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Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) 242 p.

A few years ago I read Homer’s Odyssey and said that, because of its age, it was impossible to “objectively judge” it and that it “hails from an incomprehensible culture” while “our tastes our tailored to our own.” It sits on my review page as the only book without a numerical score. Now it will be joined by Robinson Crusoe, a story three centuries old and one of the first examples of what we would today consider a “novel.”

Robinson Crusoe is famous, of course, as the archetypical desert island story. Robinson Crusoe, English mariner, is shipwrecked upon a deserted Caribbean isle and spends twenty-eight years there cheerfully building a home, farming corn, milking goats and reading the Bible. It’s obviously very much a product of its time – everyone knows, for example, that Robinson Crusoe gets stranded on a desert island, but few people know that the reason he was at sea in the first place was to get slaves from Africa for his plantation in Brazil. The rest of the book plays out along similarly dated themes. He can’t go more than a few pages without praising the glory of God, who was kind and benevolent enough to strand him on a bountiful island, and force him to see the errors of his hedonistic past. It really kicks into a hilariously imperialist gear once Crusoe rescues Friday, a native, from a group of other natives. (Crusoe simply names him after the day of the week on which he rescued him, of course, rather than bothering to ask his actual name.) Friday immediately becomes a writhing supplicant, literally kneeling at the white man’s feet and praising him for saving his life, and then becoming a happy slave and tossing aside his own religious beliefs to embrace the Anglican church. After later rescuing another “savage” and a shipwrecked Spaniard, Crusoe quite genuinely considers himself a “king” with “undoubted right of dominion.” He reflects that Friday is a Protestant, the other native a pagan, and the Spaniard a Catholic, and considers them fortunate that “I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.”

None of this reflects on the quality of the novel, of course; one mustn’t judge a writer who was a product of his times. The pungent imperialist, racist and classist themes are amusing more than anything else. The issue I had with Robinson Crusoe was that, being one of the first novels, it’s very far from anything we would consider a novel today. It’s more like a litany of farming chores, geographical surveys and Christian mantras, bookended by irrelevant adventures in Africa and the Pyrenees. There’s no modern sense of pacing or relevancy; the book even ends on a vague note about returning to the island which is now peopled by the survivors of a Spanish shipwreck. (Who, incidentally, Crusoe damn well knew about and chose to utterly abandon when he was himself rescued; I guess sailing six hours to the other island to pick them up was too much of a hassle?)

Robinson Crusoe thus reminded me very strongly of The Odyssey: a classic work of literature which, through no fault of its own, is tedious and forgettable, and a story which I can honestly say I would have gained no less from had I simply read the CliffsNotes or Wikipedia synopsis.

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October 2012