Sunday, 8 December 2013

Review: 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe

'Robinson Crusoe' is an example of a novel that has become almost too popular for its own good. Everyone knows the story of the man who was shipwrecked on an abandoned island and has to build a life for himself there. Only few know how the novel actually works and until last week I was one of those people. I would probably never have read this novel if it hadn't been for University, but I think this was the perfect context in which to read a book which is, in all honesty, too detailed for its own good.
Shipwrecked in a storm at sea, Robinson Crusoe is washed up on a remote and desolate island. As he struggles to piece together a life for himself, Crusoe's physical, moral and spiritual values are tested to the limit. For 24 years he remains in solitude and learns to tame and master the island, until he finally comes across another human being. Considered a classic literary masterpiece, and frequently interpreted as a comment on the British Imperialist approach at the time, Defoe's fable was and still is revered as the very first English novel.
I gave myself almost two months before reviewing this novel after finishing it, because I wasn't sure how I actually felt about the novel as a whole. The premise is interesting, which is why the novel was survived this long, but it is very much a novel of its own time. Never has this much been written about 'she-goats' and the building of defensive walls on an abandoned island in any other work of fiction I've read. As I said above, there is an incredibly amount of detail in this book which might have been perfect back in the 1700s, adding credibility to Defoe's story, but clogging up the book for modern readers. Occasionally he skips over three years by simple stating he was busy building a cellar to store his crops in. It is impossible to belief that in those twenty-eight years that Robinson was stuck on that island, he never had either sexual or simply social desires but was perfectly content to colonize his little piece of Earth and come to terms with God and his own role in this world.

There is another aspect not many people are aware of: 'Robinson Crusoe' is an incredibly religious book. God and Providence permeate the book and are what guide Crusoe's thoughts and actions. Being completely alone, everything that happens is either the consequence of one of his own actions or has to be have come from God. The footprint is therefore a crucial part in the novel. Let's take a look at Robinson's response to the footprint:
'I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition.  I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; 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.'
Robinson has completely resigned himself to a solitary existence and the sudden 'apparition' of a footprint is not only a supernatural reminder that there is an entire world out there, but also a threat against the state he has built up there. The presence of a deity that has the power to change your life outside of your choice is a very important aspect of the novel that has not translated into popular culture.

However, I found 'Robinson Crusoe' quite enjoyable once you accepted the time period and genre within which it was written. The extraneous detail and the very imperialistic turn that the novel takes towards the end simply form part of the world Robinson and Defoe both come from. In many ways the true value of 'Robinson Crusoe' lies in it being one of the first, if not the first, novel that created a true psychological profile for its character. Crusoe's psyche is delved into and developed, bringing the reader a true travel novel that journeys through the mind as well as an undiscovered world.

I give this novel...


Purely for the fact that the novel is very much of its own time and many of the aspects of its narrative haven't translated into popular culture, I have given this novel 4 rather than 5 Universes. I enjoyed it much more than 'Gulliver's Travels', an equally famous yet relatively unexplored novel written as a response to Defoe's novel, but mainly for the ideas it brought to the forefront of my mind, rather than for its own content.

Have you read 'Robinson Crusoe'? If yes, what did you think of it? If no, do you think you'd enjoy it?

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