illustration of a man standing on an island and looking out at the ocean with the title Robison Crusoe written in the sky

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe

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Historical Context

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Dissenters (also Nonconformists) is a term that refers to Protestant ministers and congregations (among them Quakers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists) who rejected the authority of the Anglican Church. Dissenters refused to participate in Anglican services, take communion, or conform to the tenants of the Church of England under the 1662 Act of Uniformity and the later Five Mile Act.

The Act of Uniformity decreed that all ministers adhere to the Book of Common Prayer. Those who refused were penalized by the Five Mile Act, which ordered that lawbreakers could not come within five miles of their home parish or town.

When William and Mary assumed the throne in 1688, their need for money and their belief in tolerance prompted them to pass the Toleration Act of 1689. This law allowed Dissenters to license their meeting houses with their own ministers, provided they took oaths of allegiance to England according to the Test Act.

The Restoration

When Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) came to power in England in 1653, he instituted a strict government based on Puritan principles. Although this benefited the middle class and the merchants, his excessive taxes, his rule by force, and the absence of trial by jury or parliamentary representation gradually led the English people to hate him more than they had Charles I.

When Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard (1628–1712) assumed the reigns of power. His weakness soon led to his resignation, and the army and parliament verged on a civil war. However, the monarchy was restored to power when General George Monck invited Charles II to return.

Charles II (1630–1685) restored the British monarchy in May 1660. An enthusiastic parliament convened in the following year and became known as the “Cavalier Parliament.” Its session lasted until 1679. The Church of England was restored by the Clarendon Code, which also demanded oaths of allegiance to the king. It also made it unlawful to raise arms against the king.


Two dominant European powers lost much of their power during the seventeenth century. Firstly, Spain’s decline began after a series of naval losses. Secondly, Portugal was not able to withstand Dutch aggression. Although both nations would retain control over several colonies, by the end of the seventeenth century, France and England became the dominant world powers.

England’s colonies in North America—Jamestown, Virginia (founded 1607), and Plymouth, Massachusetts (founded 1620)—were becoming prosperous by the 1700s. The original English colonies in the New World were joined by new ones: the Carolinas (1663), Pennsylvania (1682), and islands in
the West Indies.

Glorious Revolution

When Charles II died, James II (1633–1701) assumed the throne of England. A fervent Roman Catholic, James freed many Catholics, Quakers, and Dissenters from prison. Alarmed by his policies, the Earl of Argyll and the Duke of Monmouth joined to overthrow the king in 1685. They were defeated, due in large part to a lack of support from the noble classes and the London merchants. Some suggest that Defoe himself was among those captured.

In 1688, James II had an heir and proceeded to impose his Catholic agenda, including Catholicizing the army. The nobles and merchants decided to bet their lives on an “invasion,” by extending an invitation to the Protestant rulers William and Mary of the United Provinces (Netherlands).

William III (1650–1702), having promised to defend English liberties and Protestantism, landed with an army in 1688 and marched unopposed on London. James II fled to Ireland, where his supporters, the Jacobites, were strong. He had French backing as well as the support of some of the Scottish clans. The Scottish Jacobites were defeated by William III at Killiecrankie in 1689.

In the following year, William III defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. William then turned his attention to Europe. With English money and troops, he fought against the French in the War of the League of Augsberg until 1697. William’s need for money led to the creation of the Bank of England (1694) and a commercial revolution which would enable Britain to eventually dominate global commerce.

England in 1719

In 1719 England was a more tolerant and stable country; as a result, emigration to America decreased. As Defoe reported while in London, the wages of workers in England were high and unemployment low. Competition in the textile trade resulted in a threatened market, but the English retooled and remained competitive.

After the instability of Cromwell and the Restoration, the Hanovers assumed the throne. By the Treaty of Utrecht, English vessels had access to Spanish trade. This latter development made economists like Defoe enthusiastic about the market.

When the stock market crashed as a result of the South Sea Bubble in 1721, a great number of previously wealthy people lost their fortunes. Unlike a similar bubble known as France’s Mississippi Scheme, the incident did not cool English enthusiasm for capital speculation and stock trading. Consequently, England recovered from the South Sea Bubble to develop the financial resources necessary to launch the Industrial Revolution.


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The story begins in mid-seventeenth-century York, with a brief account of Robinson Crusoe’s early years. From there it moves to the Moorish port of Sallee, where Crusoe is imprisoned after his capture by pirates, and then to Brazil, where he sets up as a planter after his escape. From his Brazilian plantation, Crusoe sets out on an African voyage that ends in shipwreck; the sole survivor, Crusoe lives his next twenty-eight years on a deserted island.

Situated off the South American coast, Crusoe’s new home is a small hilly island populated only by wild animals and birds. Crusoe is unfamiliar with most of the terrain’s luxuriant vegetation, but he finds sugarcane and tobacco plants, melon and grape vines, and citrus trees. On a journey to the far side of the island, he sees a nearby land mass that he is unable to identify. In stark contrast to the teeming city where Crusoe was born and raised, the island is an unspoiled paradise, an example of untamed nature.

Literary Style

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Robinson Crusoe is a fictional autobiography written from a first-person point of view, apparently written by an old man looking back on his life. The story also includes material from an incomplete diary, which is integrated into the novel.

Spiritual Fable

Robinson Crusoe can be viewed as a spiritual or religious fable. Defoe was very concerned with religious issues and nearly became a Dissenter minister. In the preface of the book, Crusoe asserts that he aims to “justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstance.”

In so doing, Crusoe clearly sees himself as part of the tradition of religious instruction manuals. The book does show similarities to the four different types of spiritual fable. Firstly, Crusoe, like many Puritans, keeps a diary in which he records his progress toward salvation. Of this first form of spiritual biography, the best known is John Bunyan’s 1666 Grace Abounding.

The second form of spiritual fable evident in Crusoe is the guide or advice tradition. This type of fable is aimed at particular audiences—seamen, farmers, young people, women—to point out the dangers of human existence, especially their own. The goal of such works is to show not just the dangers but the solution, usually a prayer.

The tale of Providence is the third tradition evident in Crusoe’s story. In such tales, God is believed to be a being who intervenes in the affairs of people. Crusoe is constantly speculating on whether an event is due to God’s intervention in providential terms.

The last form is the pilgrim allegory, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). This form was very popular but often amounted to no more than a modernization of the parable about the Prodigal Son, or the story of Jonah.

In this form, a young man leaves his home and consequently isolates himself from God. This act results from pride, discontent, or the rejection of a “calling.” God intervenes, usually with violence, to bring about a change in the prodigal’s direction back toward himself. By this intervention, the man realizes he should have stayed home or accepted his calling and thus willingly confronts evils and hardships to return to God. Crusoe’s adventure follows this pattern.


Although heavily influenced by religious concerns and technique, Defoe’s use of realism, or verisimilitude, is perhaps the most singular aspect of the work. What Defoe did was apply and thereby popularize modern realism.

Modern realism—as formulated by Descartes and Locke but not fully outlined until Thomas Reid—holds that truth should be discovered at the individual level by verification of the senses. The realistic elements of Robinson Crusoe include the lists, time scale, repetition, diary, and Crusoe’s ordinary nature. The reader could almost use Robinson Crusoe as a handbook if ever stuck on a deserted island.


The concept of time is central to the structure of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe presents Crusoe’s life chronologically. The details of Crusoe’s life and activities mark the passage of time; and while exhausting to the modern reader, these small details reflect the concern with time during that period.


Many critics view Robinson Crusoe as an allegory for Defoe’s life. The first such attempt, by Charles Gildon, was spurred by a comment in the preface of Defoe’s Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Many scholars have since tried to match the known details about Defoe with the events in Crusoe. No one has been successful.

Earlier works by Defoe add credence to this view. His notebook of meditations, written when he was twenty-one, show that Robinson Crusoe’s story was on his mind a long time, well before the sensational tales about Alexander Selkirk.

More clues can be found in Defoe’s most autobiographical piece, An Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715). Defoe claims that he endured great solitude but had remained “silent under the infinite Clamours and Reproaches, causeless Curses, unusual Threatnings, and the most unjust and injurious Treatment in the World.” Although it is impossible to be certain whether Robinson Crusoe is an allegory for Defoe, it is certain that Crusoe represents Defoe’s thoughts on solitude and industriousness.

Literary Qualities

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Robinson Crusoe is an artistic achievement that is recognized as a major contribution to the development of English prose fiction. Especially interesting are the narrative devices that Defoe employs to lend verisimilitude—the appearance of reality—to his story.

Although Defoe is writing fiction, he creates the impression that his tale is a true story by including a preface in which he identifies himself as the editor of the tale. Also contributing to the apparent authenticity of the story are the use of a first-person narrator, the frequent mention of dates and real places in Crusoe’s account of his early life, and the inclusion of specific details and accurate descriptions.

Defoe frequently uses images drawn from everyday life and from nature, images that underscore Robinson Crusoe’s middle-class origins and tastes. The similes and metaphors draw on nature and are written in language that recalls biblical proverbs.

The book’s plot is loose, rambling, and disorganized, but it contains a rich variety of interesting or amusing or fascinating episodes, all of which display Defoe’s characteristic celebration of human ingenuity and his own superb command of detail and imagery.

Themes and Characters

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Robinson Crusoe, narrated in the first person, is dominated by the title character. The other major character, Friday, appears after two-thirds of the narrative has been told.

Crusoe is adventurous by nature. Against his father’s “serious and excellent counsel,” Crusoe embarks on the seafaring career that he feels will satisfy his “wandering inclination.” Even late in life, after his return to England, where he marries and has three children and is later widowed, Crusoe once again heads out to sea for another long voyage that takes him to China.

I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side.

Robinson Crusoe’s character is a study in contradictions. He is by turns an ardent capitalist and an introspective Christian; a wanderer attracted to adventure and a civilized Englishman who creates a cozy dwelling for himself; a believer in the dignity of the human being and a slave trader. Defoe portrays these contradictions as typical characteristics of a middle-class English Protestant tradesman of the period.

By contrast, Friday, a native of an island close to Crusoe’s, is depicted as a savage—a reformed cannibal. Crusoe sees Friday as his “faithful, loving, sincere servant”; in fact, the first English word Crusoe teaches Friday to say is “Master.”

Many of the important themes in Robinson Crusoe are embodied in the title character and in his interaction with Friday. Through the story of Crusoe’s sojourn on the island, Defoe comments at length on several social and philosophical concepts. The novel is an allegory for a progression from spiritual alienation to salvation in that Crusoe’s life moves from rebellion to punishment to conversion and finally to deliverance. But Robinson Crusoe is also an economic document, with its focus on the taming of a wild environment, its portrayal of Crusoe as a man who keeps a careful record of his projects and crops, and its depiction of the colonial impulse in Crusoe’s education of Friday. Furthermore, Crusoe’s journal contains several passages in which he reflects on time and labor and the acquisition of material possessions.

Social Sensitivity

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Robinson Crusoe contains references to two issues, racism and religion, that should be addressed by parents and teachers of precocious young readers. Certainly Crusoe’s attitudes toward Xury, his companion in slavery and his fellow fugitive, and toward Friday, his faithful servant, are typical of the seventeenth-century English condescension toward people of darker-skinned races. Crusoe clearly believes the white man to be superior to other races. Furthermore, Crusoe’s business ventures have included slave trading. But Crusoe is very much a man of his time. His brand of bigotry is, for that earlier age, rather mild, tempered as it is by a sincere desire to do the right thing always. Thus it is that although Crusoe sells Xury to a Portuguese captain, he does so only because the captain has promised to give Xury his freedom after ten years.

Robinson Crusoe insists on continuing his religious devotions during his long exile and makes frequent references to a Christian God who determines human destiny and indeed daily life. The reader will remember that Crusoe is very much a product of his society. His brand of Christianity was typical for a man of his class, and his frequent self-analysis was very much a part of his religious heritage.

The questions raised by Defoe’s treatment of racism and religion are valid ones and might serve as points of departure for discussions of the novel. Young readers with little knowledge of the world will more than likely concentrate on the tale of adventure; young adults would benefit from a discussion of how values and ideas have changed and evolved over the last two centuries.

Compare and Contrast

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1600s: Religion is a central focus of life. Many European countries—such as England, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal—persecute religious reformists and dissenters. As a result, many religious radicals emigrate to the New World in order to practice their religious beliefs.

Early 1700s: Religious fervor cools. The philosophes in France are trying to eradicate religion from their country with little success.

Today: Religious tolerance, while not universal, is accepted. The percentage of people that believe in some kind of organized religion remains high in most countries.

1600s: Countries such as England, France, and Spain strive to remain formidable imperialistic powers. Maintaining colonial power and building a formidable military force is very expensive.

Early 1700s: Between the banking developments in Amsterdam and the Bank of England, the foundations of modern national finance are laid, and the concept of the national debt is created.

Today: For poor nations, a national debt prevents them from challenging rich nations. In the wealthy nations, national debts cause much worry, but their existence is vital to the global financial market.

1600s: Trade is mostly in raw goods, luxury items, or expensive manufactured items. Occupational specialization is accelerating in European economies. For example, a farmer might begin to focus on dairy production.

Early 1700s: Manufactured goods are growing more plentiful while becoming less expensive. The average person can now buy bread, candles, and cloth from specialized merchants.

Today: The economy of most Western countries has shifted away from manufacturing to technology.

Media Adaptations

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Since the silent black-and-white film in 1916 with Robert Paton Gibbs, there have been some sixteen film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe. This count includes versions in French, Spanish, Russian, Swiss, and German.

However, this count does not include all of the spin-offs, such as a female Crusoe—as early as a silent film made in 1917—or animations of Crusoe as a rodent in Rabbitson Crusoe (1956). In 1965, Robinson Crusoe was made into a TV series. The book was made into a TV movie in the United Kingdom in 1974.

A recent movie adapted from Defoe’s novel is Robinson Crusoe (1996), produced by USA Pictures. Directed by Rod Hardy and George Miller, Pierce Brosnan stars as a lovestruck Robinson Crusoe separated from the object of his desire.

For Further Reference

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Bell, Ian. Defoe’s Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1985. Although a bit scholarly in tone, this study provides a good chapter on reading Defoe’s work in the context of his age. The chapter on Robinson Crusoe discusses the novel as an example of adventure writing.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Daniel Defoe: Modem Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection is a representative selection of the best Defoe criticism of the last thirty years. Two essays deal specifically with Robinson Crusoe.

Ellis, F. H., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A valuable collection, although slightly dated.

Moore, J. B. A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe. 1960. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. This is the standard guide to Defoe’s work.

Rogers, Pat. Robinson Crusoe. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979. For knowledgeable nonacademic readers, Rogers provides a thorough introduction to Defoe’s novel, including discussions of its literary and intellectual backgrounds and its critical reputation.

Stoler, John A. Daniel Defoe: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1900–1980. New York: Garland, 1984. A valuable reference source.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order. The Republican Vision of the 1790s, New York University Press, 1984.

James Beattie, “On Fable and Romance,” in his Dissertations Moral and Critical, W. Strahan, 1783.

Theophilus Cibber, “De Foe,” in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. IV by Mr. Cibber and Other Hands, R. Griffiths, 1753, pp. 313–25.

Charles Gildon, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr D-De F-, J. Roberts, 1719.

Peter Hulme, “Robinson Crusoe and Friday,” in his Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797, Methuen, 1986.

Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, North Carolina Press, 1998.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Rousseau on ‘Robinson Crusoe’,” in Defoe: The Critical Heritage, edited and translated by Pat Rogers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 52–4.

Sir Walter Scott, “Daniel Defoe,” in On Novelists and Fiction, edited by Ian Williams, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968, pp. 164–83.

For Further Study

Alfred W. Crosby, in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Crosby documents the ecological history of colonialist expansion. He details how epidemics destroyed incredible numbers of people who hitherto had no exposure to certain diseases. He also describes how animals and fauna of the Old World established themselves in the New World, such as the practice of leaving goats on islands while exploring in order to have a source of European-style food.

Peter Earle, The World of Defoe, Atheneum, 1977.
Earle examines Defoe’s view of the world as well as social relations in the England of the eighteenth century.

Maximilian E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man, Oxford University Press, 1963.
Drawing on the authors contemporary with Defoe as well as Defoe’s other writings, Novak provides a thematic analysis of Defoe’s fiction.

John J Richetti, Popular Fiction Before Richardson, Clarendon Press, 1969.
Richetti traces the development of the novel by examining early works. This work is an essential resource for anyone interested in the origins of the novel genre.

Pat Rogers, Robinson Crusoe, George Allen and Unwin, 1979.
Rogers praises Defoe’s novel for its mastery of narrative form as well as its exploration of psychological and spiritual experiences.

Arthur Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe, University of Illinois Press, 1968.
Secord investigates Defoe’s narrative methods.

Diana Spearman, The Novel and Society, London, 1966.
Spearman is one of the few twentieth-century critics to examine Robinson Crusoe as a book of religious instruction. Her motivation stems from the idea that a man alone on an island is a poor device for exploring economic theory—but a great one to explore an individual’s relation with God in an increasingly secular world.

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, Chatto and Windus, 1957.
This seminal study analyzed the novel as a historical document reflecting human thought.

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