Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

A tropical-island Walden
Even for those who have never read the actual novel, the premise of Robinson Crusoe is well known. In the late 17th century, the title character, while on a voyage from Brazil to Africa, is shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. While various movie adaptations and condensed children’s versions of the story have tried to make this book out to be an adventure novel, that label really only applies to the last few chapters. The majority of the book actually more closely resembles a tropical-island take on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The overall tone of the novel is one of contemplation rather than action. There is a strong Christian message to the book. At first Crusoe sees his isolation as a punishment from God for disregarding his father’s wishes. To the 21st-century audience, who don’t necessarily believe it is a son’s duty to follow his parents’ choice of career, this seems like an awfully harsh sentence. Over time, however, Crusoe renews and strengthens his relationship with God. He comes to tolerate and at times even to enjoy his solitude. He learns to count his blessings, resign himself to what fate hands him, and give thanks to providence for what he’s got. Though Defoe expresses these thoughts in blatantly Protestant terms, even Atheists of a Stoic persuasion can appreciate the book’s message. Truth be told, the novel does contain some profound thoughts, which would explain why it’s still being read three centuries after its initial publication. The modern reader, however, ends up wishing they would have been expressed in a less tedious manner.

After his arrival on the island, Crusoe is able to recover an amazing amount of stuff from the wrecked ship, to the point where he’s really wanting for nothing but companionship. For decades he makes no attempt to get off the island, and industriously applies his time and effort to the contrivance of various desert-island technologies to make his stay more comfortable. He sets about building houses, fences, even shelves; plants barley; and domesticates livestock; with each process described in minute detail by Defoe. This how-to narrative, coupled with Crusoe’s reflections on his lot in life, makes up the bulk of the text.

Although the book was first published in 1719, the prose has a conversational feel that is remarkably contemporary. The plotting, on the other hand, is hopelessly antiquated and frustratingly slow. The first three chapters leave the reader screaming, “Get to the damn island, already!” Soon afterwards there are a couple of chapters reproducing excerpts from Crusoe’s diary, which agonizingly repeat everything which took place in a preceding chapter. The soul searching discussed above occupies about two-thirds of the book, followed by a few chapters of action which at times defy belief. Defoe then unforgivably wraps up the entire book with a chapter that is almost totally unrelated to everything that came before, and is therefore quite unnecessary.

While reading Robinson Crusoe, one can’t help thinking, “What would I do if I were in his place?” After reading the novel, one realizes that pondering that question is more fun than reading the actual narrative that Defoe delivers. Though the book was no doubt ground breaking for its time, and has been extremely influential in subsequent literature, 21st-century readers may find it difficult to enjoy. The book does have its merits, but if you are expecting an adventure novel, prepare to be disappointed.

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