Robinson Crusoe

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Title Robinson Crusoe

Title page from the first edition
Author Daniel Defoe
Country England
Language English
Followed by The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1719 and sometimes regarded as the first novel in English. The book is a fictional autobiography of the title character, an English castaway who spends 28 years on a remote island, encountering natives, captives, and mutineers before being rescued. This device, presenting an account of supposedly factual events, is known as a " false document", and gives a realistic frame story. The story was probably influenced by the real-life events of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway marooned on a Pacific island (currently Alexander Selkirk Island, Chile) for four years.

The full title of the novel is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Crusoe leaves England setting sail from the Queens Dock in Hull on a sea voyage in September, 1651, against the wishes of his parents. The ship is taken over by Salè pirates and Crusoe becomes the slave of a Moor. He manages to escape with a boat and is befriended by the Captain of a Portuguese ship off the western coast of Africa. The ship is en route to Brazil. There with the help of the captain, Crusoe becomes owner of a plantation.

He joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but he is shipwrecked in a storm about forty miles out to sea on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco river on September 30, 1659. His companions all die; he manages to fetch arms, tools and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks. He proceeds to build a fenced-in habitation and cave, keeps a calendar by making marks in a wooden cross he builds. He hunts, grows corn, learns to make pottery, raises goats, etc. He reads the Bible and suddenly becomes religious, thanking God for his fate in which nothing is missing but society.

He discovers native cannibals occasionally visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At first he plans to kill the savages for their abomination, but then he realizes that he has no right to do so as the cannibals have not attacked him and do not knowingly commit a crime. He dreams of capturing one or two servants by freeing some prisoners, and indeed, when a prisoner manages to escape, Crusoe helps him, naming his new companion "Friday" after the day of the week he appeared, and teaches him English and converts him to Christianity.

After another party of natives arrive to partake in a grisly feast, Crusoe and Friday manage to kill most of the natives and save two of the prisoners. One is Friday's father and the other is a Spaniard, who informs Crusoe that there are other Spaniards shipwrecked on the mainland. A plan is devised where the Spaniard would return with Friday's father to the mainland and bring back the others, build a ship, and sail to a Spanish port.

Before the Spaniards return, an English ship appears; mutineers have taken control of the ship and intend to maroon their former captain on the island. The captain and Crusoe manage to retake the ship. They leave for England, leaving behind three of the mutineers to fend for themselves and inform the Spaniards what happened. Crusoe leaves the island on December 19, 1686. He travels to Portugal to find his old friend, the captain, who informs him that his Brazilian plantation was well cared for and he has become wealthy. From Portugal, he travels overland to England, to avoid mishaps at sea, via Spain and France; during winter in the Pyrenees, he and his companions have to fend off an attack by vicious wolves. Back in England, he decides to sell his plantation, as returning to Brazil would entail converting to Catholicism. Later in life, after marrying, having three children and becoming widowed, he returns to his island for a last time. The book ends with a hint about a sequel that would detail his return to the island, which had been discovered.

Reception and sequels

Plaque 'commemorating' Robinson Crusoe's departure from Hull - "Had I the sense to return to Hull, I had been Happy..."
Plaque 'commemorating' Robinson Crusoe's departure from Hull - "Had I the sense to return to Hull, I had been Happy..."

The book was first published on April 25, 1719. The positive reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions. Within years, it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had spawned more editions, spin-offs, and translations (even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children's versions with mainly pictures and no text. There have been hundreds of adaptations in dozens of languages, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Luis Buñuel's film adaptation. J.M. Coetzee's 1986 novel, Foe, is a reimagining, retelling, and reevaluation of the story. The term " Robinsonade" has even been coined to describe the various spin-offs of Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe went on to write a lesser-known sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It was intended to be the last part of his stories, according to the original title-page of its first edition, but in fact a third part, entitled Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, was written; it is a mostly forgotten series of moral essays with Crusoe's name attached to give interest.

Real-life castaways

There were many stories of real-life castaways in Defoe's time. Defoe's inspiration for Crusoe was probably a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 by Woodes Rogers' expedition after four years on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández Islands off the Chilean coast. Rogers's " Cruising Voyage" was published in 1712, with an account of Alexander Selkirk's ordeal. However, Robinson Crusoe is far from a copy of Woodes Roger's account. Selkirk was abandoned at his own request, while Crusoe was shipwrecked. The islands are different. Selkirk lived alone for the whole time, while Crusoe found companions. Selkirk stayed on his island for four years, not twenty-eight. Furthermore, much of the appeal of Defoe's novel is the detailed and captivating account of Crusoe's thoughts, occupations and activities which goes far beyond that of Rogers' basic descriptions of Selkirk, which account for only a few pages.


Despite its simple narrative style and the absence of the supposedly indispensable love motive, it was well received in the literary world. The book is considered one of the most widely published books in history (behind some of the sacred texts). It has been a hit since the day it was published, and continues to be highly regarded to this day.

Novelist James Joyce eloquently noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: "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 calculating taciturnity".

According to J.P. Hunter, Robinson is not a hero, but an everyman. He begins as a wanderer, aimless on a sea he does not understand; he ends as a pilgrim, crossing a final mountain to enter the promised land. The book tells the story of how Robinson gets closer to God, not through listening to sermons in a church but through spending time alone amongst nature with only a Bible to read.

Robinson Crusoe is filled with religious aspects. Defoe was himself a Puritan moralist, and normally worked in the guide tradition, writing books on how to be a good Puritan Christian, such as The New Family Instructor (1727) and Religious Courtship (1722). While Robinson Crusoe is far more than a guide, it shares many of the same themes and theological and moral points of view. The very name "Crusoe" may have been taken from Timothy Cruso, a classmate of Defoe's who had written guide books himself, including God the Guide of Youth (1695), before dying at an early age — just eight years before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Cruso would still have been remembered by contemporaries and the association with guide books is clear. It has even been suggested that God the Guide of Youth inspired Robinson Crusoe because of a number of passages in that work that are closely tied to the novel; however this is speculative.

Cultural influences

The book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered the language. The term "Robinson Crusoe" is virtually synonymous with the word "castaway" and is often used as a metaphor for being or doing something alone. Robinson Crusoe usually referred to his servant as "my man Friday", from which the term " Man Friday" (or "Girl Friday") originated, referring to a personal assistant, servant, or companion.

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on education, Emile: Or, On Education, the one book the main character, Emile, is allowed to read before the age of twelve is Robinson Crusoe. Rousseau wants Emile to identify himself as Crusoe so he could rely upon himself for all of his needs. In Rousseau's view, Emile needs to imitate Crusoe's experience, allowing necessity to determine what is to be learned and accomplished. This is one of the main themes of Rousseau's educational model.

Nobel Prize-winning (2003) author J. M. Coetzee in 1986 published a novel entitled Foe, in which he explores an alternative telling of the Crusoe story, an allegorical story about racism, philosophy, and colonialism.

Jacques Offenbach wrote an opéra comique called Robinson Crusoé which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Salle Favart on 23 November 1867. This was based on the British pantomime version rather than the novel itself. The libretto was by Eugène Cormon and Hector-Jonathan Crémieux. The opera includes a duet by Robinson Crusoe and Friday.

French novelist Michel Tournier wrote Friday (or in French Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique) published in 1967. His novel explores themes including civilization versus nature, the psychology of solitude,and death and sexuality, in a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe story. Tournier's Robinson chooses to remain on the island, rejecting civilization when offered the chance to escape 28 years after being shipwrecked.

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