Robinson Crusoe

The fourth book on mine and Stephanie’s Book List O’ Doom (yes, I’m writing about them all out of order, apologies to the reader) was Robinson Crusoe. This was one of those books about which I felt I knew a fair amount going in (though, in retrospect I was conflating it a bit with The Swiss Family Robinson), and I was mostly right!

The basic plot, as I understood it, was as follows:

  1. Man (presumably named Robinson), gets shipwrecked
  2. Man lives on an island for a while (treehouse? y/n?)
  3. Man is eventually rescued and/or is not rescued, but his journals/letters are discovered by some other intrepid explorer.

I was (spoilers!) pretty much correct in all of this, though there’s a bit more to the story than that, but the thing that surprised me the most when I did actually read it was the sheer amount of time covered in the novel. I had thought we meet our main character, he’s shipwrecked for five, maybe ten years, and then rescued. The end. How very wrong I was!

We meet our good friend Robinson when he’s roughly 18, and defying his father to go and seek his fortune, like you do. He’s shipwrecked almost immediately in the process of going from one bit of England to another bit of it, and laments the fact that he ever got on a boat again. Obviously he does get on a boat again, several times in fact. The second time he rejects his foreboding instincts and goes to sea his ship is captured by pirates, and he’s made a slave in what must be somewhere roughly like Morocco. He lives there for a couple years, then escapes with a slave boy and makes his way eventually to Brazil, where he becomes a pretty well-off planter.

At this point we’re probably at least a quarter of the way into the book, and probably ten years have passed, and he still hasn’t had his (most important) shipwreck! This made me think of a conversation I’d had recently with another friend about the length of Bollywood movies. Bollywood movies, said she, don’t do exposition. What would be done in American cinema with a flashback or voice-over narration in a couple of minutes is fully shown in Bollywood. You don’t begin in the middle, as it were; instead you start really at the beginning, and proceed forward from there. I’m starting to think that our literature has done a similar thing, and where modern stories start in the thick of, or even after the plot, older ones begin at the beginning, and tell you everything from there onward.

Anyway, back to our friend Robinson. Finally he and the other planters decide that he should go to Africa, since he’s been there before, and bring back some slaves for the plantations, at which point he does, and thus becomes the only survivor of a shipwreck on an uninhabited island, where he then survives for nearly thirty years.

I did actually rather enjoy Robinson Crusoe. It’s a bit long-winded, but the story itself is quite interesting. The casual racism which keeps coming up in the books we’ve been reading from this time period is pretty horrifying (in spite of having been a slave himself, Crusoe thinks nothing of going to Africa to fetch back some “savage natives” as slaves for his plantation), both toward Africans and toward the indigenous tribes of the Americas. Interestingly, though, Crusoe makes a rather offhand comment about how appalling everyone in Europe finds the way the Spanish have handled colonization, which really surprised me. As an American, though we are now beginning to be taught the dark sides of Columbus’ arrival and the subsequent influx of Europeans to the New World, the idea that anyone at the time thought that there was anything bad about it is not one we’re exposed to. Apparently, though, plenty of Europe thought it was disgraceful the way Spain carried on, because this is also mentioned in Frankenstein (next review!), which I find fascinating.

There is the rather boring and seemingly-obligatory-in-writings-of-the-time middle bit where Crusoe finds religion, and waxes rapturous about God’s saving him from the shipwreck, and preserving him on an island, but it’s not too bad. The accounts of how he salvages much of the ship, and how he then proceeds to survive for nearly thirty years are completely riveting, and also reveal many differences between modern and historical ways of being. For example: with regard to food, Crusoe’s first order of business is to hunt and kill goats and tortoises native to the island. He only accidentally plants corn, and does eventually intentionally plant some grapes so he can have raisins, but these things take him several years. If I were on a deserted island, I would immediately begin looking for plants I could raise, not animals I could kill (though I would no doubt eat some of those, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them a sustainable food source). I’m sure this reflects both my midwestern upbringing, but also changes in diet between then (he seems to mostly live on meat and porridge) and now (I’m mostly vegetarian).

In any case, I’d recommend Robinson Crusoe for reading- it’s a little long, and there is definitely both the occasional pang to modern sensibilities and also the occasional long and boring bit, but overall it’s really quite interesting.

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