G. and I are planning to read through the Guardian’s list of the “100 Best Novels in English,” but it looks like a daunting task. We have only just started, and I still have to go back and finish The Pilgrim’s Progress just to be caught up (more on that in due course). Second on the list, however, was the book which is considered by scholars to be “the first English novel,” Robinson Crusoe. Originally published in 1719, this is a story which has resounded down the ages, almost becoming a cultural cliché. However, that familiarity with the general framework of the narrative is at odds with the real experience of reading the book, which is very much a work of its time, both in outlook and voice.
I remember having a copy of this book as part of a set of children’s classics when I was young, but if I had ever tried to read it, I cannot imagine that this novel would have held my young interest without a considerable amount of editing. For those somehow not familiar with the story, Robinson Crusoe is the titular young adventurer who sets out from home, lured by the call of the sea to a life of a sailor. Against his father’s wishes, he sets sail from Hull, in the north of England, in 1651 (a somewhat tumultuous year in English history anyway, although there is no mention of Cromwell’s Commonwealth). Misfortune quickly befalls him, and he ends up first a captive of the Moors, escapes the same on a boat and sails down the west coast of Africa until he is carried to “the Brasils,” where he becomes a small-holder, farming tobacco. When Crusoe joins in a further expedition to procure more workers for his plantation (read: slaves), his ship falls foul of a storm at sea and Crusoe finds himself the sole survivor, washed up on the shore of an island somewhere south and west of the Caribbean. Having only what he can salvage from the wreck to aid him, Crusoe begins what will prove to be a twenty-eight year sojourn on the island. For the vast majority of this time, he is alone.
Left to his own devices, Crusoe must find a way to survive with only the barest of supplies and tools to sustain him. As he devises shelter, learns to hunt and farm and forage, and feels that he has a diminishing chance of rescue, Crusoe’s only companions are the tasks that he sets himself and those animal companions which he deems worth of his time and attention. Yet he devises the things that he needs, builds defenses, fabricates pottery, plants crops, and builds enclosures for tame goats.
Obviously, many features of Defoe’s narrative are surprising or shocking to a 21st century reader. Set in the 17th century, and written by a man born in 1660, Robinson Crusoe is a book of a time when many things now considered disagreeable were commonplace. Slavery was an accepted economic reality, although Crusoe’s voyage to obtain more slaves for his plantation is what leaves him shipwrecked. Views of the natives of both Africa and the Americas as savages to be converted, subjugated, enslaved, or killed were casually accepted, although, again, Crusoe in his own narrative rails against the cruelty of the Spanish in the New World, reflecting the English feeling of superiority in this regard. Further, the overt displays of narrative piety which occupy much of Crusoe’s solo time on the island (and on which he wasted considerable ink – the book might have been a third to a quarter shorter without them, in my estimate) reflect the tastes and expectations of the day, and something more: the birth of a nearly new literary form in the English language, that of the novel. There had been novels before, even as far back as Classical times, but they were very new in English, and Defoe was a great proponent of them.
The narrative slowness of Robinson Crusoe is made the more uneven by its occasional rapidity; in the final fifth of the book, beginning with Crusoe’s meeting of Friday, events accelerate tremendously. The Friday character too is more than a little galling: for this innocent native is patronised unceasingly by Crusoe, made to wear European-styled clothes (of goatskin, but nonetheless), and droned on at by Crusoe about the contents of his Bible. Friday is not allowed his own name, and is immediately taught to called Crusoe “Master” in his broken pidgin speech. Regardless of knowing the origins of the story in a place and a time, I found this to be a galling indictment of European attitudes of the time. That is no one’s fault per se, it is merely the march of history. But it was distasteful.
Without wishing to spoil those final pages for new readers, the breakneck pace of events leave little time for Crusoe to reflect on religion, nor on how his disobedience to his father left him in his predicament. Nearly all of the action of the book is contained in those last sixty pages or so (in my Penguin edition, at any rate), wherein Defoe delivers mutinies, blizzards, bears, and wolves. And there is more to tell, in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (sic), if the reader is truly compelled by this first part.
I, however, am not. Although I can appreciate the historical space occupied by Defoe’s work, it was a tedious book to read, and Crusoe is not a sympathetic character in the slightest. Defoe’s language also exemplifies a time before the grammar of the novel, if you will, had been fully settled, and although he makes a stab at a form and style, I’m frankly delighted that novel writing has progressed beyond lecturing the reader in the hopes of advancing their moral improvement and debating whether or not to murder the locals. Robinson Crusoe does put one in a Desert Island Discs frame of mind; picking eight pieces of music would be hard, but from this book I’ve learned that the luxury I would most like would be to have a decent library on my desert island, however, that library need not include Defoe’s book. Three stars awarded sheerly on grounds of historical importance.
First reviewed 22 October 2015.
Find your copy of Robinson Crusoe on AbeBooks.com (linked directly to the Penguin edition, you can modify the search accordingly).