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The life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe - by Daniel Defoe




"The life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe"

- by Daniel Defoe (1719)-

Arrangement

·       Biography of Daniel Defoe



·       Plot 

·       Background

·       The genre

·       Robinson and colonisation

·       Robinson and nature

·       Bibliography

                                                
Daniel Defoe´s Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Waidelich

Biography of Daniel Defoe:

Born in 1660 as Daniel Foe, he was the son of a London citizen who supported a religious sect outside the official Church of England. Such men, called 'Dissenters' suffered certain penalties, they were, for example, debarred from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and so from qualifying for the learned professions. Daniel Foe was educated at a Dissenting academy. A fellow-pupil of his was Timothy Cruso, whose name Foe recalled nearly fifty years afterwards. He put himself to trade and was described as 'merchant' when he married in 1684. . Defoe`s occupation  - he had a shop in knitting wares - was to be overshadowed by his political and religious engagement. In 1685 he took part in the rebellion against the Catholic Stuart King Jacob II, and gave his support to the tolerant Protestant William III. In 1701 he supported king William III. with 'The Trueborn Englishman', for William, a Dutchman who gained the crown in 1688 because his wife was the deposed James' II. sister provoked hostility through favours shown to his Dutch followers. In this set of verses Defoe sets out his judgement on misconceived patriotism. His enterprises required long journeys in Britain and on the Continent; like his fictional heroes he knew the world. Like Robinson he was ambitious and also overadventurous. His fortunes varied. In 1694 Foe added the De to suggest higher status. Writing  for conservative publications Defoe spied for the liberal Government. Many believe him to be an unreliable opportunist. Between 1697 and 1701 Defoe served as a secret agent for William III. in England and Scotland, and between 1703 and 1714 for Harley and other ministers. (When I read this point I asked myself  whether  there was any English writer in the 17th century who did not serve as a secret agent for example: Marlowe, Shakespeare,)  

Defoe was a pamphleteer, a journalist and a novel-writer. His literary work covers an almost incredible number of publications: He wrote about 500 books on a wide variety of topics, including politics, geography, crime, religion, economics (for example the 'Complete English Tradesman"),  marriage, psychology and superstition.

1702 Defoe wrote the brilliant pamphlet 'The Shortest Way with the Dissenters'.  This parodied  a bigoted churchman  urging savage punishments for Dissenters. For that pamphlet Defoe was sentenced to be pilloried. He refused to hide away and published the "Hymn to the Pillory". Because of this hymn he was worshipped as a hero by the crowd, among whom the hymn was selling rapidly.

Yet the affair bankrupted his business.

In 1704, deriving the benefit of his large experience and many connections, Defoe set up the weekly journal "The Review", and became the "world's first journalist".

Defoe`s later, fictional prose is situated at the beginning of the novelistic tradition. Let me mention  the "The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders" (1722) , a pseudo-biographical story with a female narrator .



Defoe is renowned especially for his first novel "The life and strange surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner", written in 1719. It was published on 25th April and was an immediate success. A second edition appeared on 12th May and two further editions by the end of the year. 

The first sequel of this book was  "The farther adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the second and last part of his life", published in 1719, which sends Crusoe on his travel back again to the island as a colonist. The third part of the trilogy was published in August 1720 and was called "Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his vision of the angelic world". The second and the third of the trilogy were, in comparison to the first part of diminishing interest.

Plot:

Robinson Crusoe is presented as a retrospection by an old man on his adventurous life and his experiences on a number of sea voyages. The period covered is about 35 years. The story starts when Crusoe is 18 years old.

 

Crusoe, son of a merchant, coming from Bremen, went abroad upon adventure against his fathers warnings. He gets shipwrecked during his first sea-voyage and falls captive to a Moorish pirate on his second Guinea-voyage. Rescued by a Portuguese ship he is taken to Brazil where he succeeds as a planter. After four years, he undertakes a new voyage to Guinea to buy slaves for the plantations. Also this travel ends in shipwreck. Crusoe is cast, alone, on the shore of an uninhabited island off the mouth of the Orinoco River in South America (Venezuela). Robinson describes in detail the measures he takes for his immediate survival, and then his growing command of his situation. He makes tools, clothes, equipment and even a "fortress", while reflecting on his life, and this leads him gradually to religious faith. Robinson organises his life by making a calendar  and  making  notations about the weather. He grows corn and makes bread. He even constructs a boat. After more than 20 years of loneliness, Crusoe is one day terrified to come on the remains of a cannibal feast. During a later cannibal raid he rescues an intended victim and trains him as his servant, naming him Friday after the day of his rescue. Robinson teaches Friday necessary words in English - beginning with "Master", "yes" and "no" - and some Western habits (for example how to eat, to dress) and converts him into the Christian religion. Together they  save a Spanish captain and also Friday's father from a cannibal feast, and learn that the Spaniard's crew have escaped to the mainland, whither the Spanish captain and Friday's father are sent to bring them to the island. Before they return, however, Crusoe and Friday rescue an English captain and two other victims from the mutinous crew  of an English ship, the mutineers are overcome, the captain restored, and the ship lands Crusoe after 35 years absence, together with the faithful Friday in Europe. Back in Europe, Robinson discovers that his parents have died. In Lisbon he receives the proceeds of the plantation in Brazil. Because he  is become afraid of the risks of a sea voyage, he travels back to his native country over land In London, Robinson sells his overseas plantations and becomes a rich man. He marries and becomes father of three children. But when his wife dies, he resumes his former adventurous activities and travels to East Indies as a tradesman. On this trip, he visits the island - as its governor and owner - and learns that the Spaniards have continued and expanded the colonisation. He supports them. As the book ends Crusoe half-promises a further instalment of the island story and further adventures.

Background:

The adventures of Crusoe on his island, the main part of Defoe`s book were based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was the prototype of the marooned traveller. Daniel Defoe loved travel stories. Therefore he must have had read about Alexander Selkirk, a sailor who had survived  five years of a solitary existence on a desert island - Juan Fernandez Island near Chile. Selkirk had been left behind there at his own request after a quarrel with his captain. The Selkirk story was a sensation. The public was fascinated by the way this man had survived. Defoe used the story to write his own novel. In applying  the genre of the fictional autobiography, he retained the suggestion of authenticity.

The genre:

According to Watt (1957) is Robinson Crusoe regarded not only as a classic travel and adventure story, but as the prototype of the novel, the literary genre that focuses on the daily, external and internal activities of ordinary people. Hume said 1986  "It is one of the first English novels and is created out of a synthesis of two existing traditions: the picaresque (autobiographical) novel, and the tradition of the personal journal representing mental states and evolutions. Thus, the plot is throughout interpreted and commented on by the narrating I-figure. As such, the novel is also an internal journey, a creation of an identity, a composition of the self ".




Robinson and colonisation:

Several modern writers, like James Joyce,  have criticised Defoe´s Robinson Crusoe for being an allegory of Western, and especially British colonialism. James Joyce, for example writes: "The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, casts away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who comes on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe; the manly independence and the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced, religiousness; the calculating taciturnity."

 Typically, this interpretation is sustained by documents revealing Defoe´s advocation of colonial expansion.

In 1719, Daniel Defoe showed himself to be an advocate of the colonisation of the Orinoco area, i.e. the area where Robinson's island is situated.

The Robinson-Friday duo is regarded as a model of social relationship under Western colonialism. In the passage that describes Crusoe´s first encounter with Friday, Crusoe immediately suppresses the language and culture of the other, by giving him a new name and a new language. Robinson writes in his journal: "I understood him in many things and let him know I was very pleased with him. In a little time I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master, and let him know, that was to be my name".  

Robinson and nature

When hearing  about Robinson Crusoe, modern people think about the romantic aspect of being alone on an exotic island far away from civilisation. Crusoe himself scarcely paid any attention to the "uncultivated" landscape, and, when he does, his perception is heavily coloured by anxiety. This is, for instance, how he resumes his observations of the West-African coastal region: "for near an hundred miles together upon this coast we saw nothing but waste and uninhabited country by day, and heard nothing but howling and roaring of wild beasts by night.". The same anxiety for wild nature catches Crusoe immediately when he has washed ashore on the desert island.:

"I had a dreadful deliverance, for I was wet, had no clothes to shift me, nor anything either to eat or drink or comfort me, neither did I see any prospect before me but that of perishing with hunger, of being devoured by wild beasts, and that which was particularly afflicting to me was that I had no weapon neither to hunt and kill any creature for my sustenance, nor to defend myself against any other creature that might desire to kill me for theirs."

To transform the island's wilderness into a civilised environment will be Crusoe´s main occupation until the arrival of Friday, the latter being a "wild creature" of the human kind.

In many ways, Robinson Crusoe, a book about life on a desert island, is a glorification of west European technology. Hill mentions 1980 that Robinson  Crusoe  has often be  interpreted as an allegory of homo economicus and / or homo faber, people who - through rational thinking and hard labour, and driven by personal profit - succeed in dominating nature and transforming it into "culture". Having gone through the evolutionary  stages of hunting and picking, agriculture and handicraft, Robinson Crusoe feels like a king.

Bibliography:

Penguin Classics edition of  "Robinson Crusoe"

York Notes on Robinson Crusoe

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Internet: http://dewey.rug.ac.be/newfriday










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