Book Review: Robinson Crusoe

RobinsonCrusoeThumbby Brad Nelson  11/5/13
I started reading Robinson Crusoe right after Moby Dick. I’m normally a slow reader anyway, so thick writing such as Melville’s tends to go quite slowly. So it was refreshing, in contrast, to be able to blow through 110 pages (two-fifths) of Robinson Crusoe in one night. This isn’t kid’s stuff, per se. But it is a heck of a lot easier to read. And it didn’t hurt that this book was a real page-turner, at least so far. Here’s what a Wiki article has to say about the book:

The book was first published on April 25, 1719. Its full title was The Life and strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, where-in all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself

The positive reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions. Within years, it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had spawned more editions, spin-offs, and translations (even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children’s versions with mainly pictures and no text.

I guess it was stuff such as this that was that era’s equivalent of a Spielbergian blockbuster. And this really has been a semi-amusing story of the rambunctious son who just can’t let any grass grow under his feet. If I were a parent (which I’m not), I would now know the dilemma many parents and children face. First off, having witnessed two nephews with the kind of scrutiny Darwin gave finches, you can’t help noticing the built-in differences, many of which are quite profound. Like father, like son? Well, maybe. It depends. The variation in personalities can be stunning.

And Robinson faces this same situation. His father wants him to be satisfied in the safe, productive, secure, middle-class life he has waiting for him. But young Robinson simply must see the world. And some parents would see that as being only the product of rebellion. But we see in Robinson Crusoe a truth so large that I think a lot of people miss it: People are individuals as well as chips off the ol’ block. Some will fall in doing just what their fathers did while others couldn’t stay in one place if their lives depended on it. And despite harrowing experience after harrowing experience, Robinson cannot put aside the desire to explore and have adventures. And, of course, when he runs into trouble he quickly offers penance and regret. But when that particular storm has blown over, he’s back to his old self again, chomping at the bit and willing to continue the journey.

Of further value and interest is that Robinson Crusoe is no MacGyver. He has picked up some skills along the way, particularly navigation skills, but once he’s shipwrecked on his island, he’s pretty much a hack at crafting the necessities of life like you or I might be. And yet he does do very well in setting himself up on the island, despite his lack of carpentry skills. His sheer will to survive and thrive is his most useful skill of all. And he’s a brave son of a gun. He didn’t need a trite “No Fear” t-shirt on his back. He lived it.

Robinson wasn’t being defiant, petulant, or rebellious when he set out on his first voyage against his parent’s wishes. He was just being himself. But surely his story would resonate among many. We’re all shaped by our families and culture. We’re all pegs that someone is trying to put into a slot even before we’ve figured out what pegs and slots are. I can CrusoeMapimagine a hundred thousand coal miner sons in the 1700’s and 1800’s reading this story with satisfaction, both as an escape from their own prison of following their father (living vicariously through Robinson) and as verification that they had indeed made the right choices in their lives, because if they were to venture “out there” like Robinson did, they surely would have perished. It’s just too dangerous out there.

It’s funny because America, and probably much of the world, was built by people who had itchy feet, who couldn’t stay in the same place too long and who especially needed to get away from “civilization” (smarmy quotes intended). It’s somewhat ironic in our own time that it is the stay-at-homers who are shaping the affairs of the West now. No wonder guns and other things are under such assault. City dwellers now more or less decide how society shall be. And ever if there was a need for this book or even a new Robinson Crusoe, it is now. There’s something very healthy and refreshing about Robinson throwing off the expectations and restrictions of the lot in life he was born into. Although he risks death more than once on his adventures, it’s made perfectly clear to us in the beginning of this book that he would have been a virtual dead man had he never set sail at all.

I have a long way to go in this book still. Robinson will indeed be rescued and make it back to civilization. He won’t remain a castaway forever. Maybe the ultimate message Dafoe sends is that, while novelty is exciting, it’s not worth it. But somehow I doubt this will be the conclusion of the storyteller. But I’ll just let Dafoe get on with it and see where he goes. By the way, so far I can very highly recommend this book. It’s a perfect accompaniment to both Moby Dick and the John Carter series (and even the Tarzan series, although I’ve read only the first in that series).

Continuing “Robinson Crusoe”…

If he didn’t start out as a McGyver, he’s very much turning into one. Robinson has become a farmer of wheat and rice and has even made his own bread which necessitated making a makeshift oven. He’s become a potter. I don’t know why, but Robinson didn’t care all that much for broiled meat and wanted it boiled. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good stew as much as the next guy, but if having to choose between boiled meat and barbecued meat, I’ll choose barbecued. But Robinson eventually, through months of trial and error, is able to fire a piece of molded clay in the fire and turn it into a cooking pot. Ah…just a little piece of home. I guess we all have those bits and pieces that make life grand and, when missing, are symbolic of civilization itself.

I’d never read this book before, and if there was a movie, I’m not sure I’d seen that either. But you’d pretty much have to grow up on a desert island not to have gotten the general gist of Robinson Crusoe. And there have been dozens of spin-offs such as Swiss Family Robinson. So I wasn’t clueless as to the general gist of this story, but I figured that, not all that unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it was going to be a real struggle for Robinson just to get by. But, no, he lands on an island with plenty of fresh water, plenty of game (goats, fowl, pigeons, turtles, even dolphins), grapes, limes, lemons, and all kinds of other tropical fruits. The biggest enemy he seems to face at the moment (through just over half of the book) is the sun which is beating down so hot and restricts what he can do. He typically takes a siesta from about noon to 2 pm.

Right now the book has for the moment generally dispensed with any deeper reflection on life or any deeper themes at all. Although he makes reference to being drawn to the bible and God, he’s not full of angst and introspection about being a castaway, alone, head full of thoughts, etc. Right now the book is almost completely about Robinson fashioning, refining, and exploring his island home. He’s got time to kill and so what if he spends a couple months making a giant canoe that he can’t even move to the water? It’s keeping him busy. The main transformation to his character, at least according to him, is he’s moving from his sinful self to this more penitent one. He’s thankful for god providing all that he has. He sees a higher plan in his situation.

And I’ll see where it goes from here. Still a page-turner, although had Dafoe inserted a little more introspection in it rather than just making it entirely plot-driven at this point, I think it would have been the better. But it ain’t over yet. I’ll see how this all works together, beginning, middle, and end.

The big question remaining about Robinson Crusoe is, “What does goat meat taste like?” He sure eats a lot of it. And raisins. Reading this book reminded me of childhood when it seemed I always had a box of Sun-Maid raisins in my hand. Now they pacify children by putting video games in front of them. But I prefer the raisins.

I won’t say Robinson Crusoe is refreshingly easy, fun, and quick to read simply because (compared to Moby Dick) it was without verbose explorations into deep human meaning. But, let’s face it, this was a pure adventure story that didn’t overtly try to say all that much about the human condition or the world at large. At most, the message I got out of it is that, when excrement happens, it’s Providence working. And when excrement happens, Providence will somehow provide. Other than that, I really can’t think of any deeper meaning to this book. And that’s not a criticism. Not everything has to be so deeply infused with transcendent themes. It can just be about fun. And this book was. I can even see it being a movie. Maybe.

I wasn’t a big fan of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, for example. I thought it was too trite; every big moment was something I’d seen before. It was a hodge-podge of sewn together Hollywood clichés. It was lacking a certain something. But I could see how Robinson Crusoe could make for a very fine movie. In fact, it already has been in so many of its derivatives, including Cast Away (if not also Gilligan’s Island). But I just don’t ever remember a good movie being made purely following the book. Part of the problem is surely because it would be a one-man play for most of the movie. And then because no Hollywood producer in his right mind is going to think people will want to pay money to sit and watch a guy hunt goats, they’d probably not stick to the original story. If they made this movie at all, they’d fill it full of gadgety and silly Spielbergian-like slightly corny moments like you have with Tom Hanks in Cast Away. But I think a movie could be made of Robinson Crusoe while acknowledging that it would need to be spiced up here and there a bit. The plot itself is a bit lacking in conflict and cinematic interest. But for some reason, in book form, it’s quite interesting to read the details of how Crusoe live on the island. He kept working on his forts, his home, his country estate, his gardens, his goat herd, his raisins, etc. Why this should be interesting, I’m not ever sure after having just read it. But it was.

I think most readers could easily blow through this book in an afternoon. It’s an easy read. I won’t dredge this too deeply for theme points because I think it would be too easy to make them up out of thin air. But I think you do garner at least two things from this book. One is that it’s damn nice to have modern conveniences and we probably take them for granted too much. Two, man is a social animal and needs to be surrounded with his own kind. And this point could probably have a Subsection A: Wherever man is, he is thrust into this universe as if upon an island and has to struggle to make his way using his own resourcefulness and just sheer dumb luck – or maybe Providence if you believe in that. • (3699 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Robinson Crusoe

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I haven’t read this, or anything else by Defoe, but there are a few observations I can make. For one thing, in high school Defoe was considered the first novelist in the English language. The book is loosely based on the stranding of a man named Alexander Selkirk on what is now known as Selkirk’s Island off Chile, and I’ve read that he was unhappy because he expected Defoe to write a straight history, not a fictionalization.

    Incidentally, Defoe also wrote a book about the Thief-taker Jonathan Wild, who was actually a thief who kept a list of those he hired to do his dirty deeds, with a cross each time they betrayed him. If they double-crossed him (the term is attributed to Wild), he would then turn them in (he had to do something occasionally as Thief-taker). He ended up on the gallows. I have no idea how accurate Defoe’s account is, of course. But you might remember the discussion on Wild in The Valley of Fear.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Very interesting. And that was the first novel I’ve read by Defoe. Perhaps I’ll move on to “Captain Singleton” which Wiki describes as:

      Defoe’s next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), a bipartite adventure story whose first half covers a traversal of Africa and whose second half taps into the contemporary fascination with piracy. It has been commended for its sensitive depiction of the close relationship between the eponymous hero and his religious mentor, the Quaker William Walters.

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