Sunday, August 15, 2010

Daniel Defoe – ‘Robinson Crusoe’

Just imagine, what if you were to be cast away on a desert island? Could you cope? Would you thrive? Would you discover things about yourself that you never would in civilisation? Which eight records would you take? Why didn’t you die in the plane crash? It’s a persistent myth, Robinson Crusoe. Maybe its allure is obvious: it strips things down, removes all the excuses you might have for failing to live up to your ideals (just as long as your ideals don’t involve other people). On the island, there is nothing and no-one in the way. There are goats, wild cats and parrots; there are streams, beaches, hills and caves; there is fertile soil, grapes, and all the trees you can cut down; there is the equatorial sun, and there is the rainy season. On one of the beaches, near where the storm that engulfed your lifeboat spat you out, the wrecked ship your shipmates abandoned sits, almost in tact. You have until the next storm blows to equip yourself with guns, ammunition, food, drink, clothes, shoes and tools to last the next twenty eight years. An umbrella? No, you’ll have to make one. A spade? Why would a ship have one of those? But you can have a pipe... oh, you forgot the pipe. Never mind. There’s a bible in one of those trunks you saved, try reading that if you’re feeling low.

After a nightmare brought on by fever, Crusoe reflects on the eight seafaring years which preceded his arrival on the island:
a certain stupidity of soul, without desire of good, or conscience of evil, had entirely overwhelm’d me, and I was all that the most hardned, unthinking, wicked creature among our common sailors can be suppos’d to be, not having the least sense, either of the fear of God in danger, or of thankfulness to God in deliverances. (p. 71)
This is an early indication of the shape the novel is going to take. During the account of his time at sea, Crusoe is constantly berating himself for the stupidity of his actions, which always tend to the adventurous over the sensible. His father commends to him ‘the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life’ because it is
not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanick part of mankind, and not embarrass’d with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind. (p. 6)
Crusoe always remembers this advice, but never acts upon it – at most, it leads to interludes of self loathing like the one above. It is noticeable, however, that the self loathing wears off after some time spent on his island. Between page 38 and page 122 in my edition (Penguin Classics, 2001), he is entirely alone, and devotes his time to learning how to live from scratch. He builds a habitation by encircling a shallow cave with stakes; he learns first how to hunt goats (they don’t look up, apparently), then how to farm them; by chance a few grains of barley from a sack fall to the ground and begin to grow, which is the beginning of his arable farming. He builds a boat from a massive tree by hollowing it out, then can’t move it to get it into the water; he makes a smaller one and sails around the island until a current takes him too far out. This sort of life suits him very well, and it suits the novel very well: early fiction often appears too event-packed to the modern reader, and here we have an enforced stasis, where although plenty gets done around the island, and years pass, no interaction occurs between characters for 84 pages and more (page 122 is when he finds the footprint; he won’t meet Friday for another 30 or so pages). During this time, he grows more competent and more content, and that, really, is the beauty of the book.

Seeing the footprint – an isolated footprint – on the beach at the far end of the island from his home, is the turning point, at which action begins to be possible again. Crusoe ‘tremble[s] at the very apprehension of seeing a man’ (p. 124) after so long in isolation. It is the first indication he gets of the cannibals that periodically come to use his island to cook and eat their prey, who are men they have conquered in battle. They use the side of the island he never visits, which the current prevented his boat from reaching. The action that follows is slow and involves a lot of waiting (the defences he builds take several years to grow from stakes into closely-knit trees), but Crusoe realises that he must leave, and that he will need help to do it. He dreams of saving a captive from being eaten, and thus earning his loyalty, and this is exactly how he meets Friday, who becomes his slave. The similarity of the dream to the event made me wonder if Crusoe had gone crazy by this point, but there is little else to support this idea. His assumption of power during the rescue (which involves winning back a ship on which there has been a mutiny – the mutineers plan to leave the captain on Crusoe’s island until he and Friday intervene) has quite a regal ring to it, but this is justified by the high spirits he must feel at being on the verge of deliverance, and also the importance of fooling the mutineers that he has more men under his command than is actually the case. By this stage, we are back in the realm of the adventure story, and it is a good one, but it can’t touch the isolated Crusoe, working his way single handed from shipwreck to smallholding. Can you imagine?


Thanks to Mum for the illustration, which is from a children’s edition she has.


Wilde said...

Hi Chris,
I have really enjoyed reading your writings (haven't read all of the posts), particularly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’--as I'm always researching motivation and "confidence for school" for a book of lessons and activities for students who have learning difficulties. Are you a writer, student, teacher? I appreciate what you are doing!

Chris said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Wilde. I do broadband technical support for a living, can't you tell?

Saint-Exupéry as a role model for shy kids sounds interesting!

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