illustration of a man standing on an island and looking out at the ocean with the title Robison Crusoe written in the sky

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe

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Analyze Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as both a picaresque and a sociological novel.

Quick answer:

One might consider Robinson Crusoe a picaresque novel because Crusoe deals with the same issues of many picaresque protagonists, like hunger, poverty, and survival. However, his isolated environment causes his problems, not his disordered society, which means it is not a completely picaresque novel. Similarly, while Robinson Crusoe depicts social problems like colonization, it was not intended to highlight social problems like sociological novels are. Instead, it is a book that should be analyzed through a sociological lens.

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A picaresque novel is a realistic novel written in first-person in which a hero must use their wits to navigate a hostile environment. One might view Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe as a picaresque novel because it contains many of these characteristics. It is written from the perspective of Crusoe, an intelligent man who becomes stranded on an uninhabited island. He must use his intelligence to navigate the harsh, natural world around him and survive in the face of many challenges. However, picaresque novels often focus on a protagonist who rises from a low socioeconomic status to a high one, and they tend to satirize social institutions. Crusoe deals with some of the same problems as a typical picaresque protagonist, like poverty and hunger, but his problems are caused by his isolated environment, not his society.

Similarly, Robinson Crusoe cannot be considered a true sociological novel. Sociological novels are novels that set out to bring attention to social issues. Defoe did not write this book with the aim of critiquing colonization but to write a colonial adventure story that explores themes like isolation and human capability. Thus, it is less a sociological novel and more a novel that contemporary readers should view through a sociological lens. Consider how Crusoe is a white British man who sees himself as the ruler of the land he is stranded on. He calls the place “my island” and makes Friday call him “master” and do unpaid labor. He also views Friday as a savage and genuinely believes that teaching him about Christianity will help “civilize” him. Reading Crusoe’s perspective shows readers how many white colonizers really thought about the indigenous people of the lands they colonized. It shows how ideologies like white supremacy are internalized and exercised to perpetuate social inequity. When we view Robinson Crusoe through a sociological lens, we reflect upon the problematic aspects of his colonial spirit.

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