Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

In some of my reading I am trying to make up for lost time. I didn’t read much while I was doing my A-levels or my degree. I did get through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I think that that was a huge mistake. I’m guessing most people my age will have already read this book, but I needed to catch up. Oddly, it’s one of those books so famous that most people who haven’t read it could give you a summary of the plot as well as some of the detail. What I was keen to do was to read the original text and learn for myself, rather than count on the wisdom of others.

There are few things to note from the outset. Firstly, there are no chapter divisions in the book. This makes it quite difficult to note where there are natural breaks in the narrative. Whenever I put the book down I would lose my exact place (in spite of the use of a bookmark). Secondly, you have to note the language. It is a little archaic and the terminology used at times may well seem racist, though this is probably more a reflection of the cultural norms of Defoe’s day. Thirdly, the book is told entirely in the first person, though it is not clear if Robinson is writing this as he goes along his journey or whether it is written in retrospect, which keeps the reader joyfully uninformed as to his final fate.

There are 2 principle stories on which Defoe seems to have based his book, both of which are biblical: The parable of the prodigal son and the life story of Jonah. Crusoe is a runaway from home, leaving against his parents’ wishes. He goes through some early disasters including a near-shipwreck in the seas outside London and later, being taken captive by pirates off the west coast of Africa. He escapes but soon ends up shipwrecked properly on a remote island, the only survivor of the ship’s crew. This opening part of the narrative has the feel of being rushed and is a little confusing, as the author doesn’t always make clear precisely where the story is taking place.

While Defoe portrays Robinson Crusoe as an everyman, begging the question of the reader “what would you do in his situation?” our hero is actually very well provisioned. The author goes into some depth describing the salvage operation which enables Crusoe to have to hand canvas from which to make shelter, a gun & gunpowder with which to hunt amongst a whole load of other things which come in handy as a narrative device to stop Crusoe from dying in the first few days of his time alone. By the time I got halfway through the book, I will admit to finding it a bit turgid, as Defoe waffles a little bit.

However, he does it rescue it with the appearance of other people on the island. I will try not to spoil it for you, but if you don’t want to know too many details, this may be a good time to stop reading this review. Crusoe spies evidence that the island is now playing host to occasional visits from a tribe of cannibals. It is only then that we meet the second most famous character in the novel, Friday. Most people the name, but not the man. He is one doomed to be dinner at the hand of the cannibals but is rescued by Crusoe, who adopts a highly imperialistic attitude by adopting Friday as his slave.

Although the novel deals with a wide variety of subjects, including colonialism, providence and human nature, they are all approached indirectly, so as a reader I was left mulling things over whilst reading at the same time, which slowed me down somewhat. So even though it is a very short book, it is extremely rich and I would recommend that you read it if you haven’t already done so.

2 responses to “Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

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