Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe opens with an extremely quick rundown of Robinson’s family life: he was born in 1632; his parents are German, and left their hometown of Bremen to settle in Hull, in England. They are middle-class, and Robinson’s father strongly advocates a middle-class life for Robinson too, encouraging him to pursue law as a profession. Both of Robinson’s brothers are missing one was killed in battle, and the other hasn’t been heard from since he began a life of travel and adventure. Robinson wants to pursue travel as well, but is dissuaded by his father. In 1651, against his parents’ wishes, however, Robinson leaves on a series of ill-fated voyages in search of indigenous non-Western peoples with whom he can trade. On one such voyage, Robinson’s ship is captured by pirates and he is made personal slave to the pirate king. After two years, he manages to escape with a fellow prisoner — a Moor, Xury — and the two are taken in by a Portuguese trading ship and brought to Brazil. Robinson becomes quite friendly with the Captain of the ship and sells Xury to him on the condition that he free Xury in ten years (if, the Captain insists, Xury converts to Protestantism). Robinson sets up a plantation in Brazil, growing tobacco, and it quickly begins prospering. Though he could stay and continue to manage his plantation, however, Robinson is struck with the urge to take to sea again, and leaves on a voyage that will eventually lead to disaster. The ship encounters a huge storm, and Robinson is the only survivor to make it onshore a deserted island. He begins to make a life on the island, and will stay there for 28 years.

He keeps a journal early on cataloguing his activities, which include building a fort in which to sleep. He is very concerned that he will be found, either by people indigenous to the area, or by Europeans, and he does not want to surprised or caught off guard. He disguises his fort by walls and vegetation, and builds a ladder to get over the barricades. He also begins domesticating wild goats, building them an enclosure in another part of the island that he refers to as his “Country Seat.? He kills some of them for food, but also milks them and makes cheese and butter. He teaches himself how to make earthenware pots, and even fashions a makeshift kiln for firing them. He plants corn and barley. He has a pet parrot named Polly, who is the only beast with whom he speaks English for much of the time on the island.
During the course of his stay, he makes his way out to his own shipwrecked boat, as well as to other boats that are wrecked, and ransacks them for their supplies. He eventually comes to live a relatively content, comfortable life that consists for the most part in tending his flocks, occasionally hunting for food, harvesting and gathering grain, and making things like baskets and pots. Late in his stay, however, he notices a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island. This makes Robinson extremely nervous. He begins imagining what sorts of men might have come to his island. He can’t find evidence of where they might have come from, but he is nonetheless in a state of perpetual awareness, going out in the mornings to lurk and wait for visitors. After some time, however, no-one shows and Robinson begins to relax again. But just when he settles down, he finds a collection of bones and the remains of a fire on shore. He knows instantly that they are human bones, and he resolves immediately to kill the cannibals should they ever cross his path. He doesn’t see any cannibals, however, for the next year and a half, and in that time he decides that since they haven’t really done him any harm, he can’t justify killing them. Soon after this determination, he spots five canoes full of cannibals landing on shore. They have two prisoners in tow. He watches one of the prisoners run up the shore and escape his three pursuers. When Robinson comes upon the prisoner he spares his life, even though he realizes that its likely that this man is also a cannibal. The man, who Robinson begins referring to as “my Savage,�? expresses extreme gratitude, and although they don’t speak the same language, Robinson understands that the man will be indebted to him for the rest of his life. Robinson names the man “Friday,�? and the two live together on the island for the rest of Robinson’s stay there. Robinson teaches Friday some English, and they spend much time debating the virtues of their respective religions. Robinson is determined to make Friday accept Protestantism, however, and lectures him at length about what he believes to be its superiority over tribal customs. Robinson claims not to own Friday like a slave, but of course the issue is complicated because he does believe Friday to be under a binding contract to do whatever he wants of him. The issues of slavery and bondage are extremely complex in this novel, and it is important to pay attention in these moments to the difference between what Robinson claims to be his attitude towards Friday, and how he actually regards and treats him. Giving Friday a European name, for example, might be understood as an implicit gesture of ownership.
Friday and Robinson finally escape the island when a British trading ship lands onshore and its sailors mutiny. Robinson befriends the Captain, and organizes himself and other sympathetic sailors together to win the ship back. Robinson has much stored firepower so they overwhelm the rebel sailors and in 1687, 28 years after he arrived on the island, they take off for Europe. At this point Robinson tries to return to his plantation but finds that he is uncomfortable with a life of luxury, so he decides to return to England. He determines to travel by land because he is afraid of his luck at sea. However, en route to England, his party is attacked by a wolf pack and Robinson is lucky to escape with his life. He appears to be settled back in Hull, but the novel closes with Robinson’s wanderlust creeping up on him again. He can’t stay away from the life of trade, and has decided, at last, to return to sea.

Defoe’s preface is less than a page long, but is important to pay attention to because it lays out the “Editor’s�? rationale for publishing Robinson Crusoe’s history. This “Editor,�? however, is not Defoe’s real editor, but rather the first fictional character of the novel. The Preface, then, is Defoe’s method for framing the upcoming narrative in terms of issues relevant to the early eighteenth century. Since the period saw an explosion of book selling (the printing press had come into its own), as well as the first copyright law ever to be instituted, early modern culture felt overwhelmed by the availability of books to the public. With such a relative wealth of books, people wondered, how would one know which books were worth reading and which weren’t? Perhaps in response to this, Defoe’s Preface seems obsessed with justifying its own publication, even going so far as to claim that it is not a novel, and is instead a history. As a history, the Editor argues, Robinson Crusoe is worth publishing because it can provide a (negative) example to readers — showing them what not to do in order to live a satisfying and safe life. The Editor then goes on to say that this history is the most publicity-worthy of any he knows because Crusoe’s life is more filled with unbelievable adventure than any other. He is thus making two arguments: the first is that we should regard Crusoe as a true (that is, believable) history, and the second is that this history is worth telling precisely because of its unbelievability. Although the Preface seems designed to clarify the terms of the novel, then, Crusoe begins with a contradiction.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, & c.
Middle Class Virtues Vs. Early Wanderlust

Robinson opens the story with a brief history of his upbringing; he’s part-German, we learn, although his last name is fully British. It was changed from Kreutznauer, he tells us, when his father left Bremen for Hull, the English town where Robinson grew up. Robinson has two brothers, one killed in battle by the Spanish, and the other gone missing. Although the middle classes in eighteenth-century England traditionally taught their sons trades so that they could earn a living, Robinson is uninterested in pursuing the law — the trade for which he had been prepared. He is much more strongly inclined towards a life of adventure and travel, and he lets us know even on the first page that this tendency will end in great unhappiness.
When Robinson informs his parents about his wanderlust, they attempt to dissuade him. Robinson’s father explains to him that travel is only for the desperately poor, who have nothing to lose, or for the fabulously wealthy, who can afford to risk their fortunes on adventure. Middle class boys, he tells Robinson, must be content with a life of work. Furthermore, this is the most satisfying life, he argues, claiming that rich and poor alike are jealous of those who earn their living by their own merit, and whose pleasures — like quiet and sociability — are domestic ones. Robinson’s father pleads with him so earnestly, even sobbing openly, that Robinson decides to try to put his desires aside and continue to live at home. A year later, however, he can bear it no longer and one day while he is down at the docks, mingling amongst sailors, Robinson meets up with a friend of his who is bound for London. Without so much as a second thought, Robinson tells us, he joins him.

The Travails of Travel

Immediately, however, Robinson regrets his decision. The ship is wracked by bad weather and he becomes violently ill. He prays to God to let him make it to shore. He pledges to go home. The other sailors mock Robinson for his terror; this is but minor turbulence, they tell him. And by the next day, the storm subsides and Robinson’s promises — made in the midst of miserable nausea — fade. He begins to enjoy life at sea, watching the sunset and sunrise over the water, and thinking delightedly that it is the most beautiful sight he’s ever seen. The following day, however, a strong storm hits and Robinson is shaken once again. He again prays to God to allow him to change his mind and return to Hull. The storm wreaks havoc on the boat, and the sailors fire their guns wildly as a distress signal. Never having heard guns before, Robinson faints dead away on the deck and is kicked aside by his mates. When he wakes, he finds himself forced to abandon ship with his comrades. Rescued by a passing boat, Robinson watches over his shoulder as the ship he vacated only moments earlier plunges to the bottom of the ocean.
One would think that Robinson might turn back now. But he pushes on, obstinately attached to the idea of a wayfarers life. What’s more, he is ashamed to think of his neighbors laughing at him, and refuses to return home. He travels to London on foot instead, and stays there for two years, becoming friendly with the master of another ship, who entices Robinson on a voyage to Guinea. This is the trip that settles it for Robinson, provoking an addiction to travel and seducing him by the process of trading with indigenous peoples. Since non-Westerners did not value gold in the way that Western Europeans did at the time (indeed, Western Europe was developing a capitalist economy that depended on the gold standard during this time), traders were able to receive much more for their barter than they would on the continent. Robinson is hooked, and after he returns to London, laden with booty, he wants immediately to head out again. On his next trip, however, Robinson’s boat is raided by pirates, who capture him and make him the personal slave of their leader, a position that Robinson maintains for another two years — enough time to ingratiate himself to the pirate king.
Because his master (who Robinson refers to as his “patroon�?) trusts Robinson, he eventually slips up. He had asked Robinson to serve himself and some visiting Moors while the group takes a fishing journey. Robinson prepares the boat for the guests, but when it comes time for the trip, his patroon comes on board alone, explaining that the guests are delaying their visit. He suggests that Robinson take the boat out by himself to do some fishing for the pirates, and Robinson, seeing his chance for escape, agrees. Robinson is outfitted with servants of his own — a Moor named Ismael and a young boy named Xury — and he convinces Ismael to load lots of supplies onboard the boat — gunpowder, tools, beeswax (to make candles), and twine. The three set out to sea and Robinson begins fishing as if he had nothing up his sleeve. When Ismael isn’t looking, however, he pushes him overboard, and continues out to sea with Xury, who he feels certain he can train to be loyal to him.

The Seductions of Travel

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