Just as Miguel De Cervantes accidentally created one of the first novels in the early 17th century, much of what Daniel Defoe accomplished with Robinson Crusoe was partially out of chance. While this fabulation of Alexander Selkirk’s adventures in the South Pacific was a deliberate act of fiction, per se, his treatment of the ordinary and of the daily life of an exiled castaway separated this work from the many romances and adventure stories that existed during his day. It is easy to understate the importance of this novel in several genres and media, so what I want to do with this lecture is show just how deep Defoe’s exploration of everything from colonialism to economics actually goes.
Robinson Crusoe is the title character of this “novel”, which wasn’t actually dubbed as such until much later, and even at the time of its publication, it was widely believed by its audience. The story begins quite plainly and tells of Crusoe’s childhood and adolescence, but soon turns to his seafaring. Enduring a litany of piracy and attack, he sets up a plantation in Brazil and begins making trades across the sea, which eventually causes a shipwreck that he is the only survivor of.
Instead of lamenting on his loneliness, though, Crusoe’s resourceful side comes up. Not only does he learn to hunt and domesticate the local goat population, but he improves his artisanal skills daily with the construction of basket weaving, cooking and sewing. This may seem peripheral but much of the novel deals with this, as Defoe wants to remind us of just how much his character appreciates such fabricating.
Eventually, ghostly traces of other humans materialize into an encounter with a cannibal he ends up calling Friday. They arguably bond quite well, though it is arguable because of the one-sidedness of the encounter. Crusoe bestows upon him all the virtues of Christianity and the English language, and eventually they build a boat they can use to seafare, and engage in local adventures, such as saving prisoners on a mutinied boat. After all of this is said and done, he returns to England, where his apparent virtue is reward with the discovery that he is a wealthy man.
There is much to be said about Defoe’s work because it marked the beginning of a literary era, though it’s difficult to say just how aware people were of its inception. I referenced Quixote before, and put great emphasis on this concept of the anti-hero. Crusoe, at times bordering on buffoonery but in other instances highly resourceful, represents a shift in literary thought provoked by great changes in Western Civilization. For one, the New World, as The Americas were known, allowed many to gain prominence through enterprise and trade, however amoral the practices were. No longer were stories merely about the elevated, such as the Chivalric romances of Pierre de Ronsard or the Classical figures prominent in Elizabethan. The elevation itself, this move towards the ultimate vision of civilization, became much more popular than before.
which is not to say that the same underlying themes are there. Defoe is surely intent on making his story a spiritual journey–many of the most crucial events in the novel, such as the washing up on shore, the shepherding of goats, the symbolic baptism of Friday, are all clearly religious. But the way that he approaches divinity–as something that starts from the ground up, as a force borne out hard work, patience and most importantly faith–speaks to the accessibility of this innovative form of fiction. Crusoe is not saving civilization, but in fact, from the ground up, creating it.
Colonialism was in full force during Defoe’s time and there’s no denying that our author is celebrating the ideals of Western Civilization, but as anachronistic as this concept is, the way that he delivers it puts great emphasis on the individual. Crusoe’s marooning on the island follows what anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan would later theorize in the 19th century, that civilization is a three-stage process consisting of 1. Savagery, 2. Barbarism, and 3. Civilization. The book is allows this process to start from the beginning and end with civilization, and while again there is a sense Defoe is playing favorites, there is also the sense that the ascent from beast to civilized human is a practical one, done every day through trial and error, and that materialism is not necessarily an obsession with wealth but rather a dividing line. But Crusoe’s definition of such a concept is slightly different…as he abandons the gold and silver in the shipwreck, it becomes apparent that he wants his civilization built upon what is useful, not subjectively valuable.
However, Beyond the grander themes of civilization is the recognition of an emerging pattern in English Literature. In England the novel was built upon extracting value from the actions of everyday life and providing people with lessons on how to adapt to “modern” civilization, and such a idea is made no more apparent than in Defoe’s literary style. It is biographical and moves at the island’s pace, with much of the book devoted to small-but-invaluable events like the making of pots. Defoe is insistent on making this book feel true at the expense of grandiose action, but in doing so he allows the reader to cultivate appreciation for the hero, instead of blindly revering them.
People may reserve a more contentious opinion of this novel because of its caricature treatment of native peoples and its celebration of colonialism, but I think there is a more important lesson to extract from this. Karl Marx, the father of communism, cited the similarities between Crusoes’ labor practices and what he envisioned as a human ideal. I think the most important argument we can take from the text is that individual effort, not divine ordinance, is actually the backbone of civilization, and that what will bring people together is its communal building, either through simple construction or through devotion to common faith. But again, such works are good to read because they force you to look at the characters critically. I don’t expect you to agree with much of what is said, and that’s great–literature, especially the classics–are often the best tools to sharpen our critical thinking, as we must forcefully reflect upon the validity of its morals while appreciating the lessons it promotes.