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

Start Free Trial

Compare and contrast Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, emphasizing their differences.

Quick answer:

Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe are both travel adventures told by a first-person narrator. However, Gulliver's Travels is a satiric work of fantasy while Robinson Crusoe is an attempt at a realist novel.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe are similar in that both are adventure stories told in the voice of the main characters. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the narrative is under the direction of Robinson. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver is in charge of moving the journey along.

Other interesting similarities involve the presence of fathers at the beginning. Both characters seem compelled to note their dads right away. The first chapter of Gulliver’s Travels begins with Gulliver declaring: “My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire.” Likewise, the slightly longer first sentence in Robinson Crusoe's first chapter mentions the main character’s father. By the second sentence, Crusoe confirms that his father “got a good estate.”

These examples evince that both main characters are concerned with patriarchy and status. While they don't pretend to be members of the elite, they appear obligated to acknowledge that their fathers are neither poor nor incompetent.

Fathers could also be seen as a point of difference between the two novels.

Crusoe goes against his father’s wishes. He never becomes a lawyer. “I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea,” declares Crusoe. Crusoe then splits for the sea in an impulsive, willful manner.

Conversely, Gulliver is more dependent on his father. His father financially supports him as he pursues the conventional career path that Crusoe derides. Crusoe’s first adventures with the sea aren’t born out of passion. They come about because he's a surgeon for Captain Abraham Pannel.

Other key differences include the solitary element of Robinson Crusoe and the science fiction aspect of Gulliver’s Travels. One more similarity: although both novels were originally published with an adult audience in mind, each has gone on to enjoy success as stories intended for children.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe are alike in being fictionalized travel adventures that draw their inspiration from popular travel narratives in their period. Both are first-person narratives describing the protagonist's adventures in other parts of the world. Gulliver's Travels, however, is a satiric fantasy while Robinson Crusoe is an early realist novel.

The creatures that Gulliver encounters in his travels are fanciful: they do not exist in real life. They emerge so that Swift can satirize or poke fun at the weaknesses and failings of Europeans, especially the British. For example, Swift mocks the pretension of English politics and the English court through his depiction of the unusually tiny Lilliputians, who are not as threatening as they believe:

I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back.

These tiny people are vindictive, violent, and self-deluded, which is how Swift saw the British government. For example, when they want to kill the innocent Gulliver for treason, the king's counselors' tell him that there is

a sufficient argument to condemn you to death, without the formal proofs required by the strict letter of the law.

Nobody, outside of perhaps a child, thinks the Lilliputians are real, any more than one does a fairy or elf.

Defoe, on the other hand, tries to make Crusoe's adventures on a deserted island as realistic as possible. He introduces nothing that could not occur in real life. Crusoe's island is completely devoid of any fantastical creatures like Lilliputians or talking horses. Crusoe, too, is utterly pragmatic in making us of real elements on the island:

I found an excellent use for these grapes; and that was, to cure or dry them in the sun, and keep them as dried grapes or raisins are kept

Robinson Crusoe is also a colonialist narrative in a way Gulliver's Travels is not. Gulliver visits various places for a period of time, but always as an observer. Even in Lilliput, which he could have conquered, he has no interest in dominion. In contrast, Crusoe exerts control and ownership over his environment, asserting his right to take the land as his own. He is delighted when he can

think that this was all my own; that I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England.

If Crusoe acts on his environment, Gulliver is acted on: he is gullible, as his name implies, and easily impressed by what he sees.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver's Travels (1726) are similar in several ways. Both are novels written in English by white, male authors. Daniel Defoe was English while Jonathan Swift was Irish-English; both men lived and wrote in the 17th–18th centuries. Both novels are adventure tales that feature one white, male protagonist who travels by ship. In both novels, the protagonist is washed ashore and has encounters with other people in exotic lands.

The differences, however, seem greater than the similarities. Defoe’s novel established the genre of the adventure novel, which many other authors emulated. Swift’s novel is primarily a satire which emphasizes the shortcomings of British society through contrasts with other, invented societies. After a few other adventures as a young man, Robinson Crusoe, the titular character, is washed ashore on the island, where he remains for almost 30 years; he is alone for most of the time, but for several years, he has a black man, whom he names Friday, as a companion and—in his view—a servant and slave. Lemuel Gullliver travels through four different societies, each remarkably different from the last, and interacts with a range of human and human-like animal characters. Among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is himself enslaved.

Crusoe characterizes his narrative of his time on what he calls the “Island of Despair” in this way:

a melancholy relation of a scene of silent life, such, perhaps, as was never heard of in the world before….

Gulliver, in contrast, has the problem of negotiating with diverse, often hostile people; he is rarely alone. When he arrives in the land of the Lilliputians, the tiny people take him to the city, where the crowds clamor to see this gigantic freak.

[T]he emperor ascended [a tower], with many principal lords of his court, to have an opportunity of viewing me…. It was reckoned that above a hundred thousand inhabitants came out of the town upon the same errand; and, in spite of my guards, I believe there could not be fewer than ten thousand at several times, who mounted my body by the help of ladders.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial