Three hundred years ago this week, a convicted heretic, hustler and ex-spy published a book about a reckless young man washed up on a deserted island.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe presented itself as the autobiography of a humble castaway. The book, often cited as one of the first novels of realistic fiction, was a resounding sensation. Within four months, the book had gone through four editions. By the end of the 19th century, there were over 700 editions, translations, and imitations. It spawned an entire genre (the Robinsonade), an opera, a pantomime, several new words of English jargon, and praise from the likes of Rousseau, Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Karl Marx even points to Crusoe as an example of the pre-capitalist man in Das Kapital.
Today, throw a rock and you’ll hit a cinematic interpretation of Robinson Crusoe: Lost in Space, Earth 2, Survivor, Cast Away, The Martian, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, even The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The story is one of the most widely published books in history, and has appeared in over 100 languages, from Inuktitut to Maltese, second only to the Bible in that respect. In 300 years, Robinson Crusoe has never been out of print.
What made this story so mesmerizing to a Western audience? Plot-wise, it isn’t exactly gripping, unless you are keen on detailed descriptions of fence-building. Robinson spends much of his time on the island alone, and thus the book is driven largely by chance, rather than cause-and-effect. He domesticates goats. He grows wheat. For the majority of the book, he is the only character around; we don’t get much in terms of flashbacks or relationships.
But Robinson Crusoe is special in two respects.
First, the book was, in addition to being one of the first English novels, perhaps the first novel that really aimed to be popular. Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe as an accessible travelogue based off a narrative that was already fashionable at the time. He worked up an exciting tale and marketed it as a true story. The first edition even credited Robinson Crusoe as the author, and many people reading thought he was a real person. Defoe spent a good amount of time in debtor’s prison, and he needed a hit.
But what really seared this book into the cultural consciousness is the way it epitomized the Anglo-Saxon Protestant myth of the white, Christian man as a civilizing influence. Robinson Crusoe bends the island to his will. He “tames” the wilderness, declares himself master, and dismisses the personhood of the indigenous people. He imposes his religion, diet, culture, and a new name on the man he enslaves— his “man Friday”—and presents this as a triumph of enterprise.
Crusoe, then, illustrates our love of self-sufficiency, or at least the fantasy of self-sufficiency. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or On Education, Rousseau details a hypothetical child’s ideal upbringing. The only book this child, Emile, is allowed to read is Robinson Crusoe, to teach the boy to be self-reliant. It’s worth noting that Robinson is on a mission to obtain slaves when his boat capsizes and he is washed ashore: the ideal Anglo-European man succeeds alone, apparently, but slaves still help. It is also worth noting that in reality, Rousseau abandoned his children. Self-sufficiency and devout family men are harder to come by than canonical fiction would have us believe.Though Crusoe . . . is often miserable, this isn’t a significant part of his narrative (the imperialist hero must demonstrate his lust for life).
Our love for masculine ingénues has hardly diminished. The American myth of the self-made man is still cherished, and individualism is the deepest religion of our land. But the book is not simply imperialist desire in narrative form. Crusoe’s story has a historical precedent: an impulsive Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, himself a legend, who in a bout of righteousness got himself stranded.
Alexander Selkirk was born in a small fishing village in Fife, Scotland in 1676. When he was a teenager, he wanted badly to go to sea, but his father forbade it. He became a shoemaker and hated it; he was also, apparently, not very well-behaved in church. In Selkirk’s own narrative, recorded in The Original Robinson Crusoe, he recalls that one day he did something so bad—he refuses to say exactly what, only that it was “unusually scandalous”—that he decided the best course of action would be to just leave town altogether. “To say the truth,” he admits, “I was never remarkable, as a boy, for doing as I was bid.”
Selkirk eventually made his way onto a ship, run by an aggressive, short-tempered captain. After failing to ambush Spanish ships or steal any gold, Selkirk was fed up. One night, he had an ill-omened dream and in the morning asked to be left on a nearby deserted island. They dropped him off with some supplies, but as the ship pulled away, Selkirk’s decision began to sink in: “I called out to the captain that I had altered my mind, and begged him to take me on board again. No one seemed to hear me, and the boat put off.”
Selkirk sat down under the palms and watched the ship become a dot on the horizon. He spent a day despondent, thinking, like Crusoe, that he would like to catch one of the many wild goats on the island, but that he ought to preserve his gunpowder. Instead, he stabbed a baby seal in the heart (as you do) and with his bare hands caught a crayfish, which he ate raw.
The next day, the fact of his horrific solitude set in. What if he were to grow ill? What if he broke a leg and died, slowly, unable to get food? How many men, he wondered, had died like this, stranded on an island by mutinies or cruel officers, miserable, alone, their bodies devoured by wild animals, their fates known to no one? In the night, he heard strange noises. Curious, ground-burrowing birds flew from their holes in the dark. “They have a very curious cry, which I have heard a thousand times,” Selkirk writes. “It sounds exactly like the English words: ‘be quiet, be quiet.’ I remember how the cry seemed to mock me.”
Months passed. Selkirk grew more and more depressed. He began to “contemplate self-destruction.” Though Crusoe, too, is often miserable, this isn’t a significant part of his narrative (the imperialist hero must demonstrate his lust for life). There is, however, a parallel in both men’s rediscovery of the Bible. Both Selkirk and Crusoe have a Bible with them when they’re stranded. Selkirk, the man who was once kicked out of church, began reading it to keep himself sane. “I took it with me into the woods or to the top of the rocks,” recalls Selkirk, “and would sit there reading it hour after hour, forgetting during its perusal that I was alone.”
Of course, in Crusoe, this is shaped as the light of Christianity being a restorative influence; you could argue that in Selkirk’s case it was language—not religion, but the fact of the written word—which saved him. “And so by slow degrees,” Selkirk says, “I regained my peace of mind.”
Selkirk began to explore the island, couching the recollection in the language of harmony, rather than conquest. He discovered a field of turnips and radishes, long abandoned and gone to seed. He foraged for pumpkins and parsley, wood-sorrel, parsnips. Like Crusoe, he built two houses, and sheltered there during the heavy winter rains. Like Crusoe, he fashioned a bag and clothes from goatskin. His feet grew so tough he had no need for shoes. He captured wild goats and raised the kids to be tame. “I taught them to dance on their hind legs,” he recalls fondly, “and would thus divert myself when the day’s work was done, singing a tune to which we all danced.”
It was not all dancing. One morning he was awoken by a sharp pain in his foot. He sat up and discovered a rat chewing on him: the room swarmed with them. Night after night, they invaded his hut, keeping him from sleep. He contemplated a solution and considered going to another deserted, rat-free island nearby (rats had been introduced by sailors’ ships). But then he remembered the wild cats. He brought some kittens home in a basket, ending the rat problem and essentially balancing the ecosystem to reduce an invasive species.
Unlike Crusoe’s tale, Selkirk’s account of the island, and all his adventures before and after, contain no mention of cannibals, a specter constantly on Crusoe’s mind. In fact, the only danger posed to him by people is from fellow Europeans: one day, Spaniards showed up, chased and shot at him. He escaped and hid in a tree. The Spaniards congregated at the foot of the very tree he was hiding in, but they didn’t see him, and he escaped unharmed.
After four years and four months, Selkirk spied an English ship and lit a fire to get the crew’s attention. They rescued him, but after so long alone, Selkirk was a bit off. The sailors on the boat “insisted upon it that I pronounced my words after a strange fashion; or, as they expressed it, ‘by halves.’”
When it was time to sail off, he found it hard to leave. He remembered all that the island has done for him, as he puts it. “I remained a long time on deck, watching the shores as they receded from my view. Perhaps if the parting had had to come over again, I might after all have changed my mind.”
Defoe took Selkirk’s story and boiled it to its essentials, then reshaped it into a Puritan fable. Today, groups that have been framed as Other in Crusoe’s tale write their own takes: Foe, by J. M. Coetzee, imagines a female castaway who joins “Cruso” and Friday and struggles to have her tale recorded. “Crusoe’s Journal” by Derek Walcott frames the natives’ cannibalism alongside the castaway’s belief in transubstantiation.
Dr. Elizabeth Bekers is the Senior Lecturer of British and Postcolonial Literature at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, and her “Literature in English” class begins with post-colonial interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. She looks specifically at Crusoe, she says, because “you can actually read the whole of English literary history looking back on that very important moment.”
Bekers points out that Robinson Crusoe is not merely a colonialist text; it’s a totem for the colonialist canon. “You can read it as a specific text that people are taking issue with, but you can also take it as a symbol for that whole tradition. They are taking issue with what Robinson Crusoe stands for: writing about white men by white men from the colonial perspective. They immediately assume the island is theirs, that they have a right to control. It doesn’t cross his mind that it might belong to somebody else.”
Bekers, who is white and Belgian, adds, “I think it’s really important that we don’t forget as white people how biased and privileged things are for us, how biased our language is. I tell the students they can’t use the word tribe, or I say, you can use it but then you also have to use it for the Flemish tribe and the Walloon tribe” (Flanders and Wallonia are the Dutch- and French-speaking communities in Belgium, respectively).
Robinson Crusoe, then, is the first capitalist fairy tale, and like any fairy tale it perseveres even as certain aspects, in today’s light, reveal their ugliness. The mythos driving Crusoe is very much the one our country was built on, and that is not a good thing. Teddy Roosevelt announced that white Americans could take land from indigenous people because they had not materially improved it, much as Crusoe decided he owned the island because he could build that fence. But in the conversation today, Crusoe’s story, 300 years worn, shows its tattered threads. New voices—women, people of color, residents of former colonies—hold the pen now. The island doesn’t belong to Crusoe anymore.