Second time around, my feelings for this novel haven’t changed: I’m still disappointed by it. Crusoe’s the kind of man, who only looks out for number one, having no sense of sympathy or feeling for family, friends, women and allies. He’s what I’d call a ruthless bastard! Yet my wacky sense of humor precludes me from completely being appalled by his actions—I just love the irony of his situation. I guess that’s the kind of persona one needs in order to survive on an island for over twenty-eight years.
I agree with Virginia Woolf’s summation of this novel. Defoe’s rather good at playing with a reader’s perceptions—introducing the novel in his preface as “a private Man’s Adventures in the World”—then on the next page, giving his readers a taste of a day in the life of an ordinary everyday man and his family. When you first hear the name “Robinson Crusoe,” the image that initially pops in your mind’s eye is the adventure of a castaway on a deserted island. No one thinks about the first third of the novel, which describes Crusoe’s circumstances and background. In those first few pages, the reader’s hit with a description of Crusoe’s father’s gout—those everyday adventures surrounding life at home.
However unlike Virginia Woolf, I don’t think Crusoe’s tone is always an asset. As you read those first few pages, you immediately get the sense of Crusoe’s emotional detachment. His writing’s very precise, stating only facts—detailing only the barest essentials of his story. It’s so cold, almost heartless; his actions cowardly. He describes his desire for adventure, a life at sea. Yet, he decides to make his move when his elder brother dies, leaving his poor grieving mother to break the news to his father.
When times later get tough and Crusoe’s acquaintances tell him that he should return home, Crusoe refuses, not wanting to return home a coward, with his tail between his legs. I can certainly understand that…the rite of passage, proving his manhood and worth. And Crusoe eventually does make his fortune in the new world. Yet Crusoe’s downfall is greed, and of all things: for slaves. He had no real need to make that final disastrous voyage on a slave ship.
I love how Crusoe describes his island…the progression from a prison, an “Island of Despair” to a dungeon, a cottage, then a fortress, and a castle—constantly shifting his description of his home when his circumstances change. It’s very subtle, but wonderful.
I also love the last third of the novel, when Friday comes onto the scene. That role of British supremacy, the colonizer, certainly comes to the fore. Crusoe never desires to learn Friday’s true name and he immediately goes about to “humanize him”…fashioning modest clothing and converting him to Christianity. Crusoe’s often quite critical and forgetful when he describes Friday…referring to him as Savage, Man, Creature, Servant etc. and then completely forgetting Friday’s presence in the story. When the plot thickens, and the reader asks, “Well what happened to Friday?” about two pages later, Crusoe finally mentions him, as an afterthought. From a modern day point of view, Crusoe’s actions are awful. But, there’s a wonderful irony if you read between the lines. I love Friday’s astute observations—how he questions and responds to Crusoe, at times even leaving Crusoe speechless. For example in regards to religion Friday asks several times, “…if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?” Crusoe’s responses to this: “At first I could not tell what to say, so I pretended not to hear him […] I therefore diverted the present Discourse between me and my Man, rising up hastily, as upon some sudden Occasion of going out.” Truly wonderful! ;) At moments like this, I began to wonder who really was in charge of the situation, and had the true upper hand?
A few interesting side notes:
What’s funny is that that master-servant relationship doesn’t solely apply for Crusoe and Friday. It’s also heavily apparent between Crusoe and the other shipwrecked Spanish sailors, who come to the island. For example, when Crusoe’s given the chance to escape, he never tells his rescuers of the presence of those other men, including Friday’s own father. Crusoe never feels any guilt or remorse for leaving them behind. It’s amazing.
And even when I read this the first time, I wondered if whether in all those years alone on that island, he missed intimate “companionship”…. Well, he certainly does make up for it in the end. For those who may be interested, yes, when he returns to England,—now about 63 years old, he marries a young blushing bride…who dies three years after their union, baring him three children.