Book appreciation: Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe's tale of redemption

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
W. Taylor

Daniel Defoe, author of the first and best-known survival novel in the English language, was a survivor himself. Born around 1660, he lived through 1665's Great Plague of London, in which 100,000 people - 25 per cent of the population - perished. The next year, his family's house was one of only three in their neighbourhood left standing after the Great Fire of London.

Jack-of-all-trades Defoe was a trader with questionable business practices, a spy for the British crown and a prolific political pamphleteer. Frequently on the run from creditors, he was jailed as a debtor and again for seditious libel. Even his name was not his own: Daniel Foe had added the "De" to make himself sound more aristocratic.

Defoe was a versatile writer, publishing more than 500 books, journals, pamphlets and poems on subjects as diverse as religion, marriage, politics, psychology and crime. His detached narrative style, coupled with a flair for detail and realism, mean Defoe is often lauded as the father of British journalism.

That said, he was never a master of the punchy sound bite: the original title of Robinson Crusoe was The Life and Strange Surprizing 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 Pyrates.

Published when Defoe was about 60 years old, Robinson Crusoe was his first novel (later outings included Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year, both 1722). The tale is the fictionalised autobiography of a shipwrecked Englishman who survived for 28 years on a deserted island somewhere in the Caribbean, possibly modelled on the real-life story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned for four years on a South Pacific island.

Crusoe learns how to find shelter, make tools and pottery, hunt wild animals, cultivate and store crops, and raise goats. He must also cope with the wretchedness of isolation, adopting a parrot as a pet. When other humans enter the story, they are cannibals - and become victims.

Ultimately, Robinson Crusoe traces a biblical arc of transgression (the young Crusoe running away to sea), retribution (shipwreck and loneliness), repentance (painful lessons learned in order to survive) and redemption.