Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The LIfe and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

In my father's library I found an 1888 illustrated Star Library edition of Daniel Defoe's classic story "The Life and Strange Adventures of  Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: who lived eight-and-twenty years all alone in an uninhabited island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the great river Oroonoque; having been cast on shore by shipwreck, wherein all the men perished but himself.  With an account of how he was at last strangely delivered by Pirates. Written by himself."

I had read it in 1977 as part of an early novel class, along with Pilgrim's Progress by Paul Bunyan and Don Quixote by Cervantes, which my professor considered forerunners of the true novel. So I decided it was time to read Robinson Crusoe again.

Robinson was born in 1632 into an early version of the middle class, and could expect to have a comfortable life...if he follows his father's example. But he lusts for adventure and runs away to become a sailor. After an initial bout with sea sickness, he finds he enjoys his new life. Until disaster strikes and a storm leaves him shipwrecked and enslaved. After some time Robinson plots his escape and once free he resumes a life on the sea.

Yet another shipwreck leaves him stranded on a deserted island in the Caribbean sea. And so begins the story we know so well, how Robinson survives 28 years with only goats, cats, and a dog as company until he discovers that cannibals bring their victims to the island to feast. One of those victims escapes, and when Robinson shoots his pursuers the victim becomes Robinsons chattel by choice. Robinson names him Friday for the day this occurred.

The book is full of adventure and danger, but it is also a virtual DIY guide to the most basic and ancient arts of manufacturing as Defoe explains how Robinson learns to make pottery, canoes, clothes, rediscovers agriculture, dries fruit and fish, and even makes an umbrella. This is possible for Robinson because of his worldly education as a sailor. He has seen the craft and arts of African and Brazilian natives. He also has all the time in the world to rediscover through trial and error the basic knowledge of primitive man. Arts forgotten by civilized, citified peoples.

Another aspect of the book not usually portrayed in popular culture retellings is Robinson's faith experience. The path to discovering a faith in God is as rocky as his road to rediscovering the ancient arts. He has found a bible on a shipwreck, and he sets to perfect his faith in God his preserver and only friend. Defoe was a Puritan and this story is an allegory, with Robinson's disobedience to his father paralleling the disobedience of Adam in the Garden.

Although considered the first "realistic" book, the story is episodic and jumps from one event, often a shipwreck or battle, to another.

Even though Robinson suffers enslavement, he later sells a boy into slavery, or a kind of 10 year indenture, and at one point even runs a slave ship to Africa. Friday is his beloved sidekick, but he is also seen as a slave who loves his master and will do anything for him.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is to view the story as an economic textbook for would-be imperialists. Not only does Robinson tames the wilds and cultivate it, he creates manufacturing. After he rescues Spanish pirates from the cannibals, Englishmen find the island and offer Robinson passage home. The Spaniards risk their lives in returning, so Robinson sets them up to remain on the island, leaving not only tools and corn but a detailed survival guide.

Back in England, Robinson discovers his Brazilian plantation has made him wealthy during his absence! He marries and has children but after his wife's death wanderlust comes over him and he desires to visit "his" island again. He finds the Spaniards have gone through numerous wars. He once again sets them up with all they need for European style society, acting as the 'governor' of his island.

After another ten years wandering, during which time he has adventures across the world, including China and Russia, he returns to England and at age 72 is ready to retire.

The book has come to us as an adventure book for boys, but if one looks deeper, there is a lot to consider. Categorizing these classic books as children's literature sadly bring them out of the purview of serious adult readers who would see them on another level.

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