Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”

ImageIt is a rare treat to be able to see the novel in its first form: stripped of pretense, its diction, and every convention we have come to regard with this form, there is nevertheless something very graceful in its nakedness.

Staunch, puritanical Daniel Defoe would doubtless not have agreed with that quip about nakedness. Your average late 17th century British go-about deplored both the raw/naked and the sculpted/effacing. Puritan ideals were somewhere right in the middle of the dichotomy. Clothed, but untastefully, which of course is why so many modern day conceptualists depict Puritans in frumpy gray smocks and unsmiling faces.

What’s so enlightening (I use the word with regard to historical context) and incredible about Robinson Crusoe is the fact that Defoe is able to tackle so much with not only a small cast of characters, but use these characters, within the context of their archetypes, to challenge these very same archetypes.

As for the story? Despite my admiration of Defoe’s work, the text offers much to be desired. A man, Robinson; young, willful, and dangerously heathen, decides to become a mariner and businessman, despite the warnings of his father that naught but adversity will befall him.

Adversity does befall the young Robinson when his ship crashes on the shoals of a small island; the young man must then fend for himself for the twenty-eight years that he spends trapped on the island. Mind you, this is the late 17th century, and Defoe is already proving himself the rebel by experimenting with this little thing called the novel. Crusoe won’t give you “Cast Away” and it certainly won’t give you “LOST” (for which I was very grateful).

Instead, the eponymous protagonist, instead of looking for the mysterious and terrifying ‘others,’ looks for himself: what he finds is the whole of Anglo-Saxon society, which explodes like the Big Bang over the course of a meandering 200 pages. Praising Defoe’s most famous hero, James Joyce once economized all of the protean Robinson Crusoe: “an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman.”

Suffice to say however that Joyce has neglected to mention Crusoe the able diarist, although most of these attributes pale to the last: the clergyman. Here is where Defoe begins to raise eyebrows. Here, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and witch burnings; when wearing a hat in church was blasphemy, Defoe thinks it best to raise the big questions about man and God.

Why doesn’t our Father Who Art in Heaven simply destroy the Devil now, if He be all-powerful? How can one live Christian ideals if one is unwilling to empathize with God’s creatures, be they savages or cannibals (or, God forbid, women)?

I dare not try and tackle any of these issues myself; for that matter, neither does Defoe. A writer who’s not afraid to say that he doesn’t know? Imagine that! And yet, Defoe had to keep his head long enough to write “Moll Flanders.” Even so, while he he doesn’t give his reader ultimate answers, this doesn’t mean that he gives the reader nothing. On the contrary, he has given us Robinson Crusoe, who is probably more than we could ever really need or want.

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