Discuss realism in Robinson Crusoe and explain why Defoe is considered the father of realism.

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salterdm eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Defoe is considered "the father of realism" because he wrote about people, gave them specific, concrete motivations, and explained how and why they pursued them. He wrote in the earliest days of the novel as literary form, and his Robinson Crusoe, widely considered the first English novel, is a realist work in a number of respects compared to the romances and picaresques from which the literary novel descended.

First, it simply claims to be real. Robinson Crusoe's full title in the first edition is "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’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself." That is, according to Defoe, he didn't write it: Crusoe himself did. Of course there was no historical Robinson Crusoe, but Defoe, who was a prolific journalist and political writer as well as an author of fiction, based the text at least in part on the accounts of the real Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk. To state the obvious, readers of the time could be relied upon to know that there was no real Don Quixote and Rabelais's gigantic Pantagruel wasn't stomping around France. 

Second, despite the false claim of its reality, it can be taken as a real story. Unlike similar works of the time, it stands alone as a text. The chivalric romances that preceded novels like Robinson Crusoe often had the goal of moral instruction. Don Quixote, generally considered Europe's first novel, is in part a satire of the romances and the principles they purport to teach. But Robinson Crusoe is simply a story about an ordinary, capable, recognizable person doing things ordinary readers could imagine themselves doing. In that respect, it's "realistic" in a way its peers were not.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The original, long title of the book suggests that it is a non-fictional, autobiographical account of a person's shipwreck on a desert island. In the novel, written in Crusoe's voice as an account of his adventures, Defoe sticks to detailed accounts of how Crusoe survived, such as having Crusoe note the exact latitude of his shipwreck. Everything Crusoe does is humanly possible: Crusoe is an ordinary person or everyman. Therefore, average readers could easily picture themselves in his shoes. Unlike the shipwreck in Shakespeare's Tempest, no magical creatures emerge to save the day. Instead, Defoe shows Crusoe surviving through luck, for example, being able to salvage crucial supplies such as gunpowder from his sunken ship, and by his wits, as he builds his palisade and plants his crops. The story might be extraordinary, but it is never fantastic or unbelievable. Further, Defoe has Crusoe dwell on his fate as a real person would. He exults in his role as king of his little empire and thinks introspectively on his loneliness and why he is there. 

It is always tricky to label someone the "father" of anything, because literary movements don't emerge in a vacuum, but Defoe does represent a shift away from fantastic romances with knights and dragons, the kind of work parodied in Don Quixote, to concentrate on what was empirically possible. He mirrors the growth of the middle class in the 18th century and the fading of aristocratic forms. Defoe's realism reflects the hard-headed, prudent and frugal ethos of the rising middle class. Undoubtedly, it was the wild popularity of Robinson Crusoe that helped earn Defoe the father of realism title.

azphstchr eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Realism can be found in the story, Robinson Crusoe, in the journal or the diary that Crusoe kept of his survival after being shipwrecked.  In this journal he documents everything: his misery on the island as well as what he is thankful for.  He also makes a list of pros and cons about his shipwreck, showing the reality of his situation and all that he has been through.  He keeps a calendar of all of his daily routines and duties, and his struggle to find food.  He records all of his struggles and shortcomings as he searches for the deeper things of life during his time of isolation and reflection.  This authenticates his story and shows Crusoe in his everyday life and struggles (both inward and outward) in his new environment.

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mstokes | Student

Defoe's most important innovation in fiction was his unprecedented and complete narrative realism. Robinson Crusoe itself was widely regarded as authentic at the time of publication, Defoe makes the claim that he, writing merely as "Editor," "believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it."

This is not literally true. Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Crusoe would have been familiar to Defoe but the character is largely of Defoe's invention. He describes his characters with so much circumstantial detail that the reader can only conclude that things actually happened in just that way. This means that the reader begins to think the  book not as fiction but sees it more as a historical statement.

The main aim of the writing is clearly to keep as close as possible to the consciousness of the narrator as he struggles to make the situation clear to himself and to us.

Defoe concentrates his description on the qualities of objects such as Crusoe’s first clay pot, his crudely fashioned fur garments, his umbrella, the boat, the grindstone. This use of highly descriptive language highlights the “realism” in the work and places Defoe among the great realist writers.