Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. Penguin Books, 2003.
Summary of Work
An Englishman from York and youngest son of a merchant, Robinson Crusoe’s father wants him to study law. But to his family’s dismay, Crusoe desires a life at sea, and he sails to London with a friend against his family’s wishes. On the way to London, there is a terrible storm that nearly kills Crusoe and his friend, but undeterred, he signs himself up to sail from London. His first trip brings him some financial success, and that encourages him to take another voyage. As to not lose the profit from the first trip, he leaves the money with a widow he trusts. His second trip lands him enslaved to pirate Moors, and he is enslaved in North Africa. He escapes slavery while on a fishing expedition, where he and another boy are able to sail down the coast and meet the Portuguese; Crusoe sells the boy back into slavery and goes to Brazil, where he becomes a successful plantation owner. His success leaves him needing more slaves, and rather than purchase them from a slave trader, he determines he will sail to Africa and gather his own slaves, but as he travels he ends up shipwrecked, the sole survivor, off the coast of Trinidad.
He salvages what he can from the ship, mainly guns, gunpowder, some food, and other useful items. Then he surveys part of the island to see what he can find to help him survive, and he finds goats and finds a good spot to build shelter. He also takes the time to build a cross on which he engraves the date of his shipwreck, and he makes a notch in it every day to keep track of time. He has paper, so he keeps a journal in which he describes his successes and failures, including his candle making trials, his lucky chance of sprouting grain, building a cellar, and falling ill. When he is ill he hallucinates an angel appearance, where the angel comes to tell him to repent. He believes, in a religious reawakening, that God has thus far delivered him from his sins. After recovery, he determines to make a full survey of the area, finding that he is, in fact, on an island, and that the space has grapes in abundance. He starts feeling like he is king of the island, and he trains a parrot, makes a goat his pet, and starts learning skills of pottery, basketry, and bread making. He also builds a canoe from a cedar tree, but unthinkingly doesn’t put it near water so he cannot lift it to shore. So he tries again with a smaller tree that he can move by himself, and he decides to row around the island. While rowing, he gets caught in a current and nearly dies, but is able to get to shore. He hears his parrot, and is once again praising God for saving him. For several years after that, he stays on the island with no attempt to leave.
One afternoon, he discovers the footprints of another person, and he decides that there must be cannibals that live nearby, so he arms himself and builds an underground space to hide his goats at night as well as an underground space to cook. He hears gunshots on another evening, and he finds a shipwreck, but no one is there. As he walks, he finds the dead all along the shore, and he convinces himself that cannibals have feasted on these corpses, so he continues his high alert status. Crusoe, on watch, sees a group of cannibals taking victims to shore, and one victim breaks free and heads towards Crusoe. He kills one of the cannibals and injures another, who the prisoner kills in the end. He then defeats almost all of the other cannibals because he is heavily armed. The prisoner gives his life to Crusoe in exchange for the gift of life, and Crusoe makes him a servant and names him Friday. Crusoe goes about teaching his new servant English and basic Christian doctrines, and Friday explains the construction of the cannibal nations on the island to Crusoe. Friday desires to go back to the Spanish people he was shipwrecked with, which saddens Crusoe, but then they determine that perhaps they will go to the cannibals’ island to find the Spaniards. However, as they go to leave, a group of cannibals arrives with more prisoners, one who is distinctly European. Friday and Crusoe, with their guns, kill most of the cannibals and save the European, who turns out to be a Spaniard, and another victim who was saved is Friday’s father. The Spaniard, Crusoe, Friday, and Friday’s father go back to Crusoe’s dwelling, and they eat and rest. The next day the Spaniard and Friday’s father hop in a boat to explore the island.
While they are away, an English ship appears on the shore, and when Crusoe goes to see what’s goin on, he sees the ship’s captain and a few other men being forced ashore by mutineers. Crusoe and Friday start a maneuver to confuse and scare the mutineers, and they end up surrendering, and with the captain, they pretend that the land is English territory and that Crusoe is the magnanimous governor who spared their lives so they can face justice in England. It has been 27 years he has spent on the island when he is able to start on his return to England. All his family but his sisters are dead, but the widow he saved his money with is still alive, and she still has his money. He also learns that in the decades he was gone, his plantations have been very prosperous, and so he arranges to sell them, determining that he will not sail again, even to get to England; he will go by land. He has struggles traveling by land because of storms and wildlife, but finally gets back and is able to get his money from the sale of his plantations and the widow. He gives the widow and his sisters portions of his profits, and then considers taking another voyage to Brazil, but changes his mind because he does not want to have to convert to Catholicism to live there. He marries, but his wife dies, and he finally determines he will sail again, this time to the East Indies as a trader. He visits the island he was shipwrecked upon, and finds that Spain has turned it into a profitable and beautiful colony.
Discussion of Work
This is a castaway and travel narrative, with the themes of human ingenuity, survival instinct, and trust in God and Christianity running throughout. The book could be said to teach moral lessons, as it is the original sin of not following his father’s advice that Crusoe seems to atone for. He initially makes good money, but upon his continual sailing, he loses everything in order to have the opportunity, apparently, to come to God and realize his grace. The story here also focuses on human ingenuity, as Crusoe consistently makes himself prosperous in each situation he is in: first trading, then plantation-running, then building civilization out of wilderness (although for wilderness, the space as described is pretty domesticated, with goats, grape vineyards, and plenty of fertile land and easy building space). Crusoe’s state on the island gets better the more he focuses on God and his deliverance and less on his sorrows as a castaway. When he is finally returned to England after his trials, he finds himself as Job, with far more than he ever had before his disaster, able to live happily wherever he chooses as a gift from God.
Race also plays a large part in this book, first with the slave boy who he escapes from slavery with and then sells to the Portuguese. When Crusoe is a slave, he finds ways to be friendly with his fellow slave, but as soon as he finds a way to free himself, he is automatically forgetful of the humanity of his companion, and instead sees him as an object, chattel for labor. This is clear not only in his quick sale of the boy, but in his later lamentation that he sold him when he could have used him as a laborer in Brazil. His understanding of slavery never changes throughout the novel, as can be seen when the native who he names Friday comes to be with him: he teaches him English and about Christianity, but still looks at him as a servant, a lesser being. He finds that kindness will work best, and yet there is always a condescension in his speech that is different from kindness: it is the speech of a person who finds himself superior to all others.
The superior attitude that Crusoe displays regarding race also applies to his mastery of the land. Whatever Crusoe comes to, he proves the superiority of the white man in his ability to survive and master not just survival, but building a civilization from the ground up. When he travels again after having been restored to England, he finds his island prosperous, and it is almost as if his being there is what caused the Spaniards to have success with the space. The colonial mind is at work with the ideas about white superiority and Christian mastery of land. That mastery also applies to the self, as Crusoe learns not only that it is important to recognize one’s identity, but to be able to master it in order to do more than survive, but thrive.