Summary of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – Literature Essay
“Robinson Crusoe is certainly the first novel in the sense that it is the first fictional narrative in which the ordinary person’s activities are the centre of continuous literary attention.” Before that, in the early eighteenth
century, authors like Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele looked back to the Rome of Caesar Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) as a golden age. That period is called the Augustan age. Literature was very different since it focused on mythology and epic heroes. However, to what extent can Robinson Crusoe be called the “first novel” and how is it different from all that have been done so far? Besides, what are the evolutions in the novel genre leading to Victorian novels, like Pride and Prejudice published almost one hundred years later (1813) in terms of style, themes and concerns?
Augustan writers, before Daniel Defoe, were very protective of the status quo and their novels were philosophical and religious, based on a myth of the eternal fitness of things. By contrast, Defoe stood for revolutionary change, economic individualism, social mobility, trade, and freedom of consciousness. For Swift, Defoe was “the fellow that was pilloried, I have forgotten his name.” He represented at once a social literary and intellectual challenge to the Augustan world, and the Augustans reacted to him accordingly.
In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe deals with major points of Western civilisation like trade, mercantile capitalism since at that time, a great attempt was made to dominate other continents, spread culture, beliefs, like for example, when Robinson tries to convert Friday into Christianity, as he considers him a savage. In the eighteenth century, British economically depended on slave trade, which was abolished on the early 1800s. Therefore, Daniel Defoe was familiar with this practise, even though he did not actively criticise it. There is consequently no surprise that, Robinson treats Friday as his slave. However, Crusoe is able to recognise Friday’s humanity, though he does not see his slavery as a contradiction. Robinson Crusoe was written in a context of a European colonialism well established around the globe.
Next, material wealth is a sign of prestige and power in Robinson’s mind. For instance, he often lists his belongings, like the amount of land ploughed, his provisions, and he stores the coins found on various wrecks. On top of that, he calls his “base,” his “castle” and eventually considers himself as a “King.” Therefore, material power is an important element as well as religion and faith in the novel.
Robinson rejects his father’s advice and religious teachings at the beginning of the novel, in order to travel and have some adventure and wealth. Although, his shipwreck can be considered as a moral punishment and his disobedience as a sin, the protagonist did accumulate wealth and did survive at the end of the novel. Thus, the fact that he was punished can be argued and discussed. Robinson’s opinion about religion is very clear. He is a puritan and tries to spread his convictions on the island to convert into Christianity Friday, who is very rational. The hero simply refuses Friday’s own beliefs, thinking that his religion is the best one. This thought may be due to the fact that British people believed that they had a right and a duty to transmit their knowledge, culture and religion.
By contrast, Pride and Prejudice was written a century later, and therefore, the worries were no longer the same. In Jane Austen’s novel, there is a complete shift to everyday life and society’s concerns. The writer reveals the ethical basis of everyday life, and shows how “the ordinary occurrences of the world, no less than great actions, were centred on moral conventions, moral judgement and moral choice” so that, living in such a society required a constant will and intellect to control the self and understand others. Differently from Daniel Defoe, her main concern is her emotional centre, not Robinson’s economic adventure. The shifts of interests are mainly caused by a change in society and a transformation in people’s minds. In Austen’s times, the most important thing is not the individual in itself but far more, the individual living in a society strongly hierarchical, and based on a strong and deeply rooted system of class. That difference can be pointed by the two openings of Pride and Prejudice on the one hand, and Robinson Crusoe on the other hand.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. […]”
“I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen who settled first at Hull. […]”
The choice of words clearly shows that the two books are about to tackle different perspectives: the individual in Robinson Crusoe and the relation of the individual and the society in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
To carry on with Pride and Prejudice, marriage and money were two recurrent themes in Victorian people’s minds, as shown with Mrs Bennet, who in the very first chapter claims, “the business of her life was to get her daughters married.” In Austen’s plot, the Bennet daughters are in real danger if they do not marry and find a house since the obsequious Mr Collins will inherit the house after Mr Bennet’s death. Therefore, marriage is the only exit for the Bennet daughters. Money is seen as a potential progress in the Victorian society, likewise in Robinson Crusoe where trade may be perceived as a benefit for a society in expansion.
Nonetheless, we have just seen that both novels deal with the question of individual. Robinson Crusoe is clearly based on the individual and his accomplishment. The protagonist is stranded on an island, and has to survive and live decently entirely on his own resources. This stress on individual is in keeping with humanism, an important feature in the early eighteenth century. “There exists an immutable human essence, usually known as ‘human nature’ which is historically invariable, and our understanding of it embodied in Western literature.” Human nature is held to process great potential for dignity and mobility. In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, just a few characters really appear in the plot. We can quote Robinson Crusoe, Friday, the English captain, the Portuguese Captain who rescued Crusoe when he escaped from Sallee, the Widow… There are obviously less characters than in Pride and Prejudice. Defoe also highlights individuals’ emotions such as fear, anger, despair, hope and relief. However, Robinson only values Friday as a devotedly and reliable servant, and does not consider him a friend. There is no room for love, since there are no female characters involved in the plot. We are portrayed a masculine world where women have nothing to do in it. On the contrary, Austen was interested in individual’s problems and especially in women’s concerns illustrated by interactions with others and mainly through the two protagonists: Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy Fitzwilliam. As the title of the novel suggests, the intrigue is structured around both concepts of “pride” and “prejudice.” Elizabeth has to overcome her prejudice against Darcy to really appreciate his own personality and clearly see through him, beyond appearances and others’ opinions like her mother’s. On the other hand, Darcy has to forget Elizabeth’s social rank and the fact that she has no “connection” in order to really value her. In that way, these two characters are like “round” characters since they evolve and progress learning by their defects and by recognising they were wrong. Besides, Jane Austen does not hesitate to criticise the society and the system of class in which she lives, mocking at Mr Collins and his way he addresses people. He uses a very convoluted speech, completely inappropriate to the situation, like for example his proposal to Elisabeth:
“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to se the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly – which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. […]”
In that proposal, Mr Collins has no feeling at all towards Elisabeth, and his speech is much more calculated we could expect. It is like a mathematical demonstration stressed by the style because, as Jane Austen says in chapter 15, “Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society.”
Thus, style is crucial in a novel to picture characters’ behaviours. Nonetheless, both books’ writing is radically different. First, regarding the narrator point of view, Robinson Crusoe is written in the first person singular. As a consequence, we constantly have Robinson’s point of view and opinion about the events happening. We have to wonder whether the protagonist, through which the story is described, may be reliable or not, and if we can trust him. If we had Friday’s point of view instead, it is clear that we would have a complete different opinion about Robinson. By contrast, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, an omniscient narrator knowing absolutely everything tells the story. Consequently, the writer can arouse some dramatic irony creating gaps between what the reader knows and what the characters know, like for example, the fact that we know that Darcy loves secretly Elisabeth, whereas the heroin does not know that. Jane Austen controls the plot and sometimes intervenes to question the reader, and criticise some controversial points. The best example is the first sentence opening the novel which remains famous: “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (p.1) She clearly criticises the way that society works sparkling off some irony in that sentence, because society works the other way round. Nevertheless, in a single sentence, she already tackles with issues like money and marriage.
Secondly, the third person narrative voice enables Jane Austen to put into practise her showing-telling technique. She describes the characters (telling) by, simply letting them speak, their personality being rendered by their way of speaking (showing). The most relevant example is Mrs Bennet’s behaviour. She is described as a complete “foolish” person, gossiping and only interested in marrying her daughters. For instance on the first page, Mr Bennet has a talk with his wife:
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
Moreover, “for rapid effects and subtle shifts of emphasis, Austen’s language half assumes the mode of thought and expression of her characters, so that their consciousness are seen, filtered through the central authorial intelligence, and more can be understood from the authorial tone-of-voice than from straight forward report.” Furthermore, using the third person voice, Jane Austen keeps us much in the dark about Darcy’s character so that during our first reading, we are also misled by his behaviour, as Elizabeth is herself, pushing us to believe that he is very proud and haughty. Austen does that by “screening most of our impressions through Elizabeth in order to bring off the chief dramatic effect of the story,” overwhelming surprise at his first proposal.
Last but not least, there was a clear-cut evolution between the two novels in the construction of the plot itself. Pride and Prejudice’s story is far more complicated, since the events are intermingled and are caused by others or are the consequences leading to other upheavals. Nevertheless, at the end, everything is solved, and every plot has an answer: Elizabeth marrying Darcy, Lydia marrying Mr Bingley, and Charlotte Lucas living with Mr Collins without loving him. Contrasting this causality, we can say that Robinson Crusoe looks like an epistolary story. During a couple of pages, Robinson even carries on telling his adventures through a diary, in the chapter “The Journal.” That technique could have been influenced by the fact that Daniel Defoe was also a journalist. Concisely, Defoe’s plot is simpler with only one main plot arousing the reader’s imagination more than possible burning issues.
To conclude, Robinson Crusoe is a novel in itself, since it includes all the characteristics: characters, plot, and narrative voice. However, the concerns and the themes in 1719 were not the same as in 1813 because Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen did not live in the same world and society at all. On the other hand, Austen perfected the techniques of dramatic-presentation, socially analysed language, which were necessary to tackle the dilemma of individual moral choice and the relation between individuals and society in the bourgeois world. Later, in 1871, George Eliot’s Middlemarch appeared. This novel concerns issues of rank, reputation and marriage and it observes in a realistic way the characters, and the entire community from nobility to tradesmen. Realism was a key concept, very important since Austen’s times, and this was a deed which will go down in literature’s history.
Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Heron Books, 1968.
Defoe, D. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
2. Secondary Texts
Babb, H.S. Jane Austen’s Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue. London: Archon Books, 1967.
Skilton, D. The English novel: Defoe to the Victorians. Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1977.
3. Further Reading
David, D. ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Loveridge, M. A history of Augustan fable. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Secord, A.W. Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963: 9-108.
Sherbo, A. Studies in the Eighteenth Century English Novel. Michigan: Michigan State UP, 1969: ch.10.
Skinner, J. An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.
Spaas, L. Robinson Crusoe: Myths and Metamorphoses. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.