Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though set in the seventeenth century, was first published in 1719. It is the story of the title character. This book is a very famous work, yet this is a first time read for me. I found it to be a fun adventure story that was filled with concepts about religion and society.
The novel starts out telling us about the young protagonist’s life. Early on, Crusoe defies his father by running off to live a life of adventure at sea. He begins to establish a trading business involving commerce with Africa. While out on a commercial voyage, his ship is captured by pirates, and he is enslaved by Moors. Several years later, he steals a boat to escape. After a few adventures along the coast of Africa, he is picked up by a Portuguese ship and brought to Brazil. There, he becomes a successful plantation owner. A few years later, the ever-restless Crusoe embarks on a slave-trading expedition. However, the ship he is on never makes it out of the western hemisphere and is wrecked on a deserted Caribbean island. Crusoe is the only survivor.
Most of the narrative concerns itself with Crusoe’s decades-long stay on the island. Luckily, he has firearms and many other resources that he is able to salvage from the wrecked ship. He is able to hunt goats, turtles and birds as well as harvest wild grapes and limes. He eventually plants and harvests corn and barley from seeds that he finds on the wrecked ship. A lot of the narrative consists of descriptions of how Crusoe fashions and builds various things both for both survival and for some comfort. Detailed descriptions of his making of shelters and storage places, boats, clothing, agriculture implements, etc., are included. I must admit that I found some of these descriptions a bit dull. The story is not always realistic, like when wild cats swim out to boats to attack their passengers or when Crusoe manages engineering, agricultural, nautical, and other feats with no prior experience. Prospective readers should also be aware that there is a lot of killing of animals, for those who are faint at heart when it comes to this. Some of this involves Crusoe needing to eat to survive, some does not.
There are a few interesting things going on in this book. Crusoe starts off as a mostly unpleasant person. He is contemptuous of good advice, and he seems cold. He fails to form any emotional human relationships. Later on, as a castaway, he experiences a religious epiphany where he comes to realize that he has lived impiously. At one point, he has a dream in which he imagines an angel coming down to chastise him. The description seems to me reminiscent of similar passages in the Old Testament.
“and that I saw a man descend from a great black cloud, in a bright flame of fire, and light upon the ground. He was all over as bright as a flame, so that I could but just bear to look towards him; his countenance was most inexpressibly dreadful, impossible for words to describe. When he stepped upon the ground with his feet, I thought the earth trembled, just as it had done before in the earthquake, and all the air looked, to my apprehension, as if it had been filled with flashes of fire. He was no sooner landed upon the earth, but he moved forward towards me, with a long spear or weapon in his hand, to kill me; and when he came to a rising ground, at some distance, he spoke to me— or I heard a voice so terrible that it is impossible to express the terror of it. All that I can say I understood was this: “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die;” at which words, I thought he lifted up the spear that was in his hand to kill me.”
The balance of his stay on the island, which lasts decades, he faces with acceptance and in peace. He prays and talks to God. Some sources that I read see this book as exposition of the Protestant concept of an individual’s personal relationship with God. That interpretation rings true to me. In fact, I found this theme to be the overriding idea underlying this book. With only a Bible, Crusoe becomes a deeply religious person and even fashions something of a personal theology. I am a nonbeliever, but I can appreciate how eloquently this picture is painted. Many works since have told similar stories. I also find it interesting how such ideas are presented, even when I disagree with those ideas. These works are often preachy, unimaginative and seemingly derivative of this book.
The novel was written in the age of Colonialism. Yet, there seem to be contradictions for the modern reader on this subject. Early on, Crusoe participates in slave trading. Also, the native people of Africa and South America are described over and over again as ignorant, violent and savage. The people who live near Crusoe’s island are revealed as bloodthirsty cannibals. However, Defoe has some surprises in store. After years of living alone on the island, Crusoe begins to see some aspects of colonialism as evil. At one point, he compares the violent and inhuman behavior of the locals to that of the Spanish conquest in the western hemisphere. He even engages in a bit of cultural relativism, He comes to think that some behaviors engaged in by the local people are the result of a culture that he has no right to judge, having come from a completely different culture.
“How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them; they do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. in war than we do to kill an ox; or to eat human flesh than we do to eat mutton.”
“these people were not murderers, in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts, any more than those Christians were murderers who often put to death the prisoners taken in battle; or more frequently, upon many occasions, put whole troops of men to the sword, without giving quarter, though they threw down their arms and submitted.”
I found the above passages to be very surprising in light of when this book was written. It sounds very much like arguments that folks have made over the last several decades. I actually do not agree with this level of cultural relativism.
What to make of this seemingly odd mix of pro-colonialist and seemingly pro-slavery ideas and the questioning of some of these concepts? This book was written at a time when colonialism was in full swing. To expect Defoe to exhibit completely modern sensibilities is not realistic. The fact that he challenges many of these conventions and history to the extent that he does is pretty remarkable. It adds a lot of complexity to this book.
I should add that despite the very interesting plays on ideas within this book, Crusoe's character is not well fleshed out. Aside from his feelings about religion and colonialism, we rarely get a glimpse into his complex emotions or thoughts about things beyond the practical. This is despite the fact that the reader gets to spend decades of Crusoe's life with him.
In addition to all this philosophizing and ruminations on the divine, this is such a very engaging story of survival. The book is very readable. It is often fun. This novel works very well as an adventure story as well as a work of ideas. A few laws aside, this is an engaging and entertaining classic.