Book Review: Robinson Crusoe

Book Name: Robinson Crusoe
Author: Daniel Defoe
First Published: 1719

Daniel Defoe might be considered the father of journalism itself as he was one of the more prolific journalists of the eighteenth century. During his career as a pamphleteer and writer, he published around 370 works on a wide variety of topics, the majority of which were political in nature. The content of his seditious writing landed him in prison, but he gained his release by agreeing to be an intelligence agent for the Tories. The rumor and eventual confirmation of his spying eroded his reputation as a writer and a gentleman and thus he was looked down upon by his contemporaries such as Jonathan Swift, Sir Walter Scott, and Alexander Pope.

Defoe worked hard to create the impression that he was a gentleman, although he was not born so, being the son of a butcher and presbyterian dissenter. In order to create the illusion of gentility, he added the suffix “de” to his real family name of Foe. He was known to have purchased crests to place on his carriage to further the idea that he was a gentleman born. Defoe was constantly in debt and landed in debtors prison, but eventually through his business connections managed to find many jobs from being a tax collector to a merchant of hosiery, general woolen goods and wine. He also received a sizable dowry when he wed Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant. Eventually, he was able to purchase a country estate and a ship that he used in his merchant business to gain the status that he longed for, but it is thought that due to his constantly being in debt and the trouble with his seditious pamphlets, his life with Mary and their six surviving children was a troubled one.

Defoe came to novel writing late in his life, penning his first book Robinson Crusoe when he was sixty years of age. The success of his first novel helped to redeem his writing reputation. The book went on to be translated into several languages, became the inspiration for many other novels and in our century for many films. He has gained worldwide and critical acclaim as a novelist starting in the twentieth century and beyond.

Robinson Crusoe is about an Englishman who is stranded on a deserted island for 28 years. With the supplies he’s able to salvage from the ship that was lost during a violent storm, Crusoe eventually builds a fort for a home and then creates for himself a mini-paradise by his own labor and effort in taming animals, gathering fruit, growing crops, and hunting. He recreates a civilization, with all its comforts and economy, except lacking in human companionship. It is a time of hardship and of learning to have faith in god for Crusoe as he examines the beliefs he has been raised with.

After living alone for twenty years, Crusoe spies a human footprint in the sand and soon encounters a tribe of cannibals. During his encounter with the fierce warriors, he rescues a black man who would have been put to death by them. Crusoe names this man Friday and treats him as a servant at first due to the color of his skin. A common view of imperial England at the time. What makes the story more interesting is that Defoe the author treats Friday and the other “savages” as true human beings, although coached in the cultural views of the time. At the end of the story, Crusoe makes his escape from the island when a ship of mutineers sail to its shore. He helps the British captain take back control of his ship and in exchange for his service, Crusoe is given transport back to England.

Does anyone not know about the novel Robinson Crusoe? It has entered our culture on so many levels and has been celebrated time and again in books, movies and plays that the very idea of a man living alone against the elements all returns us back to this original tale. Or was it really original? There are those that say that Daniel Defoe based his novel on the true story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 by Woodes Rogers’ expedition after four years on an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast.

A 21st century author, Tim Severin, postulates that Crusoe is based on the castaway surgeon Henry Pitman as the most likely inspirational candidate. Pitman wrote a short book about his escape from a Caribbean penal colony, which was followed by a shipwrecking and misadventures on a deserted island. This book was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Row, London. His son, William Taylor later published Defoe’s novel. Pitman appears to have been living in the lodgings above the publishing house and it is likely that Defoe may have met Pitman in person and learned of his experiences first hand or perhaps could have read a draft of his book via the publishing house.

Robinson Crusoe is considered to be one of the first novels ever written in English. It reads as a classic adventure novel, indeed it is the prototype of such novels, but as you peer deeper into its theme you see thoughts on the importance of civilization, of faith, and of friendship. It is a worthwhile book to read and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list. As writers, I feel that it is important to have a good understanding of the classics. For how can we go forward without knowing what went on behind us? Not to mention, why miss out on novels that have stood the test of time?

Robinson Crusoe book coverYou can find Robinson Crusoe to read for free at Project Gutenberg.

List of Daniel Defoe Novels:

    Robinson Crusoe (1719)
    The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)
    Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World (1720)
    Captain Singleton (1720)
    A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
    Colonel Jack (1722)
    Moll Flanders (1722)
    Roxana (1724)

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