Why was Robinson Crusoe so important at the time of its publication?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Another innovative feature to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the candid introspection of the narrator. For, before the publication of this novel, there were few characters who internalized to the extent of Defoe's main character. Frequently, Crusoe expresses his doubts, regrets, and examinations of conscience. For instance, in Chapter II Crusoe reflects upon his father's advice, 

At this surprising change of my circumstances, from a merchant to a miserable slave, I was perfectly overwhelmed; and now I looked back upon my father's prophetic discourse to me.... [and] I thought was now so effectually brought to pass that I could not be worse; for now the hand of Heaven had overtaken me, and I was undone without redemption....

In Chapter VI, also, he attempts to "describe the horrors of my soul at this terrible vision," his dream about the wreckage of the ship on which so many perished.

While a precusor to the English novel, Robinson Crusoe is also, as critic Jeremy Hubell writes, a model for English colonialism.  That is, Defoe's novel presents a Puritanical paradigm for the ideals of colonialism which conquers nature and receives the rewards of God through the work ethic. Like the Puritans who came to America, Crusoe reinvents society for himself as the island becomes his source of nurture and he constructs a civilized structure in his subjugation of nature.

Many years ahead of his time, too, is Defoe's treatment of the issue of slavery. For, after selling Xury, Crusoe feels regret. Of course, other incidents later in the novel, as well as his relationship with Friday reveal Defoe's concern with social injustice.

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Probably the most significant importance of Robinson Crusoe is its status as one of the first fiction novels in the English language. In the early 1700s, both short fiction and stage plays were established and popular, but there were few fully fictional prose novels.

Robinson Crusoe went against the norm by being an original, fictional story in the long format. The novel was a great success, and paved the way for realistic long fiction as a genre; many earlier works were based in myth and legend, and it was highly unusual for a writer to invent the entirety of a story rather than inserting real events and people. After the novel's publication, dozens of derivative works were published, as well as critical or satirical works, including Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Defoe also popularized a new type of character: the "Competent Man," who faces adversity and wins through his own ingenuity. This type of character is often seen today in genre fiction such as sci-fi and fantasy, with literary fiction often focusing on man's weaknesses. While characters of similar type were present in fiction earlier, the most notable probably being Odysseus, Crusoe was unique in that he took only mental strength from religion and achieved all other tasks with his own personal abilities.

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