When I was about thirty pages away from the ending, my boss saw me reading Robinson Crusoe and asked if I thought her eleven year-old son would like it. I didn’t even take a moment to think when I replied, “I don’t think anyone alive today would like Robinson Crusoe.”
As always, a truly thoughtful answer to this question is much more complicated. I liked Robinson Crusoe, sort of, although I was also very happy when I finished it on Monday afternoon. I am very glad that the Numbers Challenge pushed me to read this book. I read it carefully and took a ton of notes. My intellect was 100% engaged the whole time I was reading. This novel is also a great target for mockery, as it is so steeped in the assumptions of its own time and place.
This novel was published in1719, but its sensibilities come straight from the 17th century. I kept thinking of Donne’s famous “No man is an island…” sermon, even though the central message of this sermon doesn’t really apply to Crusoe’s novel. It seems to me that the 16th and 17th century obsession with exploring the globe, coupled with the fierceness of 17th-century theology, created the archetype of the individual marooned on an island (although Shakespeare got a head start, as he often does, in The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, and Homer got a huge head start in portions of The Odyssey). 17th-century English Protestants were terrified of being alone. They were taught that the devil lurked in the darkness and that the only way to be safe from corruption was to stay within shouting distance of their local church. I find it fantastically ironic – and also a little bit sad – that people who were physically stoic and brave enough to cross oceans against terrible odds, to survive New England winters without provisions, and to walk literally and figuratively into the mouth of the unknown also saw themselves and their fellow human beings as so psychologically and spiritually fragile. Look at yourselves, I want to say, You fight WOLVES with your bare hands – and you can’t even handle having a couple of Quakers living on the edge of town? Sometimes I think we 21st-century Americans are the opposite of these pious explorers. We’re all filled up with self-esteem and self-importance. We think we’re important enough to need fingerprint-scan security on our iphones. We assume that everyone in the world is interested in our selfies. In our day-to-day lives, though, we’re terrified. We don’t trust ourselves to read maps and change tires. We’re terrified of the Ebola virus and non-organic fruit and are outraged whenever we hear rumors of injustice.
You probably know the plot of this novel fairly well even if you haven’t read it, but in case you don’t, I’ll summarize it briefly here. Robinson Crusoe is the third son in his family and therefore will inherit nothing in a British property-rights system still governed by the medieval idea of primogeniture. His father pleads with him not to go to sea, delivering a fascinating lecture in which he asserts that the middle class is the only class that is likely ever to be happy. Crusoe ignores his father’s pleas and goes to sea anyway, where he ends up in Brazil (or “the Brasils” – this novel includes lots of creative spelling and italicizing) and participating in the slave trade. Then his ship is torn apart in a storm, and Crusoe wakes up on an island. As far as he knows, he is the wreck’s only survivor. The ship itself is stuck on some rocks out at sea, and Crusoe spends his first couple of weeks on the island swimming out to the ship and using a makeshift raft to carry supplies back to the island, where he accumulates an impressive hoard of the sorts of things one needs when one is a 17th-century castaway: namely gunpowder and alcohol. And also clothing: unlike the kids in Lord of the Flies and that guy from the first season of Survivor, Crusoe never loses his taste for fine English clothing. In my margin notes, I appropriated the acronym “SOS” and repurposed it to mean “Superego of Steel.”
Next Crusoe spends about 150 pages of reading time (and about 22 years of his own life) reliving the history of the human race. At first he is a terrified hunter/gatherer, shooting at anything that moves and keeping his supplies carefully hoarded and rationed. Later he becomes a more confident hunter/gatherer proficient in extracting the egg sacs from turtles and other such skills. He creates a home for himself in which his supplies are organized and safe and dry – in some ways, he becomes the member of the English middle class that his father wanted him to be, except with more basket-making and not as much obsession with the royal baby. Next, like our ancestors, Crusoe progresses into agriculture, cultivating corn, barley, and rice (you can see one of my previous posts on this novel for some of my doubts on the verisimilitude of Crusoe’s agricultural procedures, but I won’t belabor the point here). He also tames a bunch of goats (and by “tames” I mean that he basically gives them Stockholm syndrome: he ties them up and starves them until they become totally dependent on him for food and therefore unwilling to hurt him – I suppose this is how human beings have tamed animals for millennia, but it made me a little uncomfortable nonetheless) and builds a fenced yard and at one point has a flock of over forty goats. Finally, through tons of trial and error Crusoe teaches himself to make a wide variety of tools and containers – clay pots, baskets, canoes, waterproof raingear – though he never quite abandons his trusty gun.
And then there are the churchy parts – as there tend to be in 17th-century literature. One night in a rainstorm, Crusoe finds Jesus. He has always been technically a Protestant, of course, given his time and place, but on the island he does some serious channeling of the likes of John Milton and John Winthrop and other individuals of the Puritan persuasion. He becomes deeply aware of his vulnerability and his smallness in comparison to the scale of creation and the power of God, deeply thankful for the fact that he has been saved from death and delivered to an island that is actually pretty well equipped to sustain him, and deeply guilty for not having given much thought to spiritual matters during the first twenty or so years of his life and for not having listened to his father. He starts celebrating the anniversary of becoming shipwrecked on the island, not in the way that we might celebrate a birthday or wedding anniversary but in the way that alcoholics celebrate the anniversary of their sobriety: with gratitude for having been saved from destruction and humility and sorrow over the fact that it took him so long to reach this point of salvation and wisdom. All of this is quite plausible for a person in Crusoe’s situation, and the first time he meditates on his newfound piety is quite moving. But then the waves of churchiness keep on coming, and the reader starts to long for a bit more action. How about some more goat sex? I found myself asking. Surely there are some more reeds that he could soak in water and weave into baskets for twenty pages or so? Maybe he could pistol-whip another baby parrot?
I knew, of course, that sooner or later Crusoe would see the famous “footprint in the sand,” which I thought would lead directly to his encounter with the man he calls Friday (or, more correctly, the man he calls Friday). I wasn’t entirely correct about that, however. Crusoe finds the footprint at precisely the novel’s midpoint (page 141 out of 282 in my edition), and then he spends another fifty pages freaking out about the footprint. It appears that every so often a bunch of “Savages” from a nearby island paddle their canoes over to Crusoe’s island to eat some of their prisoners. What the footprint in the sand does – rather than providing a companion for Crusoe – is to catapult him out of his safe, happy life on the island. Immediately he is overtaken with fear and anxiety, and he becomes even more of a gun-toting white-supremacist survivalist than he already was. Now, fear and anxiety are certainly reasonable responses to the proximity of cannibals – I am not suggesting that Crusoe should not have felt these feelings. But seriously – fifty pages? On a figurative level, the middle of this novel contains all kinds of allegory about how human beings deal with suffering and isolation and – after Crusoe finds the footprint – about how we deal with the lack of isolation. This portion of the novel reminded me of the moment in the TV drama series Lost – which I thought about quite a lot when I was reading Robinson Crusoe – when the survivors of the plane crash first meet the “Others” on their island at the end of season 1.
So then there’s more gun-toting and more hiding and more hand-wringing about possibly being eaten. At times Crusoe feels firmly that the best thing for him to do is to stay hidden and let the cannibals do their thing without interruption; elsewhere, though, he is overcome with a sense of responsibility to the cannibals’ victims and is determined to rescue some of them. Finally, fifty long pages after he first sees the footprint in the sand (and does absolutely NO wondering about how one single footprint might have appeared on the beach – was someone parachuting onto the island only to be swept out to sea by a gust of wind right after he set his first foot down but before he set down the second? The novel never tells), Crusoe gets his act together and rescues Friday from certain death by char-broiling.
Crusoe teaches Friday English, of course, and converts him to Christianity. I would have enjoyed this novel SO much more if Crusoe had set out to convert Friday but found himself more and more seduced by the cannibal lifestyle and by whatever religion Friday’s people practiced – but alas, this novel is unapologetically a product of its age. I kept looking for ironies that weren’t there.
So long story short, Crusoe and Friday briefly re-establish the kind of proto-Eden (in which Friday is Eve, I guess?) that Crusoe had enjoyed at the height of his post-agricultural revolution, pre-footprint years. Crusoe is delighted with Friday in every conceivable way, delighting in his own Pygmalion-like handiwork in turning Friday into a puppet trained to spout the Reformation-era English theological and political agenda. Friday is just another incarnation of Poll, the parrot Crusoe tamed and taught to speak earlier in the novel. The dynamic between Crusoe and Friday reminds me of any number of other pairings in literary and cultural history: Huck Finn and Jim, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Victor Frankenstein and his monster IF Frankenstein had managed to put aside his horror at the monster’s ugliness and stick around long enough to get to know him.
Soon, though, the human population on Crusoe’s island and on other nearby islands increases exponentially. It turns out that a Spanish ship has been shipwrecked nearby, and there are sixteen Spanish sailors who have managed to make some kind of peace with the cannibals and are living there in harmony. And then another ship appears, only this time the crew has mutinied and has stopped at the island only long enough to deposit the captain and others loyal to him before leaving to become pirates or whatever. Crusoe and Friday join forces with the captain and some of the other sailors, and they imprison the mutineers and get control of the ship. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this, Friday happens upon his father. It all happens out of the blue The-Empire-Strikes-Back-style, with no foreshadowing at all, and there is great rejoicing for a while, until Crusoe sends Friday’s father off to the other island to look for the shipwrecked Spaniards and then decides to LEAVE WITHOUT HIM. Oh well, Friday’s father. In case you hadn’t noticed, it sucked to be dark-skinned in the 17th century.
The ending of this novel reminds me of the ending of Huck Finn, which is to say that the adventure component of the plot is resolved via a series of over-the-top hijinks while the more philosophical components of the novel are not resolved at all. Crusoe and Friday make it back to England (this is after the first series of implausible hijinks, but before the second one), where they discover that the property Crusoe had purchased in Brazil has appreciated in value and he is now an extremely wealthy man. Take that, primogeniture. Crusoe and Friday travel to Lisbon to deal with the paperwork involved in Crusoe’s property, and when it’s time to go home, Crusoe decides that he would rather not travel by sea – a reasonable decision for someone who has been shipwrecked for 27 years. So they band together with some other travelers and find a guide and decide to travel to Calais over land and then take a short boat trip to Dover.
And then things get totally ridiculous. Friday fights off wolves and bears (both of which he claims to have fought frequently on his Caribbean island home – this is only one of many moments when DeFoe quite adorably shows off his total ignorance of what Caribbean islands are like) and shows a heretofore-unexplored glee in ridiculous risk-taking behavior. Take this, for example: “When Friday saw him, it was easy to see Joy and Courage in the Fellow’s Countenance; O! O! O! Says Friday, three Times, pointing to him; O Master! You give me te leave! Me shakee te Hand with him; Me make you good laugh” (271-72). Then Friday proceeds to play a series of practical jokes on the bear while narrating the entire thing in broken English. At one point he also takes his boots off and changes into “a Pair of Pumps” (271). I’m sure “pumps” meant something different in the early 1700’s than it does now, but who doesn’t like a little cross-dressing innuendo mixed in with their Eurocentrism and their racism and their animal cruelty?
Next they fight off three hundred wolves. I’m not sure if I have ever been this perplexed by the ending of a novel (except, perhaps, for the Lost at Sea scene close to the end of Beach Music). I couldn’t figure out if the number 300 was chosen on purpose as an allusion to the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae (indicating the triumph of reason and culture over militarism and brutality) or if this ending was simply DeFoe’s way of saying that horrific dangers are waiting for us everywhere and that we’re naïve to think that our silly little human machinations can keep us safe from destruction.
But they fight off the 300 wolves, and then some other things happen, and then Crusoe decides to go back to the island and start his own human-breeding company there: “I sent seven Women, being such as I found proper for Service, or for Wives to such as would take them: As to the English Men, I promis’d them to send them some Women from England, with a good Cargoe of Necessities” (282). And then the number 300 pops up again, since 300 Caribbean natives attack the English people on the island. The Englishmen fight them off, but then another 300 show up and kill everyone. All of this happens in the second-to-last paragraph in the novel.
This novel is almost as ridiculous as Candide.
Going back to my boss’ question about whether her son would like Robinson Crusoe (and my response that no one alive today would like it – which is not true): to enjoy this novel one needs a good sense of the absurd – and also of the mindset of 17th-century Europe, which of course is a subset of the absurd. I can’t imagine reading this novel and taking it seriously. People did, of course, for many, many years, and there are probably some readers even today who read this novel and find only an exciting adventure story and/or a parable about solitude and spiritual isolation. I can’t even imagine reading this novel that way – my imagination, which is fairly good, can’t fathom it.
It takes a lot of education to learn to see the absurdity in classic novels. Almost every book written before 1900 makes me laugh in some way that the author most likely did not intend. Most of the students I have taught – and any number of adults I have met – have had trouble finding this laughter. They find it disrespectful. They assume that something is wrong with them when the books seem absurd – that there’s something they are not getting. For a culture that is not especially literate, we still have a lot of Canon Worshipping built in to the way we study literature. I think that when many 21st-century Americans think about reading a classic novel, they picture a wrestling match in which the book will win. When I was teaching, I tried to model this willingness to laugh at the moments in literature that seem absurd to modern readers – not for any kind of well-thought-out pedagogical reason but because 1) mockery is fun and 2) in order to mock something, we have to dive in and get to know it. The parts of classic novels that tend to make 21st-century readers laugh are often the parts that reveal the most about the world the book’s writer lived in, so by diving in and getting to know these moments well enough to laugh at them, we also become aware of patterns of thought and feeling that have in some cases entirely disappeared.
I don’t recommend this novel to eleven year-olds (not even really smart eleven year-olds like my boss’ son), and I can’t imagine myself ever adding it to a high school syllabus, not because it doesn’t belong there but because there are so many other books that belong there more. I took enough notes while I was reading to write at least a hundred pages (though you’ll be pleased to know that I plan to draw this review to a close quite soon). I want to study it side by side with so many other texts: Lord Jim, The Tempest, Candide, Huck Finn, Walden, The Odyssey. This novel drew me farther into ways of thinking that are alien to my own than any other novel I can remember – but I had to wade through a LOT of muck to get there, and the vast majority of readers just aren’t willing to do that. But for those who are (and it helps to have a blog challenge to provide a bit of motivation), the rewards are certainly there.