Robinson Crusoe was Defoe’s first-published full narrative and his most popular, appealing to both middle-class and aristocratic readers with its combination of a believable and very human first-person narrator, realistic detail, allusions and references to actual places and people, imagery drawn from everyday life and the natural world, and an appealing, if somewhat unstructured, narrative line.
The title page of the book provides a considerable amount of information for the reader. The LIFE and Strange Surprizing ADVENTURES of ROBINSON CRUSOE, of YORK. Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’ by PIRATES. Written by Himself. That, in brief, is a plot summary. It also is evidence of the ordinariness of the narrator, a seaman from York (and therefore middle class) who is forced by circumstances to fend for himself in unfriendly surroundings, a practical man who manages to survive for twenty-eight years before his rescue. Finally, within this long title is the evidence of Defoe’s insistence on realism—the use of real place names, the statement that the book is an autobiographical narrative.
That Robinson Crusoe is a Defoe character is evident from the moment he finds himself shipwrecked. He acts immediately in the interest of survival, salvaging such necessities as he can from the stricken ship and building a rude shelter. Yet Crusoe’s concern is not only for his physical well-being; he begins a journal in which he plans to record his spiritual progress as it is reflected in the daily activities that mark his sojourn on the island. For nearly two decades, Crusoe works to create a life for himself, building what he needs, improvising where he must, and ultimately replicating a little corner of England on the desert island. What he accomplishes is beyond basic survival; he fashions an English life that is dependent on the transformation of raw materials into the necessities of his culture. He plants grain that he bakes into bread, he domesticates goats so that he might have milk, and he turns a cave into a cozy fortified dwelling that boasts comfortable furniture. When Friday arrives, Crusoe’s little English empire is complete: The conqueror has mastered both the territory and its people.
Having survived the shipwreck, Crusoe has become strongly aware of his vulnerability as a human being, and throughout the narrative he insists that his life is proof of the workings of divine Providence. Consequently, he often reflects on the spiritual lessons to be learned not only from his experiences on the island but also from the events in his life that led to his sojourn so far from home. This reflection is typical of Defoe’s narrators, who look on life’s experiences as a series of symbolic occurrences pointing to the connections between the spiritual and the secular.
Defoe has created in Robinson Crusoe a man very like himself—and very much a typical eighteenth century Englishman. Crusoe’s plebeian origins, his earnest industry, his tendency to see religious meaning in the mundane, and his talent for overcoming misfortune are all Defoe’s qualities. Like the average Englishman of his time, Crusoe is something of a bigot, and although he treats Friday well, the slave is never offered his freedom and must call Crusoe “Master.” Crusoe triumphs over his circumstances and environment, and indeed he manages to provide himself with a little paradise on earth; but he is English to the core, and with the first opportunity he returns to England and settles down to family life.
Robinson Crusoe is often described as one of the major forerunners of the novel. Although written as a travel narrative, it displays many of the modern novel’s major characteristics: realism (through verisimilitude, the first-person narrator, imagery from the natural world, and copious detail), interesting and believable characters engaged in plausible adventures and activities, and an engaging story.