Author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) lived a life almost as adventurous as the one he depicts for his fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was a political man, a bit of a swashbuckler, a pamphleteer, and an English Dissenter. That is, he was one of those like John Bunyan before him whose family dissented from the Church of England. Some call Robinson Crusoe (1719) the first real English novel. That distinction is sometimes accorded to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). But Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory rather than a novel proper, and resembles medieval literature more than it presages the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The full title of this book is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the Coast of America, near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account of how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates.
We usually think of Robinson Crusoe as a children’s book, but no child would sit still for a straight reading of this novel. Like Treasure Island, it has been many times recreated in an abridged and simplified form for children. The book is best understood as an adult adventure story, of which it is one of the best. In reading this novel for the first time in recent days, I could hardly put it down from evening to evening. I was reminded of those times in my youth when I sat for hours with the novels of Jules Verne. I had not realized that serious literature could ever again engage me at such a level of joy and wide-eyed fantasy. After back to back readings of Moby Dick and Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe was a rip-roaring read of the first order, and a deliverance from 19th-century Sturm und Drang.
Crusoe’s adventures begin when as a young man he disregards his pious father’s advice to stay at home and assume his predestined role in society. No life could be better lived, his father told him, than one at the upper level of the common class. Nobody would ever covet what he had, and he in turn would live a placid life of more than enough. A life on the sea, his father warned, would risk God’s wrath. But Crusoe, in his late teens, had his mind made up, and was off to sea to grasp his fortune.
The first eight years of Crusoe’s life on the sea were harrowing and rewarding in turn. He suffered shipwreck off the coast of England when he had barely set out, but soon embarked again to the coast of Africa. Here he was captured by Moorish pirates, who enslaved him for two years. Crusoe made an escape at last and was picked up by a Portuguese ship headed for Brazil. The captain of the ship showed him great kindness. In Brazil, Crusoe met another Englishman, and the two of them joined in establishing a sugar cane plantation. Prosperity came quickly and effortlessly, and it appeared that the young man had his future settled.
But wanderlust struck Crusoe once more, and he determined to go aboard a ship that was a slaver to the coast of Africa. “I went on board in an evil hour—the 1st of September 1659, being the same day eight years that I went from my father and mother at Hull in order to act the rebel to their authority and the fool to my own interest.” Somewhere off shore from the Orinoco River in modern Venezuela, they encountered a storm and abandoned the ship. They entered a small boat and made for an island. Of the eleven aboard, only Crusoe made it to land.
Here his real adventure begins. “I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco pipe, and a little tobacco in box.” Frightened, not knowing where he was, or what dangers lay at hand, he spent the first night in a tree. The next day he discovered that his ship had washed ashore nearby and that he could get many items off of it for his survival. He provisioned himself with guns and ammunition, clothes and tools, as well as some food stuffs. He realized that it he and his fellows had stayed with the main ship rather than trying to land with the boat they would all have been saved.
Crusoe soon began to make the island his home. He found that it contained goats and tortoises for food. He crafted a kind of dugout for his stores and pitched a tent nearby, as he set out to explore his domain. He soon realized that he was alone on this tropical island, and that it contained most of what he needed to sustain life. He began to keep a journal and a calendar, not knowing how long he was to be stranded in this “Island of Despair,” as he called it. His greatest fear was that his island would be visited by tribesmen from the mainland, whose outline he could only just descry from a high point. He knew that the tribes were cannibals and that he must remain hidden if they should come. His main residence was thus masked with rows of trees which he planted to shield him from view from anyone coming to shore.
During his first few months there he experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. By June of the year following his arrival, he became deathly ill. This proved to be a turning point in his life. As he reflected on the events that led to his hopeless condition, he entered a period of deep repentance that led to a religious conversion. “I began to reproach myself with my past life, in which I had so evidently, by uncommon wickedness, provoked the justice of God to lay me under uncommon strokes.” He remembers his father’s words, and he cries out: “Lord, be my help; for I am in great distress.”
Crusoe’s life begins to change for the better. He recovers, but more than that, he finds a new meaning in his ordeal. He begins reading the scriptures (three Bibles were among the things he salvaged from the ship) and praying regularly. His recovery complete, he establishes a “country house” in another part of the island. This was a kind of stockade which he could visit when he was travelling over the island. It is difficult to tell how large the island is from his description, but it seems to be at least ten or twenty square miles, perhaps larger.
Among the things Crusoe rescued from his ship were some rice, corn and barley seeds. These he cultivated so that by the end of several years he had grain for fashioning into loaves. He domesticated the goats, and kept them for meat, milk, butter and cheese. He tamed a parrot he called Poll, which proved to be a constant companion to him. He drew comfort from the words of scripture: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Joshua 1:5). “From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world.”
Over the next several years, Crusoe essentially reinvents the semblances of civilization. He discovers by accident how to create earthenware so he can bake bread. He learns to weave baskets for transporting his produce, including a crop of grapes that were his staple fruit. He realizes the futility of earthly possessions beyond those necessary for his sustenance and comfort. “All the good things of this world are no further good to us than they are for our use; and that whatever we may heap up indeed to give others, we enjoy just as much as we can use, and no more… I had no room for desire.”
Five years pass. Crusoe builds a small boat to circle the island. He is nearly swept out to sea when he miscalculates the currents, and once making it back to shore puts the boat up and gives up the idea of sailing to the mainland. By the eleventh year he has refined his dairy and enclosed his granaries. One day, walking along the beach on the west side of the island, he comes upon a footprint. This terrified him, and changed his life to one of apprehension. “Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God, which was founded upon such wonderful experience as I had had of his goodness, now vanished…” But he recalls Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.”
Reasoning with himself, Crusoe tells himself that he has been here now fifteen years and has never seen another person, though it is possible that some have come and gone while he was unawares. Has not God taken care of him during that time?
One day two years later, he explored a corner of the island he had never visited before and was horrified at what he came across. Human body parts were strewn across the ground with a fire pit nearby. It was evident that a cannibalistic ritual had recently been enacted there. “I turned away my face from the horrid spectacle: my stomach grew sick, and I was just on the point of fainting, when nature discharged the disorder from my stomach.” He withdraws into himself, going about his routines but having lost the love of his earlier daily life. Two more years pass, but the pall of the discovery still hangs in the air. He is more careful now, traveling less and watching more. He travels heavily armed. He rages at the inhumanity of this tribal custom and determines to kill these heathen if they come to his island again. Then he reconsiders. Is he judge and executioner? Is this his fight? Why not leave these creatures to their customs and to God?
Another year passes. Then a few more. He is in his twenty-third year on the island. One December morning he is harvesting his grain when he sees a fire on a shore about two miles away. He sneaks close to the fire and sees that nine savages have come to feast on a human they had captured in battle, for this is the way victory was celebrated. He does not interfere, but determines to put a stop to it the next time he sees it.
The next year in May a shipwreck occurs off the coast of his island, and it appears that all hands are lost. Crusoe is able to access the wreck and salvage a few things, including a starving dog who will be his companion. He cries out in despair that there was not one man who survived. Two more years pass. Crusoe becomes obsessed with making a trip to the mainland to find deliverance, if there was any to be found.
One day, five canoes appear with about 30 natives in them. They carry two wretches bound in order to be butchered and eaten. On shore, one of the captives frees himself and makes a run for his life. Three natives pursue him but he outruns them. Crusoe calls the desperate man aside and helps him escape by killing one of the pursuers and wounding another. The remaining natives soon leave the island to catch the tides back to the mainland. Crusoe is alone on the island with his captive, whom he calls “Friday” to indicate the day on which he rescued him.
Friday becomes both servant and companion to Crusoe and the two men grow close. Friday learns some English, and Crusoe teaches him how to maintain the animals and the crops. “Never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me; without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me.” Friday gladly learns of Crusoe’s God: “He listened with great attention, and received with pleasure the notion of Jesus Christ being sent to redeem us.”
Crusoe and Friday live together for three years, tending the plantation, as it was called, caring for the animals, and spending many days in pleasant conversation. Friday informs his “Master” that there are seventeen white men with beards living among his people. These, it turns out, are the survivors of the shipwreck that had happened about four years prior. They are in a miserable state with no way to escape, but his people are doing what they can to feed and help them.
The remainder of the book with its surprising twists and turns resulting in Crusoe’s and Friday’s escape from the island and their voyage to Europe I will leave to the reader to discover. The book has, of course, a happy ending. “And thus I left the island the 19th of December in the year 1686, after I had been upon it eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days… I arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty and five years absent.” Friday travels with Crusoe to England. The seventeen men on the mainland also come to a good end.
Near the end of the book, Crusoe reflects: “And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure, a life of Providence’s checker-work, and of a variety which the world will seldom be able to show the like of. Beginning foolishly, but closing much more happily than any part of it ever gave me leave so much as to hope for.”
In many ways, Robinson Crusoe is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter fifteen. One reflects on this parable again and again while reading the book, helped by Crusoe’s frequent conjuring of his miseries and his sorrow at disregarding his father’s original advice. But had the young man not made his foolish hegira to the ends of the earth, we would not have this book—perhaps the greatest adventure story in the English language—to fire our imaginations. As Crusoe frequently says, in every tale of woe there is good to be told.