Daniel Defoe’s acclaimed novel, Robinson Crusoe, is not only a great adventurous novel, but an amazing reflection of Defoe’s moral beliefs, personal experiences, and political battles with the English monarchy. Throughout the course of this novel, references to defoe’s own experiences come up again and again. In addition to these numerous references, the general story line of Robinson Crusoe tells a similar story to that of Defoe’s actual life; slightly reminiscent of the prodigal son theme.
Daniel Defoe used realism to enhance his novel. While many critics agree with this statement, some think that he should have been more accurate with his realism. Critics also found the book to be very enlightening and beneficial to read and they found that it appealed to a very wide variety of people including the rich and poor, and the young and old. Last but not least, some critics found that it showed lack of ability to create characters and events.
Daniel Defoe was born to James and Mary Defoe in St. Gates, London in 1660. His family were all Dissenters, also known as Presbyterians. He had a very good education and his father hoped that he would become a minister, but he chose to become a merchant after he graduated from his schooling. Defoe’s mother died when he was just ten years old, then his father sent him to a boarding school (Moore 1). He was then educated at the Morton Academy,a school fo dissenters(Harvey 215) ,where “he was a very good student, and his teacher, the Reverend Me. Norton himself, would later show up as a character in some of Daniel’s fiction.”(www.pinkmonkey.com) One year later he married Mary Tuffley, daughter of another dissenter, and also became involved in the Duke of Monmouth‘s rebellion, which was attempting to take the throne from James II”. The rebellion ended up a failure and as a result three of Defoes former schoolmates were caught and hanged, but Defoe narrowly escaped the King’s soldiers. (Moor 1)
To the outside world, Defoe seemed to continue to prosper after the Monmouth Rebellion, but by 1692, Daniel had gone bankrupt and “ended up owing over 17,000 pounds because of eight separate lawsuits between 1688 and 1692, and though he paid off all but 5,000 pounds within ten years, he was never truly free of debt” (Moore 1). Then, writing started to become a larger part of his life. “In 1701, he wrote a satyrical poem called The True-Born Englishman which became the best-selling poem ever at that time.” (Moore 1) “In 1706, he returned to Scotland and started up a newspaper in Edinburgh called the Post-Man” (Moore 2), where he earned the title of ‘The Father of Journalism’. However, the following year “The Act of Union was made official” (Moore 2) and as a result Defoe lost his job. In 1719, the first volume of Robinson Crusoe was published and became and instant hit, especially with the middle and lower class citizens. After his success with Robinson Crusoe, he published Moll Flanders in 1722, using “his experiences in Newgate prison to add realism”. “Daniel used to go to prison cells and even the scaffold to receive manuscripts for these lives of criminals themselves”. Finally, he died on April 24, 1731 in Cripplegate of lethargy (Moore 2).
His first successful novel, Robinson Crusoe, was a very huge hit. It was about a man named Robinson who, even against his father’s wishes, became a sailor. On one of his voyages he became shipwrecked on a deserted island and was the sole survivor, much the way defoe saw himself. Then, he realized that he wasn’t the only one on the island, much like the Monmouth rebellion. He found a group of cannibals and rescued one of them who, in turn, became his servant. He named him Friday and taught him the ways of Christianity. Then, twenty-eight years later, there was quite a rustle on a ship near by. The crew of the ship had mutinied and the captain and two others were planned to be abandoned on the island also. Crusoe and Friday come to the captains rescue and save the ship for the captain. In return, the captain showed his gratitude by taking them back to England. While there, Crusoe finds wealth, gets married, and has a family, not unlike Defoe‘s own prodigal son type story with dissenting and rebellion against the Church of England. Last but not least, he returns to the sea.(www.sparknotes.com)
Daniel Defoe’s use of real life events and accounts helps to add the feeling of actually being there and almost makes you wonder if it’s even fiction. We know his goal was to pass the story off without giving hints of fiction as the preface to the book read:
“If ever there a story of any private man’s adventures in the world were north making public, and were acceptable when published, the Editor on this account thinks this will be so. The wonders of this man’s life exceed all that (he thinks) is to be found extant; the life one man’s being scarce capable of a greater variety. The story is told with modesty, with seriousness, and with a religious application of events to the uses to which wise men always apply them, viz., to the instruction of others by this example, and to justify and honor the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances, let them happen how they will. The Editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it; and however, thinks, because all such things are dispatched, that the improvement of it, as well to the diversion as to the instruction of the reader, will be the same. And as such, he thinks, without farther compliment to the world, he does them a great service in t he publication” (Tucker 89).
This preface is basically stating Defoe’s goals of making the novel seem as realistic as possible. The fact that Defoe is attempting to have his stories pass as authentic relations means that he must give the larger features of history and of geography with fidelity……When he fabricates the journal of an imaginary saddler who endured the rigors of the great plague, or describes fictitious exploits of Carleton in the wars of Flanders, Defoe incorporates in the narrative a large proportion of authentic happenings; if he had no, he would lay open to immediate detection as a writer of fiction. “Where does he get those facts? He borrows them from histories and newspapers. In the invention of action the writer of historical fiction is always limited more or less to matters in which he will not seriously conflict with the statements of history” (Tucker 47).
What Arthur Secord means by this is, if Defoe wanted pass his stories as being authentic, then he should have used more real life geographical and historical facts in doing so. His works are “based on a factual event” (Magill 688) that he learned about at some point in his life. What Secord meant is that Defoe should have been more accurate with historical fiction and should not have conflicted with statements of actual history. (Secord 47-48)
Another thing about Defoe is that he is not “among the great creators of character, he merely antedates every event in his own life 29 years, and represents it by some adventure of Crusoe’s at that time.”(Tucker 49).
“Thus Defoe was born in 1661, Crusoe in 1632. Defoe left college and went out into the world in 1680, Crusoe goes out in 1651. Defoe’s first political publication…was in 1687, on the eve of the Revolution. This beginning of his isolation corresponds with Crusoe’s shipwreck…in 1658….Why he chose 29 as the key number is not easy to say” (Tucker 48).
George Parker is saying that Robinson Crusoe is basically an imitation of the author’s life (Tucker 48). Not only does Defoe allow the reader to experience Crusoe’s struggles to survive, he also allows reader to look into his soul. “For example, early in his stay he discovers twelve ears of barley growing, which convinces him ‘that god miraculously caused this grain to grow without any help of seed sown and that it was so directly purely for my substance on that wild miserable place” (Magill 690).
This is young Crusoe being thankful for God for giving him the food that he thinks grew from no seed at all, but was a gift from god. Two paragraphs later, Crusoe said, “It occurred to my thoughts that I had shook a bag of chicken’s meal out in that place, and then the wonder began to cease; and I must confess, my religious thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate too….” (Magill 690) This is the mature Crusoe realizing that he was wrong in his beliefs about god and that he wasn’t nearly as strong nor as in control as he thought he was (Magill 690).
Some critics found the novel, Robinson Crusoe, to be enlightening and actually benefited from reading it. One example is critic, James Beattie, and he wrote:
“Robinson Crusoe must be allowed, by the most rigid moralists, to be one of those novels which one may read, not only with pleasure, but also with profit. It breathes throughout a spirit of piety and benevolence; it sets in a very striking light … the importance of the mechanic arts, which they, who know not what it is to be without them, are apt to undervalue: it fixes in the mind a lively idea of the horrors of solitude, and , consequently, of the sweets of social life, and of the blessings we derive from conservation and mutual aid; and it shows, how, by laboring with one’s own hands, one may secure independence, and open for one’s self many sources of health and amusement. I agree, therefore, with Rousseau [colleague and critic], that this is one of the best books that can be put in the hands of children” (Tucker 90).
He believes that the book has much more than most novels. He says that it has profit and not just pleasure which means it teaches some sort of lesson. You get more out of it than just a story; you get a moral and sense of happiness and self esteem.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel, Robinson Crusoe, was elaborated on by Isaac Disraeli, he said:
“Robinson Crusoe, the favorite of the learned and the unlearned, of the youth and the adult; the book was to constitute the library of Rousseau’s Emilius, owes its secret charm to its being a new representation of human nature, yet drawn from an existing state; this picture of self-education, self-inquiry, self-happiness, is scarcely a fiction, although it includes all the magic of romance; and is not a mere narrative of truth, since it displays all the forcible genius of one of the most original minds our literature can boost” (Tucker 90).
Ernest Baker said, “Defoe is not among the great creators of character. So far as any of his figures come to life, it is through their being chips of himself.” (Tucker 49). His two Quakers are perhaps an exception, they probably originated in some other way. The subtleties of personal disposition, the virtue of temperament, and the inner world of feelings, were to Defoe a sealed book. Baker is saying that Defoe slightly lacks the ability to create characters and events so he used events and dates, not only from his life, but from other people’s lives also. As you can see from Parker’s excerpt, even though the novel, Robinson Crusoe, was written to copy the author’s life in some ways, many author’s such as Ian Watt agree that the novel was written in “a fascinating narrative form.”(Tucker 49) However, Ernest A. Baker still thinks that this just showed lack of skill in being able to create fictional characters, events, and dates .(Tucker 49)
All in all, even though only a small percentage, of those who read or have read Robinson Crusoe, do not understand its author, they are merely reading a dramatized and fictionalized tale of Daniel Defoe’s own life and adventures. So to say that Robinson Crusoe is and autobiography of Defoe is a blatant untruth; but to say that the novel does not relate to Defoe’s own what so ever life is an even larger untruth.
Florman, Ben. “Summary of Robinson Crusoe.” SparkNotes
Moore, John Robert. “Daniel ‘The True-Born Englishman’ Defoe.” IncompeTech
Publishing Co., 1966