The story has been told, retold, satirized, whitewashed, Disneyfied, and adapted for films and plays for about three hundred years. Author Daniel Defoe even wrote sequels. Phrases like “man Friday” have entered everyday language. Long ago and far away, I read a kiddie version, along with books that were inspired by it—The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. I was enchanted.
Yet for all the influence, the original is quite dark. It preaches self-reliance and colonialism, particularly British Protestant colonialism—none of the Papist nonsense. At points, it lends itself to self-parody.
The story begins, as one might expect, with an extended summary of Crusoe’s family background. Of note are the repeated warnings from his father that he shouldn’t go to sea. Stay home. Father Crusoe has planned a nice legal career for Robinson, his youngest son. Robinson’s parents are especially reluctant to see him depart after losing their oldest son in a war.
Yeah, join the merchant marine, see the world? Huh? You want to go to sea and break your mother’s heart, you ungrateful bastard?
Well, okay, his parents don’t actually say that. The narrator is trying to tell us that he was a prodigal son. He went to sea against his father’s advice and against the advice of the captain of the first ship he sailed on, who told him, after the ship is lost and they’re all safely back on dry land in England: “What had I done that such an unhappy wretch should come into my ship? I would not set my foot on the same ship with thee again for a thousand pounds.”
A little heavy on the foreshadowing there?
But, of course, he’s a stubborn fellow and sets sail again, this time getting captured by pirates and finding himself enslaved. He escapes, makes his way to Brazil, and sets up a tobacco farm. One day he and his partner look at each other and say, “This is tough work. We need some help. Why don’t we and some of the boys get a ship together for Guinea (West Africa) and get us some Negros?” That is, they’re going to buy some slaves—perfectly acceptable behavior. The hitch in the get-along is a storm that strands Robinson, a sole survivor, on an uninhabited island somewhere probably off the coast of present-day Venezuela.
He is able to salvage some items from the ship, including a dog and two cats, about two hundred and fifty pounds of gunpowder, some clothing, and some food staples. He finds fresh water, builds a shelter at a cave entrance, and puts up barricades around it. His food sources included turtles and the wild goats on the island.
Things seem to be going reasonably well for Robinson until the day he sees the footprint. He even tries to convince himself that he made it but soon realizes his island is regularly visited by “savages,” who bring their captives there to cook and eat. One of the captives eventually escapes. Robinson helps him and takes him in. Because he’s saved his life, the man, now named “Friday,” for the day of the week he was rescued, is eternally grateful and spends the rest of his life as Robinson’s servant: “my man Friday.”
Part of the story’s attraction even to this day is how Crusoe survives a forbidding environment using what little is left to him. He does not give in to despair but manages through hard work and determination to build himself something of a comfortable life. Eventually, he tames some of the island’s wild goats. He plants corn and dries wild grapes for raisins in the dry season. He will spend twenty-eight years on the island.
When I casually mentioned to my dearly beloved that I was reading this book, he said he’d never read it and didn’t know anyone who had, not even for school.
“Oh, I bet I can tell you why they don’t teach this in school,” I said and described the acceptance of slavery and the promotion of British imperialism and Protestantism. Maybe it’s taught (or has been taught) in Great Britain. Robinson Crusoe’s world is British-centric, surrounded by unenlightened Papists such as the Spaniards who would betray an Englishman to the Inquisition. On the far reaches of the world—where gold and spices might be found, and tobacco can be planted—are savages who kill and eat human beings.
While Crusoe is busy making a true Christian out of Friday, Friday asks him some pointed questions, for which Crusoe doesn’t have any real answers. They kill and roast a goat, something Friday finds especially tasty—so tasty, in fact, he decides to give up eating men.
The book was immensely popular when it was first published. Through the centuries, it has spawned imitators and reworking in various media: the aforementioned Swiss Family Robinson, the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Gilligan’s Island. While it may not be entirely fair to judge a book by standards its author could not have foreseen, it’s also easy to say there are better books out there. Unless reading for historical purposes or out of curiosity, I recommend giving this one a hard pass.
Title: Robinson Crusoe (Originally, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner)
Author: Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731)
First published: April 25, 1719