Robinson Crusoe

Dialogues
Called the original adventure novel, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in the year 1719. It is the first person narrative of a fictionalized character who, after his initial journeys to the sea and South America, finds himself washed up on the shore of a deserted island near the mouth of the Oronoco river. Through his resourcefulness he finds ways to survive and even thrive, especially in the areas of farming and raising goats. He spends decades on the island, tending to his houses and crops, and avoiding the 'savages' who occasionally land on his island. It's the portrayal of these natives, as well as Crusoe's and the author's attitudes towards them, that most relates to our study of colonial and post-colonial literature.
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Crusoe's travels begin when he goes to sea at a young age; quickly, he is captured and put into slavery in Portugal. With a young African boy (Xury) he escapes, and travels in a boat along the coast of Africa (what Crusoe refers to as 'the truly Barbarian coast...where whole nations of negroes were to surround us with their canoes, and destroy us'). The two voyage just off the coast, avoiding people and, in the case of a sleeping lion, shooting animals out of curiosity. When they are eventually rescued by a larger ship, Crusoe wrestles with the captain's proposition to purchase Xury's freedom from him. The deal is sealed when the captain promises to allow for Xury's freedom after ten years - provided the slave converts to Christianity.

In Brasil, after seeing those who are already beginning to become successful in the business, Robinson decides to start his own tobacco plantation. The most important piece of this economic puzzle is obvious in how he goes about starting his project: '...for the first thing I did, I bought me a negro slave...'. Crusoe then leaves on a ship with a group of other 'entrepreneurs' to sail to Africa, where they hope to trade for slaves for their plantations. In what might be an unintended lesson, this decision is what puts Crusoe on his lonely island, marrooned, for decades, as the crew encounters a huge storm that wrecks the ship and drowns everyone aboard but himself.

Musing over his location, he wonders whether he is on an island near 'the savage coast between the Spanish country and Brasils, which are indeed the worst of savages; for they are cannibals, men-eaters, and fail not to murther and devour all the humane bodies that fall into their hands.' The only natives in the story are the members of two seperate warring tribes, who land occasionally on his island in order to have cannibalistic feasts. He wonders over how he 'might destroy some of these monsters.' It's this kind of portrayal - barely dicsernible from European colonial rhetoric and ignorance - that encouraged and justified the murderous 'entrepreneurship' by European colonizers. Crusoe's fictionalized ingenuity in the science of agriculture adds to the plantation theme. For years he is by himself, and he bides his time with dreaming about the possibility of future slaves. Later, he rescues the now infamous 'Friday', the name he gives to the native he saves from being eaten by his enemies (the only natives mentioned in the story are all cannibals - a word whose origin comes into being during Columbus' Caribbean exploration). Friday is incredibly grateful and pledges his faithfulness to Crusoe, who, instead of merely allowing that he saved the man's life out of good will, is thrilled with the prospect of having a devoted slave.

From his tattered copy of the Bible, Crusoe begins to teach Christianity to Friday, who at first does not understand and asks many questions. After referring to Friday's people as 'blinded, ignorant pagans', Robinson remarks that by teaching his slave the gospel, he (Crusoe) has become a 'much better scholar in the scripture knowledge.' The important idea here is not just that he is teaching the native Christianity, but rather that he (Crusoe) is becomming a better Christian while enslaving another man. Though all early accounts refer to generous and friendly natives (especilly the Taino, Morning Girl's people), their portrayal became skewed - also seen in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Though the Bible forbids the enslavement of another human being, the colonizers were able to twist this around and create a justification for their horrific treatment of millions of natives (see Zinn, chapter 1) and Africans. This justification is both mirrored and propagated by the book. No doubt thousands of young Europeans grew up to the tale of Robinson Crusoe, enthralled and dreaming over the imaginery plantations they would make in the New World, where they would become wealthy and prosperous and better Christians through the colonial (see the Colonizers page) process.

 

 

  Notes

In Lang's book Conquest and Commerce, the author talks about the shifting powers in the Americas in the 17th century: 'Spain's ability to control America's resources faltered during the seventeenth century' (p.103). We can see Robinson Crusoe not only as a text to embody European colonial rhetoric, but also a text of nationalist rhetoric, symbolic of eventually beating Spain out of the New World.

Compare this idea with Carey-Webb's portrayal of Shakespeare's The Tempest as a symbol of English colonialist power.

In The Tempest, Caliban is not taught writing, only language. Friday is not taught writing, either, though the circumstances are a little different. There is still an obvious coincidence here.

In the Norton Critical Edition, there is a quote from Hugh Blair on the novel. He says, 'No fiction, in any language, was ever better supported than the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.' On the other end of the critical spectrum, Charles Dickens said of the book, '...Robinson Crusoe should be the only instance of a universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.' Karl Marx said of the book, 'Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.' Thomas Babington Macaulay, of Defoe, said 'Altogether I do not like him.'

  Links

**Bibliomania has a full searchable text of Robinson Crusoe.

**Humanity: A Look at Robinson Crusoe is a site with some criticism by

 

  Teaching

Studying Robinson Crusoe from a colonial and post colonial perspective is decidedly different than merely exploring the novel as a piece of literature. Instead of focusing on spelling, sentence structure, imagery and themes, students should be encouraged to focus on meaning and portrayal, as well as values reflected and even escalated by the book's content. It's important to read Robinson Crusoe in light of the relative hostorical happenings of the time. This would include readings from Howard Zinn's A People's History of America (ch.1), as well as Lang's Conquest and Commerce. A general familiarity with the colonization of the Americas is to be desired.

Important ideas to focus on are the words used to describe the natives (like 'savages', and 'monsters'), as well as the European attitude exemplified by Crusoe. It's important to keep in mind that for many in Europe, especially England, Robinson Crusoe was a hero. His story was one of triumph and resourcefulness, as well as a personal spiritual awakening. The way Crusoe's religion relates to issues like slavery (in the cases of Friday and Xury) and fellow human beings is a good place to begin disecting the novel.

Often literary discourse is made up of criticizing fictitious characters' moral decisions. When students look into this book, they should have their eyes open to a broader picture, one of societal views and agendas represented. A casual familiarity with the writings of Marx and Althusser can be extremely helpful.

Some beginning study questions for Robinson Crusoe:

1. Talk about Crusoe's selling of Xury to the captain of the ship that rescues them. Xury will supposedly get his freedom in ten years, as long as he converts to christianity. How do you think this relationship between Crusoe and Xury reflects the time in which the novel takes place?

2. It's easy to criticize Crusoe for his occasional brutality, like when he kills a sleeping lion on the beach for no reason, and when he sells Xury's freedom with apparently no real remorse. How are these types of actions viewed today, and what types of things in today's society strike you as happenings that will -perhaps in centuries to come -be viewed as brutal?

3. Compare Columbus' early descriptions of the Arawaks with Crusoe's depiction of the natives who inhabit the coast between the Spanish territories and Brazil, as well as those living along the coast of Northwest Africa.

 

  Citations

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,1998.

Defoe, Daniel and Michael Shinagel. Robinson Crusoe: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources of Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1975.

Lang, James. Conquest and Commerce: Spain and England in the Americas. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

 

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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