And now for the next classic novel in my lineup, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is said to mark the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre and, by chance, contains a scene in which Crusoe applies double-entry bookkeeping to assess the ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ of his life.
Its author Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660, into a time of shifting political and religious allegiances with which he was actively engaged. The complex politics of his day had their seeds in two conflicts – one between the Protestants and the Catholics; the other between the King and Parliament. Two years before Defoe’s birth, the death of Oliver Cromwell had marked the end of the brief British Commonwealth founded on the execution of Charles I.
The monarchy was restored the year of Defoe’s birth when Charles II was recalled from exile to the British throne. But Charles left chaos in his wake when he named his overtly Catholic brother James II as his successor to the Protestant throne. Soon after James became king in 1685, Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, led a rebellion against the king. Among Monmouth’s rebel soldiers was one Daniel Defoe, a staunch Protestant. In an intriguing confluence of public and private history, Defoe found refuge in a churchyard following the defeat of the rebel army – and happened to notice the name ‘Robinson Crusoe’ carved into a gravestone.
Thirty-four years later, aged 59, Defoe published his first novel: Robinson Crusoe. The novel is well known as a thrilling tale of adventure, the story of a restless Englishman, Robinson Crusoe, who sails to the ‘New World’ only to be shipwrecked and stranded on a tropical island where he eventually befriends a local, whom he calls Friday. Crusoe’s story is told in the first person, using diary entries, which gives it the feel of real life and intimately connects the reader to the inner workings of Crusoe’s mind.
In Robinson Crusoe Defoe teases out a profoundly human dilemma: the conflict between our craving for company and our need for solitude. Alone on the island, Crusoe is overcome by melancholy, despair and madness until one day he finds himself calling out: ‘Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus used?’ He then has a realisation of God as the creator and his conscience seems to speak to him ‘like a voice’. He takes out his Bible and ‘I did what I never had done in all my life, I kneeled down and prayed to God.’
At its core Robinson Crusoe is the story of a man alone in the universe, a Puritan moral tale. The moral dimension of Defoe’s story is Christian, but Crusoe’s discovery that it’s possible to calm his mental anguish through a connection with his Christian God is more broadly the story of the soul-quieting effects of giving one’s self to a power beyond.
So among other things, Robinson Crusoe is a story of contemplation, a quasi-monastic tale of Crusoe’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity, or his understanding of Christianity from first principles (in that he builds his apprehension of Christianity on one primary belief: his sudden realisation of the existence of God). Like those medieval monks for whom work in the fields, vineyards and orchards with the seasonal round became their path to God, contributing to their worship and knowledge of God, Crusoe becomes immersed in the rhythms of his daily life:
‘It might be truly said, that now I worked for my bread; ’tis a little wonderful, and what I believe few people have thought much upon, viz. the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing this one article of bread.’
Defoe himself was intended by his father for the Presbyterian ministry and was given a strict Puritan education. But instead, fascinated all his life by economics, Defoe defied his father to become a merchant. His commercial life brought many twists of fortune, including bankruptcy, and his reputation was shadowy. His contemporary Jonathan Swift (who published Gulliver’s Travels seven years later in response to Defoe’s novel) called him a rogue and it was rumoured he was a spy (he did work as an intelligence agent for William III). The son of a butcher and born plain Daniel Foe (he added the aristocratic ‘De’), Defoe was not one of the literary gentlemen of London, who treated the bestselling success of Robinson Crusoe with contempt.
Before he turned to writing fiction late in life, Defoe was a well-known and successful political writer and journalist. He wrote a number of powerfully argued and influential pamphlets, including The True-Born Englishman (against racial prejudice), The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (for which he was imprisoned in 1702) and On the Education of Women, in which he wrote ‘I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world … that we deny the advantages of learning to women.’
As with Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe was so immensely and immediately successful that not only did Defoe write a sequel the year of its publication to cash in on its success, but pirated versions, copies, translations and adaptations appeared like mushrooms after rain. By the end of the 19th century, Robinson Crusoe had been translated into over 180 languages, including Hebrew, Bengali, Persian and Inuit.
Defoe’s novel was written in an era when sea travel was an essential part of life. English Puritans were founding their colonies in America, and sea travel and trade were the daily news. Behind the novel is the history of conquest of South America by Spain and Portugal, and England’s settlement of the West Indies, and it’s full of references to trade routes and traffic of slaves from Africa, sugar, tobacco, rum and molasses. Spain even extended its Inquisition to its American territories, and Crusoe fears the Inquisition in ‘the Brasils’ if he reveals he’s a non-Papist.
Robinson Crusoe is based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who was born in Fife in 1676. Selkirk was marooned on an island off the coast of Chile in 1704 and not rescued until 1709. On his return to England, Selkirk’s adventures caused a sensation. He was interviewed by Richard Steele, the founder of Tatler and co-founder of The Spectator, who published an essay on him in The Englishman in 1713. Steele said that Selkirk ‘frequently bewailed his Return to the World, which could not, he said, with all its Enjoyments, restore him to the Tranquility of his Solitude’.
The adventuring Selkirk found that ‘he was a better Christian while in this solitude than ever he was before, or than, he was afraid, he should ever be again’, adding that once he had conquered his melancholy through reason, reading the Scriptures, moderation and vigorous physical exercise, his life had become joyful, ‘one continual Feast’.
Crusoe’s practicality and adaptability make him an ideal Western industrial-capitalist man. He believes in reason; that through reason anyone can become a ‘mechanick’ and reason consoles him in his despair. Like the best British shopkeeper, Crusoe keeps an account of his condition, drawing up his ‘State of Affairs’ and stating ‘very impartially, like Debtor and Creditor, the Comforts I’d enjoyed, against the Miseries I suffered’. He heads the left-hand side of his account ‘Evil’ and the right-hand side ‘Good’ (thereby falsely equating debits with bad and credits with good). Crusoe remarks that ‘by this experiment I was made master of my business’. And, like the best English colonist, Crusoe surveys the island, seeing ‘the whole country was my own meer property’.
Robinson Crusoe has had such an enduring cultural influence that most people know its story of a sailor shipwrecked on an island. The French 19th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called it: ‘The one book that teaches all that books can teach.’ It became so popular in France during the Revolution that until the 1930s a large umbrella was called in French ‘un Robinson’ after the goatskin umbrella Crusoe made.
Robinson Crusoe has inspired countless other works, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Muriel Spark’s Robinson (1958), JM Coetzee’s Foe (1986) and Luis Bunuel’s film Las Aventuras de Robinson Crusoe (1954). There are even echoes of Defoe’s wolves in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994).