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Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

A riveting tale of a lone man's struggle for survival on a seemingly deserted South American island, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) has captivated readers for over three centuries. Chock full of journalistic details that enmesh the reader in Crusoe's daily experience, it represented an entirely new type of writing whose publication established its author, Daniel Defoe (1660 - 1731), as one of the first English novelists and foremost authors of the 18th century. In addition to its superficial appeal as an adventure story, Robinson Crusoe addresses deep and important themes such as the nature of civilization and the individual, God and fate, and the impact of colonialism.

Robinson Crusoe Characters

While the overwhelming focus of Robinson Crusoe is on its eponymous hero, there is a fairly large cast of supporting characters in the story.

Main Characters

Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday are the main characters of the novel.

Robinson Crusoe

Born in 1632 to German immigrants who settled in northern England and succeeded as merchants, Robinson Crusoe is a restless young man with a thirst for adventure. He is resourceful, intelligent, and skillful, succeeding as a businessman and later learning to make everything he needs by himself with only limited resources. He also proves adept at fighting towards the book’s end.

The character of Robinson Crusoe was partly inspired by the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was dropped on an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile after arguing with his captain in 1704. When he was discovered four years later, he was dressed in goat skins and had gone somewhat crazy. Many details used in Robinson Crusoe were taken from Selkirk's memoir.1

Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked N.C. Wyeth painting StudySmarterA famous depiction of a shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe by N.C. Wyeth. Wikimedia Commons.

Friday

A handsome, athletic, and intelligent native rescued by Crusoe from the hands of cannibals, Friday is Crusoe’s loyal servant and companion during his final years on the island and back in Europe. About 26 years old when rescued (by Crusoe’s estimate), we never learn what Friday’s real name is or how he feels about leaving for England.

Minor Characters

A large cast of characters, many of whom remain anonymous, play small but critical roles in the story. Here is a sampling of the most important.

Xury

Robinson Crusoe’s companion as he escapes from his Moroccan captors, Xury is a young boy of unknown origin (probably Arab or African). Xury is friendly and loyal, traveling with Crusoe all the way to Brazil. Crusoe later sells him into slavery and only seems to regret it when he realizes he could have used him as a slave on his own plantation.

The Portuguese Captain

This unnamed captain rescues Crusoe and treats him very well, helping him establish himself in Brazil and access his profits when he returns.

Cannibals

Identified only as “Caribs”, dozens of cannibals visit Crusoe’s island to perform their ritualistic sacrifices, occasionally having confrontations with Crusoe.

Shipwrecked Spanish and Portuguese Sailors

17 Spanish and Portuguese sailors are shipwrecked on the mainland opposite Crusoe’s island, one of whom Crusoe befriends.

English Mutineers and Their Captain

An English ship rebels against its captain and tries to bring him and the ship's officers as prisoners on Crusoe's island. There are a few malicious ringleaders, but most of the men are undecided about whether the mutiny was a good idea.

Robinson Crusoe Summary

Growing up in a middle-class family in the northeastern city of York, Robinson Crusoe feels bored and restless, dreaming of a life of travel and adventure. He plans on making a living as a sailor, but his father takes him aside and seriously cautions him against this idea. The best life, he says, is one of middle-class comfort and predictability.

Robinson Crusoe York Cathedral StudySmarterRobinson Crusoe grew up in a comfortable middle-class family in the northeastern English city of York. Pixabay.

Understanding the soundness of his father’s advice but still thrilled by the prospect of travel and adventure, Crusoe jumps at the opportunity to take his first boat voyage from Hull to London. He experiences a series of increasingly severe storms. Eventually they're forced to abandon their ship and row to the shore in a lifeboat. The captain advises Crusoe that this is a warning from God. He should listen to his father and abandon his plans to become a merchant sailor.

Despite these forebodings, Crusoe decides to go on a voyage to the West African coast with a captain he befriends in London. He sells toys and trinkets in exchange for gold dust, turning 40 pounds into 300 on his first voyage. Hooked on these easy profits, he continues traveling to Africa as a trader even after his friend the captain dies.

On one voyage, Crusoe’s ship is overtaken by Moroccan pirates, and he is sold as a slave. One of his duties as a slave is to catch fish. He uses this as an opportunity to escape along with another slave, a young boy named Xury. Crusoe and Xury travel the African coast until they spot a European ship. The ship is Portuguese, and its captain takes them aboard and treats them well, offering them free passage to Brazil. In Brazil, the captain helps Crusoe set up a small sugar and tobacco plantation using the limited money he still has (some of which he makes by selling Xury as a slave). Crusoe works hard on his plantation for a few years and starts to grow prosperous.

When a group of other plantation owners approaches Crusoe with a plan to buy slaves from West Africa, he is unable to turn down the adventure. Before they get very far, they encounter a terrible storm that blows them northwest. When the ship strikes a sandbank, they abandon it for fear that the powerful waves will break it to pieces. Crusoe just barely manages to make it to the shore of a nearby island alive.

Robinson Crusoe tropical island sea StudySmarterFollowing the shipwreck, Crusoe finds himself alone on a beautiful but uninhabited island. Pixabay.Crusoe spends a terrified night in a tree. Come morning, he sees the wreck of his ship not far off and realizes that he is the sole survivor. He quickly gets to work bringing back whatever clothes and provisions he can. The ship is still in good condition, and he finds plenty of supplies: guns, gunpowder, biscuits, canvas sails, money, clothes, rum, building materials, even a dog and two cats.

After bringing everything on shore, Crusoe gets to work building shelter and exploring the island. Although the island seems to be uninhabited and free of any predators, he painstakingly erects a barricade around a small cave he’s discovered. He eventually builds himself a second shelter further inland.

Crusoe stays here for years, cultivating crops, domesticating goats that he finds on the island, and generally learning how to make everything he needs from scratch, from pottery and cheese to a pipe, clothing, and an umbrella. Crusoe has ample time to reflect on his life. He realizes that his own mistakes lead to his shipwreck. He also notes how lucky he has been to have had so much help in his life, to have been able to make use of the ship, and to be on an island with plentiful food and water. He concludes that his being stranded is part of God’s plan.

Crusoe passes about 15 years in this way. One day, while exploring the island, he is shocked to discover a single human footprint on the beach. In a panic, he returns to his shelter and makes sure that it is fortified and his guns are ready. Increasingly paranoid, he loses sleep and takes extra precautions not to draw any attention to himself. He soon discovers the footprints belong to cannibals who come over from the mainland in order to sacrifice their victims. They typically do this on the opposite end of the island, so Crusoe simply had not encountered them.

Robinson Crusoe footprint sand StudySmarterCrusoe is startled at the discovery of a single human footprint on what he thought was an uninhabited island. Pixabay.

After discovering human remains around a fire, Crusoe is so disgusted that he plans to kill as many of the cannibals as he can. After several years of planning, he eventually cools off and decides against this course of action. He realizes that it's not his place to judge them and that doing so would probably be suicidal in any case. He gradually returns to his former way of living, being a bit more cautious and keeping a lookout for incoming canoes.

Several years later, he is surprised to find that a canoe full of cannibals and their prisoners has landed about 400 meters from his hut. As he is observing them, one of the prisoners breaks free and runs for it. Crusoe decides to help this prisoner, directing him to a hiding place, shooting one of his pursuers, and giving the escaped man a sword which he quickly kills the other with.

The escapee is forever grateful to Crusoe. Crusoe names him Friday after the day his life was saved, referring to him as "my man Friday." Over the course of several years, Crusoe teaches him English and converts him to Christianity. While Crusoe has Friday call him "Master" and thinks of him as a slave, their relationship is friendly, and they both seem to respect each other.

A sign of Robinson Crusoe's massive cultural impact is the widespread use of the term "man Friday" meaning a male helper or follower.

Crusoe learns from Friday what his earlier observations had suggested: the mainland is not so far away but they would need a large boat to reach it. He also learns that seventeen Europeans were shipwrecked near Friday’s tribe and have been living there together with the natives for some years.

While the two of them are working on building a boat big enough to reach the mainland, they see another group of canoes approaching. This time the cannibals have brought over one of the stranded Europeans as a prisoner, and the thought of him being eaten is too much for Crusoe to bear. He and Friday charge the cannibals with guns blazing, killing all but two or three who escape in their boat (though an approaching storm makes it unlikely that they would survive either). They find another prisoner tied up in one of the abandoned canoes and are surprised to learn that it is Friday’s father.

Robinson Crusoe Friday island StudySmarterA 19th-century lithograph of Crusoe with Friday. Library of Congress.

Crusoe strikes a deal with the shipwrecked European in which he and Friday’s father will return to the mainland in the boat that Crusoe and Friday have just finished. They'll then return with the other stranded Europeans so that they can all escape together. The Spaniard and Friday’s father set off. While Crusoe is waiting for them to return, he sees an English ship moored off the island and a small boat approaching. Three people in the boat appear to be prisoners.

Crusoe approaches these prisoners after their captors have fallen asleep and learns that they are a captain and officers of a ship whose sailors have mutinied. Crusoe and Friday kill or imprison the mutineers, then help the captain retake the ship after killing the leader of the mutiny. They leave the mutineers on the uninhabited island and sail back to England.

Crusoe visits the captain’s widow, who still has his money after 28 years. He finds that his mother and father have died, but his two sisters have married and had children. In need of money, he goes to Lisbon to see if he can find the Portuguese captain who rescued him. Remarkably, he does, and even more remarkably, he finds that his plantation in Brazil has made him incredibly rich.

Afraid of traveling by sea, Crusoe decides to go from Lisbon to Calais on horseback. Riding through the Pyrenees mountains in the winter along with Friday and some other travelers, he is attacked by a band of ravenous wolves. Struggling to fend them off with their rifles, Crusoe comes up with a plan to light them on fire with gunpowder, which finally succeeds in either killing them or scaring them off.

Robinson Crusoe Pyrenees Mountains StudySmarterRobinson Crusoe closes with one final adventure through the Pyrenees. Pixabay.

Finally arriving back in London with his fortune, Crusoe shares his money with his nephews and the captain’s widow. He also marries and has children of his own, though he never describes his family in any detail. Still feeling restless, Crusoe decides to go visit his plantation in Brazil and to see what his island is like. He hints that the shipwrecked Spaniards arrived and had trouble with the mutineers, but doesn’t give any details, leaving the possibility of a sequel open.

Robinson Crusoe and Genre

Daniel Defoe is widely recognized as an innovator of fictional prose forms, and Robinson Crusoe is often credited as the first novel in the English language. Like the novel tradition that would develop in England throughout the 18th century, Robinson Crusoe is a long work of prose fiction with an ordinary person for a protagonist and a wealth of life-like details. Unlike other contenders for the title of the first novel, Robinson Crusoe does not take marriage or family life as one of its central themes, dealing instead with the exotic, the extraordinary, and the exciting. If its claim to be the first novel is uncertain, its claim to be the first adventure novel is not.1

Themes in Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is a thematically rich work. Individualism, the place of chance and God in human affairs, and the nature of colonialism are among the most interesting and important themes developed in the novel.

Individualism

Part of Robinson Crusoe’s enduring appeal is its depiction of individual self-sufficiency and autonomy. For the bulk of the 28 years that Crusoe spends marooned on his island, he is entirely alone. He decides what to do and how to do it. Through his own hard work and skill, he's able to recreate many of the comforts of civilized life. Even when he does encounter others towards the end of his stay, Crusoe always comes out on top as a master of slaves or a leader of others. The story of Crusoe’s adventure is a fantasy of total independence and control.

God and Chance

A large part of Defoe’s motivation in writing Robinson Crusoe was to impart a religious message. Crusoe becomes increasingly religious as the story progresses, realizing that God had given him ample warning in the form of storms, pirates, etc., that disaster would strike him if he didn't follow his father's advice. He further realizes that his luck in surviving the shipwreck, in having access to the supplies of the ship, and in being on an island with water, food sources, and no dangerous animals could not have happened by chance. His luck continues after he returns home to England and finds himself a rich man. Crusoe concludes that only a loving, forgiving, all-powerful God could account for these facts.

Colonialism

Robinson Crusoe was written at the high-water mark of British colonialism and the slave trade. Crusoe’s decision to trade toys for gold in West Africa, his ability to set up a plantation in Brazil, and his nonchalance about getting involved in the slave trade are all signs of the times. His own occupation of a deserted island can also be said to mirror the colonial process at the individual level: Crusoe brings agriculture and modern technology to the island. He even gives one native inhabitant an English name, makes him his servant, teaches him English, and converts him to Christianity.

Robinson Crusoe Analysis

A wholly new type of writing when it was first published by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of a resourceful individual’s struggle for survival while marooned on an uninhabited island off the coast of modern-day Venezuela. This extraordinary experience, told from the first-person point of view, is loaded with true-to-life details, meandering thoughts, and occasional repetition that make it seem like the real narrative of an ordinary human being rather than a polished piece of prose fiction.

Daniel Defoe's prose style typically relies on a succession of grammatically simple sentences or clauses. This is known as parataxis and stands in stark contrast to the highly elaborate prose style popular in the 18th century, where long, complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses were common.

Why do you think Defoe chose to write in this style? What advantages does it have in telling a story like Robinson Crusoe's?

Defoe claimed that Robinson Crusoe was both history and allegory. Insisting that his protagonist was a real person whose experiences he was only relating, Defoe tried his best to make the events in the book seem plausible (however improbable). As an allegory, Robinson Crusoe provides an account of the development of civilization (or at least the western European variant of it) as Crusoe moves from taking hapless shelter in a tree to mastering agriculture, pottery, shepherding, and ship-building, taking more and more of the island as his domain. The story suggests that the role of a loving God–or luck or grace–was essential to this development. It also suggests, more problematically, the superiority of that civilization. It makes no qualms about killing or enslaving those of other, supposedly lesser civilizations.2

Another sign of Robinson Crusoe's enduring cultural appeal is the term "robinsonade" to describe any kind of castaway story. Robinson Crusoe spawned a cultural myth whose influence can be seen in cheap imitations as well as serious novels, from works of literature by Joseph Conrad and R.L. Stevenson to television and movie adaptations.4

Robinson Crusoe - Key takeaways

  • First published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is widely credited as the first English adventure novel.
  • The novel tells the life story of a young British man who sets off to become a sailor merchant but is marooned on an uninhabited island after a series of misadventures.
  • He eventually discovers that the island is visited by local cannibals, escapes after 28 years on the island, and finds out that he has become rich when he returns to England.
  • A key theme in Robinson Crusoe is the place of religion in human affairs, with Robinson Crusoe's biography intended to illustrate the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.
  • Robinson Crusoe also deals with fascinating themes such as the power of the individual, the development of civilization, and colonialism, among others.

References

1. Seidel, M. "Robinson Crusoe: A World Classic." The British Library, 2018.

2. Richetti, J. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge UP, 1998.

3. Richetti, J. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Daniel Defoe. Cambridge UP, 2009.

4. Peraldo, E. (editor). 300 Years of Robinsonades. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions about Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe was written by Daniel Defoe, an English journalist and businessman often credited as the first English novelist.

Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, but the events in the story are set in the 17th century (1632-1694).

The main character in Robinson Crusoe is the eponymous Robinson Crusoe. His man Friday also plays an important role in the story, as do a large cast of other minor characters.

Robinson Crusoe is a fictional story, but it was inspired by Daniel Defoe's reading of true accounts of shipwrecked people (particularly a man named Alexander Selkirk). Defoe tried hard to pass off the story as true for some years, but he didn't manage to fool many people.

Robinson Crusoe takes place between Robinson Crusoe's birth in 1632 and his return to England in 1694. He is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island between 1659 and 1686.

Final Robinson Crusoe Quiz

Question

Who is the author of Robinson Crusoe?

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Daniel Defoe

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Robinson Crusoe was first published in

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1719

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Robinson Crusoe is widely credited as the first English

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novel

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All of the following are characteristics of Defoe's style in Robinson Crusoe EXCEPT

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Use of elaborate subordinate clauses

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What is the significance of the footprint that Crusoe discovers on the beach?

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He realizes that he has not been alone.

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What conclusion does Crusoe draw from the events the fact that he was able to survive on the island?

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The existence of a loving and omnipotent God.

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Robinson Crusoe deals with all of the following themes EXCEPT

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Love and marriage

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Which of the following best describes the way the book is narrated?

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The reader's perspective is limited to Robinson Crusoe's thoughts and observations.

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Robinson Crusoe's treatment of Friday is an example of

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how Europeans treated people from the lands they colonized.

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How long does Crusoe spend shipwrecked on his island?

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28 years

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It can be inferred from his actions that Robinson Crusoe is

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Restless and impulsive

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Robinson Crusoe could be viewed as an allegory for

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the development of western civilization.

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How does Robinson Crusoe return home to England?

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On a ship whose captain he rescued from a mutiny.

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What is the source of Crusoe's wealth at the end of the book?

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The sugar and tobacco plantation he established in Brazil.

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Crusoe is lucky to have found all of the following on his ship EXCEPT

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A lifeboat

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