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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe

Pierce Robinson played Robinson Crusoe in the 1997 Australian-American film version of the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe.
Book Review
 Robinson Crusoe (1719)
by Daniel Defoe

               As I sit here, revising this post which I wrote back in February/March 2008, I feel like at the time I read Robinson Crusoe- 2008- still the earliest stages of this project (in fact, perhaps before the project crystallized as a part of this blog), I did not appreciate it's significance in the history of the novel.

In August 2013 we'll be reading children's fiction: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.:
Cover of the Penguin Classics editions of Robinson Crusoe.  One of the benefits of 18th century books is that they are all public demain and freely available on Kindle, Audio book, etc.
                Hard to believe that there was a time when Robinson Crusoe wasn't deeply embedded in the western psyche.  As I sit here on my couch, it's easy to come up with a dozen contemporary reference points: Lost, that shitty Tom Hanks well you get the idea.  Two contemporary reference points.  Like Moll Flanders, Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe as a "biography", and like Flanders, people believed it.  In fact, for many it is the character, not the author that people know and remember.
"The narrative voice of the castaway is Defoe's stroke of genius. It's exciting, unhurried, conversational and capable of high and low sentiments. It's also often quasi-journalistic, which suits Defoe's style. This harmonious mix of tone puts the reader deep into the mind of the castaway and his predicament. His adventures become our adventures and we experience them inside out, viscerally, for ourselves. ":
The set of illustrations done by N.C. Wyeth for his 1920 edition of Robinson Crusoe have become the standard set of illustrations for this book.  Here, Crusoe is pictured in his island paradise.

             Regardless, Crusoe is an important precursor to the novel and after reading the book, its easy to see why.  Defoe's protagonist is recognizable as a modern hero.  Before I started Crusoe I had the vague idea that the book would start and end with him marooned on a desert island.  Not so.  Crusoe starts out as a young lad in the UK.  He wants to go to sea, his dad tells him to stay home.  He goes anyways.  He hooks up with some Portuguese traders, gets captured by a Moorish pirate, escapes, is rescued off the coast of Africa, ends up in Brazil, starts a plantation, goes on an expedition to capture slaves(!) AND THEN he gets shipwrecked.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner / Daniel Defoe:
N.C. Wyeth's illustrations did much to anchor Crusoe as a 19th or 20th century bourgeois, reconstructing his bourgeois existence in exile.

    So. He's on the island, and he builds his own little world.  The meat of the book alternates between his explaining his various innovations (builds a goat pen, farms some rice, builds a house) and making exhortations to god about his miserable fate/how lucky his is not to be dead.)  This goes on for roughly 24 years(only 150 pages of text, tho.)  Meanwhile I'm thinking, "Didn't he have a sidekick?  Friday?  Isn't Friday in this book?"

Robinson Crusoe and man Friday, 1874:
The relationship between Crusoe and Friday, shown here on an 1874 postcard, is the only part of the narrative that seems in any way dated, but he was in line with the spirit of his times.
    And then- voila- Friday shows up- Crusoe rescues him from some Caribbean cannibals- and from there Crusoe's solitude is broken.  Despite the archaic spelling/grammar & syntax Crusoe is a quick, easy read.  It's almost like reading some kind of literary archetype- a kind of narrative that lies at the center of who we are as modern individuals.

I think individualism is at the center of Robinson Crusoe.  Crusoe's solitude is an early example of an internal, subjective narrative.  We all live in Crusoe's world now, but it's easy to see why it was such a smash in 1719- it must have spoken deeply to the rise in individualism that coincided with with the rise of other aspects of modernity in the 18th century.

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