'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe (1719)

I finally, FINALLY finished this novel. I have been reading it for over a month for several reasons. First, I’ve been busy getting ready for the meet to open at Churchill. Second, Defoe’s writing style is very dry and difficult to get into. Third, whenever Defoe as Robinson would say something that offended me, I had to lock the book in my closet for at least a day so that my pissed off-ness could subside enough for me to continue reading. And toward the end of the book when Robinson starts declaring everyone who sets foot on the island his “subject,” the book was destined for the closet every couple of paragraphs, which really slowed the reading process.

Before I talk about Robinson Crusoe, I would like to discuss the idea of art as presented by Scott McCloud in his fascinating book, Understanding Comics. McCloud takes a pretty broad approach to art, describing art as anything humans do that does not directly ensure survival. This book, surprisingly, seems to support that description of art. When Robinson first arrives at the island, he has pen and paper, which allows him to record his doings. Keeping a journal is not essential to his survival, but Robinson seems determined to keep a record because, well, it’s what you do when you’re stranded on an island and expect someone to find you, or at least your manuscript, one day. When his ink runs out, he finds an outlet for art in other, more “primitive” expressions of art, namely making baskets and pots. I believe at one point Robinson mentions that he has an entire store of pots in one part of his castle and I cannot imagine that one man would need that many pots. The boat that he builds to cruise around the island also is a piece of art. However, when he uses the canoe he realizes that he must fight for his survival. The canoe then becomes abandoned because it does not fulfill its purpose, that is to be an escape from the tasks he performs to survive. When the threat of the “savages” completely overcomes Robinson, he forsakes all of his art to ensure his survival, fortifying his “castle” and finding a new stronghold in a cave.

Speaking of the journal, I found it equally annoying and interesting that Robinson as the narrator insisted on including the contents of his journal in his account, even though most of the entries recounted events which Robinson the narrator already described. Why did Defoe include this second voice of Robinson as island resident? What implications are suggested by the fact Robinson the narrator felt compelled to both detail his experiences on the island and include the much briefer journal entries?

Robinson uses language in his conquest of the island, but his claiming of different parts of the island also relates to the colonialism in which England was beginning to engage. Robinson’s first venture into colonialism — his experience with Xury — is not a difficult affair because he had the advantage of size and weapons over Xury. On the island, the task of colonialism is not quite as easy. But similar elements are used to ensure his dominion over the island, namely his reliance on weapons and destruction to assert authority.

Even though Robinson finds himself in very much the same situation as the “savages” he so often condemns, he strives to note in his recounting that he somehow lived above the “savages” on the island. He will often compare the ways which he constructs something to methods used by more primitive cultures, so he definitely sees the connection between his life and theirs. However, he calls one of his homes his “castle” and the other his “country house,” relying on his audience’s British upbringing to mentally upscale his living conditions with his use of these phrases. He also furnishes himself with a few trappings of British middle-class lifestyle, most obviously a tobacco pipe. He faces his ultimate challenge when he sees the footprint on the beach. At first, he schemes to kill the “savages” should he encounter them, however he eventually dismisses that idea as foolish. And the idea is ridiculous, but Robinson seems to discard the notion mainly out of desire to not act like a savage or even like a Spaniard, who he says were admonished for their treatment of the native people of the Americas.

And one concluding thought: shut up, Robinson.