Sunday, August 5, 2018

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

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.” 

And later,

“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.


Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

I have only read parts of this book, many years ago, in school. It sounds like a fascinating, historical adventure story which includes some moral and religious aspects of life. Excellent commentary!

Mudpuddle said...

i've read this a couple of times and i mostly agree with your analysis... DeFoe wasn't a great writer, but i believe he was an above average thinker for his time... and he had a whole lot of courage and self - confidence to carry on the literary wars he did with the authorities... he thought he was right and wanted everyone to know it... his book on the whole island of Britain, listing economies, classes, works, and more is a tour de force and the result of a remarkable exertion in the interests of informing the powers-that-be what was wrong with the state and how to fix it... he was jailed once, at least, but never gave up on expressing what he thought were the malefactions of government... your post really pins down what the book actually says and why it was and is so popular.. tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. There is a lot going on here. But it is short so if you tried it, not much time would be consumed.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I have not read any other thing by Dafoe. He really had a lot going on intellectually! I need to explore more of his life ideas.

James said...

It is fascinating to read your reaction to this book as an adult reading it for the first time. I remember this as one of my favorites from my pre-teen years. As a young reader I was focused on the adventure above all. Only in later rereading did I appreciate some of the issues you've highlighted so well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - It is a great adventure story. It can easily be enjoyed as such.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I have never read DaFoe. I was thinking that sometime I might want to read his novel Journal of the Plague Year since he lived through it but Robinson Caruso sounds good too and though I like fleshed out characters this book seems full of ideas about God,colonialism,survival and the passages you quoted seem very readable as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I really want to read Journal of The Plague Year myself. I understand that it was presented as a novel but is considered by many to be non fiction.

Violet said...

I tried reading this ages ago, but it was a bit too moralising and didactic for my liking, back then. I'd like to read it now to see what he says about race, seeing as how imperialism and colonialism have been my (postcolonial) thing for a while now. I might have to put it on my TBR. :)

Stephen said...

I "read" this as a kid, but your shared excerpts make me realize that the Great Illustrated Classics version of it is heavily abridged. I just remember the cool survival stuff, the frightening footprint that proved to be Friday, and then a bit at the end when Caruso has to re-civilize himself. No epiphanies there...

Whispering Gums said...

This is one of those books I eschewed in my youth because I didn't like "adventure" but it's a book that if I actually read I'd probably enjoy. I may not "actually" read it, though, because there are so many gaps in my classics reading that I'd probably give higher priority to.

However, I really enjoyed your discussion of Defoe's attitudes. I think too often readers don't expect to find any modern, humane ideas in older books - you are clearly not one of those readers - but I say to them that those modern ideas didn't pop up all of a sudden, there are and have always been people who think a little differently to their society and it's when more and more people start to think those new ways that social change comes about. I find this issue becomes really problematical in historical fiction where readers don't like to see "modern" thoughts in old times. It's tricky for the historical fiction writer - so easy for them to be changed with anachronism - but you've beautifully pointed out that complex thinking (including newer ideas mixed with status quo ones) has always been around. Does this make sense?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - There is indeed a lot of moralizing in this book. But it sometimes goes in surprising directions.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - The adventure stuff is terrific. But abridged versions are bad.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - I think that almost everyone has gaps in their reading of Classics, there are just so many Classics.

Indeed, a lot of humanist thoughts have older roots. Dafoe says some very modern sounding things. With that, I can see how a historical fiction writer could go overboard with that inaccurate modern sensibilities. As you point out, they might also be too shy about throwing out modern seeming ideas which did exist in the past.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

A childhood favourite of mine, I still have my mam's copy sitting on our shelves.

I haven't read this for many a year and your post made me wonder if I were to read it if I would view it through different eyes. I strongly suspect I would.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It is striking how books have had different meanings for me when I read them at different ages.

Whispering Gums said...

A real juggling act I think ... it's probably a case for many of them, damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

Maria Behar said...

GREAT commentary as usual, Brian!! :) :)

Of course, I've known about this novel for years, but have never felt motivated enough to read it. When I was around 12, I read "Treasure Island", which at the time seemed much more attractive to me, as it had a LOT of adventure in it, with little to no philosophizing. Now that I'm an adult, and no longer engage in mock battles with imaginary one-legged pirates, I think I would be much more inclined to read "Robinson Crusoe". :)

Thanks for letting your readers know that there are parts of the book that will be dull reading! Lol. On the other hand, this novel is full of very interesting, contradictory elements, so I think it is well worth reading.

In a way, this book reminds of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"; not, of course, due to any similarity of plot, but to the theme of a man who undergoes a profound transformation of character, with very positive results.

Btw, the quote about the angel does indeed resemble some Old Testament passages. The Book of Ezekiel instantly came to mind. This means that Defoe was very familiar with the Old Testament, and, I would imagine, with the New Testament, as well.

In addition to all the adventure, there's a definite Christian theme in this book. And it's very gratifying to find out that the author comes to condemn colonialism. From your commentary, though, I'm not sure that Defoe also condemns slavery to the extent he condemns colonialism.

As for Crusoe's character not being developed thoroughly, that could be because the author thought of him more as a sort of symbol or archetype. I wonder what you think of this interpretation.

This book is not in my personal library, but I will definitely acquire it and find out how I like it!

Thanks for your interesting analysis!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. You are making me think as I have also read Treasure Island recently. I must admit that I found Treasure Island more enjoyable. It was a better story. It was more fun.

There seems to be no condemnation of slavery here. The cultural criticism is very mixed. Of course it was written at a time when any criticism of this stuff was rare.

To some extent Crusoe is indeed a symbol of someone who comes to a Christianity through a particular brand of Protestantism. Characters that are symbols do tend to lack some development.

Have a great weekend!

HKatz said...

"or when Crusoe manages engineering, agricultural, nautical, and other feats with no prior experience."

Inspiration for MacGyver?

I haven't read this one, and I'm especially interested in the reflections on colonialism and the personal relationship with God that's been developed in isolation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - You made me laugh but there may be something about the MacGyver connection.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

thecuecard said...

Oh gosh, it's been a very long time since I read Robinson Crusoe which I read during my school days. I remember liking its tale of survival but I had forgotten many of the other complexities and things you talk about. It seems to include quite conflicting ideas at times -- perhaps his epiphany on the island explains some of his questioning of his earlier behavior and thoughts. I'm glad you got to it. It's amazing it's from 1719, I'd like to read it again sometime.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think that the conflicts are just a product of the times. Dafoe questioned some conventions of his times. It would be bit much to expect him to question everything. Most people remember the survival tale. It is really the most interesting part of this book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! Sorry to take so long to respond. I was in Florida this past week.

Marvelous review! I had read the book years ago with my son and I just saw it as an adventure story. I'm not sure I would have read it if I did not think it was a fun story for Derek.

I'm impressed with how objective your insight is as to the religious themes (something I did not pick up on, shame on me). I now want to read more by Defoe.

I fully appreciate someone coming to know God simply through reading the Bible. I once heard a pastor say that if you wanted to hear God speak, read the Bible.

A man told the pastor that he wanted to personally "hear" God's voice. The pastor told him then he needed to read the Bible out loud.

I agree with you about cultural relativism. Even the Bible says that the truth is written on the hearts and mind of all men.

So now I must pull out my copy of Crusoe and read it with new eyes thanks to you!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. Never a rush. I hope that you had a good trip. The religious aspects of this one were really well done. I would love to know what you thought about them if you read this. It seems that Dafoe very much believed in finding God through reading the Bible on one’s own and thinking about it on one’s own.

baili said...

remarkable review Brain!

you have amazing skills to give a panoramic look on the whole story and strong understanding of the characters and happenings!

what appealed me most is the relation of crusoe with God!

in my recent tour to Islamabad i visited the old book shop and bought three books which attracted my attention somehow and i am eagerly desperately hoping for time to read them
blessings !

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili .

I love the feeling of having books around that I cannot wait to read. I enjoy the anticipation.

Happy reading!

JaneGS said...

Glad to hear that the book is very readable. I would like to read it, primarily for its role in the development of the novel and the fact that so many authors I admire read it and were affected by it.

It does sound like Crusoe is more a vehicle for advocating a philosophy (like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress) than a realistic character.

Thanks for a great review--as always, you've provided interesting points for me to consider.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane - This really is a book, with a central character, that is all about philosophy.

Andrew Blackman said...

It's great to get your take on this one, Brian. I read this as a child and I think I focused more on the survival aspects of it. But if I read it now I think that, like you, I'd find those descriptions quite dull and would want more of the internal life of the character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - I think that most young folks would focus on the adventure/survival part. It is actually very gripping. If you read this now I would love to know what you thought of it.

Caroline said...

It’s been ages since I’ve read this. I can’t agree with that kind of cultural relativism either. When I studied Cultural Anthropology, I was often criticized for that. I even remember another student, a woman, defending female genital mutilation. That kind of thinking just makes me speechless.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Cultural relativism has been embraced by some elements of the far left. It is un fortunate. There has been a backlash in recent years however. That is encouraging.

Unknown said...

I found this fascinating with complex plot and contrast between good and bad characters dear Brain!

sounds familiar as it's theme resembles to a novel i have read in native language by great writer here!

I appreciate writers who reveal the true face of society and take off charming mask from their corrupt realities

i wish i can find this book around

thank you for the wonderful commentary

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Asad and thanks for the good word. What other writer does this book description remind you of?