Fun facts about Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, with an interesting summary of its impact
Robinson Crusoe, often called the first English novel, is the tale of one man’s survival on a desert island following a shipwreck – although Crusoe later discovers the island isn’t as deserted as he first thought. The longer, considerably less snappy title of the novel which appeared on the title-page of the first edition in 1719 read: 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. What follows are some of our favourite facts about Robinson Crusoe (as the novel is more commonly known).
Published in 1719, the book didn’t carry Defoe’s name, and it was offered to the public as a true account of real events, documented by a real man named Crusoe. But readers were immediately sceptical. In the same year as the novel appeared, a man named Charles Gildon actually published Robinson Crusoe Examin’d and Criticis’d, in which he showed that Crusoe was made up and the events of the novel were fiction. (Few people were bothered by this, as the line between fiction and non-fiction had not yet become so important.) ‘Crusoe’ may have been taken from Timothy Cruso, who had been a classmate of Defoe’s and who had gone on to write guidebooks.
The story of Robinson Crusoe is pretty famous, but few people know about, let alone read, the two sequels to the book which Defoe wrote: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe followed later in the same year, with Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe following a year later in 1720. The Farther Adventures sees Crusoe return to his island following the death of his wife in England; following the death of Man Friday, his faithful servant, he travels to Madagascar, the Far East, and Siberia, before returning to England ten years later. Defoe was, in fact, a prolific writer who used around 200 different pseudonyms in the course of his life, wrote a pioneering work of journalism, and even wrote stories about voyages to the moon. (We discuss Defoe’s other fascinating writings, as well as his equally fascinating life, here.)
The story of Robinson Crusoe has been retold on numerous occasions by other writers and in various mediums: there was even a pantomime version in the 1790s, staged at Drury Lane with celebrated clown Joseph Grimaldi starring as the central character. Another book that would never have been written if Defoe hadn’t written Robinson Crusoe is J. D. Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (Robinson isn’t the name of the family, but a reference to Robinson Crusoe himself). And then there is the television series (later a film), Lost in Space, which was in turn inspired by Wyss’ novel. (On the subject of film, the Tom Hanks film Cast Away obviously owes a huge debt to Robinson Crusoe.) R. M. Ballantyne’s Victorian boys’ adventure yarn The Coral Island owed a debt to Defoe’s novel, and would itself inspire William Golding’s classic response, the 1954 classic Lord of the Flies.
There was even a 1964 film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, whose title is self-explanatory. Such ‘desert island’ narratives even have a name, Robinsonades, named after Defoe’s creation – so his character has given his name to a whole genre of fiction. The term dates from 1731, just twelve years after the appearance of the novel.
But was Robinson Crusoe the first such ‘Robinsonade’? Not really. This, from Martin Wainwright: ‘There is a tale for our troubled times about a man on a desert island, who keeps goats, builds a shelter and finally discovers footprints in the sand. But it is not called Robinson Crusoe. It was written by a wise old Muslim from Andalusia and is the third most translated text from Arabic after the Koran and the Arabian Nights.’ Yes, Robinson Crusoe wasn’t the first fictional narrative to take place on a desert island, although it has proved the most influential among English writers. Although Defoe is widely believed to have been influenced by the real-life experiences of the Scottish man Alexander Selkirk (who spent over four years alone on a Pacific island, living on fish, berries, and wild goats), one important textual influence that has been proposed is The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, known as the first Arabic novel (just as Robinson Crusoe is often cited as the first English novel), written in the twelfth century by a Moorish philosopher living in Spain.
Indeed, the real-life story of Alexander Selkirk was not Defoe’s only source for Robinson Crusoe. Numerous scholars and historians, including Tim Severin in his book Seeking Robinson Crusoe, have challenged this widely held belief. Severin cites the case of a man named Henry Pitman, who wrote a short book recounting his adventures in the Caribbean – which, as we’ll see in a moment, was the location of Crusoe’s island – following his escape from a penal colony and his subsequent shipwrecking and survival on a desert island. Pitman appears to have lived in the same area as Defoe, and Defoe may have met Pitman in person and learned of his experiences first-hand. It is also revealing that both men had taken part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.
This is by no means the only myth – or at least questionable fact – about the novel. For instance, there is a real place called Robinson Crusoe Island, but it is not Robinson Crusoe’s island. That is, Robinson Crusoe Island is a real place, but it is not the island that appears in the book. Defoe’s island is located in the Caribbean (the island where Crusoe is marooned is close to Trinidad). The real Robinson Crusoe Island, which is in the south Pacific, was so-named because Robinson Crusoe was supposedly inspired by Selkirk’s experiences, which did take place in the Pacific. So really this Pacific island (which is part of the Juan Fernandez Islands) should be known as ‘Alexander Selkirk Island’. (Oddly enough, there is an island called just this, some 100 miles west of Robinson Crusoe Island, though this is little more than a rock.) Whereas Selkirk is stranded on his island for just four years and four months, Crusoe remains on his island for a whopping 28 years, 2 months, and 19 days. But the island was named after the fictional Crusoe, who never visited there, rather than the real-life Selkirk, who did – a testament to the enduring power of Defoe’s novel.
There are numerous editions of the novel available, but we’d recommend this one: Robinson Crusoe (Oxford World’s Classics).
If you enjoyed these interesting facts about Robinson Crusoe, check out our short biography of Daniel Defoe.
Image (top): Robinson Crusoe book cover illustration, 1948 (unknown Gilberton artist), Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Map of Robinson Crusoe Island, Archipelago Juan Fernández, Chile by Gi, 2009, Wikimedia Commons.