Notes for Robinson Crusoe

Robert Harris
Version Date: June 30, 2000


When asked why we read novels, some wise person reportedly said, "We read to find ourselves there." And it has been said of Robinson Crusoe that every reader can in some way identify with Crusoe and his situation. Crusoe, in a highly detailed and unflinchingly honest narrative, reveals to us his struggles with willfulness, prejudice, alienation, God's providence, theology. He recounts his inner contests between passion and reason, duty and independence, even hope and despair. And all of these accounts come from a clearly "life size" person--not a superhero, but someone who seems to be not unlike us.

Read at a simple level, the novel includes a number of mechanisms to propel the plot of this adventure story: the many foreshadowings, the dangers and uncertainties, surprising events, and our simple curiosity to see how this castaway makes out. But Defoe combines these elements with a much richer texture. Perhaps because Robinson Crusoe is an everyman character, he does not become a wooden or stereotyped castaway. The novel combines an almost obsessive concern with details and quantification (like one of Swift's satiric narrators--the Modest Proposer, Gulliver) with an ongoing concern for finding a larger meaning in the events and quantities of life. We humans are meaning seekers, who constantly seek to find (or discover) meaning and to create meaning from our experiences. Crusoe in this is quintessentially human. He interprets particular events as God's responses to his actions (the responses being seen as punishments at first), or as evidences of God's care and wisdom.

As a spiritual autobiography, the narrative reveals Crusoe's bumpy, halting, backtracking journey toward genuine Christian faith and a mature understanding of God, himself, and others. More than twenty years of Bible reading, self struggle (especially with his own temperament), and thought are required to mature him. Indeed, the arrival of Friday and the new role of Crusoe as spiritual teacher is a major influence in his own development.

Written in 1719 and being set during the years 1632-1694, the novel shared a worldview that saw reason and faith as allies rather than as strangers or even enemies. (In Samuel Johnson's "Vision of Theodore" (1748), Reason tells the hermit Theodore, "I am Reason, of all subordinate beings the noblest and the greatest; who, if thou wilt receive my laws, will reward thee like the rest of my votaries, by conducting thee to Religion.") Therefore, one of the powerful motivators to faith and growth in faith is Crusoe's thoughtful and reasoning nature. He uses his mind not just for spiritual self analysis but to analyze, interpret, and understand what we might call "the big picture" or "the meaning of it all." "What is this earth and sea?" he asks himself. He thinks through the strengths and weaknesses of his situation, his values, and his own personality.

Why do so many people enjoy learning about Robinson Crusoe as a person? He is resourceful. But many other characters are resourceful. He reveals his weaknesses. But so do many others. Perhaps one reason is that he has a "half full" rather than a "half empty" attitude toward his life (at least after he has an opportunity to think things through). "All evils are to be considered with the good that is in them and with what worse attends them," he says. And later, "I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted." In the end, though, perhaps it is the sum of his characteristics that make him interesting and likable: rugged individualist, worried castaway, rational and logical thinker, easily blinded by emotion, realistic and practical, hoarder of cash on an island of one. He learns and then forgets, he decides and then changes his mind. So, it may be that as we read we do find ourselves there. And if Defoe's stated purpose is worked out, as Crusoe finds faith, compassion, and hope in the middle of challenging circumstances, so do we.


The Preface. As is common in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, the preface serves as a frame to lend credibility to the story. Many readers would not willingly read fiction, since fiction is by definition not true. "Why would I want to read a book full of lies?" they would ask. So novelists pretended to be delivering a true account. (And if you have researched the story, you will know that Defoe based the book on a true story, that of a sailor named Alexander Selkirk.) Says the preface, "The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact. . . ." The pose of fact has the further benefit of a claim to possibility: here is an account of a life that was actually lived and therefore possible to be lived and imitated. Biography and autobiography were (and perhaps still are) strongly engaging because they can be studied as models of possibility.

First Paragraph. Take a few moments to look closely at the first paragraph. It reveals several important facts:

Second Paragraph. This paragraph connects the story to an actual historical event, which would have been known to the reader.

What do these paragraphs mean? They tell us that we are reading

If you study the construction of a typical newspaper story (or even one of the common Internet hoaxes going around in email), you will notice that they share these three features with this novel. These features, and especially the details, constitute a set of credibility cues that we use when deciding whether or not a story is really true. Defoe is quite good at creating a sense of verisimilitude, authenticity, realism, or however you wish to describe it. Even though, upon analysis, some of his explanations may be preposterous or even impossible, we grant a "willing suspension of disbelief" not just because we want to enjoy the story but because of the credible details he uses.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com