(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

An Essay upon Projects (essay) 1697

The True-Born Englishman (poetry) 1701

The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (satire) 1702

A Hymn to the Pillory (poetry) 1703

An Essay on the Regulation of the Press (essay) 1704

The Storm; or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which Happened in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (history) 1704

A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day After Her Death, to One Mrs. Bar-grave, at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705 (essay) 1705

Jure Divino (poetry) 1706

The History of the Union of Great Britain (history) 1709

The Family Instructor (handbook) 1715

A Vindication of the Press; or, An Essay on the Usefulness of Writing, On Criticism, and the Qualification of Authors (essay) 1718

*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 (novel) 1719

*The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life;...

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Ian Watt (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe, Individualism and the Novel," in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 60–92.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1957 and reprinted in 1962, Watt discusses the influences of capitalism and Protestantism on the rise of the individual and explores how Robinson Crusoe embodies economic individualism in his quest to better himself through seeking profit.]

The novel's serious concern with the daily lives of ordinary people seems to depend upon two important general conditions: the society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper...

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J. Paul Hunter (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The 'Occasion' of Robinson Crusoe" in The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in "Robinson Crusoe," The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 1–22.

[Below, Hunter discredits certain assumptions about what inspired Robinson Crusoe as well as the notion that the book falls into the tradition of travel literature; he asserts that Crusoe is a Christian work in which geographical facts are introduced primarily for their narrative function.]

Interpretive problems in eighteenth-century fiction result not so much from a lack of historical interest and knowledge as from a disguised antihistoricism in applying known facts, for...

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Everett Zimmerman (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe: Author and Narrator," in Defoe and the Novel, University of California Press, 1975, pp. 20–47.

[In the following excerpt, Zimmerman explores problems in narrative consistency in Robinson Crusoe and contends that The Farther Adventures adds psychological aspects to the theological ideas found in the first novel.]

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. According to the title page, it was "written by Himself"; the "preface" mentions, in addition, an editor. The work purports to be autobiography, and was lent at least a limited plausibility by the contemporary interest in...

(The entire section is 7507 words.)

Pat Rogers (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Religion and Allegory," in Robinson Crusoe, George Allen & Unwin, 1979, pp. 51-72.

[In the following excerpt, Rogers outlines various positions that critics have taken in interpreting Robinson Crusoe and discusses Defoe's religious background and the novel's treatment of sin.]

The Puritan Inheritance

The most striking single development in our recent understanding of the novel has lain in the rediscovery of a pervasive spiritual motif. In the nineteenth century Crusoe had been treated mainly as an adventure-story, characterised by intense 'realism' of presentation. Robinson himself had been viewed as an upright and...

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Michael Seidel (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Crusoe in Exile," in PMLA, Vol. 96, No. 3, May, 1981, pp. 363-74.

[In the excerpt below, Seidel discusses the depiction of the exile in literature and the use and function of allegorical history in Robinson Crusoe.]

In Ulysses Leopold Bloom poses an exile's question to another exile, a figure whom James Joyce calls the English Ulysses: "O, poor Robinson Crusoe, / How could you possibly do so?"1 Bloom's phrasing comes from a popular song that recalls a haunting moment in Robinson Crusoe when Defoe's hero, alone at that time for six years, hears the disembodied voice of his previously trained wild parrot, Poll, ask, "Robin,...

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Michael M. Boardman (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe," in Defoe and the Uses of Narrative, Rutgers University Press, 1983, pp.25-65.

[In the excerpt below, Boardman considers some of the differing views of the meaning of Robinson Crusoe and argues that Defoe uses a threefold narrative strategy incorporating reportorial, personal, and interactive techniques.]

Employing a Metaphor, as was his wont, to describe narrative unity, Henry James likens The Tragic Muse to "some aromatic bag of gathered herbs of which the string has never been loosed."1 The question of the final fragrance of the bouquet garni known as Robinson Crusoe continues to puzzle at least those...

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Virginia Ogden Birdsall (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe: A Miserable and Almost Hopeless Condition," in Defoe's Perpetual Seekers: A Study of Major Fiction, Bucknell University Press, 1985, pp. 24-49.

[In the following excerpt, Birdsall discusses Crusoe's realization that there can be no wholly successful defense against the human predicament of living in a hostile world.]

Robinson Crusoe is indeed a success story of the sort several recent critics have described. Crusoe becomes master of his fate, bending even God or Providence to his will. He is a victorious rebel against restriction. He controls his circumstances. But in thinking of our actual experience of the adventures of...

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Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe," in God's Plots & Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 187-212.

[In the following excerpt, Damrosch considers Robinson Crusoe's "desacralizing" of the world, which in the novel becomes a workplace of men and an equivocal Providence.]

Mimesis, Allegory, and the Autonomous Self

In 1719, at the age of fifty-nine, the businessman, pamphleteer, and sometime secret agent Daniel Defoe unexpectedly wrote the first English novel. The affinities of Robinson Crusoe with the Puritan tradition are...

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Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Parables of the Younger Son (I): Defoe and the Naturalization of Desire," in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 315-37.

[Here, McKeon discusses Crusoe's spiritualization of events and life on the island and explores possible identifications of original sin in the novel.]


Although the second part of Robinson Crusoe followed so quickly upon the first that it successfully prevented all spurious continuations, an unauthorized "abridgement" of Part I nevertheless just managed to precede it into print. In the preface to Part II, Defoe condemns that abridgment and complains that...

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James O. Foster (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe and the Uses of the Imagination," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 91, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 179-202.

[In the following excerpt, Foster contends that Crusoe exhibits conflicting impulsesone toward submission, the other toward self-assertionand that Defoe himself enacts the same division throughout Robinson Crusoe.]

… In Crusoe's narrative, the allegorical organization of experience is perhaps strongest in the opening pages. Crusoe's single, obsessive trait is his mysterious compulsion to ramble, and this trait possesses him completely. Here we meet character in the root meaning of the term—as...

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Homer Obed Brown (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe," in Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, pp. 54–60.

[In the following excerpt, Brown explores the need of Defoe's characters for isolation, concealment, and guarded exposure as defenses against threats of "menacing otherness."]

… In my youth, I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.

—Augustine, Confessions

Defoe's novels are based on a notion of radical egocentricity. Robinson wonders why his isolation on the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel, Vol. III: The Later Romances and the Establishment of Realism, 1929. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1950, 278 p.

Volume in acclaimed series examines Defoe's contribution to the establishment of realism in literature.

Bell, Ian A. "Robinson Crusoe and Adventure." In Defoe's Fiction, pp. 73–114. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Argues that Robinson Crusoe wavers back and forth between adventure and prudence.

Benjamin, Edwin B. "Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe." Philological...

(The entire section is 637 words.)