I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Based on a real-life incident, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of a young man who yearns to escape the mundane world and set sail for a life of adventure in faraway places. Defying his father's wishes he leaves on board a ship, then finds himself marooned on a tropical island where he wrestles with his fate and ponders the nature of God and man. The world has gotten smaller since Defoe penned his novel, but the human imagination still looms large. So even in today's world of space exploration, this story of an ordinary man struggling to survive has not lost its appeal for modern readers.
There are reasons that some books are considered classics—even after many years, they still have things to say to us. Robinson Crusoe is one of those stories. I first encountered it as a child, in comic book form (anyone else remember Classics Illustrated?) and I remember reading it numerous times and then day dreaming about how I would survive on a desert island. And of course, it is often asked “If you could take only one book (or five, or whatever number) of books with you to entertain you while so stranded, which one(s) would it be?” Poor old Robinson Crusoe seems to have only had the Bible, which is rather low on entertainment value, although it does have good bits.
Now the graphic edition of RC, although fairly true to the original, was very abridged (and rightly so, for the juvenile crowd). As is so often the case, I found it fascinating to read the adult version in comparison. I’ll say right up front, that if archaic spellings and language annoy you, you would be best to stick to the modernized versions.
Originally written in the early 1700s, Robinson Crusoe is a peek back in time into the attitudes and values of that day. No one questions that Christianity is the best religion (although there is a tug-of-war between Catholicism and Protestantism). Slavery and class inequality are just facts of life. European culture trumps all other cultures. Members of non-European cultures are barbarians and savages, suspected of all kinds of indecent behavior right from running around unclothed up to and including cannibalism. Dafoe really got into describing the “cannibal feasts” happening on the shores of Crusoe’s island. This kind of thing has been happening since the dawn of time—dehumanize those who are not like you so that you can feel morally superior. After all, we get the word barbarian from the Ancient Greeks, who perceived anyone who didn’t speak Greek as saying “Bar, bar, bar….” Witches and Jews, among many other persecuted groups have been subject to the same accusations. The target moves, but the argument remains the same.
I think Dafoe meant Robinson Crusoe to be a way to steer the worldly reader into the fold of Christianity. The young Crusoe is unconcerned with things spiritual and out to experience what the world has to offer him (travel, booze, money—the good stuff). It really isn’t until he has been alone on his island for many years into his 28 year stay that he finally “finds religion.” And he still doesn’t really examine his beliefs until he is trying to teach them to his rescued “savage” Friday. SPOILER ALERT (if such a thing exists for a 300 year old work of fiction) he ends up rescued, returned to “civilization,” and wealthy—well rewarded for his faith. I think if Robinson Crusoe was alive in the 21st century, he would be an avid admirer of books like The Secret, where the power of positive thinking can get you whatever your little heart desires!
Parts of the story I never knew before: Crusoe’s defying his parents to go see the world, his time in Brazil before his shipwreck, and his trip back to England after his rescue. I was also very struck by the difficulty of shifting money from place to place and having someone to trust with finances. Not that our big banks have proven to be eminently trustworthy, but at least they have made international commerce less of a crap shoot than it used to be.
An interesting look at a time and cultural space that no longer exists.