Despite appearances, “Robinson Crusoe” wasn’t really a thrilling survivalist memoir, but rather a clever imitation of one (though it did draw on the real-life case of Alexander Selkirk, similarly marooned for four years). Its actual author, Daniel Defoe, was a small-time businessman and a full-time Grub Street hack.
Over the course of his life Defoe (1660-1732) worked as a journalist, a wine and hosiery merchant, a manager of a brickworks and a secret government agent. He filed for bankruptcy twice and once endured three days in the pillory for seditious libel. In his last decade, he also wrote a handful of groundbreaking novels, including the racy “Moll Flanders” and “A Journal of the Plague Year,” the latter an exceptionally realistic, albeit fictive, description of London’s bubonic plague epidemic of 1665-1666.
“Robinson Crusoe,” though, remains something truly special: It belongs in that small category of classics — others are “The Odyssey” and “Don Quixote” — that we feel we’ve read even if we haven’t. Retellings for children and illustrations, like those by N.C. Wyeth, have made its key scenes universally recognizable. Stranded on a desert island, Crusoe strips his wrecked ship of everything useful, builds a fortified cave-retreat, acquires goats and a pet parrot, plants barley and corn, learns to fashion clothes out of animal skins. The most dramatic moment of all occurs without preamble or fanfare:
“It happened one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand; I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as I had seen an Apparition; I listen’d, I look’d round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing; I went up to a rising Ground to look farther; I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one.”
Much later, Crusoe discovers an orgiastic cannibal feast and helps rescue a captive to whom he gives the name Friday. Later still, mutineers land on the island, but Crusoe and Friday, through force of arms and subterfuge, restore command to the ship’s rightful captain. Many editions of the novel then close with these abrupt words:
“In this vessel, after a long voyage, I arrived in England this 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty and five years absent.”
Note that number, 35. Crusoe’s 28 years on the island account for only one long episode in an action-packed life. Before his shipwreck, the young Crusoe survived several sea disasters, two years’ enslavement by the “Moors,” a daring escape in a small boat down the coast of Africa and an Atlantic crossing to Brazil. After he acquired a plantation there, he tells us that “the first thing I did, I bought me a Negro Slave, and an European servant also.” Later, at the time of the shipwreck, Crusoe was actually sailing to Africa to purchase additional slaves for a consortium of Brazilian landowners. Sad to say, Defoe’s gentlemanly hero typically perceives other races — and classes — as chattel, brutes or grown-up children, though Friday’s humanity and quick intelligence eventually cause him to wonder about his ingrained prejudices.
In fact, Crusoe’s full biography transforms the novel into quite a problematic text. Unabridged editions don’t end with his departure from the island but go on to relate Crusoe’s efforts to reclaim his plantation and the profits owed to him, as well as his eventual marriage in England. “The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”— a sequel published in the fall of 1719 — describes later travels, starting with a return to the island.
Anyone who reads “Robinson Crusoe” as an adult will note Defoe’s penchant for paragraph-long sentences that are somehow perfectly clear. Minute particulars do much to create the narrative’s seeming veracity: After a harrowing account of his own near drowning, Crusoe searches the shore for his shipmates but finds only “three of their hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows.”
As many scholars have noted, Defoe’s castaway isn’t a back-to-nature primitivist, but rather an enterprising capitalist, eager to transform raw nature into useful goods while keeping careful inventories of what he owns, makes and reaps. He regularly likens himself to a king, has Friday call him “Master,” and later assumes the title of governor.
Where capitalism flourishes, can the Protestant ethic be far behind? Crusoe’s near-death from fever leads to spiritual awakening and repentance. He recognizes disobedience to his father as his Original Sin, learns to trust in Providence and totes up his blessings on a balance sheet. He views his interior life as a psychomachia, a struggle between “the Dictates of my Fancy” and reason, common sense and various premonitions or “secret Hints” from guardian spirits who inhabit an “invisible World.” Nevertheless, shortly after teaching basic Christianity to Friday, Crusoe — despite some initial reservations — organizes the massacre of 17 “savages.”
A classic is a book that generations have found worth returning to and arguing with. Vividly written, replete with paradoxes and troubling cultural attitudes, revealing a deep strain of supernaturalism beneath its realist surface, “Robinson Crusoe” is just such a classic and far more than a simple adventure story for kids.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.