Summary of Robinson Crusoe

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Robinson Crusoe book summary

Literary Classic

  • Adventure story
  • Enlightenment

What It’s About

Desert Island Risks

Hearing the name “Robinson Crusoe” you probably think of a bearded man dressed in animal skins, roaming a lonesome island with his only companion Friday, a noble native who speaks like an innocent child. The myth of Robinson is a powerful one: Holiday clubs and whole islands are named after him, and there's probably not a single remote getaway location in the world that doesn't feature at least one Robinson bar, restaurant or tourist site. Ironically, the novel isn't about sweet idleness and restful recreation, at all, but about hard work and spiritual awakening. In his journalistic and deliberately edifying novel Daniel Dafoe tells the story of an industrious Englishman who beats all odds and builds a livelihood for himself from next to nothing – eventually recreating the civilization he left behind – possibly a rather too sobering thought for the cocktail sipping holiday-maker reclining beneath a coconut palm.

Take-Aways

  • Robinson Crusoe was a major milestone on the way to the modern novel.
  • On his voyage from Brazil to procure slaves in Africa the Englishman Robinson Crusoe shipwrecks and is left stranded on a remote island. He makes do with the little he has, slowly building himself a home, domesticating animals, growing crops and finding God. When a tribe of cannibals comes to his island for their ghastly feast, he saves one of their captives, calls him Friday and makes him his servant. Having helped to end a mutiny on an English ship he returns to his home country after 28 years on the island.
  • Daniel Defoe published the novel anonymously in 1719, claiming it was a true story narrated by Robinson himself.
  • He actually based it on several real-life survival narratives, a very popular genre at the time. 
  • The experienced journalist abandoned fantastic elements and created an entirely new, realistic narrative style.
  • Robinson Crusoe is a perfect expression of enlightened and puritan ideas: Dare to know – and work hard to please God.
  • The castaway recreates his civilization on the island without the aid of native knowledge or culture in a perfect encapsulation of the British colonial and imperial attitude.
  • The novel soon became a great success, and it was instantly translated, pirated and parodied all over the world, resulting in 700 alternative versions by 1900.
  • It created a whole new literary genre: The Robinsonade.
  • “It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand.”
 

Summary

Fatherly Advice

Robinson Crusoe is born in 1632 in York, England. His father is a merchant with roots in the Hanseatic City of Bremen. He wants his son to take up law, so Robinson can live the comfortable life of the English middle classes – a life the father is convinced offers the most agreeable and gentle existence of all.

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.

Robinson, however, has different plans. He wants to go to sea, a plan his father is dead set against: Only wealthy adventurers or poor devils with no other choice would go to sea, he says, and Robinson is neither of the two. He should be content with God's gifts to him, prophesying to his son that a great misfortune would befall him if he insisted on his plans.

At Sea and in Captivity

When a friend sails to London, nothing can stop Robinson: Without telling his parents he boards the ship – only to regret his decision soon thereafter. A terrible storm fills him with horror, something the crew fails to understand, since in their eyes it's nothing but “a capful of wind.” His fears abate, but then a much more violent storm sinks their ship, just a quarter of an hour after everybody on board has gotten into a smaller lifeboat. With a lot of luck, they all reach the shore. From Yarmouth, Robinson travels to London by land. Going home is out of the question for him; the shame would be unbearable. In London, he gets to know a captain who takes him on a trade voyage to Guinea. The two of them get along extremely well, and the captain is such a good instructor that Robinson becomes a decent sailor and a good merchant by the end of the voyage. Unfortunately, his new friend dies. Yet Robinson continues his new profession as a Guinea trader. On a trip past the Canary Islands, Turkish pirates attack and board their ship. Robinson spends two years as a captive of a Moorish buccaneer, who forces him to do all types of gardening and household chores. When the master sends him fishing with two Moors, he manages to escape on the boat, throwing one of the boys overboard in the process. Another, Xury, pledges loyalty to Robinson and becomes his companion.

Settling Down in Brazil

Together they sail 1,500 miles at sea, ending up at an archipelago that Robinson determines to be the Cap de Verde Islands. He spots a Portuguese ship on the horizon, and successfully calls attention to himself: The Portuguese captain takes him and his companion on board, treating Robinson with utmost respect and friendliness. He buys the boat, his belongings and the Moorish boy Xuri from Robinson, promising that he will free the boy after ten years, if Xuri converts to Christianity. They travel on to Brazil, where the captain recommends Robinson to his friend, a sugarcane farmer, who teaches his guest to plant and make sugar. When Robinson realizes how rich you can become as a planter, he decides, without further ado, to become one, too.

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money: ‘O drug!’ said I, aloud, ‘what art thou good for?

He establishes himself as a small-scale cane sugar planter, getting along great with his neighbor, a Portuguese plantation owner, and soon starts to grow tobacco, as well. After some time, he gets tired of the mindless toil and has half of his small fortune from the first trade voyage to Guinea sent from London as goods, which he sells at a great profit. Finally, he can buy himself a slave and a servant.

Shipwreck

After almost four years, a farmer proposes a plan for smuggling slaves from Guinea and dividing them between them. Robinson, an experienced Guinea traveler, is supposed to lead the expedition. He has the chance to obtains slaves without having to help pay for the expedition, so he agrees. But in retrospect he considers his rash action as the greatest idiocy of his life. On September 1, 1659, eight years after leaving his home country behind, Robinson Crusoe sets sail. At first the voyage goes smoothly, but then two massive storms compromise the ship, which finally runs aground on a sandbank. The crew tries to row ashore to safety in a small boat, but a giant wave soon swallows them up, separating the men from the boat and from one another. Only Robinson, carried ashore by the waves, manages to reach dry land.

Stranded on the Island

After the initial joy of being alive he feels disillusioned. He sees that he is the sole survivor, that the ship is stranded far away from the coast, and that he has nothing with him but a pipe and some tobacco. Troublesome thoughts torment him: Are there wild beasts around? Or cannibals? He finds a source of fresh water and spends the night in a tree, out of reach from predators.

JUNE 21. – Very ill; frighted almost to death with the apprehensions of my sad condition - to be sick, and no help. Prayed to God, for the first time since the storm off Hull, but scarce knew what I said, or why, my thoughts being all confused.” (Robinson's journal)

The next morning Robinson wakes up to the happy realization that the tide has lifted the ship off the sandbank and driven it closer to the beach. He swims to the wreck, builds a raft from a few planks and rods, packs provisions and everything that is of use to him on it and moves it to the beach. In the following days, Robinson repeats this several times, until the whole ship has been picked clean. He makes a tent out of sailcloth and beams, which he later positions close to a cave where he can store his provisions. Around the tent, he builds a type of palisade and later a proper wall to protect himself from attackers – whether animals or savages.

A Miniature Civilization

A heavy storm descends upon the island with lightning and thunder; Robinson is safe and sound in his comfortable dwelling, but he realizes with a pang that his entire stock of powder could explode from just one spark of lightening. To be safe, he distributes the content of the powder keg into 100 little packages of canvas, which he hides in different caves. To his great joy Robinson finds wild goats, which, having overcome some initial difficulties, he manages to hunt, milk and eat. Of course, he suffers from loneliness and the hopelessness of his situation. Still, he's proud of his achievements so far. Most significantly of all: He is alive, and therefore luckier than the rest of the crew. Robinson builds himself a calendar: He sets up a stake on the spot where he washed ashore, and marks the days, weeks, months and years with different-sized notches. He was also able to save pens, ink and paper, three Bibles, one dog and two cats from the ship.   

Robinson Makes Himself Comfortable

Robinson uses the pens and paper from the shipwreck to start a journal. Being the good merchant he is, he painstakingly juxtaposes the pros and cons of his situation, thereby lifting his spirits, because despite all odds, he manages to find enough resources and opportunities to make do and move on. Robinson digs himself a cellar, which also serves as an emergency exit from his shack. This is where he keeps his belongings. Little by little he also builds a table and a chair, increasingly secures his camp and protects it from inundation during the rainy season. He hangs the skins of the animals he has hunted and turns the tallow of the goats into candles for the night. When he dumps the sacks of spoiled feed grain he has salvaged from the ship onto the ground, some kernels fall onto the loose soil. Then, after a month of heavy rain, Robinson discovers tender shoots of barley on that very spot. He is so excited that he is tempted to believe in divine providence. In the following five years, he manages to expand a few plants into a veritable patch of barley and rice.

Conversion

After eating turtle meat Robinson gets violently sick, with a high fever, chills and nightmares. He wonders why God doesn't save him and concludes that he hasn't lived enough of a godly life, and that the shipwreck might have been a kind of divine punishment. Suddenly, the verses from the New Testament don't sound as hollow and empty as in the past. He feels reborn and resolves to read the Bible every morning and night, and it becomes a treasured ritual for him. He is slowly getting better, but it takes a few weeks until he is fully recovered. Then he explores the rest of the island, where he finds sugar cane and even a few tobacco plants. But more important are the grapes, which he dries in the sun turning them into raisins. He feels like a king in his own little castle and paradise. He even builds a second little house in the back country of the island as an occasional refuge. He starts baking bread with the harvest of his cereals, and keeps domesticated goats as well as a tamed parrot.

Cannibals

On a particularly clear day, Robinson spots another island in the distance. Or could it even be the mainland? He builds a boat from a tree trunk, yet he notices too late that it's so heavy he can’t move it into the water. He mends his clothes with animal skins, and even produces an umbrella against the regular downpours. Finally, he builds a new boat that is small enough for him to move it into the water. With it he tries to sail around the island – when suddenly the currents carry him further and further away, and he manages to paddle back to the island in a last-ditch effort. For the time being, he gives up on such escapades.

On a journey to the other shore of the island Robinson finds the remains of human bones. Cannibals! Terrified, he doesn't get much sleep in the nights that follow. He camouflages his dwelling and makes plans of defense and attack, searches for suitable hills to attack from and then gives up on all of it, because he doesn't encounter any strangers, after all.

It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand.

One day, after more than 25 years on the island, he witnesses the landing of cannibals. From the top of a hill he sees a group of savages approach the shore in their canoes, then kill and cut up one of their captives. A second captive takes his chance and runs away while the cannibals are preparing to cook the other. Pursued by two of the savages he runs towards Robinson's hiding place on the hill. Robinson takes his rifle, knocks down the first pursuer and shoots the second, seeing that he has a bow and arrow. The escaped captive approaches Robinson and motions to him that he is grateful and that he wants to submit to his command. Yet the first cannibal hasn't been killed, and begins to wake up. The former captive takes Robinson's sword and swiftly cuts his enemy's head off. Robinson baptizes his new companion and servant Friday, because he has saved his life on that day. Robinson finds in Friday an apt student who is quick and eager to learn. He teaches him English, table manners and the Bible, and rejects Friday's suggestion to eat the two dead cannibals with the utmost disgust. Over the next three years they become good friends, while still maintaining a clear hierarchy of master and servant. Robinson particularly enjoys the intense theological conversations, if only because Friday, in his simple and unfeigned honesty, asks questions that Robinson himself would never have thought of.

Back to Europe

Friday wants to return to his tribe and asks Robinson to come with him. But before they arrive, the two of them liberate another pair of prisoners that cannibals have kidnapped and brought to their island. One of them is a Spaniard, and the other is Friday's father. The Spaniard speaks of several Europeans who have landed on the cannibals' island. Robinson plans to save them by getting them onto his island. While the two newcomers set out with a canoe to execute the plan, an English ship turns up off the coast, approaching the island. Several seamen and three prisoners go ashore. Robinson secretly talks to the latter at night, and it turns out they are the captain, first mate and a passenger who have fallen victims to a mutiny. Together with this trio Robinson and Friday succeed in overpowering the mutineers. Some of them declare loyalty to their old captain, others don't want to yield. Robinson, who introduces himself as the governor of the island, offers them the choice: They can either return to England – to be brought to the gallows – or remain on the island. The latter seems preferable to them, and the captain, infinitely grateful, places the ship under Robinson's command.

The former castaway leaves his little island in December 1686, a little more than 28 years after the shipwreck, arriving in England the following summer. It takes considerable time, effort and a trip to Lisbon to recover the fortunes he had left in Brazil, but in the end he is settled as a wealthy man. Together with Friday, Robinson travels via Spain back to England overland, surviving snow and ice as well as severe attacks from wolves and bears. He then marries and has three children. After his wife's death, his restless spirit takes him out to sea again.

About the Text

Structure and Style

In the preface to his book, Daniel Defoe pretends to act solely as the editor of a “just history of fact,” thus giving the novel the nimbus of a true story. Defoe starts in the conventional style of an adventure novel when Robinson, as the first-person narrator, tells about his rebellious youth and journeys to the African coast and Brazil. Only later in the novel does Defoe move to the modern style he is famous for: The plain, unadorned, accessible and painstakingly detailed description of Robinson’s life as a hermit. The author even weaves the castaway’s fictional journal into the narrative to make it seem more authentic. Suddenly, two voices of the same man speak to the reader: the old Robinson, looking back at his adventures, and his younger self relating the same events in his journal. Upon closer inspection, however, you realize that Defoe gets those voices mixed up at times. In the third part about the rescue of Friday and the arrivals of the Europeans, he switches back to the classic adventure story style, with lengthy, somewhat repetitive accounts of never ending challenges and dangers Robinson and his companion manage to overcome.

Interpretation

  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a major milestone in the development of the modern novel, alongside Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Yet, unlike Cervantes, Defoe entirely turns his back on fantastic narration. Although he is telling a fictional story, he claims that Robinson’s adventures truly happened, creating an entirely new, realistic narrative style. 
  • Defoe thereby combined two stylistic elements: the desire to invent stories (novel) and the demand for authentic travelogues within the English middle classes (factual account). Moreover, it’s first time a commoner plays the leading heroic role in a novel.
  • Robinson Crusoe’s faith in the importance of hard work for living a godly life makes him a true representative of puritanism. The idea is found again in the theories of the sociologist Max weber, who claimed that a certain religious (work) ethic was the foundation for the development of modern capitalism. His conclusion: Protestants had more successful careers than Catholics, because the latter lacked work ethic.
  • The novel contains several concepts of the enlightenment: Robinson uses his practical mind and brilliant intellect to overcome seemingly unsurmountable hurdles, never succumbing to superstitious fatalism. Only after having used the ample resources on hand, he thanks God for his providence. Additionally, the student-teacher relationship between Friday and Robinson makes a case for the idea that human beings need education to develop their full potential.
  • Robinson Crusoe is an archetype for the British imperial man. Crusoe recreates his English civilization on the island, learns nothing from the natives, and offers his “superior” political and social system to Friday on the basis of servitude. He never doubts his actions other than to discover true religious faith. And he regrets his decision to get African slaves for one reason alone: that he was intending to smuggle them, rather than legally buying them on the free market – the proper, Christian way.

Historical Background

Augustan Age and Puritanism

Daniel Defoe's novel was published in the “Augustan Age” (approximately 1700-1744), an exceedingly productive time for English literature. It was the peak of classicism, which poet Alexander Pope primarily shaped. The name of this literary epoch traces back to the fact that ancient Greek and Roman classics inspired the poets. Yet outside of poetry there were other forces at work. Some scholars refer to it as the Age of Reason: The price of printed material fell dramatically. News, as well as fiction, spread more widely and quickly than ever before. Information and education were no longer just a privilege of the rich and noble, and enlightened ideas – later characterized by the phrase Sapere aude or “dare to know” – began to influence all walks of life. An unreserved faith in progress gradually replaced an unconditional faith in God.

Defoe was also a Presbyterian, a follower of a special branch of Puritanism, who believed that hard work was a form of worship that would be honored by God. The Puritans had tried to reform the Church of England, which was one of the factors leading to the English Civil War (1642–1651). In the war, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell defeated King Charles I., then executed him and made England a republic. After the return of Charles II. and the restoration of the Church of England, Puritans could no longer hold positions in higher public offices. Many of them escaped to America and founded the first permanent colonies on the North American continent. One of their distinctive features was that they equated material wealth with a pious, godly life, thus laying the ideological groundwork for utilitarian pragmatism, capitalism and colonial exploitation.

Development

Daniel Defoe relied on several sources for his novel. One of them is the Scottish pirate Alexander Selkirk, who deserted from a ship as a 30-year-old. He survived over four years on the uninhabited pacific island Más a Tierra off Chile's northern coast, which was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 – presumably to promote tourism. An English captain rescued him in 1709 and he returned to his home country. The captain later published a moving account of Selkirk's ordeal. Today, however, the long-held notion that the buccaneer was the main or even a major source appears increasingly outdated. When people bring it up, “we just giggle,” said Defoe scholar Paula Backschneider. After all, real-life survival narratives were a popular genre in his time, and there were plenty – some resonating a lot more with Robinson's account than Selkirk's did. For example, the story of Robert Knox, who was shipwrecked on Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and spent almost 20 years on the island, starting his own corn business and even producing wool caps. Defoe knew him in person.

Defoe published Robinson Crusoe anonymously in 1719, following it up that same year with a sequel: In The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe the hero abandons his home and three young children and goes, together with Friday, on an expedition to Persia, India, China and Russia, to finally visit his island again. The population he once left behind has blossomed into a thriving colony. In 1720, he added a collection of essays titled Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Both sequels have remained largely unknown.

Reviews and Legacy

The first Robinson Crusoe was a phenomenal success: It had nine print runs in the first year of publication alone. Because of this it was almost immediately translated, pirated and imitated all over the world – by the end of the 19th century, a record number of 700 alternative versions had seen the light of day. This unprecedented global appropriation spawned an entirely new literary genre, the Robinsonade, a term the German writer Johann Gottfried Schnabel coined in the preface to his 1731 novel Die Insel Felsenburg. But Robinson Crusoe's success also provoked considerable envy, not least because Daniel Defoe was an outsider to literary circles. Jonathan Swift once referred to him as “One of these authors (the fellow that was pilloried, I have forgotten his name), is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a rogue that there is no enduring him.” Swift's Gulliver's Travels is in part a parody of the Robinson-style adventure novel, and can be read as an antidote to Defoe's positive and optimistic view of humanity.

Today Robinson Crusoe is the embodiment of the lone man on an island and has turned into a founding myth of Western culture. The Romantics loved the tale for its wanderlust and spirit of adventure, as well as Friday's portrayal as the “noble savage.” It inspired a great deal of travel writing, educational novels and Utopian literature. But it remains controversial to this day. In line with other critics, James Joyce slammed the famous castaway as “the true prototype of the British colonist. ... The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” One of the best known 20th century adaptations is William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies about a group of boys who find themselves stranded on an uninhabited island and whose attempts at recreating society by themselves culminate in horror. In Friday (1967) Michel Tournier made Friday the story's true hero, who teaches Robinson the merits of a playful life close to nature, convincing him that civilization isn't such a great deal after all. Defoe's novel inspired innumerable stage plays, TV series and feature films, most recently the movie Cast Away (2000) about a FedEx employee stranded on an island with Tom Hanks in the title role.

About the Author

Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660. His father James Foe – Daniel later added the “De” to his name to make it sound more distinguished – was a prosperous tallow chandler, who didn’t belong to the Church of England. Because of this Daniel, himself an ardent follower of Protestantism, couldn’t go to university. He gave up on his initial plan to become a Presbyterian minister and went into business as a general merchant. Before long he went bankrupt and accrued considerable debts that would accompany him for the rest of his life. In 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a rich merchant. She brought in a huge dowry and bore him eight children, six of whom survived. Defoe published several pamphlets calling for religious tolerance and social reforms. In 1702, he wrote a treatise attacking the Church of England, for which he was prosecuted and pilloried. According to legend, however, the common folk cheered and drank to his health, instead of hurling the customary abuses at him. In exchange for being released from prison, Defoe agreed to enlist as an intelligence agent for the English government. In the run-up to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, resulting in the single state of Great Britain, he traveled to Scotland to report on anti-Unionist activities and guarantee consent to the Union Act – a dangerous affair in the turbulent political atmosphere. Simultaneously, he worked as a journalist and, until 1713, published the newspaper The Review. At the ripe age of almost 60, he began writing novels. The first, Robinson Crusoe (1719) is his most famous, followed, among others, by Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), Captain Singleton (1720), The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Daniel Defoe died in London on April 26, 1731.  


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