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The Robinson Crusoe Story
Aside from being one of the first novels of the English language, if not the first as many would contend, Daniel Defoe's most popular work, Robinson Crusoe, has become a cultural icon of not only England but all of the western English speaking world. One would not be out on a limb to say that every member of the western world, nearly without exception, knows the name Robinson Crusoe and associates it with being stranded on an uninhabited isle of the sea. The question then arises of why this story has remained so popular, and why has it been retold time and time again. Elements of the novel have been said to be the source of many subsequent works of fiction, from American sea novels such as Melville's Moby Dick, to the recent film, Cast Away, as Rick Lyman quotes Tom Hanks as saying that the movie is, in fact, the Robinson Crusoe story revisited. The genius of the Robinson Crusoe story is in Defoe's use of personal experience and religious background to give the novel more depth than just a sea adventure. Defoe incorporates the Puritan confessional narrative as well as the western spirit of exploration to make the novel both entertaining and inspiring, both of which have kept the story popular for 300 years.
In speaking of Defoe's inspiration for the novel, Diane Sauder observes that Defoe is not the first writer to tell the story of a marooned sailor. She further reports that "It was inspired by the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor marooned for many years on the island of Fernandez, from 1704 to 1709" (17). Green goes on to speculate that Defoe may have actually met Selkirk in addition to reading of his sojourn in the Pacific.
Richard West refutes Sauder and Green's reports that Defoe's novel is based on the experience of Selkirk by first giving a more accurate account of Selkirk's journey:
West continues with his account to show that "for several reasons Selkirk's story is not likely to have been the main or even a major inspiration for Robinson Crusoe" (237). West points out that Selkirk was not really marooned or shipwrecked at all, he choosing to stay at Juan Fernandez (237). In addition to this, unlike the protagonist in Defoe's novel, Selkirk's whereabouts were known to other Europeans.
Ian Watt concurs with West's contention that Defoe does not base his novel solely or mainly on Selkirk by reporting that "one book which Defoe had almost certainly read, The Voyages and Travels of J. Albert de Mandelslo, tells of two such cases [of marooning]" (37). Watt continues to tell of a Frenchman living two years on an uninhabited island as well as another case of a Dutchman being marooned until he "disinterred the body of a buried comrade and set out to sea in the coffin" (37). Although these accounts are in their own way different from Crusoe's story, they are much more similar to Defoe's novel than Selkirk's experience. The Dutchman's idea of setting out to sea is actually very much like Crusoe's attempts to construct a canoe with which to leave the island.
Also in speaking of the origins of the idea for Defoe's novel, Michael Seidel provides probable literary sources of the Robinson Crusoe story:
It is very likely that Defoe draws on both the Odyssey and The Tempest as well as a number of earlier literary masterpieces in creating Robinson Crusoe. For example, an even older source of Defoe's story is referred to in the novel's text itself when Crusoe compares himself to Jonas who was swallowed by the whale (who is later referred to in Moby Dick) as well as to the Prodigal Son. Crusoe sees himself as having commonalities with both Biblical figures; all three follow after unrighteous desires, Crusoe in his slave trading expedition, until Providence steps in and turns their souls towards repentance.
West observes that in reading of Selkirk's stay on Juan Fernandez in Dampier's Voyage Round the World, he would have also have read of other events more closely following the novel's story, such as Dampier and his crew being stranded on Ascension Island where they lived off turtles and goats for five weeks (238). Like the men of Dampier's crew, Crusoe lives off goats during his years marooned on an island.
Geographic location is another factor upon which West argues that Robinson Crusoe was not based on Selkirk's story (238). Rather than the far off reaches of the Pacific, Defoe chooses a setting closer to British colonies. West points out that "the novel mentions the Asiento, which Britain still hoped to win for the South Sea Company. Moreover, Defoe pinpoints Crusoe's island as lying just north of the South American mainland, near the mouth of the Orinoco river . . ." (238). West hints that there is significance in Crusoe's island being just out of the reach of Spanish annexation (238).
Sauder picks up where West leaves off in the significance of geographic location as related to the novel's theme. One theme of the novel, purports Sauder, is the "imperialist dream." Sauder explains, "The novel takes place during the age when new colonies were established and the explorer was being idealized. It was the dream of many young Englishmen to go overseas to one of the colonies, to grow rich, and to play a role in the spread of the British Empire" (Sauder). As Sauder contends, although Crusoe has his share of hardship, he begins the eventual colonization of the island, which is shown at the novel's end. Sauder says that Crusoe turns the island into "a small England," building what he calls his castle, doing what he considers to be 'civilizing' Friday, his native servant, by dressing him in British clothes, teaching him English, giving him an English name, and even converting him to Christianity, (Sauder). In addition to this, at the conclusion of the novel, Crusoe is rich from his estate in Brazil and is thus able to live out what Sauder calls the imperialist dream. No doubt Defoe, at least in part, sets his novel where he did because of the expansion of the British colonies. And no doubt this element of adventure, exploration, and even imperialism is one of the reasons why the subject of Defoe's novel has remained popular for so long.
West points out that Defoe himself had personal experience in the shipping industry, stating, "Under the guidance of his father-in-law, Defoe started to trade in beer, wine, spirits, tobacco and textile goods, buying from Portugal and America and reselling to towns in the British Isles" (51). John M. Parkinson reports that Defoe not only tried his hand at trade, but also took advantage of the employment made available because of import laws. Parkinson provides evidence that Defoe's claim that he served as Accomptant to the Commissioners of the Glass Duty is true. Parkinson shows that Defoe served in that position from 1695 to 1699 or 1700 (455-456). Defoe must draw on his own experience in capitalism to write such passages of the novel as Crusoe's enterprise with a ship's captain and his financial ventures in Brazil. In fact, Crusoe's relationship with the ship's captain could well be based off of Defoe's business relationship with his father-in-law. Such details not only relate to the imperialist theme, but also a greater theme, which has kept the story alive.
Watt introduces the religious theme in Robison Crusoe in the context of an earlier writing by John Bunyan, stating that "in England, Grace Abounding is the great monument of a way of life which Bunyan shared with the other members of his sect . . ." (25). Watt points out that "Defoe himself, of course, was born and bred a Puritan" (25) and in speaking of the confessional narrative, Watt continues:
Just as in Bunyan's confessional narrative, Crusoe's story is filled not only with religious allusion, such as the afore mentioned Biblical allusions, but also a detailed biographical account of his life. As Watt shows, this is because of Defoe's Calvinist background.
Watt continues to tie Crusoe with the novel's author, alluding to the fact that, in many ways, Crusoe is a persona for Defoe. As Watt purports, Crusoe's confessional narrative is undoubtedly autobiographical:
Although the novel's religious theme stands on its own, looking at Crusoe's religious awakening in the context of it being an autobiographical confession of Defoe, lends even greater depth to the story and to the reality of the religious issues it deals with. In addition to comparisons with Biblical figures, there are religious imagery throughout the novel. Not only does Cursoe's father warn him not to go to sea, saying that he will regret it his whole life, but after the second ship Crusoe sails on wrecks, a friend advises him to take it as a sign from heaven. Even more significant is the fact that Crusoe is marooned while trying to sail to Africa to obtain slaves. After being shipwrecked on an island, he repeatedly attributes his fate to Providence and thanks God for his deliverance from death. When he encounters cannibals, Crusoe is not so much affrighted as he is troubled by the crime of eating human flesh that the "savages" have committed. In the end, Crusoe sees his experience as God's way of changing him from a wicked man who sought to enslave his fellow man, to a better man who is generous towards others. Defoe makes sure to show that Crusoe's repentance is sincere by having him blessed with a fortune in addition to returning to England at the novel's conclusion.
For both its adventurous exploration theme and its deeper religious theme, Defoe's novel has been told in one form or another for the past 300 years. Kevin L. Cope points out some of the modern versions of the story based on its exploration theme, drawing attention to such examples as Disney's 1964 film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the 1960s television series "Gilligan's Island," and the 1960s series "Lost in Space" (150). The latter example of "Lost in Space," which has since been made into a movie, even depicts a family with the surname Robinson. Johann Wyss' 1812 novel, Swiss Family Robinson, which is clearly based on Defoe's book, not only was the inspiration for Jules Verne's sequels, Their Island Home and Castaways of the Flag, but also may have been the inspiration for the "Lost in Space" series. Such examples of retelling the Robinson Crusoe story along with more recent examples like the 2000 film Cast Away show the story's continued popularity.
In his article, Daniel E. Ritchie argues that the reason why Defoe's sequels to the novel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, were not nearly as popular as the original, was a change in Defoe's treatment of religious content. Ritchie says of the first novel, "The Biblical narratives are considered 'true' in that Crusoe comes to recognize the authority of the Biblical narratives for the purpose of reinterpreting his past life and for shaping his life. He comes to understand his own life as he learns to interpret it with respect to sacred stories" (95). Ritchie goes on to show that Defoe becomes more concerned with "truth" in the second and third volumes, in the sense of the historical verifiability of Biblical stories (95).
For similar reasons that the novel's sequels have not enjoyed the popularity of their predecessor, modern retellings of Crusoe's tale, such as those listed above, are not likely to be as lasting in their popularity. That is, what these adventurous versions of the Robinson Crusoe story lack is the depth of the confessional narrative. Defoe's novel would be wanting for theme without Crusoe's religious awakening. Diane Ravitch concurs that such modern versions of the Robinson Crusoe story are lacking. She argues in her article how the film Cast Away pales in comparison to Defoe's novel because, among other reasons, "Chuck [the film's protagonist] endlessly studies a photograph of the girl he left behind, even copying it on the walls of his cave; Robinson reads the Bible, keeps a journal and reflects on the state of his soul" (Ravitch). Modern retellings of Crusoe's story cannot enjoy the same continued popularity without the same depth, which the confessional narrative affords.
Seidel points out one of the reasons for the success of such classic literature as Robinson Crusoe by stating that "any island story, whether Homer's, Shakespeare's, or Defoe's, builds on a narrative pattern of separation, displacement, and resubstantiation so important to Western literature" (37). Indeed, Defoe's novel would be incomplete without the return of Crusoe to European civilization. In this way at least, the film Cast Away is similar to Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest. Just as the film's protagonist does not have a simple journey home or even an uncomplicated time reentering society, Crusoe and Prospero must overcome their inner shortcomings as well as outward challenges in order to return to civilization. Prospero must forgive instead of take revenge on those whom have wronged him, and Crusoe must overcome his fear of confronting the savages as well as retake the British vessel from the mutineers. In other words, Crusoe and others like him have to return home to tell their narrative for the story to be complete, and the way home is never a free ride but rather hedged with difficulty. Crusoe earns his worthiness to return to England and tell his tale. This necessity of overcoming challenges that Seidel talks about is where the confessional narrative and the adventure of Crusoe's story come together. Now he has returned to England, having not only been through a wonderful adventure, but also a spiritual conversion, which people have wanted to hear about for 300 years.
Cope, Kevin L. "All Aboard the Ark of Possibility; or, Robinson Crusoe Returns from Mars as a Small-footprint, Multi-channel Indeterminacy Machine." Studies in the Novel 30.2 (Summer 1998): 150-163.
Green, Martin. The Robinson Crusoe Story. London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.
Lyman, Rick. "Can Lightning Strike Thrice?"New York Times 22 DEC 2000: E.24.
Parkinson, John M. "Daniel Defoe: Accomptant to the Commissioners of the Glass Duty." Notes and Queries 45.4 (Dec 1998): 455-456.
Ravitch, Diane. "Tom Hanks, You're No Robinson Crusoe." Wall Street Journal (9 JAN 2001): A.22. ProQuest Direct. 14 MAR 2001 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.
Ritchie, Daniel E. "Robinson Crusoe as Narrative Theologian." Renascence 49.2 (Winter 1997): 95-110.
Sauder, Diane. "Historical Information." Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Internet Explorer. 14 MAR 2001 <http://pinkmonkey.com/MemberFrame.asp>.
Seidel, Michael. Robinson Crusoe: Island Myths and the Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Watt, Ian. "Individualism and the Novel." Daniel Defoe's Robison Crusoe. Ed. Harold Bloom. London: Chelsea House, 1988.
West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.
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