Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
No man is an island, though for a long time Robinson Crusoe was close. This novel, a surprisingly long 300 pages, is a case study in the importance of worldview to art. As an example of historical fiction based in part on historical fact, this novel is a historical version of a confession, a type of literature that is profoundly “Christian,” if one considers Augustine to have been Christian, that is. The first-person narrator reflects at such length about his sins and his conversion from a life of sin and rebellion to a genuine Protestant faith, and the workings of divine providence through his suffering, that if one does not share a Christian worldview or a receptivity to it, this book is a difficult one to read. Since the narrator is such a self-aware Christian, having a shared worldview with the narrator (and presumably the author) is important.
The story of Robinson Crusoe is a classic story of a man who rejects the comforts and gradual improvement possible at home for a man of his class for the life of a seaman. Naturally, given that he rebelled against his father, he suffers a lot of reverses but is initially unrepentant, despite his deliverance from a shipwreck and slavery in North Africa, and a decent place as a gentleman planter in Brazil. It is his greed for profit as a slave trader that leads him to be the only survivor of a shipwreck on an island on the northern coast of South America, where he lives alone for a long time. A long time.
Because life on a mostly peaceful island is not exciting, the drive of most of the plot of this novel (which is fairly densely plotted at the beginning and end, and very slow in the middle) depends on your ability to recognize and appreciate the gradual but growing spirituality of the narrator as he lives out more than two decades in isolation, growing food and working to provide for his modest needs, learning that there are a lot of things in life far more important than money, not least one’s spiritual state. Gradually, Robinson Crusoe grows into a gentleman by sorting out his spiritual fate alone, and then he is brought little by little back into contact with other people a better man.
This, to me, is the most interesting part of this novel, and what makes it worthy of its status as a classic. After we see Robinson Crusoe work out his own salvation with fear and trembling, a gradual process of spiritual development through Bible study and reflection (as he was able to recover a Bible from his shipwreck, among many other items), we see him grow into a ruler through his deliverance of Friday, a cannibal, from a cruel fate. His own faith deepens as he teaches his noble and largely innocent savage companion. And then he is led to save others, including Friday’s father and a Spaniard. Soon after this, his rescue of a marooned captain and his quelling of a mutiny allow him (and Friday) to return to Europe, where he fulfills his destiny as a gentleman, a patron to his own children and nephews, through the decency of others that he has grown to match in his own life. The complex interplay between early European imperialism, a stout English sense of morality and fair play, and the influence of growing spirituality on one’s public life is a fascinating element of this novel even today.
There is no denying that this book is an intensely lonely one. When a narrator is stranded for nearly two decades, with barely even a volleyball to talk to–some goats, a poll parrot, and a dog, and some feral cats–clearly the novel is going to be driven by that man’s dark nights of the soul. Not everyone is going to be interested by such a process, and even then there is no guarantee that this process will be enjoyable to read. I found the novel a very slow starter because the author kept on talking about himself so critically, and it was only as the novel passed the 1/3 mark that I became gripped with it. Of course, other readers will not find the conversion process to be as gripping as I did. This novel might not be for them, though.