The third son of an English merchant family from York, Robinson Crusoe rejects the comfort and security of his home and against his father’s advice embarks on a life of adventure. “Bent upon seeing the world,” he sets sail from London aboard a ship bound for Africa. En route, he is captured by Turkish pirates and sold into slavery. After managing to escape, he sails to Brazil aboard a Portuguese trader. There he buys a small plantation, but, once again feeling restless, he sails to Africa for slaves. On this voyage he is shipwrecked and finds himself marooned on a small island off the South American coast.
There for the next twenty-four years he learns to survive by using his ingenuity and resourcefulness to contrive the necessities of life. Much of Crusoe’s story reads like a diary of his life as a castaway, but he is such an appealing narrator that he holds our interest. His greatest adventure comes in his twenty-fourth year when he discovers a strange footprint on the beach. Finding that cannibals have come ashore, he plans to ambush them and rescues one of their prisoners, whom he names Friday. The two men exist as master and servant as Crusoe gradually civilizes his new companion. Eventually they free two other captives, Friday’s father and a Spaniard.
As well as being an exciting tale of adventure and survival, Defoe’s story celebrates the sturdy, self-reliant Englishman character who can learn to exist under the most unfavorable circumstances by using his native wits and common sense. Readers have always enjoyed the details of how Crusoe slowly transforms his uninhabited island into a productive homestead. He overcomes his isolation and despair through his faith in God and his knack for keeping busy with his daily work.
Along with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, this book stands as one of the great moral allegories of Protestant literature. Though written for adults, it has become one of the perennial favorites in children’s literature for its example of the self-reliant individual who triumphs over adversity.
Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. God’s Plot and Man’s Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Damrosch devotes a chapter to Robinson Crusoe, which he reads largely within the context of Puritan doctrine. The result is a first-rate and highly recommended discussion of the work.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Michael Shinagel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. The perfect beginner’s guide to Defoe’s great novel. In addition to an authoritative text of Robinson Crusoe, Shinagel provides selections from twentieth-century criticism, a bibliography, and a set of very useful contextual materials.
McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. A large and challenging work, which includes a readable and rewarding chapter on Robinson Crusoe.
Rogers, Pat. Robinson Crusoe. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979. A rich source book for the study of Defoe’s most famous work. Provides, among many other useful materials, a brief account of Defoe’s life, chapters entitled “Travel, Trade, and Empire” and “Religion and Allegory,” a full bibliography, and two appendices containing pre–Robinson Crusoe accounts of Alexander Selkirk (the castaway who inspired Defoe’s fictional character).
Watt, Ian. Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Ian Watt studies the origins and literary uses of Don Quixote, Don Juan, Faust, and Robinson Crusoe as pervasive myths of the modern individualist world.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. First published in 1957, Watt’s study remains, in spite of numerous challenges, one of the key works in the field of early English fiction. He devotes a long and fascinating chapter to Robinson Crusoe.