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The many afterlives of Robinson Crusoe

Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe 300 years ago and his castaway – capitalist, imperialist, pragmatist – has stood for versions of Englishness ever since.

Some years ago the New Yorker banned desert-island cartoons from the magazine. The ragged, bearded fellow making satirical observations from his little patch of sand with its lone palm tree had become a tired formula. But he’s still with us, Wifi and social media now offering new punchlines: he forgets the password (was it “coconut” or “fish”?) or gets spammed by messages in bottles. We can all identify with that castaway now, clinging to our petty, futile obsessions, routines, platitudes and delusions in the face of isolation and hopelessness. We “go on”, our Beckettian resolve both noble and pathetic.

The source of these existential tableaux celebrates its tricentenary this year. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was not the first story of shipwreck and marooning on a desert island, but it turned earlier real-life accounts into a cultural emblem. Out of the hazards of maritime adventure it forged an enduring metaphor and myth that spoke to the dilemmas of modernity.

Being stranded alone on some distant shore was a constant risk of sea travel. That there was a story to be told about the predicament would not, however, have been a meaningful proposition before the 18th century. No ancient stories had a lone protagonist – for without relationship, what was there to say?

The Enlightenment made Crusoe possible by introducing the idea of the individual as autonomous moral agent: the self-made man. Your role and fate were no longer pre-ordained by birth and the stars – you could strive to improve your lot. Coming from a family made prosperous and respectable by trade, Crusoe was representative of the book’s target audience, and he enacted for them a fable of capitalist self-sufficiency.

Robinson Crusoe took its cue from several contemporaneous memoirs of sea adventures. William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World (1697) told of his exploits on the ships of buccaneers and privateers around the coast of the New World. In the archipelago of the Juan Fernández Islands off Chile, Dampier’s crew found a “Moskito Indian” who had been stranded for three years, surviving by hunting goats. Dampier got marooned himself with two others on an island in the Indian Ocean, but found his way back to England, where he published his stories to great acclaim.

In 1703 Dampier was sent on a gunship to defend English interests against Spain and France during the War of Spanish Succession. He returned to the Juan Fernández Islands in 1704, where one of his officers, a troublesome Scot named Alexander Selkirk, was put ashore at his own request. Selkirk survived alone on his island for four years before being rescued by the privateer Woodes Rogers, who gave an account of Selkirk’s survival in A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712).

The castaway has all the hallmarks of Crusoe. He first appeared to them, Rogers wrote, as “a Man cloth’d in Goat-Skins, who look’d wilder than the first Owners of them”. He had built “two Hutts with Piemento Trees, cover’d then with long Grass, and lin’d them with the Skins of Goats, which he kill’d with his Gun as he wanted, so long as his Powder lasted”. He had survived on crawfish and goat, “Cabbage-Trees”, small black plums and by cultivating turnips. The moral, said Rogers, is that “Necessity is the Mother of Invention, since he found means to supply his Wants in a very natural manner, so as to maintain his Life”.

Enter Daniel Defoe (he had grandly added the “De” to the family name): hack writer, chancer and social agitator. Having acquired a tidy sum by marriage, he squandered it on speculative business projects such as breeding civet cats for their perfume. In 1692 he was sent to the debtors’ prison in Newgate, bankrupt to the tune of an eye-watering £17,000. A Dissenter who advocated revolutionary Puritanism, Defoe was sentenced in 1703 to public pillory in the stocks for writing a leaflet criticising the repressive regime of Queen Anne. The court condemned him as “a Seditious man and of a disordered mind, and a person of bad name, reputation and Conversation”.

He would write on just about anything for anyone, if they paid. After his conviction he petitioned the Tory politician Robert Harley, speaker of the House of Commons, who got him released and pardoned. In return, Defoe became Harley’s man, writing apologia where previously he had called the Tories “plunderers” and “betrayers of liberty”.

Harley rewarded him well, and by the 1720s Defoe was living in a large house in Stoke Newington with a retinue and carriage. He turned to writing lurid tales of disreputable characters such as Moll Flanders (“Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother), Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia”) and Colonel Jack. Unsurprisingly they sold well, and the wide readership attracted by accounts of shipwreck presented Defoe with another opportunity to tap into popular literary taste.

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In Robinson Crusoe his limitations as a writer are plain. Defoe is making it up as he goes along; he neglects to tell us until well after the event, for example, that Crusoe has saved a dog and two cats from the wreckage. But this is, after all, the modern novel in infancy: messy, undisciplined, sometimes baffling. Character psychology is crude and the narrative little more than a string of episodes.

Having gone to sea as a young man against his father’s wishes, Crusoe buys a sugar plantation and becomes a prosperous colonist. The shipwreck occurs when Crusoe joins a slave-hunting mission, is blown off course up the South American coast by storms, and is washed up alone on a beach.

Crusoe makes the island his home, building a palisade to fend off attack by wild animals or visiting cannibals. Even as he painstakingly constructs his “estate”, he hankers to escape. When he saves the “Savage” Friday from being slaughtered by cannibals, he enlists the man’s help to construct a sailing boat. But before they are ready to set out, Crusoe spots the sails of an English ship and Crusoe and Friday discover that the crew has mutinied. They help restore the commander and his loyal followers, and the castaway and his companions make for England, where Crusoe finds that his plantations have flourished and that he is comfortably endowed.

Robinson Crusoe was a bestseller, but Defoe scarcely benefited. Writers tended to be paid a lump sum, and Defoe’s fee was likely to have been a modest £50 or so. It’s small wonder, then, that he was eager to capitalise on the success by publishing sequels. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) described Crusoe’s return to his island and travels elsewhere, while Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720) was a collection of essays musing on what the author had learnt from his experiences.

Crusoe is one of the least attractive heroes in adventure literature. He discharges obligations dutifully but forges no strong relationships that are not ultimately pragmatic. He mouths pious formulas without evincing any deep engagement with his faith. He is a callow dullard incapable of self-reflection, a bookkeeper lacking all trace of artistry, imagination or poetry. For James Joyce he is the true prototype of the British colonist: “The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.” Virginia Woolf saw in him a personification of the humdrum bourgeoisie: “cautious, apprehensive, conventional and solidly matter-of-fact”.

That utilitarian plainness pervades the book. In the early 19th century Charles Lamb remarked dismissively that it was “an especial favourite with sea-faring men, poor boys, servant-maids”, and was written “in a phraseology peculiarly adapted to the lower condition of readers”. It was deemed appropriate reading for children, who would scarcely be troubled by Crusoe’s psychological blankness or his absence of a sexual life.

It’s no coincidence that Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), almost a parody of Crusoe, was also assigned to the realm of juvenile literature. In Mythologies (1957) Roland Barthes describes the appeal of the island myth:

To enclose oneself and to settle, such is the dream of childhood… the man-child reinvents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain.

Children were considered apt to benefit from what Enlightenment and Romantic educators deemed its moral message: how self-reliance and hard work pay dividends. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said of Crusoe that: “Nothing upon Earth can be so well calculated to inspire one with ardour in the execution of a plan approved by so great a genius.”

Defoe was aiming higher. When the hero ironically proclaims that “I allow’d Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominion”, Defoe’s readers would have understood this to be political allegory on the controversial topic of religious tolerance. There is religious allegory too in the themes of punishment and repentance, sin and grace. But these topics are handled ambiguously, and that’s what makes Robinson Crusoe so modern: it pays lip service to Christian obligations while seeming to feel not especially bound by them. In the end, Crusoe is author of his own fate, and God can’t do much about it. Harold Bloom identifies this as the defining feature of “all quest-romances of the post-Enlightenment”: they are “quests to re-beget one’s own self, to become one’s own Great Original” – like Milton’s Satan.


Defoe would write on “just about anything”

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In retrospect the book’s most obvious and dominant metaphor is British imperialism. With the cold, methodological pragmatism of the colonist, Crusoe gets on with whatever practical tasks are needed to subdue and domesticate his environment, turning it into a home from home. What hope do the indigenous dwellers have against his stolid resolution?

An assumption of privilege and cultural superiority pervades the encounters with “savages”. When Crusoe meets Friday, the relationship is automatically one of master and servant. In his rewriting of the Crusoe myth Foe (1986), JM Coetzee has “Cruso” blithely commend God for not extending his providence too far:

If Providence were to watch over all of us, who would be left to pick the cotton and cut the sugar-cane? For the business of the world to prosper, Providence must sometimes wake and sometimes sleep.

Crusoe remains as thoroughly European when he leaves the island as when he arrived; his labours are, in fact, largely devoted to recreating the circumstances of an English country gentleman. Civilised behaviour is supposedly in his blood: he can no more revert to the “savage” than he can to an ape-like ancestry. No wonder a copy was to be found in every Victorian school. Crusoe, according to the Cornhill Magazine in 1868, represents “the shrewd vigorous character of the Englishman thrown upon his own resources”. He is “the broad-shouldered, beef-eating John Bull, who has been shouldering his way through the world ever since… He does not accommodate himself to his surroundings; they have got to accommodate themselves to him.” (This vision of the redoubtable Englishman building his little island empire is familiar in Brexit Britain.)

The novel has become a part of that small and contentious canon, including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) – with Kurtz its Crusoe manqué – over which arguments about European attitudes to race and empire have raged. At face value Crusoe legitimises colonialism; it would surely have been read as such in its day, and continued to resonate that way long after. The book, said the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, was “part of the mythology of every West Indian child”.

Crusoe’s obsession with accountancy is simultaneously dull and oddly satisfying. As Crusoe’s stores expand and his assets become more secure, you feel heartened: all that effort paid off! Robinson Crusoe is a novel about capitalism itself, its hero the economic agent stripped to essentials: a minimal model for the theory of labour. Everything Crusoe wants, he makes himself. Karl Marx acknowledged this economic lesson in Das Kapital (1867): “All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion… And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.” Crusoe stockpiles: he is the sensible investor hedging against risk, and he asset-strips the shipwreck of anything that might conceivably be valuable (including money).

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The Crusoe myth was so often retold that it spawned a genre: the Robinsonade. Jules Verne was a leading proponent, in particular with The Mysterious Island (1874) (initially titled Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson) and The School for Robinsons (1882), which closely shadows Defoe’s plot. By marooning a “family” of sorts (an engineer, an ex-slave, a sailor and his adopted son, a journalist and a dog), The Mysterious Island was also indebted to The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) by the Swiss pastor and educator Johann David Wyss, who saw the Crusoe template as a means of promoting Protestant values of patience and hard work in an “improving” tale for children.

The image of the self-sufficient, happy desert-island family persisted into modern times. The 1940 movie based on Wyss’s book was a straightforward melodramatic yarn, but Disney’s 1960 version is a cloying hymn to the nuclear family. Animal races and pirate attacks keep the kids occupied, and the implication is that family is the bastion of moral virtue against the decadence and savagery of the world outside.

Parental authority is essential, for otherwise Swiss Family Robinson becomes Lord of the Flies. Like HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Golding’s book turned the island myth dystopian, making it a place where normal rules are suspended, the parent figure has gone bad, mad or missing, and dark experiments ensue: cue Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach and Michael Bay’s 2005 movie The Island.

Yet the desert island was a cliché even by the 1960s. Exotic beaches were no longer fantastical: the middle classes could now fly there by Pan-Am. If you were going to be real castaways, you had to go much further afield. Forbidden Planet (1956) recapitulated in outer space that other antecedent of Crusoe: the shipwreck of Antonio, Alonso and their entourage on Prospero’s island in The Tempest. Space Family Robinson began as a comic-book series published in 1962, a year after Yuri Gagarin made the first manned spaceflight around the Earth, before becoming the popular TV series Lost in Space.

But in its hostile desolation and unimaginable remoteness, today space is considered an environment where survival depends on physical and psychic endurance. Watching Sam Rockwell’s mental disintegration as the lone protagonist of Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009), you suspect that isolation is a lot easier to manage if you are as dull as Crusoe.

The real Crusoe for our times is surely JG Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974), which explores the isolation possible amid, and indeed created by, the relentless bustle of the urban jungle. “The Pacific atoll may not be available, but there are other islands far nearer to home, some of them only a few steps from the pavements we tread every day”, wrote Ballard in the novel’s introduction. “They are surrounded, not by sea, but by concrete, ringed by chain-mail fences and walled off by bomb-proof glass.”

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland, a wealthy architect who echoes Defoe’s bourgeois seafarer, is marooned on the traffic island of a motorway intersection in London, surviving on the meagre provisions salvaged from his crashed Jaguar. He resigns himself to his predicament almost with relief: “Already he felt no real need to leave the island, and this alone confirmed that he had established dominion over it.” Maitland is an anti-Crusoe, revelling in his accidental freedom. “Perhaps, secretly, we hoped to be marooned, to escape our families, lovers and responsibilities,” said Ballard. Set against the stifling pressures of modernity, the desert island doesn’t look so bad after all. 

Philip Ball’s books include “Beyond Weird” (Bodley Head)

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal