Apr 13 2010

Robinson Crusoe

Today I finished Daniel Defoe‘s 1719 classic “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe“. The original edition had a much longer title but I’m sticking with this one. Crusoe is considered by some to be the first English novel. Those people are smoking crack. Defoe himself wrote an earlier novel titled “The Consolidator” in 1705. For some earlier English works, check out: “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678), “Beware the Cat” (1553), and perhaps the most famous of all, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1470). Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” stands out however as being the most popular English book of the time. Not only was it popular then but it continues to fascinate people today. There have been hundreds of spin-offs. My earliest memory of a Robinsonade story is sitting at a Cub Scout meeting in a country church, watching an old black and white movie reel of the “Swiss Family Robinson” (1940). Not sure what that had to do with scouting (other than the Pioneering merit badge), but there you have it. Today, echoes of Crusoe’s castaway adventures can be found in movies, television reality shows, and even the radio plays of Herbert “Daring” Dashwood and his stalwart ghoul manservant, Argyle!

So, what about the book? The book is tedious. While I have to give Defoe credit for being a pioneer of adventure fiction, “Props!” (can I haz street cred?), Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759) is much more enjoyable. Is it fair to compare the two? Why not, it’s my blog! “Candide”, at its heart, is satire. Crusoe is a series of ship manifests in the shape of a novel. To spice-up the story, Defoe has given us insight into Robinson’s moral and religious development over the course of twenty-eight years! More please! *Ugh* From a modern perspective, this is laughable because despite Crusoe’s many epiphanies, he still refers to his Carib slave Friday as a “poor honest creature”. For me, the most interesting part of their relationship was Friday’s questions regarding Crusoe’s god in “Chapter XV – Friday’s Education”. When asked questions about the Devil, Crusoe is unable to give a well-reasoned answer to Friday, but instead of finding fault with the source (i.e., Bible) he ascribes this failing to Friday’s savage and ignorant mind. Was this risqué dialogue in the early 18th century? Defoe was the son of Presbyterian dissenters after all… To Crusoe’s (and Defoe’s) credit, he treats Friday very well.

Spoiler alert! My only other problem with the book is that it just sort of meanders to an end. Crusoe gets off the island, returns to Europe, gets his affairs in order, and sets out for other adventures (almost as an after-thought, for Defoe). There’s a completely frivolous section at the end where they fight hundreds of wolves in the French Pyrenees. Some have claimed that this is a metaphor for entering the land of Canaan (after a long journey), but it smells an awful lot like the gratuitous car explosions in “CHiPs” (1977-1983). In summary, the book is too much a cornerstone of English literature to be considered a waste of time… Not everything that is important has to be enjoyed.

“The tears would run plentifully down my face when I made these reflections; and sometimes I would expostulate with myself why Providence should thus completely ruin His creatures, and render them so absolutely miserable; so without help, abandoned, so entirely depressed, that it could hardly be rational to be thankful for such a life.”

3 out of 5