By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robinson Crusoe, often called the first English novel, was written by Daniel Defoe and published in 1719. The novel is the tale of one man’s survival on a desert island following a shipwreck. 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. The name ‘Crusoe’, by the way, may have been taken from Timothy Cruso, who had been a classmate of Defoe’s and who had gone on to write guidebooks.
What follows is a short summary of the main plot of Robinson Crusoe, followed by an analysis of this foundational novel and its key themes.
Robinson Crusoe: summary
The novel, famously, is about how the title character, Robinson Crusoe, becomes marooned on an island off the north-east coast of South America. As a young man, Crusoe had gone to sea in the hope of making his fortune. Crusoe is on a ship bound for Africa, where he plans to buy slaves for his plantations in South America, when the ship is wrecked on an island and Crusoe is the only survivor.
Alone on a desert island, Crusoe manages to survive thanks to his pluck and pragmatism. He keeps himself sane by keeping a diary, manages to build himself a shelter, and finda a way of salvaging useful goods from the wrecked ship, including guns.
Twelve years pass in this way, until one momentous day, Crusoe finds a single human footprint in the sand! But he has to wait another ten years before he discovers the key to the mystery: natives from the nearby islands, who practise cannibalism, have visited the island, and when they next return, Crusoe attacks them, using his musket salvaged from the shipwreck all those years ago.
He takes one of the natives captive, and names him Man Friday, because – according to Crusoe’s (probably inaccurate) calendar, that’s the day of the week on which they first meet.
Crusoe teaches Man Friday English and converts him to Christianity. When Crusoe learns that Man Friday’s fellow natives are keeping white prisoners on their neighbouring island, he vows to rescue them. Together, the two of them build a boat. When more natives attack the island with captives, Crusoe and Friday rescue the captives and kill the natives. The two captives they’ve freed are none other than Friday’s own father and a Spanish man.
Crusoe sends them both off to the other island in the newly made boat, telling them to free the other prisoners. Meanwhile, a ship arrives at the island: a mutiny has taken place on board, and the crew throw the captain and his loyal supporters onto the island.
Before the ship can leave, Crusoe has teamed up with the captain and his men, and between them they retake the ship from the mutineers, who settle on the island while Crusoe takes the ship home to England.
Robinson Crusoe has been away from England for many years by this stage – he was marooned on his island for over twenty years – and his parents have died. But he has become wealthy, thanks to his plantations in Brazil, so he gets married and settles down. His wife dies a few years later, and Crusoe – along with Friday – once again leaves home.
Robinson Crusoe: analysis
Robinson Crusoe is a novel that is probably more known about than it is read these days, and this leads to a skewed perception of what the book is really about. In the popular imagination, Robinson Crusoe is a romantic adventure tale about a young man who goes to sea to have exciting experiences, before finding himself alone on a desert island and accustoming himself, gradually, to his surroundings, complete with a parrot for his companion.
In reality, this is only partially true (although he does befriend a parrot at one point). But the key to understanding Defoe’s novel is its context: early eighteenth-century mercantilism and Enlightenment values founded on empiricism (i.e. observing what’s really there) rather than some anachronistic Romantic worship of the senses, or ‘man’s communion with his environment’.
And talking of his environment, Crusoe spends the whole novel trying to build a boat so he can escape his island, and leaves when the first ship comes along. While he’s there, he bends the island’s natural resources to his own ends, rather than acclimatising to his alien surroundings.
In this respect, he’s not so different from a British person on holiday in Alicante, who thinks speaking English very loudly at the Spanish waiter will do the job very nicely rather than attempting to converse in Spanish.
And, of course, the very reason Robinson Crusoe ends up shipwrecked is because he’s making a business trip, to purchase slaves. As Gilbert Phelps observes (in his now rather outdated but still brilliantly readable Introduction to Fifty British Novels, 1600-1900 (Reader’s Guides)), the moment in the novel when Robinson Crusoe shows the most emotion is probably when he’s back in England and discovers how rich his plantations have made him.
This tells us a great deal about Robinson Crusoe the man but also Robinson Crusoe the novel. It was written at a time when Britain was beginning to expand its colonial sights, and it would shortly become the richest and most powerful country on earth, thanks to its imperial expeditions in the Caribbean, Africa, and parts of Asia, notably India.
Crusoe embodies this pioneering mercantile spirit: he is obsessed with money (he even picks up coins on his island and keeps them, even though he cannot spend them), and takes great pleasure in the physical objects, such as the guns and powder, which he rescues from the wreck. Man Friday is, in the last analysis, his own private servant.
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.’
That book 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.
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 Hai Ebn Yokdhan’s book.
Indeed, Defoe’s debt to the story of Alexander Selkirk as his source material for Robinson Crusoe is almost certainly overplayed. 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 (not the Pacific, which is where Selkirk was marooned) 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 of London 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 (in the wake of which, at Judge Jeffreys’ infamous ‘Bloody Assizes’, Defoe was lucky not to be sentenced to death).