Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1719 and sometimes regarded as the first novel in English. The book is a fictional autobiography of Crusoe, the eponymous hero, a castaway on a remote island. Its full title is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself. This device, presenting an account of supposedly factual events, is known as a "false document", and gives a realistic frame to the fiction.


The story

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Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday by Carl Offterdinger

Crusoe leaves England on a sea voyage in 1652 against the wishes of his parents. The ship is taken over by Sal pirates and Crusoe becomes the slave of a Moor. He manages to escape with a boat and is taken in by a Portuguese ship off the western coast of Africa. The ship is on route to Brazil. There, Crusoe becomes owner of a plantation.

He joins an expedition to bring over slaves from Africa, but he is shipwrecked on an island which later turns out to be near the mouth of what is now known as the Orinoco river. His companions all die; he manages to fetch arms, tools and other supplies from the ship. He proceeds to build himself a fenced-in habitation, keeps a calendar by making marks in a piece of wood, hunts, grows corn, learns how to make pottery, raises goats etc. He reads the Bible and slowly becomes religious, thanking God for his fate in which nothing is missing but society.

He finds out that native cannibals occasionally visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At first he plans to kill the savages for their abomination, but then he realizes that he has no right to do so as the cannibals have not attacked him and do not knowingly commit a crime. He dreams of getting himself one or two servants by freeing some prisoners, and indeed, when a prisoner manages to escape, Crusoe helps him and the two become friends. Crusoe names his new companion "Friday" after the day of the week he appeared, and he teaches him English and turns him into a Christian.

Then one day an English ship appears; it turns out that a mutiny had broken out on the ship and the mutineers intend to maroon their captain on the island. The captain and Crusoe manage to retake the ship and travel home. By then, Crusoe had spent 28 years on the island.

After returning to Europe with Friday in 1686, he finds that his plantation was well cared for and he becomes rich. From Portugal he travels to England via Spain and France; in a mountainous region in winter, he and his companions have to fend off an attack of vicious wolves. Back in England, he decides to sell his plantation, as returning to Brazil would entail converting to Catholicism.


Despite its simple narrative style and the absence of the supposedly indispensable love motive, no modern book can boast of such worldwide esteem. Novelist James Joyce eloquently noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

According to J.P. Hunter, Robinson is not a hero but an everyman. He begins as a wanderer, aimless on a sea he does not understand; he ends as a pilgrim, crossing a final mountain to enter the promised land.

Reception and sequels

The book was first published on April 25, 1719. The reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions. Within a matter of decades, it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English. It had become part of the literary consciousness of European civilization. It is the most widely read book after the Bible, although the Guinness Book of World Records claims the same rank.

No single book in the history of Western literature has spawned more editions, spinoffs, and translations (even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, having spawned more than 700 such alternate versions. There have been hundreds of adaptations in dozens of languages, from the Swiss Family Robinson, to Luis Buuel's film version. J.M. Coetzee's 1986 novel, Foe, is a reimagining, retelling, and reevaluation of the story.

Defoe went on to write a much lesser known sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It was intended to be the last part of his stories, according to the original title-page of its first edition. However, a third part, entitled Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, was written; it is a mostly forgotten series of moral essays with Crusoe's name attached to give interest.

Selkirk as the inspiration for Crusoe

Since Defoe usually capitalized on current news events, it is likely that his real-life inspiration for Crusoe was a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 by Woodes Rogers' expedition after four years on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernndez off the Chilean coast. Rogers's "Cruising Voyage" was published in 1712, with an account of Alexander Selkirk's ordeal.

Robinson Crusoe is far from plagiarism of Roger's account, however. Selkirk was abandoned at his own request, while Crusoe was shipwrecked. The islands are different. Selkirk lived alone for the whole time while Crusoe found a companion. Furthermore, much of the appeal of Defoe's novel is the detailed and captivating account of Crusoe's thoughts, occupations and activities which goes far beyond that of Rogers' description of Selkirk.

Use of "Robinson Crusoe" and "Man Friday" in modern English

The book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered the language. The term Robinson Crusoe is virtually synonymous with the word "castaway", and the term Man Friday (or a Girl Friday) is used to mean a helpmate.

Connection to Rousseau

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on education, "Emile, or Education", the main character, Emile, is allowed to read only one book before the age of 12, "Robinson Crusoe". Rousseau wants Emile to identify himself as Crusoe, required to rely upon himself for all of his needs. In Rousseau's view, Emile needs to imitate Crusoe’s experience, allowing necessity to determine what is to be learned and accomplished. This is one of the main themes of Rousseau's educational model.

Other real-life castaways

Other real-life castaways were reduced to an extremely primitive condition, or lost the use of speech, in a space of a few years. One report describes a Frenchman who, after two years of solitude on Mauritius, tore his clothing to pieces in a fit of madness brought on by a diet of nothing but raw turtles. Another story has to do with a Dutch seaman who was left alone on the island of St. Helena as punishment. He fell into such despair that he disinterred the body of a buried comrade and he set out to sea in the coffin (Mandelslo, 1662: 246). Another castaway, the Spaniard Pedro Serrano, was rescued after seven years of solitude, according to Rycaut and Secord. However, studies of life on desert islands available to Defoe were neither long nor detailed; perhaps two or three covered more than a dozen pages. To plunder from any one of these a story so abundantly stocked with detail as "Robinson Crusoe" is manifestly impossible.

See also

External links


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