feel that the pacing after the introduction of Friday was rushed. Friday himself was charming in his energy and affection for Crusoe (and, happily, better treated than Xury), but I would have liked to see this relationship developed at more length. It was certainly interesting to see Crusoe’s changing views of his fellow man; that he is presented as living so happily for so long in such complete isolation says something sad for the state of mankind, a possible sour undertone to the cheerful narratorial voice.
Favourite Part: Crusoe’s first success with growing corn: his initual joy at the unexpected good luck, and then his full description of the process of cultivation and processing his crop into bread once he understands more about it. More generally, the optimistic narrative voice, and the descriptions of Crusoe’s “country house”.
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
Shortly after Crusoe’s shipwreck on island:
All evils are to be considered with the good that is in them, and with what worse attends them.
Anxiety after discovery of footprint in the sand:
How strange a chequer-work of Providence is the life of man! and by what secret differing springs are the affections hurried about as differing circumstances present! Today we love what tomorrow we hate; today we seek what tomorrow we shun; today we desire what tomorrow we fear; nay, even tremble at the apprehensions of.
Describing ignorant happiness before knowledge of savages:
My satisfaction was perfect, though my danger was the same; and I was as happy in not knowing my danger, as if I had never really been exposed to it.
About Friday, as their friendship develops:
His simple, unfeigned honesty appeared to me more and more every day, and I began really to love the creature; and, on his side, I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before.
To the English captain, worried about upcoming battle:
I smiled at him, and told him that men in our circumstances were past the operation of fear; that seeing almost every condition that could be was better than that which we were supposed to be in, we ought to expect that the consequence, whether death or life, would be sure to be a deliverance.