Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe) is probably the most famous adventure story in the English literature. It tells the story of a man who is shipwrecked off a desert island where he spends the next 28 years before being rescued. The story is divided into three parts.
In the first part we are told briefly about Crusoe’s early life and about how lie runs away from home to sea rather than accept the life of leisure his father promises him. After a series of adventures Crusoe finds himself in Brazil where he becomes a plantation owner, an occupation which he does not really like but which brings him prosperity. From there he sets off for Africa with some other plantation owners to procure slaves to work for them. It is on this journey that he is shipwrecked. Whashed ashore on a desert island, he is the only survivor.
The second part of the book is in the form of a journal in which Crusoe writes about life on the island; how he uses his strength and intelligence to overcome the difficulties of his situation and eventually become master of the island. It is in this part that he encounters a ‘savage’, whom he calls Friday and whom he resolves to convert to Christianity, teaching him the rudiments of his language and culture, including how to use a gun to hunt animals for food and later to defend themselves from attack.
The third and final part of the book tells of their rescue and of Crusoe’s return to Brazil with Friday as his servant.
Like Defoe’s other novels Robinson Crusoe is written in the first-person in the form of spiritual autobiography. As he does with Moll Flanders, Defoe adds a preface which states ‘The editor believes this thing to be a just History of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.’ So we are led to believe that this is the story of a real man, and that Defoe is merely the editor.
The style of the narrative is very matter of fact. We are given little or no access to Crusoe’s inner thoughts or feelings, he generally tells us only about his actions and about what physically happens to him. Occasionally he reflects on religious questions. Indeed one of the themes of the book is the Puritan idea of man’s redemption on earth. Another interesting feature is the organisation of the story: there is no real novelistic plot; rather, Crusoe’s journal merely recounts the things that happen to him in a diary-like sequence. In this respect Robinson Crusoe is formally quite unsophisticated, unlike, for example, the novels of Henry Fielding.
Robinson Crusoe’s enduring popularity is undoubtedly due to the fact that, like all classics, in the words of Italo Calvino ‘it has never finished saying what it has to say.’
Below are three of the most common interpretations that have been given to the text.
Interpretations. Three lines.
1) The religious allegory. The book has been interpreted as a religious allegory, a Puritan tract about man’s redemption from sin. The Puritans had a very down to earth view of religion. Their view was that man must save himself from original sin on Earth, regaining the paradise he has lost through his labour and self-reliance. The island on which Crusoe is shipwrecked is at first an ‘island of despair’. But gradually, through his virtues of resilience, intelligence and hard work he gradually transforms it into a paradise of which he is master. As a Puritan, Crusoe’s religious beliefs are very different from those of the Roman Catholic religion. He does not ask God for salvation but relies only upon his own labours.
2) The economic allegory. The book also functions as an allegory of merchant capitalism: the mini-civilisation, which Crusoe establishes on the island, is similar to the society from which he comes. After he has arrived on the island he begins to regard it as his property. He builds himself an improvised house with a fence round it. He gathers wealth in the form of stocks of food and supplies. He even gives himself an arduous work routine, although he has no boss. When he meets the savage, Friday, he employs him as a servant. In this sense Crusoe embodies the values of the self-made man. He is like a businessman who, starting from nothing, slowly builds himself an empire.
3) The imperialist allegory. More recently Robinson Crusoe has been considered as an allegory of British imperialism because it attempts to demonstrate the white, Christian Crusoe’s inherent superiority over the savage Friday, who must be civilised and converted to Christianity. Robinson sees it as his right to be lord and master of the island despite the fact that Friday was there before him. His logic follows that of the British government who saw it as their right to conquer and control most of Africa and later India. The indigenous inhabitants of these countries were generally regarded as savages who had to be civilised. In Robinson Crusoe the savage Friday does not really have a voice. He only learns to speak when Crusoe teaches him English. The master-slave relationship is reminiscent of that between Prospero and Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest but Friday, unlike Caliban, does not learn to curse his master.
Source: Thomson – Maglioni, Literary Links. Literature in time and space, Cideb, an old Italian book 2000.