Born in London sometime in 1660 to James Foe, a chandler, and his wife, Daniel Defoe was originally educated for the Presbyterian ministry at the celebrated academy for Dissenters in Newington. The young Daniel’s interests lay elsewhere, however, and around 1682 he established himself as a hosiery merchant. During the next ten years, Daniel Foe prospered: he married well and added the aristocratic “De” to his name; his business expanded to include the wine trade and the importation of tobacco; he traveled extensively in Europe. Seduced by his success, Defoe launched a series of unwise business speculations that failed. In addition, he was taken to court for various underhanded dealings, including allegedly swindling his mother-in-law. By 1692 he was in debt to the tune of 17,000 pounds. Deprived of his business, and in need of a way to pay off his creditors and feed his family, Defoe turned to writing as a profession.
Robinson Crusoe is a story of adventure and ingenuity, and also a travel narrative in which the hero journeys to Africa, Brazil, China, and Siberia, and then is shipwrecked on a deserted island. But to view the novel as simply a fascinating travelogue is to ignore much of what makes it valuable and interesting to modern readers.
The story begins in mid-17th-century York, with a brief account of Robinson Crusoe’s early years. From there it moves to the Moorish port of Sallee, where Crusoe is imprisoned after his capture by pirates, and then to Brazil, where he sets up as a planter after his escape. From his Brazilian plantation, Crusoe sets out on an African voyage that ends in shipwreck; the sole survivor, Crusoe lives his next 28 years on a deserted island.
Robinson Crusoe, narrated in the first person, is dominated by the title character. The other major character, Friday, appears after two-thirds of the narrative has been told.
Robinson Crusoe is an artistic achievement that is recognized as a major contribution to the development of English prose fiction. Especially interesting are the narrative devices that Defoe employs to lend verisimilitude-the appearance of reality-to his story.
Robinson Crusoe contains references to two issues-racism and religion-that should be addressed by parents and teachers of precocious young readers. Certainly Crusoe’s attitudes toward Xury, his companion in slavery and his fellow fugitive, and toward Friday, his faithful servant, are typical of the 17th-century English condescension toward people of darker-skinned races. Crusoe clearly believes the white man to be superior to other races. Furthermore, Crusoe’s business ventures have included slave trading. But Crusoe is very much a man of his time. His brand of bigotry is, for that earlier age, rather mild, tempered as it is by a sincere desire to do the right thing always. Thus it is that although Crusoe sells Xury to a Portuguese captain, he does so only because the captain has promised to give Xury his freedom after ten years.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In what ways does Robinson Crusoe attempt to “civilize” his environment? How successful is he in these attempts? How does his environment strip him of the veneer of civilization he has acquired through his upbringing?
Delighted with the incredible success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe followed it four months later with Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and shortly thereafter with Serious Reflections during the life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World (1720). Neither of the sequels attained the popularity of the first volume. Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is an account of Crusoe’s later voyages, including a return to the island to see what has happened to it in his absence. As in the first book, Crusoe attributes his successful ventures to the workings of Providence. Serious Reflections, unlike the first two books, is a moralizing treatise, a manual of piety that owes more to the conduct book than to the travel narrative. This third book was even less popular than the second, because it contained none of the exciting adventures that Defoe’s readers expected.