Monday, November 10, 2014

"I thought myself very rich in Subjects": Re-Reading Defoe's Robinson Crusoe


“I thought myself very rich in Subjects”: Re-Reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Robinson Crusoe is a book everyone sort of knows, perhaps more for the man than for his book.  The central myth of the shipwrecked Englishman, forced to reconstruct society from the debris of a dashed vessel, appeals to a deep, secret well of childhood within us all.  For this reason, the 18th century virtually adopted it as a children’s book, with writers such as Rousseau suggesting it should be the first and perhaps only book in a child’s library.  Partly this was to inspire the imagination with bold, noble deeds of self-sufficiency, but also because the book spoke so clearly and directly to all men.  Writing in 1822, Charles Lamb noted that Defoe’s manner of writing “is in imitation of the common people’s way of speaking, or rather of the way in which they are addressed by a master of mistress, who wishes to impress something upon their memories, and has a wonderful effect upon matter-of-fact readers.”  For generations, this ability to speak to common people of a common man who did uncommon deeds assured its literary immortality.  Only later, toward the 20th century, did readers begin to draw back from its unrelenting “matter-of-fact” tone, and its inability (to paraphrase Dickens) to make readers either laugh or cry.  In a book that promised exotic landscapes, strange peoples, and the occasional scrape with pirates, Defoe merely gives us lists of seeds planted, gold discovered, and natives slain.  Pirates of the Caribbean it most decidedly is not. 

Though Robinson Crusoe has never been out of print since its first run in 1719, it is hardly a bestseller today, despite the Penguin edition ranking #59,000 in Books at Amazon.  I felt this change keenly the first time I encountered the book in college, which is pretty much the only place you encounter the book today.  While I liked the story and was fascinated with his manner of narration, I couldn’t understand the slow pace of the narrative.  At first it moves at a fair clip, stranding him on the island by around page 40.  But then you enter a virtual ocean of calm: nothing more than attempts at growing plants, or domesticating goats, or building canoes occupies his thoughts.  As a busy college student, I looked in vain for something to hold my interest, and my professor assumed spending a day on the entire novel was sufficient to plumb its depths (I honestly don’t remember a thing he said about it—I only remember struggling through the reading).  I felt guilty for not finishing the book, but set it aside to return to “one day.”  That one day was graduate school, when I found myself studying not only 18th century literature but gravitating toward the literature of travel and empire.  Well, I could hardly undertake such studies without reading Robinson Crusoe

However, this time, with more context and appreciation for the emerging novel, the class structure, and colonialism itself, I found the book a quick and captivating read.  I understood that Crusoe, far from being a hectoring moralist, is something of a starry-eyed opportunist, as much an unreliable narrator as Defoe’s other great creation, Moll Flanders.  Suddenly I understood why Defoe spent so much time showing Crusoe’s evolution on the island, all of which is dramatically swept aside when civilization returns in the form of a mysterious footprint.  By the time I finished the book it was not only one of my favorite novels, but a novel that I felt explained so much of British history and literature.  In this one book, it was all there…so many things I had read, or half-understood, now stared at me fully-formed, as if I had graduated from binoculars to a bona-fide telescope.  Yes, there was Jupiter—not a mere hazy dot, but a terrifying globe with murky bands and a fearful red eye. 

George Borrow, writing in 1851, commented that all modern prose authors had drunk deeply from the springs of Crusoe, as well as most educated men in general; because of this universal influence, he makes the bold claim that “England owes many of her astonishing discoveries both by sea and land [to Crusoe],” as well as “no inconsiderable part of her naval glory.”  Can a book really do all that?  Surely a mere novel—and one for children, as Rosseau would have it—could scarcely build up a navy and send it across the globe in search of discovery and conquest?  And yet, isn’t that the very goal of Crusoe, who, in defiance of his parents’ wishes, set out to discover brave new worlds, and in defiance of his class, become a gentleman from his riches?  Crusoe is merely following in the footsteps of other “common men” who became pirates and set themselves up handsomely upon returning home, such as William Dampier, the pirate who wrote a book of his travels (carefully distancing himself from the piracy) and was the first Englishman to set foot on Australia.  Crusoe goes from success to success (though he paints this as punishment in the novel) until he becomes a self-crowned emperor on his island.  Just before departing for home, he writes,

“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in Subjects; and it was as merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look’d.  First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion.  2dly, My people were so perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Lawgiver; they all owed their Lives to me, and were ready to lay down their Lives, if there had been Occasion of it, for me.  It was remarkable, too, we had but three Subjects, and they were of three different Religions.  My man Friday was a Protestant, his Father was a Pagan, and a Cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: However, I allow’d Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominions: But this is by the Way.” 

Clearly, this is not “by the way” for Crusoe, but the very reason he wrote his book (which Defoe originally claimed was “written by himself”): Crusoe came to the island with nothing and ended as a king, with savages and papists following his every command.  Indeed, far from returning to England a gentler and wiser man, he spends all his time trying to shore up profits from Brazil, only to return to Brazil to oversee his plantation and go back to his island!  If the ostensible moral of the book is to heed one’s parents and obey the will of God to become a sober, middle-class merchant, Crusoe needs to re-read his own book.  Instead, Robinson Crusoe is almost a self-help guide to empire, showing how a “nobody” can find a deserted island and transform it—and the occasional savage—into a thriving colonial outpost.  Crusoe spares no pains on showing just how this is done, keeping a faithful account of every day and each labor.  Even when he scours wrecked ships for supplies, he makes a ledger of all the gold found, while in the same breath remarking how useless and vain riches are (of course, he ships them all back to his island!). 

His most fascinating appropriation is Friday, the Carib Islander whom he saves from being eaten by “cannibals,” and teaches his language and morals.  Like a canny imperialist, the first word he teaches Friday is “master,” and makes sure Friday is suitably terrified of his smoking God—his gun (Friday secretly talks to the gun and begs it not to kill him).  This is all shocking and racist to a 21st century audience, but Defoe is not content to merely show imperialism at its worst.  When discussing religion, Friday quickly poses questions which Crusoe cannot answer, showing his profound ignorance of the very culture he intends to import to the islands.  A strange friendship blossoms between the two, as Friday teaches Crusoe to know his own faith, and to question his own ideas.  Against his will, Crusoe is forced to recognize Friday not as a trained parrot (he already has one of those), but as a man capable of deep insight and profound humanity.  Thus, when Friday finds his father and hopes to return to his island, Crusoe is furious and can scarcely hide his jealousy.  In a book where the word ‘love’ scarcely appears, much less the sentiment it describes, Crusoe finally seems attached to something other than money. 

The ending is curiously disappointing, then, since Friday virtually disappears from the novel.  Once the mutineers wash up on the island and Crusoe frees the captain and launches a counter-assault, Friday becomes only a dim presence in the background.  Possibly this is because Crusoe becomes obsessed with civilization and doesn’t want to appear too attached to a “savage” (Crusoe earlier apologizes to the reader for his outlandish appearance, which makes him look more like a “Mahometan” than a true Christian).  However, we should note that Friday returns to England with Crusoe, and not as a servant (he hires a boy for this role), but as a companion.  Our last look at Friday makes him look somewhat foolish (and sadistic?) as he baits and finally kills a bear.  It has an uncomfortable air of “watch me, Master—look what I can do!”  Once the party escapes an ambush of wolves, Crusoe returns to England, and then sets off for Brazil, but we never learn how Friday factors into all this.  I imagine he accompanies Crusoe, but hopefully escapes the fate of Xury, his earlier slave boy whom Crusoe reluctantly sells into slavery for a tidy profit (Xury agrees to go, Crusoe assures us, but I can’t imagine he had a choice). 


While many might find this book boring, unpleasant, or even racist, the Crusoe I read is anything but.  Defoe was a complex individual, never more so than in creating the protagonists of his novels.  Crusoe, Moll, Roxana, and Captain Singleton present more than one face to the reader, and perhaps to themselves.  Crusoe honestly believes (I think) that he’s writing a moral reflection of his time on the island, though Defoe is careful to make him a somewhat incompetent writer.  That is, he can’t keep to such a learned subject, so he constantly detours to talk about the minutiae of his life—which is exactly what Defoe wants us to see.  Or perhaps Crusoe is like William Dampier, hiding his true intentions behind overtures of religion and nationalism?  Either way, following Crusoe’s story is an exciting and surprising experience, especially since it never goes the way you expect—even when you want it to veer in a conventional direction.  However, I think the fault lies with Crusoe than with Defoe; Defoe knew how to write a book and was a first-rate writer, withholding just those details that would make you sympathize with Crusoe too much, or lose yourself in his narrative.  First and foremost, Defoe wants Crusoe to be a narrator who exposes himself without meaning to, and for all his naive spirituality, remains a cunning mercantilist.  These are the men who are expanding England’s borders across the globe, Defoe suggests, the “true-bred Merchants” who will use anything, whether religion, ships, or their fellow man, to make a profit.  

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