Robinson Crusoe has made a profound
impression on readers as well as on whole cultures. Samuel Johnson, a
demanding critic, gave it the highest praise, "Was there ever yet any
thing written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers,
excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim's
Progress?" (1776). Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarded it as "the one
book that teaches all that books can teach." In Emilius and Sophia:
or, A New System of Education (1762), he wanted Emilius to read
only Robinson Crusoe during his formative years, because it
would "guide his development to a state of reason" and teach him to
judge everything by its usefulness. According to John Robert Moore,
Crusoe created not only a new literary form (the novel), but also a new
reading public. Crusoe can also be appreciated by
unsophisticated or novice readers and has even been memorialized in
children's culture by a nursery rhyme:
Poor old Robinson Crusoe!
Poor old Robinson Crusoe!
They made him a coat
Of an old nanny goat;
I wonder how they could do so!
With a ring a ting tang,
And a ring a ting tang,
Poor old Robinson Crusoe!
What explains the almost universal appeal
of Crusoe? Why do so many people, regardless of age, social
class, intellectual level, and culture, admire Crusoe? Even a partial
list of the explanations offered is lengthy:
- The thrill of adventure lures us
into identifying with Crusoe and his triumph over mishaps, particularly
since the specific details of Defoe's portrayal make his experiences
real for us. This view does not account for the enthusiasm of
sophisticated readers like Johnson and Rousseau.
- English readers often see Crusoe as
the typical (really idealized?) Englishman–manly, self-reliant, courageous, heroic, and
resourceful. This narrow chauvinistic response excludes all non-English
readers, yet Crusoe transcends national, religious, and cultural
boundaries. The French, in particular, have had a longstanding
affection for Crusoe. They admired him as a man of heroic stature, a
man who overcame dire adversities. During the French Revolution,
Crusoe's courage, independence, and determination reflected the spirit
and values of the Revolution. To emphasize their similarity, the novel
was partially rewritten: Friday patriotically refused to leave his home
for Europe, and Crusoe praised Nature, not God, for the barley. Gerard
Grandville's illustration for an 1840 edition of Crusoe
represented the French view of Crusoe as a larger-than-life figure. Crusoe
was so well known in France that, until the 1930s, a large umbrella was
called un robinson.
- John J. Richetti expanded the view
of Crusoe as the typical Englishman, seeing him rather as the
archetypal "personage of the last two hundred and fifty years of
European consciousness." Obviously this view is Eurocentric and
excludes non-Europeans. But Crusoe seems infinitely adaptable and
travels well to other cultures. In a nineteenth century Eskimo
translation published in Greenland, one illustration depicted Friday
bowing to Crusoe. Friday wore a loincloth, and Crusoe was dressed like
an Eskimo in furs, with a harpoon in the background; the scenery
consisted of palm trees, dense bushes, and a partially snow-covered
- Coleridge saw Crusoe in universal
terms, as "a representative of humanity in general; neither his
intellectual nor his moral qualities set him above the middle degree of
mankind...." He is "the universal representative, the person for whom
every reader could substitute himself. But now nothing is done,
thought, or suffered, or desired, but what every man can imagine
himself doing, thinking, feeling, or wishing for." He rises only where
"in religion, in resignation, in dependence on, and thankful
acknowledgement of the divine mercy and goodness" (1832).
- For James Beattie, "Robinson
Crusoe, though there is nothing of love in it, is one of the most
interesting narratives that ever was written; at least in all that part
which related to the desert island: being founded on a passion still
more prevalent than love, the desire of self-preservation; and
therefore likely to engage the curiosity of every class of readers,
both old and young, both learned and unlearned" (1783).
- The division of labor and
industrialization have cut off modern men and women from simple tasks;
we no longer know the whole process of basic activities, like growing
wheat, milling flour, and baking bread. This was true in Defoe's time
also, though to a lesser extent. So the details of Crusoe's everyday
life fascinate us, as we watch him recreate civilization alone. He
makes us look at the activities and necessities of everyday life in a
new way, and we enjoy each discovery with Crusoe.
- Walter Allen sees in Crusoe
the dramatization of "the inescapable solitariness of each man in his
relation to God and the universe." Edward Gordon Craig, a modern
illustrator, gives a personal and modern spin to Allen's suggestion:
"we secretly enjoy loneliness through him."
In writing Crusoe, Defoe created a
character who speaks to something deep in the human psyche and
essential to the human condition. This is the reason, I suggest, that
Crusoe can be assimilated into diverse cultures, that the meanings
assigned him change to reflect changes in a society, that he can be
given conflicting meanings, and that he reaches into the private souls
of individuals. It is these qualities that make Crusoe a mythic or an
Myth originates in the effort of
primitive people to explain some practice, belief, institution, or
natural happening. Myths are anonymous and accepted as true. "Broadly
speaking myths and mythologies seek to rationalize and explain the
universe and all that is in it. Thus, they have a similar function to
science, theology, religion and history in modern societies" (Bernard
Doyle, Encyclopedia Mythica). Common types of myth are creation
myths or stories which explain how the gods, the world or a phenomenon
came about. A mythic figure is a heroic figure involved in events which
have a significant effect on the universe or society.
Other kinds of myths and uses for myth developed as society became more
sophisticated. Plato, for instance, created myths or narratives of
supernatural beings to speculate about open-ended subjects, that is,
topics for which absolute certainty is impossible. William Blake
created a private mythology in his poetry, saying "I must create a
system or be enslaved by another man's." A myth may be a false belief,
e.g., the myth of progress. Or it may be a fictional, fully developed
setting for a literary work, like Thomas Hardy's myth of Wessex or
Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
(1) An archetype is the original or
prototype who sets the pattern for similar beings, for example,
Frankenstein (monster) or Hercules (hero).
(2) A basic concept in Jungian psychology, the archetype is a pattern
of thought or an image which is passed down from one generation to the
other, a process which Jung called the "psychic residua of numberless
experiences of the same type." The collective unconscious thus holds
the same images as humanity's primitive ancestors, like the good
mother, the wise man, the magician, the vampire, and the monster
Archetypes appear in the myths, religion, literature, art, and
fairy tales of most, perhaps all societies. Common archetypes are the
death-rebirth motif, going to the sea, the fatal woman,
Cinderella-stories, and the sacrificial hero or god.
| Day 1 (W, Sept. 4)
|Day 2 (M, Sept. 9)
||Defoe, Robinson Crusoe,
“Preface” - "I Build My Fortress"
Overview of Daniel Defoe
Overview of Robinson Crusoe
The Sources of Robinson Crusoe
|Day 3 (W, Sept. 11)
|| Defoe, Robinson Crusoe,
"The Journal" - "I am Very Seldom Idle"
Increase Mather, Remarkable
|Day 4 (T, Sept. 17)
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, "I Make Myself a
Canoe" - "I See the Wreck..."
|Day 5 (W, Sept. 18)
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, "I Hear the
First Sound..." - "We Quell..."
Religion in Robinson
Web paper due
|Day 6 (M, Sept. 23)
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, "We Seize the
Ship" - "I Revisit My Island"
Robinson Crusoe as