Click to enlargeRobinson Crusoe

If you have never read Robinson Crusoe before, it is not quite what you think. Read from the Publisher's Foreword:

What does a man need?

While there have perhaps been as many answers to this question as there have been men, and perhaps all of them wrong, Daniel Defoe, in his fictional work Robinson Crusoe, explores this question in the context of a solitary marooned traveler.

First published in 1719 in the England of powdered wigs, a strong monarchy, and George Frederick Handel, this book is utterly a product of its culture. The ideas of "the white man’s burden" and pre-Victorian values are quite evident in the protagonist's thoughts and actions, as well as the work’s depiction of non-Europeans. Its contempt for Spanish behavior in the Americas further belies English attitudes of the time.

While some of this book draws on Defoe's own experience in Moorish captivity, much of the general idea is based on a contemporaneous account of a marooning that actually occurred much as described in Defoe's book.

This book is historically significant in its use of near-modern English, its realistic flavor (it can almost convince one that the events described actually occurred) and its place as a bridge between earlier forms of fiction and the eighteenth century English novel form.

Among surprises awaiting the reader are the scope of the work, it describing many years of solitary confinement to the island-- the better part of a man's life. That the scope is so grand allows us to follow Crusoe through many changes of attitude and belief. At last, Crusoe arrives at a spiritual place quite like Defoe's Methodist beliefs, and a social place in polite English society.

Another interesting aspect of the work is that the world it depicts is an amazing place for travel and enterprise, with grand adventure in the form of either terrible danger or grand fortune awaiting any man bold enough to venture out beyond the confines of his own city. This book may have been significant as a motivator for the eighteenth century English penchant for going forth around the globe and conquering both militarily and commercially, The Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians may have made the rest of the world known to Europe, but it was the English who went out and created a true international commercial and military network.

Returning for a moment to a discussion of the story told by the book, it is not at all difficult to find people who could give a fifty-word description of the book. The synopsis given by the average English-speaker might be, "A man on a sailing ship is marooned on a tropical island during a storm and has to live alone for quite some time until he discovers another man who becomes his servant; he names this other man Friday, after the day of the week he discovers him." Such would have been my synopsis, prior to reading the book. That this much is known to most reasonably well educated people is testimony to the power of the notion of a solitary man living in an exotic place, without contact from other people. The fact is that the book is so much more than that short synopsis, that to believe one knows about the book without reading it is really a quite amusing thought.

If there were no more to Crusoe's story than the fleshing out of the TV-listing blurb above, then the book would be perhaps 80 pages of descriptions of the circumstances of arrival, plants, animals, and weather, a discussion of how Crusoe found food, water, and shelter until he leaves the island, and a climax including a dramatic departure from the island. It would, in short, be the basis for a made-for-TV movie with an aging leading man and would be essentially forgettable. The fact is, that the book is not a "beach read."

Defoe created a work of lasting value because he created a story with layers of action on the physical, emotional/intellectual, and spiritual fronts that moves along through the various stages of a man's life, albeit a man in quite unusual circumstances, with an honesty that makes Crusoe the character come to life for us in a way that allows us to know him more completely than we might know no real human other than perhaps a spouse.

So the real value of this work is that it is a tale of the journey of a man from youth to age, a tale that might be about you or I should we have found ourselves in the place and time of Crusoe. Creating a realistic protagonist who engages us as a solitary figure for over 200 pages is quite a feat for an author. Defoe could very well own his place in literary history for this feat alone. But the story of Robinson Crusoe is so engaging at so many levels that, having read it, it is easy to understand how it has held a place in the western mind for the better part of three centuries.

So then, what is the answer to the question? What does a man need?

Daniel Defoe's legendary book, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, is presented here as a downloadable PDF file of 1568K, 239 pages in all. Complete and faithful to Defoe's original text so far as we are able to determine.

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Last update: 24 APR 2023