Great Novel No. 3: “Robinson Crusoe”

 The Life And Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner

By Daniel Defoe 

***

This is a bit of a landmark in the 100 Great Novels series. Not only is this the first book to be truly novel length (the edition I read was just over 300 pages; there are still no chapters), but it’s also the first to be almost universally recognized. It’s one of those stories that you almost know without ever being told it.

It also happens to be one of those books that is frequently mentioned in debates about the rise of the novel. Depending on your criteria, the form could have come to full life in 1719 with the publication of Robinson Crusoe.

The main plot is easy to summarize. Robinson Crusoe wants some adventure in his life so he goes to sea. After a few years of travelling around and making his fortune, he winds up on a deserted island as the only survivor of a shipwreck. Over the next twenty-eight years he not only builds a new life for himself, but what almost amounts to his own private civilization. Eventually he discovers that while no one else lives on the island, it does have visitors; cannibal “savages” who come to the island to carry out their ritual slaughter and feasts. He saves one of their captives and names him Friday (because of the day of the week on which they met). This is the end of Crusoe’s solitude and after another few years he manages to escape the island with Friday and returns to his home country.

It’s both easy and difficult to review Robinson Crusoe. What makes it easy is that there’s a great deal to be said about it. What makes it difficult is that it’s already been said. The colonial overtones, the philosophical musings of the character, the way the novel foreshadows literary realism, even the fact that it is (yet again) an example of fiction disguising itself as a true story. All of it has been dissected over and over again. There’s very little left I could say that would be at all original, except my personal opinion of the book.

What did I think of the book? To be entirely honest…not much. And it didn’t take very much for me to feel that way about it.

As a whole, Robinson Crusoe is not a bad piece of literature. It would by no means appeal to a reader unused to the classics, since the story isn’t based on action (though there are some action scenes) or even necessarily plot. The bulk of the narrative is taken up with Crusoe’s descriptions of how he survives on the island. He comes across as one of the most enterprising of human beings. After much trial and error in everything he does, he manages to excel in the areas of agriculture, food production, fortress-building, boating, and even tailoring. From a few scraps recovered out of his ship and the wild resources of the island, he tames the wilderness and becomes a self-appointed king. He might come across as smug to some, but you can’t help but marvel at his ingenuity and perseverance.

I mentioned his philosophical musings before. The only book Crusoe has is a Bible. Through simple reading and meditation, he comes to consider himself a devout Christian and sees all that has happened to him as the result of divine Providence. I found these passages interesting on a personal level, though I confess I forgot most of them not long after reading them.

But there was something in the book that somewhat soured me on it: the ending. It isn’t that what happens in the end is bad, but the ending itself goes on far too long. After Crusoe gets off the island, I expected only a short summary of what he found when he returned to England. Instead of this we get about another thirty pages of a detailed account of how he managed to discover a fortune, and another adventure where he crosses from Lisbon to Paris over land–after he’s already been to England and needs to go back. I honestly don’t know what Defoe was thinking when he wrote this. After Crusoe gets off the island, nothing much of interest should really happen. In a way this problem shouldn’t really come as a surprise; it also takes him a bit too long to get onto the island at the beginning of the book. But when I take a step back from it all, it seems strange that I should react so strongly to the issue. After all, one of my favourite novels, The Lord of The Rings, has much the same thing happen. Remember how everyone complained that the third movie had multiple endings? I was not one of them, and to this day I staunchly defend that choice. I suppose part of the explanation may be that I think Tolkien is a superior writer, and maybe also I was getting anxious to finish Robinson Crusoe and get on with other things (I sometimes do when a book takes me longer to read than I expected).

I find myself left with something to think about as I continue through this reading list, and also as I prepare to become a novelist: What is the importance of pacing to a good story? And what, if anything, justifies a meandering narrative?

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