Robinson Crusoe  

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“It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” ― Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (epigraph to The Plague)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Robinson Crusoe is an English adventure novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1719 and sometimes regarded as the first novel in English. The book is a fictional autobiography of the title character, an English castaway who spends 28 years on a remote island, encountering savages, captives, and mutineers before being rescued. This device, presenting an account of supposedly factual events, is known as a "false document", and gives a realistic frame story. The story was probably influenced by the real-life events of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway marooned on a Pacific island for four years.

The first edition of the book credited the work's fictional protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many readers to believe he was a real person and the book a travelogue of true incidents.

The full title of the novel is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself.

The term "Robinsonade" has been coined to describe the genre of stories similar to Robinson Crusoe.

Contents

Cultural influences

The book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered the language. The term "Robinson Crusoe" is virtually synonymous with the word "castaway" and is often used as a metaphor for being rejected. Robinson Crusoe usually referred to his servant as "my man Friday", from which the term "Man Friday" (or "Girl Friday") originated, referring to a dedicated personal assistant, servant, or companion.

The success of the book spawned many imitators, and castaway novels became quite popular in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these have fallen into obscurity, but some became established in their own right, including The Swiss Family Robinson.

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on education, Emile: Or, On Education, the one book the main character, Emile, is allowed to read before the age of twelve is Robinson Crusoe. Rousseau wants Emile to identify himself as Crusoe so he could rely upon himself for all of his needs. In Rousseau's view, Emile needs to imitate Crusoe's experience, allowing necessity to determine what is to be learned and accomplished. This is one of the main themes of Rousseau's educational model.

In The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, Beatrix Potter directs the reader to Robinson Crusoe for a detailed description of the island (the land of the Bong tree) to which her eponymous hero moves. She describes the land of the Bong tree as being similar to Robinson Crusoe's, "only without its drawbacks."

In Wilkie Collins's most popular novel, The Moonstone, one of the chief characters and narrators, Gabriel Betteredge, places implicit faith in all that Robinson Crusoe says, and uses the book for a sort of divination. He considers 'The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' the finest book ever written, and considers a man but poorly read if he had happened not to read the book.

Nobel Prize-winning (2002) author J. M. Coetzee in 1986 published a novel entitled Foe, in which he explores an alternative telling of the Crusoe story, an allegorical story about racism, philosophy, and colonialism.

In Kenneth Gardner's award winning 2002 novel, Rich Man's Coffin, he portrays the true story of a black American slave who escapes on a whaling ship to New Zealand to become chief of one of the cannibal Maori tribes. This is a reversal of racial roles, with the black man taking the lead role of the Robinson Crusoe figure.

Jacques Offenbach wrote an opéra comique called Robinson Crusoé which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Salle Favart on 23 November 1867. This was based on the British pantomime version rather than the novel itself. The libretto was by Eugène Cormon and Hector-Jonathan Crémieux. The opera includes a duet by Robinson Crusoe and Friday.

French novelist Michel Tournier wrote Friday (French Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique) published in 1967. His novel explores themes including civilization versus nature, the psychology of solitude, as well as death and sexuality, in a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe story. Tournier's Robinson chooses to remain on the island, rejecting civilization when offered the chance to escape 28 years after being shipwrecked.

Interpretations

Despite its complicated narrative style and the absence of the supposedly indispensable love motive, it was received well in the literary world. The book is considered one of the most widely published books in history (behind some of the sacred texts). It has been a hit since the day it was published, and continues to be highly regarded to this day.

Colonial

Novelist James Joyce noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

In a sense Crusoe attempts to replicate his own society on the island. This is achieved through the application of European technology, agriculture, and even a rudimentary political hierarchy. Several times in the novel Crusoe refers to himself as the 'king' of the island, whilst the captain describes him as the 'governor' to the mutineers. At the very end of the novel the island is explicitly referred to as a 'colony.' The idealized master-servant relationship Defoe depicts between Crusoe and Friday can also be seen in terms of cultural imperialism. Crusoe represents the 'enlightened' European whilst Friday is the 'savage' who can only be redeemed from his supposedly barbarous way of life through the assimilation into Crusoe's culture. Nevertheless, within the novel Defoe also takes the opportunity to criticize the historic Spanish conquest of South America.

Religious

According to J.P. Hunter, Robinson is not a hero, but an everyman. He begins as a wanderer, aimless on a sea he does not understand, and ends as a pilgrim, crossing a final mountain to enter the promised land. The book tells the story of how Robinson becomes closer to God, not through listening to sermons in a church but through spending time alone amongst nature with only a Bible to read.

Robinson Crusoe is filled with religious aspects. Defoe was himself a Puritan moralist, and normally worked in the guide tradition, writing books on how to be a good Puritan Christian, such as The New Family Instructor (1728) and Religious Courtship (1732). While Robinson Crusoe is far more than a guide, it shares many of the same themes and theological and moral points of view. The very name "Crusoe" may have been taken from Timothy Cruso, a classmate of Defoe's who had written guide books himself, including God the Guide of Youth (1685), before dying at an early age — just eight years before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Cruso would still have been remembered by contemporaries and the association with guide books is clear. It has even been suggested that God the Guide of Youth inspired Robinson Crusoe because of a number of passages in that work that are closely tied to the novel; however this is speculative.

The Biblical story of Jonah is alluded to in the first part of novel. Like Jonah, Crusoe neglects his 'duty' and is punished at sea.

A central concern of Defoe's in the novel is the Christian notion of Providence. Crusoe often feels himself guided by a divinely ordained fate, thus explaining his robust optimism in the face of apparent hopelessness. His various fortunate intuitions are taken as evidence of a benign spirit world. Defoe also foregrounds this theme by arranging highly significant events in the novel to occur on Crusoe's birthday.

Moral

When confronted with the cannibals, Crusoe wrestles with the problem of cultural relativism. Despite his disgust, he feels unjustified in holding the natives morally responsible for a practice so deeply ingrained in their culture. Nevertheless he retains his belief in an absolute standard of morality; he condemns cannibalism as a 'national crime' and forbids Friday from practising it. Modern readers may also note that despite Crusoe's apparently superior morality, in common with the culture of his day, he accepts slavery as a basic feature of colonial life.

Economic

In classical and neoclassical economics, Crusoe is regularly used to illustrate the theory of production and choice in the absence of trade, money and prices. Crusoe must allocate effort between production and leisure, and must choose between alternative production possibilities to meet his needs. The arrival of Friday is then used to illustrate the possibility of, and gains from, trade.

The classical treatment of the Crusoe economy has been discussed and criticised from a variety of perspectives.

Karl Marx made an analysis of Crusoe, while also mocking the heavy use in classical economics of the fictional story, in his classic work Capital. In Marxist terms, Crusoe's experiences on the island represents the inherent economic value of labour over capital. Crusoe frequently observes that the money he salvaged from the ship is worthless on the island, especially when compared to his tools.

For the literary critic Angus Ross, Defoe's point is that money has no intrinsic value and is only valuable insofar as it can be used in trade. There is also a notable correlation between Crusoe's spiritual and financial development as the novel progresses, possibly signifying Defoe's belief in the Protestant work ethic.

The Crusoe model has also been assessed from the perspectives of feminism and Austrian economics.

Praise

"There exists one book," Rousseau wrote, "which, to my taste, furnishes the happiest treatise of natural education. What then is this marvelous book? Is it Aristotle? Pliny? Is it Buffon? No - it is Robinson Crusoe.' (Emile, ou De l'education (1762).

Reception and sequels

The book was published on April 25, 1719. Its full title was "The Life and strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, where-in all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. Written by Himself"

The positive reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions. Within years, it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had spawned more editions, spin-offs, and translations (even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children's versions with mainly pictures and no text. There have been hundreds of adaptations in dozens of languages, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Luis Buñuel's film adaptation. J.M. Coetzee's 1986 novel Foe and the 2000 Hollywood film Cast Away are both recent examples of reimagining, retelling, and reevaluation of the story.

The term "Robinsonade" has been coined to describe the genre of stories similar to Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe went on to write a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It was intended to be the last part of his stories, according to the original title-page of its first edition, but in fact a third part, entitled Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, was written; it is a mostly forgotten series of moral essays with Crusoe's name attached to give interest.

Adaptations

See also




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