Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe

George Stade, Consulting Editorial Director of Barnes & Noble Classics in New York, releases the famous adventure Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe, first in 2003 in mass market format and then in 2005 in trade paperback.  This edition includes an introduction, notes, and a list for further reading by L. J. Swingle of English Literature at the University of Kentucky.  Originally published in 1719 as The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the story chronicles Robinson Crusoe’s travels and struggles on land and sea.  The main locus of the story occurs on an uninhabited island, which Crusoe lives on for about twenty-seven years (other sources quote twenty-eight).  Other adventures happen, but the world remembers the simple plot of a man stranded on a deserted island and survives under his own ingenuity.

The other adventures have surprised me, because they are not usually shown in adaptations or children’s books.  For one, Crusoe leaves his family to pursue a life on the sea.  His father discourages Crusoe to talk about going to the sea; he wants his son to stay in England, continue the family business, raise a family, and be comfortably set for life.  It is peculiar that his father discourages him so much.  I suppose seafaring crew or sailors have a bad reputation in eighteenth century society, but other seafaring folk, like the Portuguese captain, make a career out of it without falling into corruption or immorality.  I figure sons are expected to continue their fathers’ careers as a culturally sanctioned necessity during the eighteenth century.  In any case, Crusoe cannot resist the siren’s song of the ocean and takes the next opportunity to get on a boat.

Another story that does not get mentioned in adaptations, generally, is Crusoe’s experience as a slave after being captured by pirates and sold to a Moroccan merchant.  He spends a couple of years working for his master until he hatches a plan to hijack one of the boats and escape to the jungle coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa.  Later, he is picked up by a Portuguese merchant heading for the Brazilian coast and helps him get a foot in the New World.  The captain treats him honestly and supports him charitably in his fledgling business affairs and transactions.

Furthermore, another detail that does not get included in adaptations is his business affairs after he gets rescued from the tropical island.  It surprises me greatly how the story continues even after the rescue, almost as if the twenty-seven years on the island are just an anecdotal interruption in Crusoe’s life on the sea.  Oddly, Defoe does not follow the normal narrative pattern of novels: there are no distinguishing chapters; the narrator understates the magnitude of the rescue; and the denouement unnecessarily tarries long after Crusoe gets off the island.  In other words, it reads more like a long-winded monologue with a flow of consciousness that does not trouble itself with exact dates or localities.  With no chapters to divide the novel, the text runs on interminably.  The reading flows well enough, but the pacing leaves me wanting to stop at inconvenient intervals.

Another strange thing about Robinson Crusoe is the protagonist’s matter-of-fact or prosaic treatment of events.  “Crusoe’s interest in the natural world is aggressively utilitarian,” L. J. Swingle says in the “Introduction” (xxiv).  It is like reading The Boy Scout Handbook: informative, but not exciting.  Also, the lack of female characters and their perspectives makes me wonder if Defoe believes only men would appreciate or enjoy his story.  It is not wrong to target a specific group in the literary market per se, but I wonder how women react to this book when they read it.  Would they feel offended?  Would they root for the hero as he struggles to survive?  Would they even care?  I would really like to know how female readers react to Crusoe’s obvious disinterest to the opposite sex.

If there is a problem pertaining to Crusoe’s behavior that women would frown upon, it would probably be his insensitivity to other people’s emotions.  With the exception of his intent to obtain a boatload of African slaves to work on his plantation in Brazil, Crusoe insensitively, but not maliciously, views everyone and everything around him as a means to an end.  He does develop as a character, but not as much as say Jean Valjean in Les Misérables or Viridiana in Luis Buñuel’s movie of the same name.  Crusoe seems to typify the stereotype of men treating everything as objects.  He certainly capitalizes on opportunities to make a buck.

It takes being shipwrecked on an island for him to realize that not all things need a monetary value; it takes being acted upon to realize what he takes for granted.  In his predicament, he becomes dependent on God.  It is in this state where I enjoy Crusoe the most.  While isolated from the rest of society, he has time to reflect on his choices and attitudes.  Admirably, instead of surrendering himself into a suicidal oblivion, he accepts his existential dependence on an “Invisible Power” and gets to work on transforming himself as well as his surroundings (77).  He becomes a new man with a different perspective.  He takes the time to read the Bible and becomes spiritually cognizant of his status before his Creator.  At one point he writes:

“Now I began to construe the words mentioned above, ‘Call on me, and I will deliver thee,’ in a different sense from what I had ever done before; for then I had no notion of anything being called deliverance but my being delivered from the captivity I was in: for though I was indeed at large in the place, yet the island was certainly a prison to me, and that in the worst sense in the world; but now I learned to take it in another sense.  Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort.  As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it, or think of it; it was all of no consideration in comparison to this.  And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction” (83).

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe writes many wonderfully spiritual observations that seem like testimonies borne before an LDS congregation.  (Linguistically, I wonder if our frequently used terms and phrases in testimony meetings have originated from an eighteenth century British lexicon.)  He stumbles upon topics like prayer, repentance, gratitude, works, grace, trust in the Lord, temperance, love, peace, consolation, contentment, optimism, accountability, leadership, self-sufficiency, husbandry, justice, mercy, faith, hope, confidence, deliverance, submission, elation, repugnance to sin, obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (or the light of Christ), wisdom, revelation, joy, knowledge, power, righteousness, and governance.  As he struggles to survive, and then live comfortably within his means, he becomes a child of God, willing to suffer through the trials of life in order to obtain redemption through the merits of Jesus Christ.  “I say, when I reflected upon all these things, a secret joy ran through every part of my soul; and I frequently rejoiced that ever I was brought to this place, which I had so often thought the most dreadful of all afflictions that could possibly have befallen me” (184).

Probably the most profound realization Crusoe obtains is his ability to see beyond mere appearances or stressful circumstances.  He reflects saying:

“So little do we see before us in the world, and so much reason have we to depend cheerfully upon the great Maker of the world, that he does not leave his creatures so absolutely destitute, but that in the worst circumstances they have always something to be thankful for, and sometimes are nearer their deliverance than they imagine; nay, are even brought to their deliverance by the means by which they seem to be brought to their destruction” (210).

If I had more interest and resources to pursue an academic understanding of Robinson Crusoe, I would focus on the character’s transformation into a one-man sovereign or nation.  At first, Crusoe is a castaway struggling to maintain an existence.  At last, he is a self-sufficient guardian with means to protect his island and interests.  Because of his experiences and his achievements, he can rightfully claim that the island is his own country or colony.  He acts as a legislator, a governor, and a judge when he saves a captain and his crew from mutineers.  They all look to him as a legal and executive source of justice, because, naturally, Crusoe is the most comfortable occupant on it.  Crusoe makes alliances, pacts, policies, and laws pertaining to the operation of the island with foreigners and aliens.  The only question remaining is this: At what point does he become the sovereign of this island nation?

The book is appropriate for the general public.  Men and boys may enjoy it more than women and girls, only because the topics discussed by the narrator have a masculine interest or viewpoint.  I would challenge women and girls to read it, record their reactions, and share them with the public, because I am seriously curious about their particular viewpoints of the story, no matter how positive, negative, or neutral.  The results will make for a fascinating conversation.


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