Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (Book Club, November '22)

Sometimes described as the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, and became a publishing sensation. Its original title says it all:

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, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account how he was at last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

It is the fictitious autobiography of a fictional castaway on a tropical desert island, and seems so realistic that many contemporary readers believed it to be a factual travelogue rather than a work of imagination. Defoe was apparently inspired by a number of true stories, including the experiences of real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk (as described in a 1712 account of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World).

In the intervening centuries since its first publication, Robinson Crusoe has become iconic, inspiring not only works of fiction and film, but also real-life attempts to live a lonely island life in the modern day.

The Robinson Crusoe concept lives and thrives in popular imagination, but has the novel itself stood the test of time? Read (or re-read) it, and let us know!

You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks, and there are audiobook versions available from LibriVox (here or here). But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.

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I have read Robinson Crusoe a couple of times before, and somehow managed each time to forget what much of the book was like. The survival and adventure aspects are as enjoyable as ever, but on re-reading now, there is a much longer run-up to the shipwreck than I remember, and a much, much higher degree of sermonising. A casual assumption of imperialist, patriarchal, moral supremacy pervades the entire text, and is quite uncomfortable in places.

Aside from those reservations, I find the meandering narrative to be quite effective, as the story reads exactly as though it is a record of the reminiscences of an old sea-going slave trader who underwent a religious conversion. The descriptive passages are vivid, and I think the storm at sea is very convincing. There are true-to-life touches that I greatly enjoy, such as the effort that Robinson Crusoe puts into felling a tree and hollowing it out to form a boat, only to find that the boat is so big that he can’t move it to the sea so his endeavours have been in vain. Crusoe’s failures are as much a part of the story as his successes, and Defoe includes a level of detail and logistical technicality that makes each small activity seem very real.

Real in one sense, yes, but realistic? Could a real-life shipwrecked merchant really achieve so much? Would he philosophise to such an extent? I suspect that an actual Crusoe experience would be more like that of mad Ben Gunn in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

When I think of Robinson Crusoe, I hear in my head the rolling, nautical theme music of the old black-and-white television series, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which was on UK television every summer holiday when I was a child (along with other completely brilliant imported-and-dubbed classics, such as Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade). Re-reading the book now, it is almost as though the novel has taken second place in my memory to that television series; the extensive commercial and religious elements took me by surprise. I wonder whether, if I were to re-read it again in another twenty years, I would once more have wiped those aspects from my memory, retaining just the sense of non-amorous romance and constructive adventure.