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"Robinson Crusoe"

If you were on an island and you got to be king of that world, how would you govern it? Is there a noble form of colonization? This novel forces readers to struggle with this question.
British author Daniel Defoe was born around 1660. Defoe came of age in what is called the Age of Enlightenment where many classical ideas, thoughts and institutions were being questioned. It was an age of tremendous international colonialism and the explosion of new wealth. It was also the age of the slave trade. It was an age of, one might say, a new kind of man who for the first time in history had the option of defining himself. 

There was also much unrest. Tension between the monarchy, the king, and parliament rivaled the tension between the king and the people. Much of Defoe's writing is in favor of people against the king. Anonymous pamphlets had been traced back to him and he was arrested by Queen Anne for seditious libel and put in the pillories. Those who were put in the pillories were normally covered with rotten foods and trash thrown by the people, but Defoe was instead covered with roses.

He had joined the Monmouth Rebellion against the unpopular King James the Second and was thrown in prison afterwards. He was recognized as one of the voices of the people at that time. Only later in his life did he speak out for government interest.

He was a highly prolific writer. Some say he is credited with somewhere around 550 different publications of pamphlets and books. He was coming out with something new every month. But he is most famous for his iconic tale of adventure, Robinson Crusoe.
Novel Form
Novel Form
Robinson Crusoe and his famous travelogue is the first of its kind. It was the New York Times #1 Bestseller of his time. He was experimenting with the novel form and different ways stories could be told. In fact, when it was first published, it appeared as if the author was Robinson Crusoe. People thought it was an autobiography. Within less than a year,  they had four editions of Robinson Crusoe.

Everybody understands the novel Robinson Crusoe to be a story about adventure. Crusoe sets sail against the wishes of his parents and has a rather dubious seafaring career. By the time Robinson gets shipwrecked and cast upon an isolated island he has in fact already gone through three different shipwrecks. It’s a story of tremendous individual overcoming. 

Crusoe is cast ashore on an island where he has to figure out how to survive. He builds a mini-civilization, raises goats, and builds shelters. He becomes a hunter and fisherman. Eventually, he makes friends from a cannibalistic tribe. Defoe has certain moral beliefs about the superiority of the British culture and the superiority of Christianity which he lets play out in Crusoe's depiction of the cannibalism he encounters.

But what Defoe doesn’t explore as much are all the other types of indigenous values and practices that Crusoe obliterates. Defoe addresses the issues of slavery in the character of Robinson Crusoe in the same way that most English people were at the time, which is to say not very well. Most people at the time thought colonialism was fine, and that there was nothing wrong with slavery.

He finally gets a servant and it’s an advancement of his life on the island. In some sense it’s a slave cause he is not paying him. But he has rescued him from being killed by other natives. On the one hand, Crusoe has really good intentions. He chooses to save Friday’s life, he teaches him how to read as well. But it is clear that Friday is subservient to him.

Moral Duty
Moral Duty
Some interpret the moral of this novel to be that colonialists had a moral duty to improve other people, and also that they knew what was best. Defoe was trying to present a case for cultural imperialism. The story of Crusoe and Friday is the story of English Colonization. He glosses over or ignores all the ugly parts of colonization and he focuses on the redeeming aspects of colonization. And his novel is really presenting the supremacy of a society that has writing, in contrast to the natives of Australia, South Africa, or the Americas. This book was around the time when Captain Cook discovered Hawaii

What makes Crusoe a civilized man is his ability to read and write and record what was happening. He still kept track of the days of the week. He gives his servant the name Friday because that is the day that he saved him. The other cultures he encounters don’t have writing, so how could they teach anything to Crusoe? This kind of arrogance that you need writing in order to have wisdom is very strongly represented in Robinson Crusoe. 

When you read Robinson Crusoe you are really getting a glimpse into the thinking and mindset of that time period. It’s not just the story of Robinson Crusoe and his adventure, it’s what many people thought at that time. It gives us a better understanding of history because it is such a well written work of realistic fiction.
Defining Oneself
Defining Oneself
One of the questions of Defoe’s age was how does a man define himself? How does a person make his way in an age where there are so many new vistas? Most of the people in England and the United Kingdom at that time were still relatively poor. This book and books like it encouraged people to go to a foreign land for adventure and money and self-discovery.

More than anything else, Robinson Crusoe is a story about the development of an individual. Robinson Crusoe remains powerful today because it is an intense psychological drama that developed the theme of the cast away. Gilligan’s Island is popular because we are fascinated with this idea that you can put somebody into a completely foreign environment and they would make it work. The Tom Hanks movie Cast Away takes an average guy, puts him on an island in the middle of nowhere, and shows how the human will perseveres. 

Defoe is good about putting you there in the shipwreck with Crusoe. The reader really does feel like he is on the island, discovering new things. One feels the joy and relief of Crusoe eating after a long period without food. The portrayal of survival is how this book has remained so popular today.

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