As an epistolary novel, what is the importance of the diaries/letters/epistles in Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe?
While Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel The Life and Strange Surviving Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is universally considered an epistolary novel, but in the same sense as other such well-known novels published throughout the ages. The reason for the uncertainty or confusion surrounding Defoe’s novel is that, unlike Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for its first four chapters, Robinson Crusoe appears as a regular first-person narrative. From its beginning, Defoe’s narrator, Crusoe, seems to be merely reciting his personal biography, which is not the same as an epistolary novel that, by definition, involves clearly delineated chapter and section headings indicating that that they represent journal or diary submissions or correspondence between two or more people. Dracula, for instance, begins as follows:
Jonathan Harker’s Journal
3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.
From this point on, all of Stoker’s narrative occurs in similar format, as correspondence and journal entries. Similarly, Shelley, in Frankenstein, employs a very straight-forward epistolary format:
To Mrs. Saville, England,
St. Petersburgh, December 11th, 17—
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise . . .
Frankenstein opens with the explorer Robert Walton corresponding to his sister back home in England. Every subsequent section or chapter in Shelley’s novel is clearly identified as a journal entry or letter. In a more recent example, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is written as a series of diary entries by Celie detailing her abuse at the hands of her father and husband and of her struggles to be able to live in dignity. Whereas the other examples of epistolary novels involve correspondence between living human beings, or journal or diary entries written for historical purposes, Walker’s protagonist and narrator is writing to God, the only presence with whom she can hope to communicate and dare ask for help. Defoes’ novel, however, simply presents itself as a first-person narrative, as in the opening sentence from Chapter One:
I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.
Defoe was no idiot. His use of the epistolary style deftly only begins when Crusoe begins to write of his shipwreck and ensuing adventures. Chapter Five is titled “The Journal,” and aptly initiates the transformation to the epistolary style away from the first-person narrative that preceded it. Defoe alters the writing style to reflect this transformation, as in the opening sentence of this chapter:
SEPTEMBER 30, 1659. – I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called “The Island of Despair”; all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.
With this transition in narrative style, The Life and Strange Surviving Adventures of Robinson Crusoe does indeed become an epistolary novel. The effect of this transformation from one literary style to another is subtle but important. At the end of the preceding chapter, Four, Defoe/Crusoe announces this transition:
But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.
With this, the narrator is presenting his contemporaneous account of his life as a cast-away rather than relying solely on his memories, thereby giving the story a greater sense of immediacy and of authenticity.