Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a classic travelogue surviving over 300 years.

At 19 we all argue with our parents thinking we know better so it is of little surprise that the young Robinson Crusoe back in 1651 ignored the well-meaning advice of his father, and joined a ship heading from Hull to London.

During this voyage, however, fate struck a nasty blow and the weather worsened leaving the ship stranded in waters near Yarmouth. After several days the weather refused to abate and the ship, unfortunately, could not take the constant pounding. Fortunately for many onboard including Crusoe a ship nearby had noticed their distress signal and sent a small boat to rescue them.

For many, after an experience like this, they may reflect and return home with their tail between their legs and admit that perhaps their father was correct. Robinson Crusoe however, had other ideas. When onboard the sinking ship he had prayed to God asking to survive and if he did he would return to the family. Just a few days on dry land though led to other thoughts. It appears he had forgotten how he felt during the awful weather on board and instead of heading home to Hull he decided to join a ship heading for Africa.

The first voyage he embarked on to Africa was a seemingly successful one that saw him returned safely so he decided to remain with the ship. Unfortunately, the captain passed away, and the man taking over was not quite such a good seafarer. During the next journey, the vessel Robinson Crusoe was on was attacked by pirates and while most of the crew perished he was taken and made a slave.

For two years he worked for his master until an opportunity arose to escape which he did successfully and ended up in Brazil where he brought a patch of land to grow sugar cane.

It would appear however that Crusoe is not the brightest of individuals or perhaps cannot see his own failings because after 4 years working on his now quite successful plantation, greed has got the better of him. He has mentioned in passing to others the ability to buy slaves in ‘Guinea’ which is still quite an unknown thing at this time in Brazil. So when the offer of a trip across the seas to procure these slaves comes up Crusoe jumps at the change to join the expedition on the promise that he will gain many for himself.

This time, however, Robinson Crusoe’s luck seems to have run out with the ship sailing directly into a hurricane and pushing them towards the Caribbean islands. With the ship wreaked eleven souls climb abroad the life raft but do not make it to shore. Crusoe seems to be the lone survivor of this tragic wreckage.

“I walk’d about on the shore, lifting up my hands, and my whole being, as I may say, wrapt up in my contemplation of my deliverance,..reflecting upon my comrades that were drown’d, and that there should not be one soul sav’d but myself; as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes.. “(Page 81)

To begin with, his spirits were high. The ship, wrecked just offshore, was within swimming distance so daily Crusoe would swim out to recover as many supplies as possible. He even created a weatherproof shelter and a safe surround to protect himself against predators.  However, after a freak storm the ship was completely washed away and with that Crusoe’s mood changed and it takes all his energy to try and drag himself back out of his depressive state.

“Well, you are in a desolate condition, ’tis true, but pray remember, Where are the rest of you? Did not you come eleven of you into the boat, where are the ten? Why were not they sav’ d and you lost?” (Page 97)

As you progress through the narrative Crusoe’s monologue often reads like manic ramblings of someone going insane which quite possibly would happen if you were stranded all alone with no one else for company. But he also seems to possess the ability to adapt quickly to his surroundings. Of course, we don’t gain the full background to his skills before he embarks on his life as a sailor and explorer but you get the sense that he is from a privileged background and therefore would not normally work with his hands so he seems far more able then you would probably expect – cutting down trees, creating wicker baskets and pots made of clay, making spades and other tools out of very little.

Mexico beach pretty much deserted near Tulum

After so long alone, he becomes so comfortable in his surroundings that he lets his guard down. That is, until one day he sees a footprint in the sand he is certain isn’t his. We then have an extended monologue about how he is worried that savages will come onto the island, find and eat him for he was convinced that anyone coming onto the island was, in fact, a cannibal.

He would spend hours, weeks and years thinking about how he could, should he need to, kill as many of them as possible should they discover his hiding place.

“… but all was abortive, nothing could be possible to take effect, unless I was to be there to do it my self; and what could one man do among them, when perhaps there might be twenty or thirty of them together, with their darts, or their bows and arrows, with which they could shoot as true to a mark… “(Page 200)

These thoughts continued for years, both consciously and in his dreams. Then, one day, after 25 years of solitude, while observing a group of savages, Robinson Crusoe saw one of the captives break away, running for his life.

“I was call’d plainly by Providence to save this poor creature’s life ; I immediately run down the ladders with all possible expedition, fetch’d my two guns, for they were both but at the foot of the ladders,… And getting up again, with the same haste, to the top of the hill… “(Page 233)

This is our first introduction to Friday, a character probably just as memorable as Robinson Crusoe in this narrative. Up until this point, it has been one very long, and at times, dragging monologue of how one man comes to survive on an island. Don’t get me wrong, if such a thing could happen, we should all be in awe of the survivor but it did, at times, cause the plot to become a bit of a bore.

For the remaining chapters, we read about how Crusoe taught man Friday how to speak English and complete all the tasks asked of him. We also read about their unlikely saviours and how they finally escape the island after nearly 28 years.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

My Thoughts on Robinson Crusoe

I really wanted to enjoy this novel for many reasons. Firstly, the story is meant to be based on the real-life travels and disasters of Alexander Selkirk, a Navy officer who lived as a castaway for four years on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, and secondly, many literary historians have singled out Robinson Crusoe as the first instance of a realistic English novel.  Finally, I initially picked the novel up to read for the first time in 2019, exactly 300 years since it was published so it was a big milestone for the book.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I really wanted to enjoy the narrative, and at times, I loved reading about how someone could live in solitude for so long developing their survival skills but at other times the monologue of Crusoe’s experiences became so monotonous I struggled to continue.  Possibly because of the time in which it was written, it is also heavily laden with religious references which could be extremely off-putting for people. Finally, there is a strong theme of slavery running throughout which was fundamentally difficult to read. Crusoe went from wanting slaves to becoming a slave himself. The element I struggled with however was the fact that after his own treatment he was quick to enslave others again for his benefit.  Surely, after you have been oppressed yourself, the last thing you would want to do would be to treat someone else in a similar manner.

Of course, Defoe’s plot is fictional and therefore he was probably not expecting people 300 years later to pull his narrative apart and look for underlying meanings in the way we often do today.

On the surface, it is a travelogue full of descriptive episodes and exploration of different countries and continents which I know many will enjoy.

Have you read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe? Did you like this classic travelogue?

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Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a classical travelogue written over 300 years ago. Find out what @tbookjunkie thought of this well-known novel.

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