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ClassicsOnline Home » DEFOE, D.: Robinson Crusoe (Abridged)
Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel, was an immediate success when first published in 1719, and has been an internationally popular classic ever since. The compelling tale of a man who put to sea in search of adventure and found himself shipwrecked on a desert island and alone for decades has become a resonant modern myth. Crusoe walking the limits of his small domain, a typical Englishman carrying his umbrella in the blazing tropics, is a figure familiar throughout the Western world.
Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, has some claim to be the
first English novel. It was an immediate popular success, and has ever since
been an enduring myth, translated into many languages, transformed into various
media, continued in various sequels (the first of which was written
within months of publication of the original, by Defoe),
imitated and parodied. Crusoe in his home-made clothes, walking the limits of
his small domain with his dog; the typical Englishman carrying his umbrella in
the blazing tropics, hearing no voice for decades apart from his parrot, is a
figure familiar throughout the Western world.
Defoe’s first sustained work of fiction recounts Crusoe’s
experience of being shipwrecked on a desert island in simple and compelling
style. Crusoe’s fate is precipitated by what he describes as his “original
sin”: rebelling against his father’s authority and pursuing his wandering
disposition rather than accepting the mild and unadventurous middle station of
life into which he is born.
Robinson Crusoe is in essence an adventure story, but it
establishes its hold over the imagination through various means, of which
narrative is only one. Crusoe’s experiences are filtered through a practical,
resourceful and curious mind. He tries to make sense of his personal history
and his relation to a Providence that appears generous and vindictive by turns.
Crusoe is the sole survivor of a shipwreck that leaves him
entirely alone for over twenty-five years. Defoe taps into a common acquisitive
instinct in listing the minute but fascinating details of the survival kit that
Crusoe amasses for himself from the wrecked ship: in participating
imaginatively with Crusoe in constructing the minimal conditions of a viable
existence, the reader runs through a catalog of essential aspects of ordinary
life. Crusoe has to reproduce for himself in miniature the world he has left
behind. As he puts it, “my extremity roused my application”: he is forced to
become a builder, a farmer, a miller, baker, tailor, carpenter and hunter as
well as explorer. He domesticates the environment around him in a manner that
is ingenious, painstaking, sometimes unconsciously comic, and overall curiously
The spiritual transformation that he undergoes animates what
otherwise have been a barren loneliness. Crusoe’s
understanding of value
is stripped down to essentials as he establishes a one-man
economy and state. Ultimately, Crusoe does make contact with humankind again
after the famous episode of discovering a footprint in the sand. His horror at
encountering cannibals and his scruples about imposing his value system on
theirs are amusingly set aside to allow the adventure narrative to progress.
Crusoe’s rescue of man Friday from death and the circumstances of his final
rescue are vividly told in plain and powerful prose. As Friday’s self-appointed
guardian, master, pastor and teacher, Crusoe becomes the sovereign of a little
kingdom and himself becomes the instrument of Providence in defeating a band of
mutineers and pirates that come to his island.
Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on the true-life experiences of
Alexander Selkirk who was left alone on the island of Juan Fernandez from 1704
until his rescue in 1709.
Daniel Defoe was already sixty years old when he wrote
Robinson Crusoe. He had been brought up in the dissenting tradition and had
originally intended to enter the Presbyterian ministry but instead embarked on
commercial and literary life. His business enterprises met
with variable success. His literary output was vast, including some 560
political tracts, journals, poems and economic writings. He participated in
Monmouth’s rebellion, joined William III’s army in 1688, traveled as a
merchant, became bankrupt, was fined, imprisoned, and pilloried for publishing
The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (which attacked intolerance by ironically
demanding absolute suppression of dissent), and acted as a secret agent.
Robinson Crusoe was followed in the next five years by a number of other
fictional works, including the celebrated Moll Flanders, also available on
Notes by Daniel Eilon
Nigel Anthony has worked in television (Coronation St.,
Spender, Casualty etc.) and in the theater, with the RSC and with Alan Ayckbourn
at Scarborough. He is,
however, best known for his numerous broadcasts on BBC
Radio. For many years he has been one of the leading actors in that medium and
as a master of vocal disguise has played countless different character roles.
He has twice won awards for best actor.
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DEFOE, D.: Robinson Crusoe (Abridged)