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Saturday, September 3rd, 2011
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Robinson Crusoe (Modern Library Classics)

by Daniel Defoe

Where All the Castaway Stories Come From

A review by Doug Brown

The first thing that surprised me upon picking up a copy of Robinson Crusoe is how long ago it was written. It was published in 1721, when the American colonies were just that. Slavery was the unquestioned institution of the day, even in England; William Wilberforce wouldn't be born for another 40 years. Sailing ships from one place to another was still a very risky proposition; before finally being cast away on a Caribbean island for almost 30 years, Crusoe survives two other shipwrecks. Many scholars assume Defoe was influenced by the popular account of Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island for four years the decade before.

Much of the book is a meditation on a person alone, and how isolation might affect a man. Crusoe first builds barricades around his tents to keep animals out (his island is well populated with goats and wild cats). He doesn't make a gate; he gets over the barricade with a ladder that he pulls in after himself, in case other people might be about. He throws himself into industrious labor; growing crops, teaching himself pottery to make cooking pots and containers, and becoming quite the basket weaver. He also learns to make clothing from the skins of animals he has caught and killed; I had never spotted that the last name Taylor is an alternate spelling of tailor (Defoe spells it taylor throughout).

Midway through the book, when Crusoe famously sees that single bare footprint in the sand, you might expect him to be ecstatic at not being alone. Instead, he spends the next two years beefing up his fortifications, setting up rifles ready to be fired through windows in his barricade. He is more cautious about setting fires or using his firearms, for fear of being found. His fear isn't just isolationist paranoia; cannibals are foremost in his mind, and every whisper of the wind becomes their footsteps. And sure enough (spoiler alert!), that is who it turns out to be. Canoes of people come from the mainland -- oh, yeah, here are a few surprising details -- which is only 40 miles away, visible from the island, and Crusoe has a boat. And, yet, he never thinks of heading to the mainland, for fear of being invited to dinner in the wrong sense of the word. For when people come to the island, they are indeed cannibals, coming to eat some captives and then go back home.

After witnessing this, Crusoe has a dark night of the soul where first he plans to murder the cannibals, next time they come, then questions whether that would make him no better than them. But on their next visit, a man they are planning to eat runs away, and Crusoe springs into action, killing the cannibals along with the man's help. There is no question whatsoever that this man will now become Crusoe's de facto slave. Indeed, for the rest of the book he is usually not referred to as Friday, the day that Crusoe saved him, but most commonly by the now famous phrase "my Man Friday."

Having written a thoughtful story up to the point that Crusoe gets back to Europe, Defoe unfortunately stumbles at the finish line. At the very end of the book there are some battles with wolves and bears in the Alps that are just plain absurd. At one point his small band fights off what Crusoe estimates to be three hundred wolves (hmm, okay). After 250 pages of intelligently looking at how much a single man needs in order to subsist on an island, Defoe doesn't bother to consider how a pack of 300 wolves could possibly subsist anywhere. If a major studio made an accurate film of the book, everyone would accuse Hollywood of tacking on an unrealistic action scene at the end, just to end with a bang (or, rather, a whole bunch of bangs).

Despite the ending and the datedness of the language, this is one of those books that deserves the appellation "a classic for all ages." I assume most children's versions of the book are set in a more readable fashion than the more accurate Modern Library edition, which preserves Defoe's capitalizations. This was a Time when all Nouns were capitalized, and Proper Nouns italicized, which takes the Eye some getting used to. Defoe also rarely uses periods; his paragraphs are like this: concatenations of sentences separated; by colons: and semicolons. After a while you don't notice it, though. The Modern Library edition also has the obligate introduction that all classics must have; this one is written by some woman named Virginia Woolf (who'd a thunk she'd be a big Robinson Crusoe fan?). The laudatory cover quote comes from a review written by a guy called Edgar Allan Poe; in an appendix, we get his full review (unlike Woolf, I fully get Poe being a fan of this book). A meditative and (mostly) realistic book, Robinson Crusoe isn't as rollicking as its successor Treasure Island; however, there are still gun battles aplenty, shipwrecks, cannibals, and battles with wild beasts. Think of the difference between the films Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander; the first is more fun, but the latter is a better film that more honestly portrays its time. Likewise, Treasure Island is more fun, but I feel that Robinson Crusoe is the better book.


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