Robinson Crusoe is the latest book that I read for my graduate class on Early American Literature. On the cover is a quote from Edgar Allen Poe: “How wonderful has been the result!” I am going to assume that he was talking about this novel, because if he said it about some soup perhaps while at a restaurant, and they re-printed it out of context, that would be too hilarious to be true. In The Modern Library edition Virginia Woolf writes the introduction, which is why I bought it, believe it or not. So here we have two of my most loved authors giving their proverbial thumbs up to the work; this novel has my respect. I can judge the work on the text itself and it will fall short, or I can judge it on what the text did – influencing a litany of authors (some of my favorites numbered among them), and contributing to the existence of the novel as a literary form. I cannot say how important these contributions are, but I also had to engage with it as a novel, as a text, and on that front it cannot live up to its effects on literature as a whole.
Before I begin, a quote from the Goodreads page review section, it is from someone who found the novel so tedious that they could not finish it: “It’s in old English, so it’s hard to read.” My heart is weeping. Aside from random capitalization, random use of italics, occasional use of funny words (“murther” instead of “murder”), strange sounding currency, and the abbreviation “viz.” (which you can understand easily in context) there is nothing even remotely old, let alone ye olde English, about the words. For me, if the s’s aren’t strange looking f’s I don’t even want to hear complaining. I believe the novel is generally read by children in primary school, which feels appropriate to me, since you still need to be filled with a sense of wonder to really appreciate it. If this is your 200th or so novel you’re probably looking for a little more bang pow.
Poe clearly used the beginning of Robinson Crusoe as inspiration for his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (on the list of my top novellas of all time). Crusoe defies his family wishes (and the sense of foreboding instilled by a dead sibling who did The Exact Same Thing That He Wants To Do), and rushes off to seek adventure on the high seas. He is shipwrecked, captured, enslaved, escapes, rescued, becomes a farmer, goes off to illegally capture slaves to work on his plantation in Brazil, is shipwrecked again, and lives for 30 years on the island. His “Man Friday” is not in the novel until about 2/3rds of the way through, if not a touch more. Friday belongs to one of the tribes indigenous to the Caribbean islands (Caribs, so named by the Spanish and adopted by themselves, whose name comes from “cannibal”). Friday’s people are on the losing end of a battle and he is about to be eaten when Crusoe intervenes, guns a’ blazing. Friday then becomes Crusoe’s servant, is taught rudimentary English, and becomes Christian. They will murther a number of rival tribesmen together, and eventually make their way back to England where Crusoe realizes he’s rich apparently.
Some things to note: Crusoe is shown to be extremely aggressive toward nature, which is portrayed as benevolent. For example, if an animal appears in the book, nine times out of ten you are going to get a description of him killing it, skinning it, and possibly eating it. None of these animals are aggressive toward Crusoe until the last pages of the book wherein his party is surrounded by hungry wolves. He absolutely has to have you know that he killed kittens, it’s just the crowning achievement of his life apparently, he brings it up three times. Why? Because they were annoying him. His cat had kittens and he thought they would rise up and kill him, so he shoots first (figuratively, he actually drowns them like a monster). So of course I kind of hate him on principal. He absolutely hunts for sport and his joy of spilling blood (even of baby animals) exists through the entire novel – it’s a major theme. Nature is a baby animal and Crusoe is going to make it his business to kill it dead.
Crusoe vs. Nature is basically the entire book and it is interesting watching him learn to build a shelter, harmonize with the seasons, and stumble into farming. Throughout all this he finds religion and reads the Bible so many times he learns Portuguese. Yes, he has multiple Bibles with him on the island. By the end he says he doesn’t care if he ever goes back to England, but seeing as that he ends of killing about a half dozen people to make it happen I have a hard time believing that. Of course, he justifies this as his Christian duty because they themselves were about to kill people. To say that the irony escapes him is an understatement; the irony laps him a couple of times and he never notices. In the end you really don’t know what happens to Friday, aside from him staying with Crusoe forever, but he’s never given an identity of his own. Crusoe gets married, has kids, and becomes a widow in two sentences. This is how the novel treats women, the only one he speaks to (no dialogue given, he just says that he has spoken to her) is the widow of his old acquaintance, and no women in the novel have names (aside from the Widow Oldfriend). I can’t be too angry about that since 1) it was published in 1791 and 2) he is alone for about 80% of the novel. Still, I’m not inspired by it, especially since Nature was prevalently considered a Woman throughout the time period in which the novel was written/set.
For me it will be Cat Murther: The Robinson Crusoe Story, and I shan’t read it again, but it’s an important novel and it needed to be checked off my list of classics if I am ever going to be able to consider myself a teacher or a scholar. It’s an important part of the history of the novel, it spawned a genre, and it’s short so you really have no reason not to read it. Also, I now find this Kate Beaton comic twice as amusing (even if parts are pretty inaccurate), so it was totally worth it.