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.
Throughout the narrative, Defoe details an individual’s struggle to survive in basically hostile surroundings. As part of his day-to-day existence, Robinson Crusoe faces starvation, illness, pain, possible insanity, even danger from cannibals, but he salvages what he can from the shipwreck and provides himself with shelter and rudimentary furniture and tools. Through ingenuity, hard work, and common sense, he improvises many of the comforts to which he was accustomed in England. Crusoe never broods about his isolation; rather he occupies his time productively and triumphs over his unpromising environment, thus becoming an example of the triumph of the human spirit.
Extremely popular with the reading public of Defoe’s day, Robinson Crusoe is for the modern reader an excellent introduction to the way of life of the average 17th-century Englishman. A member of the large and prosperous middle class, Robinson Crusoe is a practical and materialistic man who believes in success and in trade, who aspires to better himself socially and financially, and who tries to live a carefully controlled and documented life. Like many of his contemporaries, Crusoe scrupulously keeps a journal in which he records his daily activities and his observations about his situation. Crusoe is also deeply religious. He sees God’s will manifested in the everyday events of his life and frequently records his thoughts on the role of Providence in the affairs of humans. The character of Robinson Crusoe embodies the 17th-century individual’s struggle between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of God.
Robinson Crusoe is important historically as one of the prototypes of the modern novel in English. Defoe’s tale contains many novelistic elements, among them the creation of believable characters and a world that is both recognizable and exotic.