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Who and what are we, as human beings? What qualities are innate to us, and which have been layered upon us by culture and convention? This is one of several profound questions posed by Defoe's great novel of 1719 which, so far from being a simple adventure story for children, was to become one of the seminal documents of 18th-century thought. I read it in abridged form as a child, and more seriously in college, but it meant little to me then. Recently, however, I have been reading a lot of Australian literature -- let me cite Patrick White's VOSS as a prime example -- that explores aspects of a similar theme: man reduced to his most basic essence, and his relationship to a culture abandoned at home and needing to be rebuilt from scratch abroad. What better than to go back to the grandfather of all such writing, ROBINSON CRUSOE?
While I haven't compared other editions, this one from Barnes & Noble is certainly pleasant and convenient. It has an attractive NC Wyeth illustration on the cover, it is clearly printed, easy to hold in the hand, and contains a modest amount of footnotes glossing words which are unfamiliar or have changed their meaning. It also includes an excellent introduction by LJ Swingle that puts the main themes into context. Reading it as an afterword, I found that Swingle had already expressed most of my own reactions to the book, much more eloquently than I could do myself.
A few of these nonetheless. I was surprised by the pacing of the book. For a start, Crusoe has several adventures before he reaches the island, including suffering shipwreck off the east coast of England on his very first journey by sea, being captured as a slave by North African pirates, and setting up a plantation in Brazil employing his own indentured laborers. Indeed, he is on a voyage back to Africa to buy slaves when the famous shipwreck occurs. While Defoe might have used this for a polemic against slavery, he doesn't; indeed on his return to civilization, Crusoe finds himself enriched by the profits of three decades of slave labor on his plantation. Nonetheless, this does set up a strong contrast with the state Crusoe finds himself in when he has to make and do everything for himself. Yet here too I was surprised; so far from coming to the island empty-handed, Crusoe manages to salvage an enormous amount from the wrecked ship; he had enough gunpowder, for instance, to last for almost thirty years.
It was also fascinating to watch religion taking root in that barren soil. Crusoe is presented at first as no more than a conventionally religious man, and he curses Providence for thrusting him into such calamity. But gradually he begins to find religion a necessity to enable him to understand and appreciate his new life -- at one point literally counting his blessings. So that by the time he becomes aware that the island is occasionally visited by cannibals, it is his religious philosophy that guides him on how to treat them. Defoe's outlook is frankly Christian, as opposed to the Naturism of Rousseau, whose EMILE praises CRUSOE as indispensable, or the rationality of Voltaire, whose CANDIDE is a satirical attack on the very notion of a benevolent Providence.
I was interested that the cannibal sequence, starting with the famous footprint in the sand, begins beyond the halfway point in the book, and in the last two or three years of Crusoe's stay on the island. It takes Crusoe a quarter-century to learn to live alone; only then does Defoe bring social aspects back into play, by distinct stages but in an accelerating rhythm. First, he is forced to think defensively, surrounded by potential enemies. Next he must engage those enemies, rescuing one of their victims, his man Friday. Then there is a period of living together, as master and servant, teacher and pupil. Then the number of subjects in his little kingdom increases to three. Finally, he is involved in putting down the mutiny on an English ship, becoming commando leader, judge, and admiral. There is one delicious moment when he represents himself, not as the Governor of the island, but as somebody speaking for the Governor, who remains in his fastness unseen. A WIZARD OF OZ situation, perhaps, but also one in which Crusoe becomes a kind of god. It was interesting to see the tropes of civilization rushing in over the final pages, like water through a breach. But at the same time, I found it a little sad, and yearned for a return to that pristine Eden.