The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

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Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published on April 25, 1719 during the age of exploration and enlightenment. The world was actively explored, mapped, settled, and reported back to various European ports and capitals. Readers in the 1700’s considered long distance travel perhaps in the same way we regard space travel today – an exotic privileged accessible to a few well trained professions. The average reader of the period barely travelled a more than a few miles from their homes. Stories of far away places, exotic cultures and fanciful creatures were all the rage at that time. Defoe however did not rely on these motifs in order to craft an engaging story that has persisted beyond it’s 18th century companions.

 

Instead the story is a vivid example of modern man removed from society could return to and survive in the wilderness with the help of the fruits of the enlightenment – provided in the novel by a shipwreck on the coast the castaway’s island. The story is also presented as an autobiography and contain irresistibly detailed journal entries and catalog of the good vs bad points of the current situation, etc. All of these details draw the reader into the experience of being stranded on an island – far, far away from civilization. This is the central narrative genius of the book. 

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It is important to note the the novel Robinson Crusoe is largely based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a British sailor who was stranded on a remote island for years. Prior to his acclaim as a novelist Defoe was a journalist. Having heard of Selkirk’s castaway story, Defoe interview him and based Robinson Crusoe on this interview. The blurring of the lines between actual events being the preface – written by the fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Dafoe expansion of fiction into the non-fiction physical space of the preface was a stroke of literary genius. The preface immediately plunges the reader in the fully immersive world created by Defoe.

The motif of stranded on a deserted island without much in the way of technology coaxes simultaneous thoughts of terror and the comfort of going back to simpler times. However as far removed as Robinson Crusoe was from society writ large, society with all of it’s prejudices was none the less firmly embedded in him as the quote below demonstrates.

“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected – I was absolutely lord and lawgiver – they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me. It was remarkable, too, I had but three subjects, and they were of three different religions – my man Friday was a Protestant, his father was a Pagan and a cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist. However, I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.” – Robinson Crusoe (page 228)

This passage above punctuates the novel’s central theme of self-awareness. This theme continues to echo in modern society, however in this novel it distilled into it’s simplest form. A solitary man contending with himself, instead of one trying to meet the requirements of society. Another critical theme in the novel is that of repentance. Crusoe fatefully set sail against his father’s protest and throughout the book Crusoe expresses a belief that he is being punished by God for transgression against the 5 Commandment, “honor thy father and mother.” Repentance and self-awareness form a powerful nexus in the novel. Traditionally repentance is the key to the kingdom of heaven. However, in the novel after much introspection Crusoe comes to the realization that he has committed many acts of evil in his life. Repentance is this case is not for the kingdom of heaven. Instead to accept his shipwrecked circumstances, take up a resolve to bring an internal peace.