I loved reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, despite the fact that it was written with 1700s archaic language, with long sentences stringing thoughts together, with essentially no dialog and no characters (beyond Robinson Crusoe himself), and with basically no plot. And yet, I loved it. Putting in to words why I loved it is another matter: I’m not certain why, but I did enjoy it.
Robinson Crusoe is the account of the life of a man by the same name, and it is an adventure story. I don’t tend to enjoy adventure stories, but this was one for me, for Robinson’s adventure was one of practical survival and religious realization. I also loved the language with which it was told, archaic and unfamiliar though it was.
Robinson was a young man who left his comfortable home in England for a life of adventure on the open seas. In the coming years, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. He escaped and immigrated to Brazil, where he joined in a partnership of a successful tobacco plantation. Ultimately, he determined to become richer by entering the slave trade, and when the ship he was on was wrecked in a storm, he was the only survivor. He then lived on a deserted island near the New World for almost 30 years, making his little island highly productive. He eventually befriended a Native American he named Friday and with whom he was able to escape his isolation (which we know will happen from the beginning, since he’s sharing his story in retrospect).
Robinson’s adventures were most interesting to me once he landed on the island. The novel told of his fear and despair, but it also detailed his clever cultivation of the land, the wild goats, the wild grapes, and more. Although in England Robinson had been the spoiled son of a wealthy merchant, on his desert island he had to sew, milk animals, farm land, weave baskets, hunt, build a shelter, and otherwise sustain himself. He was his own world. This adventure of survival was fascinating to me.
I also mentioned that Robinson Crusoe was an adventure of religious realization. To some readers, this may feel like a remnant of the age, and they may not notice or care so much about the religious part of the adventure. Robinson Crusoe of course has an undercurrent of “what does religion mean?” because it was written in an era when religion was a more significant part of life, at least in the literature. It was written just a few decades after the incredibly popular religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (thoughts here), after all.
I personally loved the undercurrent. Robinson Crusoe was a rebellious boy who didn’t care for religion at all: and when he finds himself alone in an abandoned island, he must determine what he believes. It takes him a few years to pull out his Bible and read it, but for him, that is a significant step in his personal development. He realized how superficial his life had been, and he longs for spiritual fellowship. He regrets his “wickedness” (like joining the slave trade). I felt this change was a significant “adventure” underscoring the rest of the novel, too, since it was the personal change of the main (and only) character. It made me think about how and what I’d feel given such dire circumstances. It made Robinson a real person to me.
And yet, all that said, I don’t think one needs to search for or enjoy the religious aspect of Robinson Crusoe to enjoy the novel as a whole. It is still an adventure, a struggle for survival.
I thought it was a delightful classic read, although I did read the entire book aloud to my son and I wouldn’t suggest that; it’s hard to read aloud because of the convoluted grammar and it took quite a long time. (We’re reading a true “children’s book” this time.)
I have heard (especially in the chapter I’m reading of Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature) there are a number of “abridgments” and “retellings” of Robinson Crusoe for children. I’ll have more about this in a few weeks, but I suspect the magic of the text is missing from those. I always hesitate to embrace an abridgment.
I read Little Women abridged for the first time. It was very disappointing to me. I loved it once I read it in the original, though.
What do you think of abridgements and retellings? Do you get them for your young children? Have you had a bad “abridgement” experience?
The Effect of Robinson Crusoe
It’s interesting how literature ebbs into society. Robinson Crusoe is the basis for all sorts of survival stories, television shows, and movies, and it has also become a part of society.
I took an economics class in college, and I seem to remember a few lectures that revolved around Robinson Crusoe and Friday, along these lines (please note that I’ve forgotten the correct economic terminology):
“If Robinson Crusoe was faster at weaving baskets and Friday was faster at chopping wood, it would be economically practical for Robinson Crusoe to specialize in basket weaving and Friday to specialize in wood chopping.”
And then we’d graph their (made-up) speeds and determine their comparative productivity. How fast would Robinson Crusoe need to become at chopping wood for him to (practically) change his specialty?
This very sketchy background sparked my interest in Robinson Crusoe. I knew that it involved a shipwrecked man on an island, and another man named Friday, but I knew few of the details.
Have you heard of Robinson Crusoe in daily culture? What do you know about Robinson and Friday?
If you have reviewed Robinson Crusoe on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.