Robinson Crusoe did not revolutionize the book industry in London, but it was a great commercial success; in fact, a second edition was released within only two weeks after the first had been published. Pirated editions came out within hours of the book’s release. One of these pirated editions, known as the “O” edition, is extremely valuable today.
Critical reaction to Robinson Crusoe is generally negative or patronizing. Many early commentators derided the novel as commercial and unrefined. Yet many commentators celebrated the adventurous hero, Robinson Crusoe.
Charles Gildon launched the first sustained attack on Defoe’s novel with The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D-De F-, in 1719. In his critique, Gildon focuses on the novel’s inaccuracies, as well as a “Looseness and Incorrectness of Stile.”
His most interesting criticism, however, charges Defoe with slander in regards to English shipping practices. He contends that there is “no Man so ignorant as not to know that our Navigation produces both Safety and our Riches and that whoever therefore shall endeavor to discourage this, is so far a profest Enemy of his Country’s Prosperity and Safety.” Little did Gildon, or anyone else at the time, realize that Robinson Crusoe was to inspire many colonial and pioneering dreams.
Decades later, Theophilus Cibber, a playwright and Shakespeare reviser, signaled a change in critical attitudes toward Robinson Crusoe. In his 1753 essay, he praises Defoe for his “moral conduct” and “invincible integrity.” Robinson Crusoe, he says, “was written in so natural a manner, and with so many probable incidents, that, for some time after its publication, it was judged by most people to be a true story.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau concurred with Cibber in 1762, when he recommended Robinson Crusoe. Furthermore, asserted Rousseau, since books are necessary, then Robinson Crusoe should be given to children, for it teaches them self-sufficiency.
Scottish critics were just as enthusiastic about Defoe’s novel. James Beattie included a review of Robinson Crusoe in his Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783). He maintained that the story is “one of those books, which one may read, not only with pleasure, but also with profit.”
Sir Walter Scott, the leading advocate of verisimilitude in the early nineteenth century, praised the work for its realism. Scott also noted the tremendous impact it had on boys who go to sea for the first time “in the corner of the nursery.” Robinson Crusoe’s “situation is such as every man may make his own, and, being possible in itself, is, by the exquisite art of the narrator, rendered as probable as it is interesting.”
In the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars began a debate to the real identity of Robinson Crusoe. Thomas Wright proposed that the character of Robinson Crusoe is based on Alexander Selkirk. So prevalent was this belief that maps even to this day mark Selkirk’s island off the coast of Chile as Crusoe’s island, despite the clear description in the novel of the island’s location.
In his Das Kapital (1867), Karl Marx deemed Robinson Crusoe as capitalist propaganda. Ian Watt, in his The Rise of the Novel, concurred with Marx’s analysis. Moreover, Watt asserted that Puritanism was merely a precursor to capitalism.
With this perspective, Watt echoed the theory of his contemporary, Max Weber, while setting the terms for much of the debate surrounding the novel. In fact, with the exception of Diana Spearman and George A. Starr, the economic reading of the novel dominated critical perspectives of Robinson Crusoe until the 1980s.
Although James Joyce explored the colonialist theme of Robinson Crusoe as early as 1911,...
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his comments were not published until 1964. Since then, writers such as Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Edward Said have viewed the novel as an allegory of colonialism.
Peter Hulme argues for the importance of placing the novel within its historical context. Hulme’s article does not bash Defoe but praises him for his “scrupulous attention to financial details” as well as his honesty.
Hulme suggests that the hero has two personalities: one is in isolation on an island working on his individualism, while his “ghostly ‘partner’ ” is enslaving people and managing a plantation. The most dangerous point of the book is when the two are reunited.