Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*England. Home of Robinson Crusoe. When the novel opens, England is being ruled by Oliver Cromwell during the Puritan Revolution, and the middle class to which the young Crusoe belongs is expanding rapidly. To Crusoe, England promises a future of hard, monotonous work and strict Puritanism, so he takes passage on a ship looking for adventure elsewhere. Years later, he returns to England, made prosperous by his long years of work and struggle, and embraces the faith of his father.
*Sallee (sahl-LAY; now known as Salé). North African seaport in what is now known as Morocco that is the base of pirates who attack Crusoe’s ship and make him a slave. After two years in captivity in Sallee, Crusoe is rescued by a Portuguese captain, who advises him to return to England. However, Crusoe, still young and defiant, ignores the advice by continuing his travels.
*Brazil. Portuguese colony to which the Portuguese captain takes Crusoe. There, Crusoe sets up a sugar and tobacco plantation. After a few years, the plantation begins to show a profit, but Crusoe remains restless. Intent on making a fortune, and in need of labor, he leads a slaving expedition to West Africa. Shipwrecked before he reaches Africa, he is marooned on an uninhabited island.
Crusoe’s island. Island on which Crusoe is marooned by himself, located...
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Dissenters (also Nonconformists) is a term that refers to Protestant ministers and congregations (among them: Quakers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists) who rejected the authority of the Anglican Church. Dissenters refused to participate in Anglican services, take communion, or conform to the tenants of the Church of England under the 1662 Act of Uniformity and the later Five Mile Act.
The Act of Uniformity decreed that all ministers adhere to the Book of Common Prayer. Those who refused were penalized by the Five Mile Act, which ordered that lawbreakers could not come within five miles of their home parish or town.
When William and Mary assumed the throne in 1688, their need for money and their belief in tolerance prompted them to pass the Toleration Act of 1689. This law allowed Dissenters to license their meeting houses with their own ministers, provided they took oaths of allegiance to England according to the Test Act.
When Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) came to power in England in 1653 he...
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The story begins in mid-seventeenth-century York, with a brief account of Robinson Crusoe's early years. From there it moves to the Moorish port of Sallee, where Crusoe is imprisoned after his capture by pirates, and then to Brazil, where he sets up as a planter after his escape. From his Brazilian plantation, Crusoe sets out on an African voyage that ends in shipwreck; the sole survivor, Crusoe lives his next twenty-eight years on a deserted island.
Situated off the South American coast, Crusoe's new home is a small hilly island populated only by wild animals and birds. Crusoe is unfamiliar with most of the terrain's luxuriant vegetation, but he finds sugar cane and tobacco plants, melon and grape vines, and citrus trees. On a journey to the far side of the island, he sees a nearby land mass that he is unable to identify. In stark contrast to the teeming city where Crusoe was born and raised, the island is an unspoiled paradise, an example of untamed nature.
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Robinson Crusoe is a fictional autobiography written from a first-person point of view, apparently written by an old man looking back on his life. The story also includes material from an incomplete diary, which is integrated into the novel.
Robinson Crusoe can be viewed as a spiritual or religious fable. Defoe was very concerned with religious issues, and nearly became a Dissenter minister. In the preface of the book, Crusoe asserts that he aims to "justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstance."
In so doing, Crusoe clearly sees himself as part of the tradition of religious instruction manuals. The book does show similarities to the four different types of spiritual fable. Firstly, Crusoe, like many Puritans, keeps a diary in which he records his progress toward salvation. Of this first form of spiritual biography, the best known is John Bunyan's 1666 Grace Abounding.
The second form of spiritual fable evident in Crusoe is the guide or advice tradition. This type of fable is aimed at particular audiences—seamen, farmers, young people, women—to point out the dangers of human existence, especially their own. The goal of such works is to show not just the dangers but the solution, usually a prayer.
The tale of Providence is the third tradition evident in Crusoe's story. In such tales, God is...
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Robinson Crusoe is an artistic achievement that is recognized as a major contribution to the development of English prose fiction. Especially interesting are the narrative devices that Defoe employs to lend verisimilitude—the appearance of reality—to his story.
Although Defoe is writing fiction, he creates the impression that his tale is a true story by including a preface in which he identifies himself as the editor of the tale. Also contributing to the apparent authenticity of the story are the use of a first-person narrator, the frequent mention of dates and real places in Crusoe's account of his early life, and the inclusion of specific details and accurate descriptions.
Defoe frequently uses images drawn from everyday life and from nature, images that underscore Robinson Crusoe's middle-class origins and tastes. The similes and metaphors draw on nature and are written in language that recalls biblical proverbs.
The book's plot is loose, rambling, and disorganized, but it contains a rich variety of interesting or amusing or fascinating episodes, all of which display Defoe's characteristic celebration of human ingenuity and his own superb command of detail and imagery.
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Robinson Crusoe contains references to two issuesracism and religionthat should be addressed by parents and teachers of precocious young readers. Certainly Crusoe's attitudes toward Xury, his companion in slavery and his fellow fugitive, and toward Friday, his faithful servant, are typical of the seventeenth-century English condescension toward people odarker-skinneded races. Crusoe clearly believes the white man to be superior to other races. Furthermore, Crusoe's business ventures have included slave trading. But Crusoe is very much a man of his time. His brand of bigotry is, for that earlier age, rather mild, tempered as it is by a sincere desire to do the right thing always. Thus it is that although Crusoe sells Xury to a Portuguese captain, he does so only because the captain has promised to give Xury his freedom after ten years.
Robinson Crusoe insists on continuing his religious devotions during his long exile and makes frequent references to a Christian God who determines human destiny and indeed daily life. The reader will remember that Crusoe is very much a product of his society. His brand of Christianity was typical for a man of his class, and his frequent self-analysis was very much a part of his religious heritage.
The questions raised by Defoe's treatment of racism and religion are valid ones, and might serve as points of departure for discussions of the novel. Young readers with little knowledge of the world will more...
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Compare and Contrast
1600s: Religion is a central focus of life. Many European countries—such as England, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal—persecute religious reformists and dissenters. As a result, many religious radicals emigrate to the New World in order to practice their religious beliefs.
Early 1700s: Religious fervor cools. The philosophes in France are trying to eradicate religion from their country with little success.
Today: Religious tolerance, while not universal, is accepted. The percentage of people that believe in some kind of organized religion remains high in most countries.
1600s: Countries such as England, France, and Spain strive to remain formidable imperialistic powers. Maintaining colonial power and building a formidable military force is very expensive.
Early 1700s: Between the banking developments in Amsterdam and the Bank of England,
the foundations of modern national finance are laid and the concept of the national debt is created.
Today: For poor nations, a national debt prevents them from challenging rich nations. In the wealthy nations, national debts cause much worry, but their existence is vital to the global financial market.
1600s: Trade is mostly in raw goods, luxury items, or expensive manufactured items. Occupational specialization is...
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Topics for Discussion
1. In what ways does Robinson Crusoe attempt to "civilize" his environment? How successful is he in these attempts? How does his environment strip him of the veneer of civilization he has acquired through his upbringing?
2. Name some of the methods by which Defoe reveals Crusoe's character to the reader.
3. Robinson Crusoe frequently credits or blames Providence for his experiences. Based on your reading of the book, how do you think Crusoe defines Providence? In what ways is Providence a major influence on Crusoe's life?
4. Some commentators have argued that Crusoe is guilty of racism. Do you agree? Why?
5. Crusoe frequently mentions his great "sin." To what sin is he referring? He also views many of his experiences as punishment for that sin. Which events in particular does he view as God's warnings to him?
6. Robinson Crusoe has been called an adventure tale, a moral allegory, a handbook for survival, and an economics textbook. In what ways does each label fit the novel? Which label do you prefer? Why?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The true story of Alexander Selkirk, popularized in various narratives during the eighteenth century, is generally held to be the major source for Robinson Crusoe. Certainly there are parallels in the settings, the dress adopted by the two men, and the ways in which they spend their time in exile. Discuss the similarities and differences between the novel and the true story. In what ways does Defoe improve on the original tale?
2. Robinson Crusoe has often been adapted for young children. What elements of the novel remain in these children's versions? What elements are changed or removed entirely, and for what reasons?
3. Like Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) is the story of an average Englishman forced by circumstances to survive in unknown and often hostile territory. Compare the two books.
4. Defoe and many of his contemporaries believed strongly in Providence— the intervention of God in the affairs of human beings. They interpreted natural phenomena as the marks of divine approval or disapproval; they believed that natural occurrences were ordained by God as rewards for goodness or punishments for evil. In what ways does this idea of Providence contribute to Robinson Crusoe?
5. Robinson Crusoe and Friday are both products of their environments. Discuss the differences between the two men in the light of what you know about their early lives. Are there any...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the ecological impact of colonialism. Use your research to explain the problematic overpopulation of cats on the island in the novel. What kinds of problems do we have today with exotic specie invasions? Investigate such a problem in your area.
How is the character of Friday presented in the novel? How is he different from other representations of native people in Defoe's time? Read Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. Contrast the character of Prince in that novel with Defoe's Friday.
Robinson Crusoe was very popular as a children's book What do you think children were supposed to learn from Crusoe? What moral lessons, if any, can be drawn from his story?
Many economists use Robinson Crusoe when explaining basic economic theory. What principles of economics does Crusoe demonstrate?
Crusoe is an ex-slave trader, but is horrified by the Spanish treatment of native South Americans Research the role of England in the slave trade. Is Crusoe's treatment of the native population any better than that of the Spanish Conquistadors?
Based on the novel, what was the eighteenth-century family like? How does it differ from your family?
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Delighted with the incredible success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe followed it four months later with Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and shortly thereafter with Serious Reflections during the life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World (1720).
Neither of the sequels attained the popularity of the first volume. Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is an account of Crusoe's later voyages, including a return to the island to see what has happened to it in his absence. As in the first book, Crusoe attributes his successful ventures to the workings of Providence.
Serious Reflections, unlike the first two books, is a moralizing treatise, a manual of piety that owes more to the conduct book than to the travel narrative. This third book was even less popular than the second, because it contained none of the exciting adventures that Defoe's readers expected.
Like many other popular novels, Defoe's book has attracted the attention of the film industry; to date, eight films based on the Crusoe story have been made in four different countries. The first film was the silent Robinson Crusoe (1927), a British effort. Variations on the Crusoe idea followed: Robinson Crusoe of Mystery Island (1936), The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Robinson Crusoe and the Tiger (1972), an odd...
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Since the silent black-and-white film in 1916 with Robert Paton Gibbs, there have been some sixteen film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe This count includes versions in French, Spanish, Russian, Swiss, and German.
However, this count does not include all of the spin-offs, such as a female Crusoe—as early as a silent film made in 1917—or animations of Crusoe as a rodent in, Rabbitson Crusoe (1956). In 1965, Robinson Crusoe was made into a TV series. The book was made into a TV movie in the United Kingdom in 1974.
The most recent movie adapted from Defoe's novel is Robinson Crusoe (1996), produced by USA pictures. Directed by Rod Hardy and George Miller, Pierce Brosnan stars as a lovestruck Robinson Crusoe separated from the object of his desire.
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What Do I Read Next?
Another of Defoe's fictional biographies, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, was published in 1722. It is the story of an orphan, Moll Flanders, who is brought up in the house of the Mayor of Colchester. Moll leads an interesting life as she is involved with a succession of men, journeys to Virginia, returns to England, becomes destitute and, consequently, a prosperous thief.
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) exhibits Defoe's talents as a journalist. The book details the devastating effects of a crippling plague.
Defoe's Roxana, or the Fortunate Mistress, (1724) chronicles the story of Roxana. The daughter of French Huguenots. Roxana and her children are abandoned by her husband. Along with her trustworthy maid, Amy, Roxana leads a life of adventure and dissipation.
One of the more famous Robinsonades grew out of the bedtime stories which Johann David Wyss (1743-1818) told to his family. Along with overseeing the education of his sons, Wyss loved to read tales of exploration such as those of Captain Cook and George Forster. His bed time stories were written down by the family and published in 1812 as The Swiss Family Robinson.
Jules Verne was one of the most enthusiastic writers of the Robinsonade. Verne modernized Defoe's story. In his version, Robinson is a scientist...
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For Further Reference
Bell, Ian. Defoe's Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1985. Although a bit scholarly in tone, this study provides a good chapter on reading Defoe's work in the context of his age. The chapter on Robinson Crusoe discusses the novel as an example of adventure writing.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Daniel Defoe: Modem Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection is a representative selection of the best Defoe criticism of the last thirty years. Two essays deal specifically with Robinson Crusoe.
Ellis, F. H., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A valuable collection, although slightly dated.
Moore, J. B. A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe. 1960. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. This is the standard guide to Defoe's work.
Rogers, Pat. Robinson Crusoe. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979. For knowledgeable nonacademic readers, Rogers provides a thorough introduction to Defoe's novel, including discussions of its literary and intellectual backgrounds and its critical reputation.
Stoler, John A. Daniel Defoe: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1900-1980. New York: Garland, 1984. A valuable reference source.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order. The Republican Vision of the 1790s, New York University Press, 1984
James Beattie, "On Fable and Romance," in his Dissertations Moral and Critical, W Strahan, 1783.
Theophilus Cibber, "De Foe," in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol IV by Mr Cibber and Other Hands, R Griffiths, 1753, pp 313-25
Charles Gildon, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr D-De F-, J Roberts, 1719
Peter Hulme, "Robinson Crusoe and Friday," in his Colonial Encounters Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797, Methuen, 1986
Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, North Carolina Press, 1998
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Rousseau on 'Robinson Crusoe'," in Defoe: The Critical Heritage, edited and translated by Pat Rogers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, pp 52-4
Sir Walter Scott, "Daniel Defoe," in On Novelists and Fiction, edited by Ian Williams, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968, pp 164-83
For Further Study
Alfred W Crosby, in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900—1900, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Crosby documents the ecological history of colonialist expansion. He details how epidemics...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. God’s Plot and Man’s Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Damrosch devotes a chapter to Robinson Crusoe, which he reads largely within the context of Puritan doctrine. The result is a first-rate and highly recommended discussion of the work.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Michael Shinagel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. The perfect beginner’s guide to Defoe’s great novel. In addition to an authoritative text of Robinson Crusoe, Shinagel provides selections from twentieth century criticism, a bibliography, and a set of very useful contextual materials.
McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. A large and challenging work, which includes a readable and rewarding chapter on Robinson Crusoe.
Rogers, Pat. Robinson Crusoe. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979. A rich source book for the study of Defoe’s most famous work. Provides, among many other useful materials, a brief account of Defoe’s life, chapters entitled “Travel, Trade, and Empire” and “Religion and Allegory,” a full bibliography, and two appendices containing pre-Robinson Crusoe accounts of Alexander Selkirk (the castaway who inspired Defoe’s fictional character)....
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