Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe
(Also DeFoe and De Foe; born Daniel Foe) English novelist, essayist, poet, journalist, historian, and satirist. See also Moll Flanders Criticism.
Often credited with the creation of the first English novel, Defoe was one of the most prolific authors in world literature. While the exact number is impossible to determine, scholars attribute as many as 545 works to Defoe, including scores of essays and political pamphlets. Defoe is most famous for his The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years All Alone, in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque, and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life; and the Strange Surprising Accounts of His Travels Round Three Parts of the Globe, both from 1719, and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World, from 1720. Robinson Crusoe gained immediate success which continues to the present. In addition to having been published in hundreds of editions and translations, adapted in many stage and movie versions, and the source for many imitations, including Gulliver's Travels and The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe has pervaded the culture to such an extent it has been called a modern myth.
Defoe was born in London to nonconformist, middle-class parents. The noncomformists, or dissenters, were protestant sects that opposed the official state religion of Anglicism and consequently suffered persecution. Despite the oppression of noncomformists during his youth, Defoe enjoyed a relatively secure and religious upbringing. At the age of fourteen his parents sent him to the famous academy at Stoke Newington kept by Charles Morton, where most of the students were dissenters. At this time Defoe was intended for the ministry, but after three years of study he forfeited this ambition and turned to business. Around 1863, he established himself as a hosiery merchant and traveled throughout England and the continent, acquiring an expert knowledge of trade and economics. Defoe speculated in a number of financial ventures, one of which was so ruinous that he
had to file for bankruptcy, with debts mounting to over 17,000 pounds. Though he paid off all but 5000 pounds to his creditors, Defoe was haunted throughout his life by unsatisfied debt collectors. Many critics argue that this fact should always be kept in mind when judging his later political conduct, for he was consistently manipulated by shrewd politicians able to turn him over to his creditors if and when he failed to carry out their programs. After his bankruptcy, Defoe took a position as secretary at a brick factory and gradually improved his position until he became the chief owner of the brickworks. During this time Defoe published his first essays, the most significant being An Essay upon Projects (1697). In the 1700s, his spirited defense of the dissenters and staunch support of King William of Orange made Defoe the subject of attack. Arrested and charged with seditious libel, Defoe was found guilty and sentenced to a term in prison, to be served after spending three consecutive days in the pillory. Critics generally believe that the pillory had a lasting effect on Defoe, making him a bitter man and an outcast in his own society. His prison term cut short, Defoe became an instrument of the government, working as a political propagandist and secret agent for the Tories. Defoe began The Review in 1704 and continued as its sole writer for ten years. The Review served as a vehicle for Tory beliefs, which promoted Anglicanism and resisted religious toleration and foreign entanglements. Upon Queen Anne's death in 1714 and the fall of the Tory government, Defoe was able to devote more time to his imaginative writing. Partly inspired by the true adventures of an ill-disciplined sailor named Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe was extremely popular, particularly with the middle and lower classes for whom Crusoe was an appealing model. After enjoying success with novels and in journalism, Defoe concentrated on travel essays and history. Scholars are uncertain about Defoe's final years. It is known that he left his home at Stoke Newington and disappeared from the public, but the reason has never been determined. Defoe spent his final years alone and died in London near the place of his birth.
An Essay upon Projects, which includes Defoe's suggestions for radical reforms, many of them enacted over the next two centuries, show that Defoe was an acute social observer and progressive thinker. The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (1702) enraged both Dissenters and high churchmen alike who mistook the satire for an honest proposal, and led to Defoe's conviction and sentencing for seditious libel. In 1706 Defoe worked behind the scenes during the secret negotiations for the union of Scotland and England, and knowledge gained during this period found its outlet in The History of the Union of Great Britain (1709), a work still valued by historians for its accuracy and scope. Robinson Crusoe stands apart and above Defoe's other novels, mainly because its subject and setting lent them-selves so well to the author's descriptive talents. The novel has been interpreted as an allegorical presentation of the growth of the British empire, as an attack on economic individualism, as an adaptation of the traditional spiritual autobiography, as an allegory of the author's own life, and—to Defoe's contemporaries—as simply the true story of one man's unusual life. No matter how critics interpret the novel, most agree that it is one of the world's most endearing stories. The story concerns Crusoe who, after abandoning his comfortable middle-class home in England, survives a shipwreck and lives on an island for twenty-eight years, alone for twenty-four of them. Defoe wrote a series of novels in the same mold as Robinson Crusoe, including The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720); Memoirs of a Cavalier; or, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England, from the Year 1632 to the Year 1648 (1720); The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1721); The History of the Most Remarkable Life and Extraordinary Adventures of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jacque, Vulgarly Called Colonel Jack (1722); A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurences, as Well as Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665 (1722); and The Fortunate Mistress; or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Belau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintelsheim, in Germany: Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II (1724). As with Robinson Crusoe, many of Defoe's novels were published as actual biographies with certain well-defined moral messages attached.
Though always popular with the reading public, Defoe has received ambivalent reactions from many critics and scholars. It was nearly a hundred years after his death before Walter Scott presented the first favorable account of Defoe's merits as a novelist. Robinson Crusoe was an instant success with the public but by certain critics was considered un-Christian and attacked for its improbabilities and misconceptions concerning life at sea. Criticism of Defoe's work during the eighteenth century focused on its authenticity and moral implications-two standards poorly suited for an appreciation of Defoe. Twentieth-century critics generally agree that Defoe has been seriously undervalued as an artist. They debate how best to interpret Robinson Crusoe, on whether or not—or to what degree—it is allegorical, whether its chief focus should be on its adventure or Puritan themes, and what Defoe's exact message is on moral values, economics, and security. There is also disagreement on whether or not to accept Defoe's own explanation of Robinson Crusoe offered in Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World, in which Defoe explains the book as an allegory of his own life.