In this lesson, we'll explore Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' while examining themes present in the work. You may also learn some handy skills if you ever find yourself shipwrecked and having to survive on an island for 28 years.
She Ain't Seaworthy
Before there was Tom Hanks, Castaway and that blood-stained beach ball named Wilson, there was Robinson Crusoe. This novel was written by Daniel Defoe (not to be confused with Willem Dafoe, the actor) and published in 1719, and Defoe probably based Robinson Crusoe on a real guy named Alexander Selkirk, who was a Scottish castaway.
Selkirk was sailing around off the coast of Chile, and he let his captain know that he thought that the ship really wasn't that seaworthy. The captain was like 'Well, if you don't think it's seaworthy, why don't you just wait around for a better ship on that island over there.' Selkirk said 'Fine!' and he waited around on the island. He kind of regretted the decision immediately, running after the ship as it was sailing away, but he didn't, obviously, make it back on. He lived on the island by himself for four years. And the ship that left him there actually wasn't very seaworthy, and it sank off the coast of Colombia! So Selkirk was totally right about not getting on this boat - the problem was then he was stuck on this island for four years. He was eventually rescued. The island eventually, eventually was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island because of the story that it eventually inspired.
But Defoe was totally into this story, and he used it as the basis for Robinson Crusoe. He kind of one-ups Selkirk in a way because he lives on the island for 28 years, although he's only alone for about 15 of them - we'll get to that a little bit later. He's not left behind by an indignant captain; he's just shipwrecked instead. There're also cannibals because of course Defoe has to up the ante a little bit on the adventure side of things. I'm getting ahead of myself. We're going to start from the beginning, and we're going to talk about some of the themes of the work and also just what happens because you probably know some of the story, but you probably don't know all of the story.
A Rebellious Youth
It starts out when Robinson Crusoe is 18 years old. His father wants him to be a lawyer (I think some of us can probably relate to that these days), but Crusoe just does not care. He wants adventure! It doesn't matter that his two older brothers have already gone away voyaging; Crusoe wants to go to sea - that's his dream. His father refuses to let him travel, and Crusoe runs away with a friend to sail off to London.
In this willingness to go against his father's wishes and journey off into the great unknown, we're already starting to see a theme of determination but also maybe of foolhardiness on the part of Crusoe. Misfortunes set in almost immediately. There's rough weather, the ship doesn't make it to London and he parts ways with his friend. Crusoe goes the rest of the way to London on foot, and he signs on for a voyage to Guiana.
That ship is then attacked by Turkish pirates, and Crusoe is enslaved for two years. He manages to escape - he's sent fishing with these two guys. He throws one guy overboard, and then he forces the other one, whose name is Xury, to pledge loyalty to him. They paddle the boat away, meet some friendly natives and convince this Portuguese ship to take them off to Brazil.
We're seeing a consistent pattern here with Crusoe meeting obstacles at every turn, but he has a real strong will to keep on going and really make the best of things. He rises to each challenge and sees it through. Still, his biggest challenge is yet to come.
A Business Man
He leaves Xury with the Portuguese captain on the boat, and he sets off to start his life in Brazil. Once there, he notices that people are making money off of plantations - that seems to be the way to go, so he makes some money and buys one. He's doing well - he makes some friends and gets some business partners. They're all getting pretty wealthy, and they decide to start a trading business. Unfortunately, since it is 1659, that business involves trading slaves. Crusoe doesn't seem all that concerned about this - I guess that's a product of the time.
There're a couple of themes at work here that we should probably take a look at. Crusoe is clearly a friendly dude - he keeps making friends, from ship captains to business partners. We'll see friendship come more into play once Crusoe gets marooned.
Another continuing theme that is really important for this book is work ethic. Crusoe is clearly a self-made man. Whether he's working on a ship or managing his plantation, he's really pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and again, that will continue in interesting ways once he gets marooned.
Anyway, as a part of this new business venture, he decides to go on a sea voyage. He doesn't have to go, but remember he was all into adventuring - that's why he didn't want to be a lawyer. Inevitably, there's a shipwreck, and Crusoe is the only survivor on an uninhabited island. That is where the part of the story that you are probably most familiar with begins.
Luckily, he has enough forethought to salvage supplies from the sinking ship. He goes back a few times to get more stuff as it's sinking. He also finds two cats, a dog and a parrot, who he ends up treating as his subjects - he kind of pretends he's king of the island (again, kind of like Wilson the volleyball to a certain extent). But the interesting thing about Crusoe is that he doesn't just survive. He survives in style. He learns how to cook. He makes his own clothes. He finds some wild goats and raises them to be domestic goats. He plant crops. He builds himself a really cool house. He also builds himself a country house on the other side of the island where there are fruit trees.
He has a lot of free time on his hands, obviously, because he's alone on this desert island. This theme of work ethic has come back in an interesting way because he doesn't just sit around and wait to die or sit around and do the bare minimum to survive. He accepts that these are his circumstances - he's alone on this island - and starts to build a life for himself.
Before he builds this comfortable life, he's pretty miserable. It takes him a while to get there. He nicknames the island the 'Island of Despair' because it's not going so well. One of the things that helps him overcome this is his strong faith in God.
This becomes interesting again in relation to the work ethic because what emerges from this is the idea that Protestantism at the time - there're Protestants and Catholics - was really into working hard and making money as a sign that you were God's chosen. We can see this playing out in isolation on Crusoe's island. There's no reason for him to work hard because it's just him. He doesn't have to get dressed. He doesn't have to make interesting food. But he does anyway, and there's a certain sense that this is, in a way, related to his own religious faith and a way to make himself be closer to God to a certain extent. So that's kind of interesting.
Eventually Crusoe discovers that he's not alone on the island - he finds a footprint on the beach. It turns out that every once in a while, some cannibals come over from a neighboring island to eat some prisoners. Crusoe ends up freeing one of these prisoners, and this is how he gets his companion, who he names 'Friday' because he appeared on that day of the week. (Crusoe has obsessively kept a calendar all this time to sort of keep him connected to the outside world.)
He and Friday end up going back and killing the rest of the cannibals and freeing two more prisoners, one of whom turns out to be Friday's father. Another turns out to be a Spaniard who tells them that there's a shipload of Spaniards who are shipwrecked nearby! So suddenly, things are looking up.
They make a plan to get off the island with the Spaniards. Before they actually do this, some Englishmen turn up whose ship has been mutinied. Crusoe helps the captain take control of the ship, strands the mutineers on the island, and then they all get to go home!
Everyone at home thought he was dead, so he didn't get to be in his father's will, and there are lots of negative things that happen from that. But overall, things work out pretty well for him even though he had to spend 28 years on a desert island.
The story of the shipwrecked man on the island and his boy Friday - they obviously go beyond the novel because you've probably heard of Robinson Crusoe even if you haven't read this book. This is because this base narrative was spread far and wide by tons of adaptations, different editions and sequels. At the time, it was widely disseminated in the form of 'chapbooks,' which are basically pictures with minimal text to tell the story.
Most people only know the shipwreck part of the story. All that stuff that I described before - getting enslaved by Turkish people, being in Brazil and having a plantation - was probably pretty unfamiliar because what people know best is when he's on the island, living by himself, and then he finds Friday.
And that's because this is the part where Crusoe has hit upon something unique. Before that, he's just writing another adventure story. People wrote adventure stories before - it wasn't that interesting to read about a guy out trying to make his fortune on the high seas.
But when he gets him on the island, he ends up writing something much weirder - this weird, cool parable of hard work even without an outcome; what people do on their own - the kind of interesting things that happen when you don't have companions. This is the thing that really ends up lasting, even though it's spread as an adventure story and a non-literary tale - children know this story, and they're obviously not reading Defoe. This conceit of the guy who makes his own way even when there's no point to making his own way is the thing that really resonates with us... we're kind of the descendant of the Protestant work ethic as well.
So that's Robinson Crusoe - the story and also a bit of why this story in particular has lasted so long with us.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the real man and story that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is based on
- Summarize the plot, themes and lasting influence of Robinson Crusoe