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Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe. This fictional autobiography, published anonymously in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, has attained the status of myth. Although its indebtedness to the true story of the experiences of Alexander Selkirk has been greatly exaggerated, Crusoe's shipwreck and subsequent desert-island experience is central whether it is approached as traveller's tale, religious allegory, or proto-novel. Modern critics tend to follow Marx in discounting its religious burden, viewing it as an allegory either for the growth of capitalism or of western imperialism. Defoe cashed in on the original's tremendous success, publishing Farther Adventures (1719) and Serious Reflections (1720). The many imitations are known as Robinsonades.

J. A. Downie

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Crusoe, Robinson

Crusoe, Robinson the hero of Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), who survives a shipwreck and lives on a desert island; the story is said to be based on that of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk (1676–1721), who was marooned alone on one of the uninhabited Juan Fernandez Islands, 1704–9.

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Selkirk (town, Canada)

Selkirk, town (1991 pop. 9,815), SE Man., Canada, on the Red River. Just S of Lake Winnipeg, it is a port for products from N Manitoba. There are steel mills, foundries, and shipyards in the town. It is named for the 5th earl of Selkirk, who established (1812) the Red River Settlement in the region.

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Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoebasso, El Paso, Picasso, Sargasso, Tasso •fatso, paparazzo, terrazzo •Brasso •espresso, gesso •intermezzo, mezzo •scherzo •peso, say-so •calypso, dipso •schizo • Mato Grosso • torso • also •amoroso, capriccioso, oloroso, so-so •Caruso, Robinson Crusoe, Rousseau, trousseau •so-and-so •Curaçao, curassow •Thurso, verso

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Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe
1719

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
For Further Study

Introduction

Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published as a fictional memoir in 1719. It was so commercially successful that he quickly wrote a sequel. Realizing that fake autobiographies made a good profit, Defoe wrote four more first-person narratives before 1724. The best known are Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana (1724).

Today Robinson Crusoe remains a popular adventure narrative. In fact, the book gave rise to the "Robinsonade," adventure tales that rework the structural elements of Crusoe's island tale. Moreover, the character of Robinson Crusoe is recognized as a literary and cultural icon, like Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Faust; the story of a man stuck on a deserted island has become familiar to nearly everyone in the Western world.

Author Biography

Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 in Cripplegate, just outside the walls of the City of London. His parents, James and Alice Foe, were Dissenters—Protestants who refused to accept the authority of the Anglican Church (also known as the Church of England).

In 1670 Defoe's mother died and he was sent to boarding school. He attended Charles Morton's academy at Newington Green, where he received an excellent education and developed a taste for political radicalism.

Defoe finished his studies at Morton in 1679 and entered the hosiery business. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, a wealthy young woman. He prospered in business and became a member of the Butcher's Company—one of several companies that controlled business in London. He also gained several influential friends in the government.

Unfortunately, Defoe overextended his invest-ments—at one point he owed seventeen thousand pounds—and was sued eight times between 1688 and 1694, ending up in debtor's prison in 1692. However, King William III proved to be a true patron and by the late 1690s Defoe's fortunes were on the mend.

His first important work, An Essay upon Projects (1697), proposed social improvement schemes; his first profitable work was a political poem satirizing xenophobia, The True-Born Englishman (1701).

After the death of William III, Queen Anne succeeded him on the English throne. There was no one to protect Defoe when he was revealed as the author of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, (1702), a pamphlet which satirically advocated extermination of religious nonconformists. For his work, Defoe suffered three days in the pillory—but he was somewhat vindicated when the crowd threw flowers instead of rotten vegetables. Meanwhile, he went bankrupt.

Robert Harley, the Tory who headed Queen Anne's government, made Defoe a spy and forced him to gather information on his political opponents. Defoe's opinion journal, The Review, became a mouthpiece for Harley's views. While a Tory spy, Defoe toured Britain and invested in Scotland. In 1707, the year that England and Scotland were united in the Act of Union, Defoe owned every newspaper in Edinburgh.

Queen Anne's death in 1714 precipitated the decline of the Tory Party and put Defoe—a Tory spy but a Whig at heart—in an awkward position. When Defoe was imprisoned for slanderous remarks, Lord Chief Justice Parker decided to release Defoe and make him a spy for George I. Defoe became saboteur of the anti-government Tory paper, Weekly Journal.

Meanwhile, Defoe experimented with prose and began to write innovative fiction. His first novel was his 1717 "memoir" chronicling the story of peace negotiations with France.

In 1719 Robinson Crusoe was published to commercial success. It was followed by four more very popular "biographies," as well as essays on crime, the family, and economics. He died in 1731.

Plot Summary

Born in York

A retired German merchant named Kreutznaer settles in the York country where, due to the "usual corruption of words in England," the German name becomes Crusoe. In York, Mr. Crusoe marries a woman whose surname is Robinson.

Robinson Crusoe, born in 1632, is their third child. Early on, Crusoe's father determines that his son will become a lawyer. Unfortunately, Crusoe "would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea." His mother and father do not allow it.

To London and Trade

A year later Crusoe sneaks away and accepts passage to London. He leaves on September 1, 1651. During a terrible storm, he promises to return home to his parents. Yet after the ship sinks, he forgets his promise. Instead, he goes to London and befriends the captain of a vessel bound for Guinea. He joins the voyage.

After a successful voyage, Crusoe resolves to make another journey with his friend. Yet after his friend suddenly dies, he gives most of his money to the captain's widow, invests some money, buys trade goods with the remainder, and takes the same ship for another voyage. On the way to Guinea, Moorish pirates seize the ship and he is forced to become a slave.

Two years later, Crusoe escapes in a fishing boat with the slave boy Xury. They sail down the "Barbarian Coast" of West Africa. Finally, just off the Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese ship bound for Brazil rescues them. With Xury's consent, he sells him along with the boat's inventory to the ship's master.

Deciding to make his fortune in the area, Crusoe purchases a slave and a Brazilian sugar plantation. He enjoys moderate success with the new venture. A bit restless, he becomes interested in leading a slave expedition to Africa. So, at the "evil hour, the 1st of September, 1659," he embarks for Guinea; tragically, a hurricane wrecks the vessel on a sand bar and only Crusoe survives.

"The Island of Despair"

Crusoe is shocked to find himself on the deserted island. His shock gives way to jubilation and thanksgiving for his survival. However, when he realizes the serious nature of his dilemma, he runs around in shock, paranoia, and fear. He finally falls asleep in a tree gripping a stick.

Crusoe spends several days cannibalizing the shipwreck for materials and provisions. With these salvaged goods, he begins to establish a fort—which he calls his "castle"—where he rules over a dog, some cats, and a parrot. He keeps a record of time, but after his ink runs out, he cannot maintain his journal.

Reviewing his life, he realizes that he has been selfish and cruel. He repents and resolves to lead a virtuous life. His days are filled with exploring the island, improving his castle, domesticating goats, experimenting with pottery, and developing other skills necessary for self-sufficiency.

Having secured shelter and food, Crusoe makes a boat. He constructs a small one, but he is nearly swept out to sea by dangerous currents. He uses the boat only for transportation to other parts of the island.

After twelve years, Crusoe nearly dies of fright over "the print of a man's naked foot on the shore." In a flurry of self-preservation, he expands his fortifications. He also discovers human bones and signs of cannibalism. Eleven years later, he witnesses a cannibal feast. A Spanish ship wrecks off the coast and Crusoe is able to salvage some provisions from the wreck.

The End of Solitude

One night, in his twenty-fourth year on the island, he dreams of saving one of the cannibals and civilizing him. Eighteen months later, on a Friday, his dream comes true. The savage falls at Crusoe's feet out of gratitude. Crusoe calls him Friday, and teaches him important English words like "Master," "Yes," and "No."

Gradually, Friday becomes civilized, converts to Christianity, and adopts English habits. Friday tells Crusoe about the Spanish castaways living with his tribe on the mainland. Crusoe begins work on a bigger boat to bring the Spaniards to his island.

In the twenty-seventh year, cannibals hostile to Friday's tribe (along with a few of their captives) visit the island. One of the captives is a European, so Crusoe and Friday attack the cannibals to free the captive: Crusoe shoots several of them and the rest of the cannibals flee. One of the captives turns out to be Friday's father. With people to help and good advice, Crusoe expands his agricultural production.

On the condition that they accept Crusoe's leadership, the Spaniard and Friday's father leave to fetch the rest of the Spaniards. Meanwhile, a group of English mutineers lands on the island to dispose of their captain and his loyal officers. Crusoe and Friday rescue them, capture the mutineers, and take back the ship.

The mutineers choose to stay on the island as Crusoe's subjects rather than return for punishment in England. Crusoe takes Friday to England as honored guests of the rescued English captain.

Back to Civilization

After an absence of twenty-eight years, Crusoe returns London in June, 1687. After the English captain gives him a reward, Crusoe learns that his parents are dead.

Crusoe discovers that he is rich because of some previous investments. After rewarding those who served him faithfully and selling his plantation, he returns to London.

Back in London, he marries and fathers three children. After his wife dies, he embarks on a final journey. On the way back, he visits his colony, which is thriving.

Characters

Captain of the Guinea Trading Ship

Arriving in London, Crusoe happens to meet the master of a ship bound for Guinea. The two men become friends, and Crusoe decides to make the journey too. Unfortunately, the man dies en route to Guinea.

Captain's Widow

The widow of Crusoe's friend the Captain of the Guinea Trading Ship is one of the two substantial female characters in the book. A trustworthy friend, she watches his money and becomes his London agent.

These responsibilities are appropriate to the gender roles governing the London financial district. Women as well as men were investors in the Bank of England—affectionately known as the lady of Threadneedle Street.

Comrade in Hull

Crusoe meets a friend in Hull who offers him a trip to London. This friend represents the youth of the English mercantile class as well as a life of adventure. He inspires Crusoe in his dreams of a life at sea.

The Comrade's Father

The Comrade's father is the master of the first vessel Crusoe travels on in Yarmouth, where he goes to recover. When his comrade tells his father that Crusoe was on the vessel as a sailor, he tells Crusoe that he ought to give up seafaring.

The Comrade's father resembles Crusoe's own father. They are both old-fashioned men and fearful of change. For them, a man's destiny is determined at birth.

Robinson Crusoe

The protagonist of Defoe's fictional autobiography, Crusoe is an adventurous man who rejects the expectations of his family and the constraints of the English middle class for a life on the high seas. After a devastating wreck at sea—of which he is the only survivor—he is forced to live confront his fear about being alone in order to survive the harsh demands of his lonely and solitary existence.

Crusoe is not by nature a brave man. In time, his reason grows sharper and he conquers his fears. In fact, for a time he wanders the island without any weaponry. He learns how to do many diverse tasks, such as making an ax, baking bread, and building an elaborate shelter. When faced with marauding cannibals, he attacks them and rescues their captives. Finally, when he returns to London, he is able to readjust to English life and even gets married and has a family.

Friday

Friday is a native rescued by Crusoe; the young man eventually becomes his loyal servant. He is described by Crusoe as a Creole—a mix of African and Indian—and represents the wildness of nature. Through his relationship with Friday, Crusoe is able to confront his fear of the native people of the region.

When Friday offers to exchange ideas with Crusoe on religion or technology, Crusoe refuses to learn from his knowledge. For example, when they begin to build a boat together, Friday wants to show Crusoe how to burn out the inside. Crusoe, however, insists on the more laborious method of using a hatchet. Crusoe's reluctance to treat Friday as an equal symbolizes general European attitudes toward "the savage."

Eventually, Friday becomes Europeanized, accepting English customs and religious concepts. He symbolizes the process of colonialization.

Mr. Kreutznaer

Crusoe's father is an immigrant from the town of Bremen, Germany. A merchant by trade, Mr. Kreutznaer's name is changed in England to Crusoe. He is a "wise and grave man" who pleads with Crusoe to give up his notions of adventure and settle in England at a solid middle-class occupation like law.

Mrs. Kreutznaer

Although his mother refuses to intercede on Crusoe's behalf and win him his father's blessing, she does support her son in private. She represents the "proper woman" referred to at the end—a hard worker who is not afraid of risks.

Old Savage

The Old Savage is one of the captives rescued by Crusoe and Friday; surprisingly, he turns out to be Friday's father. He too pledges allegiance to Crusoe.

Portuguese Captain

The Portuguese Captain's ship rescues Crusoe from Africa, takes him to Brazil, and purchases Xury. He also helps invest Crusoe's money and acts as a father figure for him. He is an honest pilot of his crew and vessel and he serves Crusoe faithfully.

Media Adaptations

  • Since the silent black-and-white film in 1916 with Robert Paton Gibbs, there have been some sixteen film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe. This count includes versions in French, Spanish, Russian, Swiss, and German.
  • However, this count does not include all of the spin-offs, such as a female Crusoe—as early as a silent film made in 1917—or animations of Crusoe as a rodent in, Rabbitson Crusoe (1956). In 1965, Robinson Crusoe was made into a TV series. The book was made into a TV movie in the United Kingdom in 1974.
  • The most recent movie adapted from Defoe's novel is Robinson Crusoe (1996), produced by USA pictures. Directed by Rod Hardy and George Miller, Pierce Brosnan stars as a lovestruck Robinson Crusoe separated from the object of his desire.

The Spaniard

The Spaniard is one of the captives rescued by Crusoe and Friday. After they release and give him a weapon, the group is able to kill many of the cannibals. The Spaniard turns out to be an honest fellow who advises Crusoe to expand the plantation. The Spaniard's belief in Roman Catholicism is of no importance to Crusoe; what matters to him is that the Spaniard has a good work ethic and a true sense of honor.

Mr. Wells

Mr. Wells is Crusoe's Portuguese neighbor; his plantation is next to Crusoe's in Brazil. Crusoe and Mr. Wells exchange labor and help each other when needed—a common practice for colonizers at that time. Accordingly, they become good friends and look out for each other's affairs. It is Wells who takes over the management of Crusoe's estate while he lives on his island. Wells represents the settler and plantation operator.

Xury

Xury is a servant that is forced into slavery with Crusoe. Fortunately, they are able to escape their masters. Xury, like Friday, naturally assumes the role of obedient and affectionate slave. Xury represents a European's notion of the non-European. He has better natural instincts—he is a natural hunter, a hide processor, he can see better at night (or day, for it is Xury who spots the Portuguese ship), and his sense of self-preservation is keener. Xury agrees to being sold into slavery on the condition that if he converts to Christianity he will be free in ten years.

Themes

Fear

Robinson Crusoe must overcome his fear in order to survive his long ordeal on the deserted island. The trial by fear begins when he runs about like a madman, scared of every shadow, and sleeps in a tree with a weapon: "fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God." He quickly realizes that he must recover his wits and reason if he is to survive.

At several points in the narrative, Crusoe is almost overwhelmed by his fear of the unknown. It propels him to colonize the island, securing his shelter and becoming self-sufficient. His ability to funnel his fear into productivity and creativity allows him to survive under extreme conditions.

Crusoe masters his fear when he faces the ultimate challenge—the devil. Investigating a cave, he is met by a pair of eyes. At first scared, he realizes that he can confront this enemy just like he has met every other challenge on the island. "He that was afraid to see the devil, was not fit to live twenty years in an island all alone."

With that, he rushes in to confront the devil and discovers a dying goat. He has passed his trial. Had he not faced his fears, he would have run away in full belief that the devil lived in that cave. Instead, he investigates and confronts his fear.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the ecological impact of colonialism. Research the ecological impact of colonialism. Use your research to explain the problematic overpopulation of cats on the island in the novel. What kinds of problems do we have today with exotic specie invasions? Investigate such a problem in your area.
  • How is the character of Friday presented in the novel? How is he different from other representations of native people in Defoe's time? Read Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. Contrast the character of Prince in that novel with Defoe's Friday.
  • Robinson Crusoe was very popular as a children's book. What do you think children were supposed to learn from Crusoe? What moral lessons, if any, can be drawn from his story?
  • Many economists use Robinson Crusoe when explaining basic economic theory. What principles of economics does Crusoe demonstrate?
  • Crusoe is an ex-slave trader, but is horrified by the Spanish treatment of native South Americans. Research the role of England in the slave trade. Is Crusoe's treatment of the native population any better than that of the Spanish Conquistadors?
  • Based on the novel, what was the eighteenth-century family like? How does it differ from your family?

Human Condition

Robinson Crusoe is a meditation on the human condition, and an argument for challenging traditional notions about that condition. Finding himself alone in a deserted island, Crusoe struggles to maintain reason, order, and civilization. His "original sin" is his rejection of a conventional life. When he leaves England for a life on the high seas, he refuses to be "satisfied with the station wherein God and Nature hath placed" him.

Crusoe struggles with—and eventually triumphs over—nature. The book suggests that this struggle is at the heart of human nature: man is on earth to triumph and gain profit from nature. Any profit makes sense in this view of the world, whether that means getting just one plank out of a huge tree or building a boat too heavy to bring to the water. Once Crusoe is able to overcome his fear and subdue nature is rewarded handsomely.

Money

Consistent with Defoe's writings on economics, money is an important theme in Robinson Crusoe. At the beginning of the narrative, Crusoe details how much money he has, what he does with it, and what he gains by his actions.

On the island, money loses all value. Crusoe has to find another way to measure his worth. While rummaging through a ship for salvage he laments aloud at the sight of some money, "O Drug!… what are thou good for." At that point he realizes that just one knife is worth more than money. Usefulness is the key to evaluation of worth.

Crusoe's hope of returning to England is symbolized by these tokens of civilization—on the island, the money is only a reminder of his old life and he treasures it as a memento. In all of his other endeavors he freely admits his success or failure. But as a merchant, he knows that though separated from the world now, he can only reconnect with it if he has money. Once he returns to London, his old reliance on money returns.

Industrialization

Industrialization is defined here as a process whereby humans channel the forces of nature into the production and manufacture of goods for their economic consumption. This industrialization is Crusoe's occupation, according to his cultural background and his religion. He immediately sets out to be productive and self-sufficient on the island.

By the time of Robinson Crusoe, most villages were experiencing labor specialization. People began to buy bread instead of baking it. Thus Crusoe has to relearn many of these arts to survive. With practice, Crusoe is able to increase the level of industrialization on his island.

Crusoe has a few implements with which he is able to reconstruct a semblance of civilization as well as create more advanced technology. While building his house, he notes that every task is exhausting. In brief, he praises the idea of "division of labor" as he describes cutting timber out of trees, bringing the wood from the trees to the construction site, and then constructing his shelter. He soon devises labor-saving devices, thus increasing his efficiency and productivity.

The necessity of a sharp ax leads Crusoe to invent his own foot-powered sharpener. He has "no notion of a kiln," but he manages to fire pottery. He needs a mill for grinding his grain, but not finding a proper stone, he settles for a block of hard wood. The entire process of baking his own bread spurs a realization of how wonderful the state of human technology is.

People take the labor behind the necessities of life for granted when such items can be easily purchased in the market. Crusoe is not suggesting that people return to a world of self-sufficient households. Instead, as he goes about his Herculean tasks, like creating a simple shelf in his house, he comments that a carpenter could have finished the two-day job in an hour. Thus he appreciates the process of specialization that helps make industrialization so successful.

Style

Narrative

Robinson Crusoe is a fictional autobiography written from a first-person point of view, apparently written by an old man looking back on his life. The story also includes material from an incomplete diary, which is integrated into the novel.

Spiritual Fable

Robinson Crusoe can be viewed as a spiritual or religious fable. Defoe was very concerned with religious issues, and nearly became a Dissenter minister. In the preface of the book, Crusoe asserts that he aims to "justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstance."

In so doing, Crusoe clearly sees himself as part of the tradition of religious instruction manuals. The book does show similarities to the four different types of spiritual fable. Firstly, Crusoe, like many Puritans, keeps a diary in which he records his progress toward salvation. Of this first form of spiritual biography, the best known is John Bun-yan's 1666 Grace Abounding.

The second form of spiritual fable evident in Crusoe is the guide or advice tradition. This type of fable is aimed at particular audiences—seamen, farmers, young people, women—to point out the dangers of human existence, especially their own. The goal of such works is to show not just the dangers but the solution, usually a prayer.

The tale of Providence is the third tradition evident in Crusoe's story. In such tales, God is believed to be a being who intervenes in the affairs of people. Crusoe is constantly speculating on whether an event is due to God's intervention in providential terms.

The last form is the pilgrim allegory, like Bun-yan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). This form was very popular but often amounted to no more than a modernization of the parable about the Prodigal Son, or the story of Jonah.

In this form, a young man leaves his home and consequently isolates himself from God. This act results from pride, discontent, or the rejection of a "calling." God intervenes, usually with violence, to bring about a change in the prodigal's direction back toward Himself. By this intervention, the man realizes he should have stayed home or accepted his calling and thus willingly confronts evils and hardships to return to God. Crusoe's adventure follows this pattern.

Verisimilitude

Although heavily influenced by religious concerns and technique, Defoe's use of realism, or verisimilitude, is perhaps the most singular aspect of the work. What Defoe did was apply and thereby popularize modern realism.

Modern realism—as formulated by Descartes and Locke but not fully outlined until Thomas Reid—holds that truth should be discovered at the individual level by verification of the senses. The realistic elements of Robinson Crusoe include the lists, time scale, repetition, diary, and Crusoe's ordinary nature. The reader could almost use Robinson Crusoe as a handbook if ever stuck on a deserted island.

Time

The concept of time is central to the structure of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe presents Crusoe's life chronologically. The details of Crusoe's life and activities mark the passage of time; and while exhausting to the modern reader, these small details reflect the concern with time during that period.

Allegory

Many critics view Robinson Crusoe as an allegory for Defoe's life. The first such attempt, by Charles Gildon, was spurred by a comment in the preface of Defoe's Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Many scholars have since tried to match the known details about Defoe with the events in Crusoe. No one has been successful.

Earlier works by Defoe add credence to this view. His notebook of meditations, written when he was twenty-one, show that Robinson Crusoe's story was on his mind a long time, well before the sensational tales about Alexander Selkirk.

More clues can be found in Defoe's most autobiographical piece, An Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715). Defoe claims that he endured great solitude but had remained "silent under the infinite Clamours and Reproaches, causeless Curses, unusual Threatnings, and the most unjust and injurious Treatment in the World." Although it is impossible to be certain whether Robinson Crusoe is an allegory for Defoe, it is certain that Crusoe represents Defoe's thoughts on solitude and industriousness.

Historical Context

Dissenters

Dissenters (also Nonconformists) is a term that refers to Protestant ministers and congregations (among them: Quakers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists) who rejected the authority of the Anglican Church. Dissenters refused to participate in Anglican services, take communion, or conform to the tenants of the Church of England under the 1662 Act of Uniformity and the later Five Mile Act.

The Act of Uniformity decreed that all ministers adhere to the Book of Common Prayer. Those who refused were penalized by the Five Mile Act, which ordered that lawbreakers could not come within five miles of their home parish or town.

When William and Mary assumed the throne in 1688, their need for money and their belief in tolerance prompted them to pass the Toleration Act of 1689. This law allowed Dissenters to license their meeting houses with their own ministers, provided they took oaths of allegiance to England according to the Test Act.

The Restoration

When Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) came to power in England in 1653 he instituted a strict government based on Puritan principles. Although this benefited the middle class and the merchants, his excessive taxes, his rule by force, and the absence of trial by jury or parliamentary representation gradually led the English people to hate him more than they had Charles I.

When Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard (1628–1712) assumed the reigns of power. His weakness soon led to his resignation, and the army and parliament verged on a civil war. However, the monarchy was restored to power when General George Monck invited Charles II to return.

Charles II (1630–1685) restored the British monarchy in May of 1660. An enthusiastic parliament convened in the following year, and became known as the "Cavalier Parliament." Its session lasted until 1679. The Church of England was restored by the Clarendon Code, which also demanded oaths of allegiance to the king. It also made it unlawful to raise arms against the king.

Colonialism

Two dominant European powers lost much of their power during the seventeenth century. Firstly, Spain's decline began after a series of naval losses. Secondly, Portugal was not able to withstand Dutch aggression. Although both nations would retain control over several colonies, by the end of the seventeenth century France and England became the dominant world powers.

England's colonies in North America—Jamestown, Virginia (founded 1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (founded 1620)—were becoming prosperous by the 1700s. The original English colonies in the New World were joined by new ones: the Carolinas (1663), Pennsylvania (1682), and islands in the West Indies.

Glorious Revolution

When Charles II died, James II (1633–1701) assumed the throne of England. A fervent Roman Catholic, James freed many Catholics, Quakers, and Dissenters from prison. Alarmed by his policies, the Earl of Argyll and the Duke of Monmouth joined to overthrow the King in 1685. They were defeated, due in large part to a lack of support from the noble classes and the London merchants. Some suggest that Defoe himself was among those captured.

In 1688, James II had an heir and he proceeded to impose his Catholic agenda, including Catholicizing the army. The nobles and merchants decided to bet their lives on an "invasion," by extending an invitation to the Protestant rulers William and Mary of the United Provinces (Netherlands).

William III (1650–1702), having promised to defend English liberties and Protestantism, landed with an army in 1688 and marched unopposed on London. James II fled to Ireland where his supporters, the Jacobites, were strong. He had French backing as well as the support of some of the Scottish clans. The Scottish Jacobites were defeated by William III at Killiecrankie in 1689.

In the following year, William III defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. William then turned his attention to Europe. With English money and troops, he fought against the French in the War of the League of Augsberg until 1697. William's need for money led to the creation of the Bank of England (1694), and a commercial revolution which would enable Britain to eventually dominate global commerce.

England in 1719

In 1719 England was a more tolerant and stable country; as a result, emigration to America decreased. As Defoe reported while in London, the wages of workers in England were high and unemployment low. Competition in the textile trade resulted in an threatened market, but the English re-tooled and remained competitive.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1600s: Religion is a central focus of life. Many European countries—such as England, Spain the Netherlands, and Portugal—persecute reli gious reformists and dissenters. As a result, many religious radicals emigrate to the New World in order to practice their religious beliefs.

    Early 1700s: Religious fervor cools. The philosophes in France are trying to eradicate religion from their country with little success.

    Today: Religious tolerance, while not universal, is accepted. The percentage of people that believe in some kind of organized religion remains high in most countries.
  • 1600s: Countries such as England, France, and Spain strive to remain formidable imperialistic powers. Maintaining colonial power and build ing a formidable military force is very expensive.

    Early 1700s: Between the banking developments in Amsterdam and the Bank of England, the foundations of modern national finance are laid and the concept of the national debt is created.

    Today: For poor nations, a national debt prevents them from challenging rich nations. In the wealthy nations, national debts cause much worry, but their existence is vital to the global financial market.
  • 1600s: Trade is mostly in raw goods, luxury items, or expensive manufactured items. Occupational specialization is accelerating in European economies. For example, a farmer might begin to focus on dairy production.

    Early 1700s: Manufactured goods are growing more plentiful while becoming less expensive. The average person can now buy bread, candles, and cloth from specialized merchants.

    Today: The economy of most Western countries has shifted away from manufacturing to technology.

After the instability of Cromwell and the Restoration, the Hanovers assumed the throne. By the Treaty of Utrecht, English vessels had access to Spanish trade. This latter development made economists like Defoe enthusiastic about the market.

When the stock market crashed as a result of the South Sea Bubble in 1721, a great number of previously wealthy people lost their fortunes. Unlike a similar bubble known as France's Mississippi Scheme, the incident did not cool English enthusiasm for capital speculation and stock trading. Consequently, England recovered from the South Sea Bubble to develop the financial resources necessary to launch the Industrial Revolution.

Critical Overview

Robinson Crusoe did not revolutionize the book industry in London, but it was a great commercial success; in fact, a second edition was released within only two weeks after the first had been published. Pirated editions came out within hours of the book's release. One of these pirated editions, known as the 'O' edition, is extremely valuable today.

Critical reaction to Robinson Crusoe is generally negative or patronizing. Many early commentators derided the novel as commercial and unrefined. Yet many commentators celebrated the adventurous hero, Robinson Crusoe.

Charles Gildon launched the first sustained attack on Defoe's novel with The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D-De F-, in 1719. In his critique, Gildon focuses on the novel's inaccuracies, as well as a "Looseness and Incorrectness of Stile."

His most interesting criticism, however, charges Defoe with slander in regards to English shipping practices. He contends that there is "no Man so ignorant as not to know that our Navigation produces both Safety and our Riches and that whoever therefore shall endeavor to discourage this, is so far a profest Enemy of his Country's Prosperity and Safety." Little did Gildon, or anyone else at the time, realize that Robinson Crusoe was to inspire many colonial and pioneering dreams.

Decades later, Theophilus Cibber, a playwright and Shakespeare reviser, signaled a change in critical attitudes toward Robinson Crusoe. In his 1753 essay, he praises Defoe for his "moral conduct" and "invincible integrity." Robinson Crusoe, he says, "was written in so natural a manner, and with so many probable incidents, that, for some time after its publication, it was judged by most people to be a true story."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau concurred with Cibber in 1762, when he recommended Robinson Crusoe. Furthermore, asserted Rousseau, since books are necessary, then Robinson Crusoe should be given to children for it teaches them self-sufficiency.

Scottish critics were just as enthusiastic about Defoe's novel. James Beattie included a review of Robinson Crusoe in his Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783). He maintained that the story is "one of those books, which one may read, not only with pleasure, but also with profit."

Sir Walter Scott, the leading advocate of verisimilitude in the early nineteenth century, praised the work for its realism. Scott also noted the tremendous impact it had on boys who go to sea for the first time "in the corner of the nursery." Robinson Crusoe's "situation is such as every man may make his own, and, being possible in itself, is, by the exquisite art of the narrator, rendered as probable as it is interesting."

In the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars began a debate to the real identity of Robinson Crusoe. Thomas Wright proposed that the character of Robinson Crusoe is based on Alexander Selkirk. So prevalent was this belief that maps even to this day mark Selkirk's island off the coast of Chile as Crusoe's island, despite the clear description in the novel of the island's location.

In his Das Kapital, (1867), Karl Marx deemed Robinson Crusoe as capitalist propaganda. Ian Watt, in his The Rise of the Novel, concurred with Marx's analysis. Moreover, Watt asserted that Puritanism was merely a precursor to capitalism.

With this perspective, Watt echoed the theory of his contemporary, Max Weber, while setting the terms for much of the debate surrounding the novel. In fact, with the exception of Diana Spearman and George A. Starr, the economic reading of the novel dominated critical perspectives of Robinson Crusoe until the 1980s.

Although James Joyce explored the colonialist theme of Robinson Crusoe as early as 1911, his comments were not published until 1964. Since then, writers such as Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Edward Said have viewed the novel as an allegory of colonialism.

Peter Hulme argues for the importance of placing the novel within its historical context. Hulme's article does not bash Defoe but praises him for his "scrupulous attention to financial details" as well as his honesty.

Hulme suggests that the hero has two personalities: one is in isolation on an island working on his individualism while his "ghostly 'partner' " is enslaving people and managing a plantation. The most dangerous point of the book is when the two are reunited.

Criticism

Jeremy W. Hubbell

Jeremy W. Hubbell is a graduate student in History at SUNY Stony Brook and has written for a wide variety of business, academic, and educational publishers. In the following essay, he views Robinson Crusoe as a guidebook for English colonialism.

Today, the typical reading of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe assumes that the novel is central to the bourgeois myth. However, as Diana Spearman and others have pointed out, the story of a man in isolation for twenty-four years is a strange myth for a class of people dependent on an economic system that requires people to interact with one another through an economic medium.

Instead, Defoe's novel meditates on the redeeming qualities offered by the labor of colonialism for the Englishman. Work was the way to civilize the wilderness of the New World and achieve peace with God. The project of colonialism, as the Puritans were proving at the start of the eighteenth century, provided a profitable way of realizing God's directive in Genesis: "be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it."

Although too old to follow God's directive, Defoe hoped to persuade the English people to engage in the good work. He even shows them how—the Englishman must be ruthless yet reasonable in order to conquer nature and receive God's reward. Defoe's novel encourages England to emulate the Puritans in their success.

He believed that Englishmen were destined to succeed at colonialism if they overcame their fear through the use of their psychological tools: their reason, their work ethic, and their Protestant faith. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe imagines a true-born Englishman fulfilling his fantasy. Throughout the novel, Defoe makes clear that a man's power over himself and nature depends upon ceaseless labor—this is the secret to the colonial project.

Before the colonialist can begin to work, security precautions must be taken. This is Crusoe's first concern. The next phase of conquest is the act of possession.

Both concerns are demonstrated during his escape from slavery and his dealings with Xury, who embodies the barbarities of both slavery and Africa. Crusoe has two advantages over the boy, in that he is bigger and he has a gun. In other words, Crusoe's first providential trial is a small contest. He passes and is and is amply rewarded.

In this first trial, his planning and stealth (both are forms of work) have already provided him with possessions, but Xury's subordination secures his claim to the ownership of the commandeered vessel, the stolen goods, and even Xury himself. This pattern of getting and securing by force is repeated throughout the novel. The power of the patriarch, however, comes only by the grace of God, and only after vast expenditures of labor.

On the island, Crusoe cannot immediately carry out this model as well as he wishes. He must first master himself. The process of mastering himself and his environment takes twenty years, finally culminating when he faces what he believes to be a devil, which turns out to be a dying goat.

During those twenty years, Crusoe illustrates the small steps towards self-sufficiency and self-mastery. His entire scheme of labor and conquest serializes the lesson of patience. Part of this lesson involves a day-to-day manufacture of an organized civilization.

He wants to construct a castle, but he must first "make me some tools." Thus, he recovers as many items of civilization as possible from the wrecked ship. Next, he sets about remaking civilization with those salvaged objects. He constructs a shovel, a table, and a chair. These things prevent him from existing "like a mere savage."

As a civilized man, he makes peace with God and institutes daily readings from the New Testament. From this point on, there are few skills he cannot master with the use of logic and reason, although issues of security and ownership remain unsettled.

The island contains no singular embodiment of nature to be conquered, so instead every element of the island presents a threat. Crusoe vacillates on how to deal with these threats. The first method involves visualization of mastery:

I came to an opening … the country appeared so fresh … it looked like a planted garden … surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure … to think that this was all my own; that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly, and had a right and possession; and, if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England.

Here, Crusoe is expressing a Lockean sentiment: the perception that "I own it" is half of ownership. Yet this is insufficient, because anyone or anything could perceive and state likewise.

So Crusoe uses fear to complete his conquest. A metaphor for his use of terror is found in his conflicts with his winged enemies, the crows. He employs terror in the same way the English crown does; he hangs three dead crows as if they were "notorious thieves" and, consequently, he never sees another bird in that part of the island.

He also employs terror with the goats. He learns the value of entrapment and starvation as coercive devices, and soon has a tame herd serving his nutritional needs. The most radical element of terror Crusoe employs in his campaign against the armies of nature and barbarity is the fortification of his shelter. For this, he uses trees, cables, and the earth to make impenetrable shelter.

However, his construction never serves a defensive purpose. Rather, it signifies the completion of his ownership; with his ten-foot walls, there is no doubt that he rules the land he has surveyed.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Another of Defoe's fictional biographies, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, was published in 1722. It is the story of an orphan, Moll Flanders, who is brought up in the house of the Mayor of Colchester. Moll leads an interesting life as she is involved with a succession of men, journeys to Virginia, returns to England, becomes destitute and, consequently, a prosperous thief.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) exhibits Defoe's talents as a journalist. The book details the devastating effects of a crippling plague.
  • Defoe's Roxana, or the Fortunate Mistress, (1724) chronicles the story of Roxana. The daughter of French Huguenots, Roxana and her children are abandoned by her husband. Along with her trustworthy maid, Amy, Roxana leads a life of adventure and dissipation.
  • One of the more famous Robinsonades grew out of the bedtime stories which Johann David Wyss (1743–1818) told to his family. Along with overseeing the education of his sons, Wyss loved to read tales of exploration such as those of Captain Cook and George Forster. His bedtime stories were written down by the family and published in 1812 as The Swiss Family Robinson.
  • Jules Verne was one of the most enthusiastic writers of the Robinsonade. Verne modernized Defoe's story. In his version, Robinson is a scientist who by accident finds himself in an unexplored world. His most explicit Robinsonade is the 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island. In this story a group of men in a hot-air balloon crash on an island, where they proceed to build mines, kilns, and factories.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) remains a popular adventure tale. The story takes place in the eighteenth century, and begins when Jim Hawkins secures an old treasure map. He recruits some friends to go look for the treasure.
  • William Golding's 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, is considered a contemporary Robinsonade. When a plane of schoolboys crashes on an island, the boys' attempt to create a semblance of civilization fails. The boys separate into civilized and primitive camps.

Crusoe's power depends upon a constant supply of labor. Once he has conquered the island with his hedges, fences, granaries and boats, he begins to fear that the cannibals will take it all away from him. Clearly, God's work is never finished, but Crusoe soon finds help.

As in his earlier ceremony of possession, he visualizes having a servant before he even rescues Friday. Colonialism, according to Crusoe, demands a steady state of mind developed in the course of laborious exercises. Even when Friday shows him an easier way of constructing a boat, Crusoe sticks to his own method.

Crusoe's success results from a cruelty to self. By doing things the hard way, he learned hard lessons, and he wants Friday to imitate him. His relationship with Friday reflects his relationship with himself.

Away from the hectic world of 1719, Crusoe is on his island in perfect isolation. Not only is Crusoe geographically located where Defoe had pinned his hopes (a colony at the mouth of the Orinoco where Sir Walter Raleigh attempted a settlement), but he lives in the time of greatest hope.

Defoe admired many of Oliver Cromwell's projects, especially the Navigation Acts, so it is not surprising that Crusoe is lost to civilization in 1659, the year Cromwell's son, Richard, lost political power. Once on the island, Crusoe reinvents society for himself. The island becomes his benevolent garden and he laboriously constructs the infrastructure of civilization by subjugating nature.

This is precisely the process the Puritans went through. As Joyce Appleby describes them in his Capitalism and a New Social Order, "Far from turning into modern entrepreneurs, Puritan men became rural patriarchs … who commanded their wives, controlled their [children] and kept out any deviants who might spoil the sweet harmony of their peaceable kingdom." Crusoe behaves in the same way, keeping out crows, cannibals, or anyone refusing his authority. Power, for Crusoe, comes down to control:

It would have made a stoic smile to have seen me and my little family sit down to dinner; there was my majesty, the prince and lord of the whole island; I had the lives of all my subjects [two cats, a parrot who is the only one permitted to talk, and a dog] at my absolute command; I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away; and no rebels among all my subjects.

This, and like passages, express Crusoe's belief in his "undoubted right of dominion" over the whole island. Such a belief in patriarchal forms of government led Philip Morgan to comment in his opus, Slave Counterpoint, that "Defoe had shrewdly caught the tenor of idealized plantation life." Granted, Defoe remains anxious about his ownership until he can register his claim in a European court.

The story of Crusoe is a counterpoint to the attitude that prevailed in London at the time: work, not speculation, will offer people full employment and contentment. Defoe was prophesying doom for the stock market, but he was echoing the warnings and calls for moderation issued by Horace Walpole.

The only thing of value in Crusoe's story is his right to rule his work and accomplishments. All of his speculations lead only to his distraction and endangerment. With a cool head and reason, as well as the backing of God, Crusoe will be safe, fed, and happy—not to mention rich. Defoe hoped the same for England and its people.

If Defoe wanted to write a novel of capitalism, he would not isolate his hero on an island for twenty-four years. In fact, Defoe never tired of pointing out that a proper economy depends upon an individual's free access to the market, other people, currency, and an unimpeded right to invest and profit with that capital. Defoe did not write a novel about the trials and tribulations of those attempting to involve themselves in commerce. His novel does not resemble a Horatio Alger story.

Robinson Crusoe is a religious instruction manual, cautioning the people of England against capital speculation or abandonment of their Puritan work ethic. Furthermore, the novel suggests that the English are destined to reap the rewards of colonialism due to their work ethic and their religious convictions.

Unlike every other castaway story popular in Defoe's time, in which the "hero" essentially goes crazy as a result of solitude, Crusoe thrives utilizing the Puritan principles—reason, work, and God. That is the lesson he wanted to provide to the English people.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Robert H. MacDonald

In the following essay, MacDonald argues that the novel is about order, both physical and psychic, and that the establishment of order is its main myth.

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Source: Robert H. MacDonald, "The Creation of an Ordered World in Robinson Crusoe," in Dalhousie Review, Vol. LVI, 1976, pp. 23-34.

Edwin B. Benjamin

In the following essay Benjamin discusses Defoe's contention that Robinson Crusoe was autobiographical in nature, concluding that the book symbolized the author's spiritual development rather than an account of the historical facts of his life.

Although Defoe claimed in the Serious Reflections that Robinson Crusoe was in part an allegory of his own life, attempts to connect details in the book with specific experiences in the life of Defoe have not been found convincing. Complicated as the connection is between Defoe's life and his works, I believe that the claim may yet be found valid if we look at the book as a symbolic account of a spiritual experience rather than a kind of cipher of its author's life. It is quite possible that the symbolism is by no means a part of Defoe's intention; as his imagination warmed to its task, the story began to take on its symbolic overtones, and his later comment is merely an attempt to defend himself against the charges of trying to pass off fiction as fact.

Allegory seems to have been always congenial to the Puritan mind as a legitimate province in which the imagination might exercise itself; and although at times in the eighteenth century it came to be looked down upon as a rather crude vehicle of literary expression, it continued longer as a vital tradition in the dissenting milieu in which Defoe's mind was molded than in more advanced intellectual and literary circles. Defoe can hardly have been unaffected by the forces that shaped Bunyan and that accounted for the continued popularity of his allegories. It is perhaps surprising that in view of his background we do not find more evidences of allegory in the work of Defoe.

Robinson Crusoe is far more than the account of a practical man's adjustment to life on a deserted island. Side by side with Crusoe's physical conquest of nature is his struggle to conquer himself and to find God. It is really a conversion story; like that of Augustine or Baxter, with the classic symptoms of supernatural guidance (in this case in a dream), penitential tears, and Biblical text. Despite repeated signs and warnings, Crusoe only gradually awakens to the necessity for salvation; and it is not until in his illness he stumbles to the tobacco box and comes upon the Bible that he crosses the hump. The final stage is his realization that his deliverance from the island is unimportant in comparison with his deliverance from sin through the mercy of God.

Now I began to construe the words mentioned above, Call on me, and I will deliver you, in a different sense from what I had ever done before; for then I had no notion of any thing being call'd deliverance, but my being deliver'd from the captivity I was in;… but not I learn'd to take it in another sense. Now I look'd back upon my past life with such horrour, and my sins appear'd so dreadful, that my soul sought noth-ing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort: as for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much pray to be deliver'd from it, or think of it; it was all of no consideration in comparison to this.

From this point on, his mind is essentially at peace, and the remainder of his autobiography is in the nature of an account of the due rewards and powers of the man who has been saved.

Although Defoe's Christianity is at times fairly materialistic, especially in comparison with that of Augustine, Bunyan or Baxter, the account of Crusoe's conversion has a peculiar force and intensity to it that tempts one into believing it of some greater than ordinary personal significance to Defoe. It is indicative, I think, that as soon as Crusoe gets back to Europe, he sheds his Christianity like an old cloak and pursues his complacent way with only the most perfunctory expressions of gratitude to his Creator and Preserver (e.g., the scene in the Pyrenees when he is attacked by wolves). But whatever the personal associations of the story to Defoe, at least a part of the effectiveness of the novel is due to the way in which the parallel struggles set off and suggest one another. Some of the details of Crusoe's struggle with nature seem to symbolize his spiritual quest, though perhaps not intentionally on the part of Defoe. One notices that many of these are among the most emphatic and memorable incidents of the novel.

The main outline of Crusoe's story lends itself readily to allegorization. Given the notion of life as a voyage, which is at least as old as patristic commentaries on the Aeneid, both storm and desert island, punishment and proving ground, are logical corollaries. Contemporary use of some of these ideas can be found, for instance, in Matthew Greene's witty urbane The Spleen.

   Thus, thus I steer my bark, and sail.
   On even keel with gentle gale;
   At helm I make my reason sit,
   My crew of passions all submit.
   If dark and blustering prove some nights,
   Philosophy puts forth her lights;
   Experience holds the cautious glass,
   To shun the breakers, as I pass,…
   And once in seven years I'm seen
   At Bath or Tunbridge to careen.
   Though pleased to see the dolphins play,
   I mind my compass and my way….
   I make (may heaven propitious send
   Such wind and weather to the end)
   Neither becalmed nor over-blown,
   Life's voyage to the world unknown

However, it should be emphasized that the distinctive feature of Crusoe is that which is apparently original with Defoe, the detailed account of Crusoe's adjustment to the island.

By no means all the details of the novel are allegorical. Some of these I have chosen may be found unconvincing, the well-disposed reader may wish to add others; but at least this will be a start toward isolating one of the elements that make the book such an appealing one.

The geography of the island is conceived in moral terms. The side of the island on which Crusoe lands and where he establishes his "home," as he calls it, although it affords a better prospect of the ocean, is less favored naturally than the other side that he explores later and where he builds his "bower." The latter yields not only a greater variety of fruits—aloes, limes, wild sugar cane, grapes—but a more numerous fauna. Goats abound in the rich meadow, also hares and fox-like creatures, and on the shore a great profusion of turtles, which are something of a rarity on the other side of the island. Crusoe is tempted to move, but decides against it—wisely, as it turns out; for the shore where the turtles can be found is the one where the cannibals are accustomed to land for their inhuman feasts. Also, the richness proves to be largely illusory. Crusoe doesn't dare eat the grapes until dried, for fear of flux; a batch he gathers and leaves overnight are "trod to pieces" and spread about by some "wild creatures"; the goats, though more numerous, are harder to catch because of lack of cover. In a curious passage in his second trip he describes descending into a large wooded valley where he becomes lost for several days in the forests and in a haze that springs up.

It is difficult not to sense allegory at work behind all this. Turtle, as in Pope and Fielding, is a symbol of luxurious living; the grapes are harder to fix, though there may be Biblical overtones here; and the hot misty forest has suggestions of sloth and lassitude: "… and then by easy journies I turn'd homeward, the weather being exceeding hot, and my gun, ammunition, hatchet, and other things very heavy." Since these experiences happen to Crusoe on his two exploratory trips shortly after his conversion, the thither side of the island becomes to him, like Egypt to the Israelites on the march to Canaan, a temptation to be resisted.

Fundamentally, the temptation to move is an appeal to a species of pride, not to remain where he had been cast up by divine Providence, but to go whoring after false gods. When it comes to attempting to escape from the island entirely, however, which presumably he must not do until a sign has been given, Crusoe shows that he is not proof against this sin. In his first effort, pride acts to blind his reason; he selects for his periagua a cedar so large (there is a significant reference to the temple of Solomon at this point) that when fashioned into a vessel, it cannot be launched by one man. Yet despite this warning he persists, builds a second boat, and, in maneuvering about the island, is almost swept away by currents to certain death. It is only then that Crusoe realizes where his unwillingness to accept his lot has led him; falling on his knees, he thanks God for his preservation and resolves "to lay aside all thoughts of my deliverance by my boat."

This incident acts as a turning point in Crusoe's career; from here on he makes no major mistakes, though he is capable of certain indiscreet plans in reference to the cannibals in the long course of his preoccupation with them.

Generally, the symbolism is clustered around the conversion. The peculiar effectiveness of the descriptions of the shoots of barley and the making of the earthen pot is probably due to their symbolic value in the religious context. Crusoe sheds tears at the realization that the stalks are "perfect green barley," and for the first time begins to reflect seriously on God's providence. Clearly, they are the seeds of grace stirring in his heart and sending forth their first tender sprouts. Similarly, Crusoe's ultimate success in fashioning an earthen pot after certain false starts is analogous to his ultimate success in attaining a spiritual goal. In a sense Crusoe is the pot himself. Several times he has been brought to the fire, but nothing had come of it. Finally, however, his trials redouble (fresh fuel is brought to the fire), he glows clear red, and emerges a serviceable, if not handsome pipkin of the Lord. The analogy may seem far-fetched at first; but one should remember, in addition to the fact that the very intensity of these descriptions suggests a special meaning for them, that dissenting circles were accustomed to think and to express themselves in terms of "chosen vessels" and seeds of grace or doctrine.

Other incidents may be susceptible of such an interpretation: the goatskin clothes he makes after his old ones wear out may be the new armor of faith, and the elaborate system of defense that Crusoe establishes on the island may suggest the invulnerability of the true believer; but the four examples I have chosen are the most obvious in respect to both their nature and their position in the narrative.

Source: Edwin B. Benjamin, " Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 2, April 1951, pp. 206-11.

Sources

Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, New York University Press, 1984.

James Beattie, "On Fable and Romance," in his Dissertations Moral and Critical, W. Strahan, 1783.

Theophilus Cibber, "De Foe," in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. IV by Mr. Cibber and Other Hands, R. Griffiths, 1753, pp. 313-25.

Charles Gildon, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D-De F-, J. Roberts, 1719.

Peter Hulme, "Robinson Crusoe and Friday," in his Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797, Methuen, 1986.

Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, North Carolina Press, 1998.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Rousseau on 'Robinson Crusoe'," in Defoe: The Critical Heritage, edited and translated by Pat Rogers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 52-4.

Sir Walter Scott, "Daniel Defoe," in On Novelists and Fiction, edited by Ian Williams, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968, pp. 164-83.

For Further Study

Alfred W. Crosby, in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Crosby documents the ecological history of colonialist expansion. He details how epidemics destroyed incredible numbers of people who hitherto had no exposure to certain diseases. He also describes how animals and fauna of the Old World establish themselves in the New World, such as the practice of leaving goats on islands while exploring in order to have a source of European-style food.

Peter Earle, The World of Defoe, Atheneum, 1977.

Earle examines Defoe's view of the world as well as social relations in the England of the eighteenth century.

Maximillan E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man, Oxford University Press, 1963.

Drawing on the authors contemporary with Defoe as well as Defoe's other writings, Novak provides a thematic analysis of Defoe's fiction.

John J. Richetti, Popular Fiction Before Richardson Clarendon Press, 1969.

Richetti traces the development of the novel by examining early works. This work is an essential resource for anyone interested in the origins of the novel genre.

Pat Rogers, Robinson Crusoe, George Allen and Unwin, 1979.

Rogers praises Defoe's novel for its mastery of narrative form as well as its exploration of psychological and spiritual experiences.

Arthur Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe, University of Illinois Press, 1968.

Secord investigates Defoe's narrative methods.

Diana Spearman, The Novel and Society, London, 1966.

Spearman is one of the few twentieth-century critics to examine Robinson Crusoe as a book of religious instruction. Her motivation stems from the idea that a man alone on an island is a poor device for exploring economic theory—but a great one to explore an individual's relation with God in an increasingly secular world.

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, Chatto and Windus, 1957.

This seminal study analyzed the novel as a historical document reflecting human thought.

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Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel sef from 1652 to 1694 in Great Britain and South America, on the African coast, and on an island off the coast of South America; published in 1719.

SYNOPSIS

A young man seeking adventure embarks on a series of journeys at sea, gets shipwrecked, and spends twenty-eight years on an isolated South Sea island before returning to civilization.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Apolitical activist, journalist, merchant, and religious rebel, Daniel Defoe was in a unique position to write about his times. Born the year the Restoration began, Defoe was a middle-class merchant who went bankrupt twice due to bad business deals and shifts in political attitudes. His varied life experiences equipped him to comment on the struggles of the working class and gave him broad insight into the benefits and consequences of England’s growing wealth and power.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Restoration England: Emerging world empire

In 1660, the year Daniel Defoe was born, England became a monarchy again after a decade-long experiment with a parliamentary form of government. Charles II was restored to the English throne. His accession brought the royal family of the Stuarts back to power, and his reign marked the emergence of England as a formidable empire. Charles vigorously promoted trade and the shipping industry, and his support soon put England in a position to challenge the Dutch and Spanish—the leading imperial powers of the day—for a share of international markets. Under Charles the shipping tonnage in England soared and small port cities that had been in economic decline, such as Liverpool, began to prosper. London became a wealthy city and a center of world commerce during these years—a marked contrast to previous decades in which the city had been repeatedly ravaged by the plague and the nation had suffered from continual threats of civil war.

England’s commercial success was due largely to the expansion of its colonial empire. Like the Spanish, French, and Dutch, the British commissioned and encouraged overseas claims to territory. The British claimed areas in North America, Africa, and the West Indies, and they began exporting goods gathered from overseas locations to European markets. For example, British merchants in the West Indies produced and refined sugar that was shipped to England and Europe to sell or trade for other commodities. In order to produce the sugar at little or no cost, the British exported slaves from Africa to work the fields. These slaves were primarily from Guinea, part of the West African territory claimed by England. The slave trade thus bolstered the British economy, becoming an industry in itself as traders not only supplied British plantation owners with slaves but also sold slaves to others throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

Slave trade

British trade in Africa started in 1618, when King James I began exporting dyes from Britain’s newly acquired colony of Guinea. The Dutch, who also held colonies in Africa, were the first to enter the slave trade. They supplied slaves for the sugar industry in the Caribbean and had a monopoly on such trade until roughly 1672. Eager to increase British holdings in Africa, challenge the Dutch, and enter the lucrative slave trade, King Charles II granted the Royal African Company (RAC) exclusive rights to the land and people of West Africa from Cape Blanco to the Cape of Good Hope for one thousand years. By the 1680s, the RAC was supplying over five thousand slaves a year to the West Indies. It dominated the slave trade until about 1686. Characteristic of the era, both Defoe and his fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, were slave traders who condoned the practice because it benefited the British economy. African slaves were looked upon by these merchants not as human beings but as a commodity to be traded like sugar or dye. In Defoe’s eyes, the slave trade was the most useful and profitable business for an Englishman to conduct, and, like Crusoe, he felt little moral conflict in bartering human life.

Rise of the middle class

As British wealth increased, so did the status and prospects of the middle class. It was now possible for those of the lower working class to rise through commercial enterprise to the middle class, and it became a common goal among those in the middle station of life to achieve the ranks of gentility. Like Defoe himself, middle-class men risked what little they had to outfit expeditions and trading voyages overseas. Exchanging a simple but secure life for adventure and possible wealth or bankruptcy, Defoe and many of his contemporaries invested in overseas enterprises. Both Defoe and his fictional character Crusoe suffered the consequences of such high risks. Pirates filled the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, making shipping a very dangerous enterprise. In the novel, Crusoe is captured by pirates. In real life, Defoe’s cargoes were seized by French sailors in 1692, a development that propelled him into bankruptcy.

Because Defoe had such wide-ranging experiences, he was able to write about the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of middle-class life in his generation. As one of his contemporaries observed, “it is possible to base a study of English society in the early eighteenth century almost entirely on the writings of Daniel Defoe” (Shinagel, p. 17).

Vice, morality, and materialism

The reign of Charles II was characterized not only by commercial enterprise but also by increased materialism and vice. The king’s personal life was the subject of controversy—he was known as something of a drinker and a ladies’ man. King Charles also promoted trade in spirits and tobacco. The selling of these items accounted for much of the success of the British merchants, but it also furthered practices that were frowned upon by various religions—in particular by the Puritans and Dissenters (Protestants who refused to join the Church of England). These groups preached abstinence and temperance. Defoe, who had a strong religious background, experienced the conflict of material gain versus morality. He derived income by importing brandy from Spain and tobacco from America. Determined to increase his wealth like his fellow merchants, Defoe was a materialist. Still, he saw the ill effects of such a shallow goal as material gain.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe illustrates the prevailing materialist attitude of England when he describes how Crusoe takes gold from a shipwrecked boat onto his deserted island. Clearly the gold is valueless on an uninhabited island, yet Crusoe cannot help but hoard what he can. After all, he is a merchant, a sea trader who is in business to make money. Through Crusoe’s behavior, Defoe illustrates the sometimes illogical but very real preoccupation with material gain characteristic of his age.

Glorious Revolution

In 1688 the Dissenters succeeded in bringing William of Orange to the throne of England. This “Glorious Revolution,” as it came to be known, took place without bloodshed and ushered in religious freedom for a time. Under William’s religiously tolerant government, Defoe prospered financially and politically. The accession of William brought with it the promise of social reform, such as better legal and economic conditions for women, the poor, and the mentally ill.

Defoe worked closely with King William as a pamphleteer during these years, defending the Glorious Revolution and advocating social reform. The concept of tolerance for people of different religions and nationalities was promoted by Defoe, for it was an idea that contrasted sharply with past and future policies; religious and political persecution had occurred under Charles II and would reappear under William’s successors, Queen Anne and George I. In RobinsonCrusoe, Defoe illustrates the idea of tolerance when he shows that African, British, and Spanish men can peacefully coexist on one island. Crusoe’s island is the site of cooperation and tolerance among men of different religions and nationalities. Defoe holds up the island as a model upon which his own country, the island nation of England, can rebuild itself. Crusoe’s island depicts the peaceful coexistence promised by the Glorious Revolution.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Defying his father’s advice to become a simple country lawyer and seek the “middle state” in life, Robinson Crusoe sets out to have adventures and forge his own path in the world by way of the sea. At age nineteen, he boards a ship to London, firmly resolved to become a great sailor and earn his fortune in the seafaring trade. On his first voyage, though, he narrowly escapes death—an event that makes him question his chosen occupation. But no matter how hard his sense of reason tries to overcome his desire to stay in the business, it fails. Looking back, Crusoe laments his obstinacy:

…tho’ I had several times loud calls from my Reason and my more composed Judgment to go home, yet I had no Power to do it. I know not what to call this, nor will I urge, that it is a secret over-ruling Decree that hurries us on to be the Instruments of our own Destruction, even tho’ it be before us, and we rush upon it with our Eyes open.

(Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, p. 14)

Crusoe boards a second ship bound for the coast of Guinea in Africa, embarking on his most (and he says his only) successful adventure. He becomes both a sailor and a merchant and returns to Great Britain with a considerable amount of gold. The success of this journey inspires him to continue as a “Guiney Trader” (Robinson Crusoe, p. 18). But success is short-lived, for he is captured by pirates on his subsequent trip and enslaved. He serves a Moor captain for nearly two years until the opportunity for escape finally arises. Crusoe steals away in a small boat, throwing a fellow slave overboard and keeping another, Xury, as his own servant. Meeting up with a Portuguese vessel en route to Brazil, Crusoe and Xury accompany the crew to South America. In Brazil, Crusoe becomes a prosperous farmer. He regrets that he has sold Xury because he needs help tending his crops. Crusoe justifies the sale by saying that Xury was willing to go.

Ironically, after several years in South America, Crusoe is “coming into the very Middle Station, or Upper Degree of low life, which my father advised me to before” (Robinson Crusoe, p. 35). Crusoe often speaks of the lucrative slave trade off the coast of Guinea to his neighbors—farmers who all need cheap labor to work their tobacco and sugar plantations—and they soon approach him about outfitting a ship. Crusoe agrees to captain the ship and unknowingly sets sail on a fateful voyage to Africa that will forever change his life.

As on his first voyage, Crusoe encounters a violent windstorm that wrecks his ship. This time all is lost and he is the only one to escape with his life. He lands on a deserted island off the coast of South America and salvages what he can from the ship to provide for his stay there. He scouts the island, builds himself a shelter, and learns to make furniture and tools and to farm. As loneliness settles over him, he begins writing a journal in which he records the minute details of his daily survival. He also begins to talk to God, questioning the circumstances of his predicament and pondering God’s existence.

Crusoe’s conversations with God become a primary part of the rest of the novel. He begins a religious conversion in which he repents his quest for material gain and his disobedience to his father’s advice to seek the middle station in life. Crusoe becomes ill and has what seem to be wild and prophetic dreams. It is unclear to both Crusoe and the reader whether these are dreams, hallucinations, or messages from God. The dreams cause Crusoe to reassess his relationship with God, and he becomes convinced it is his duty to serve God by living a “good” life.

Eventually Crusoe explores the other side of the island. He builds a second home there, where the soil is more fertile and the climate more tropical. He shapes a canoe in case the possibility of escape arises, but Crusoe builds it too large and too far from the water for one man to carry. He then makes himself a second, smaller boat which can take him around the island, although not on the open ocean.

After about fifteen years on the island, Crusoe finds a footprint on the beach that terrifies him. Later he finds human bones scattered in a ritualistic way and realizes cannibals have at some point landed on the island. He debates whether it is right for him to interfere in other peoples’ lives, and whether it is proper for him to judge others according to his own Anglo-Christian beliefs. He decides that only God has the authority to punish

and judge and that he will not try to kill the cannibals unless they attack him.

A short time later, a violent storm wrecks a ship directly offshore. Crusoe tries to signal it, but the crew is entirely lost. He manages to salvage the ship’s supplies—which at this point he desperately needs—and even takes gold and currency that is valueless on his island. As time passes, Crusoe becomes increasingly desperate for human companionship and conjures ways of escaping. He has spent over twenty years on the island and during that time has not spoken to another living soul. About this time, he has another dream in which he rescues a potential victim of the cannibals. Over a year later, his dream is realized when he rescues Friday, an African who narrowly escapes a band of cannibals.

Crusoe teaches Friday his language and religion as well as survival skills, while Friday becomes Crusoe’s servant and companion. Crusoe, like English colonists, views the island as his domain and himself as king. He feels he is “civilizing” his savage companion and cultivating the land, just as the British government felt it was benefiting the colonies it claimed and the natives who peopled them.

Soon the cannibals return with several new victims to be sacrificed, including Friday’s father. Crusoe and Friday rescue Friday’s father and a Spaniard. The small group, comprised of three different nationalities and religions—Spanish Catholic, African Pagan, English Protestant—works together to save each other and flee the island. In the end, they all escape. Crusoe thanks God for his deliverance and arrives in Great Britain thirty-five years after he departed.

Upon arriving, Crusoe discovers that some of his long-range investments have paid great dividends and that he is a wealthy man. He repays those who helped him along the way, marries, and has three children. After several years, though, true to his nature, he is no longer satisfied with his station in life—the lesson he was supposed to have learned from the shipwreck and his years of isolation—and he once again seeks adventure. He goes abroad in 1694, revisits his island, and lives a life of adventure for the next ten years, which he promises to chronicle in the sequel to Robinson Crusoe.

Sources

Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on the real-life adventures of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who spent four and a half years on a deserted island off the coast of Chile in South America. Selkirk’s story was widely publicized after he returned to London in 1711, and it is assumed that Defoe either read of his exploits or interviewed Selkirk personally. But Robinson Crusoe is far from a biography of Selkirk; Defoe simply gleaned the basic plot line from the Scotsman’s adventure. More than anything, the book is autobiographical, based on Defoe’s own personal struggles with his father, religion, career, and politics.

Like his protagonist, Defoe was encouraged by his father to live a simple, middle-class life. He was educated to become a country minister. However, also like Crusoe, he was restless. Attracted to the sea and the world of commerce, Defoe left home for the big city of London at the earliest opportunity. He operated several businesses, invested in overseas trade—including the slave trade—and experienced both success and failure as a businessman. Finally, like Crusoe, he grappled with the question of material gain versus morality. Defoe believed in Puritan ideals, which discouraged smoking and drinking, yet derived income from the sale of tobacco and brandy. Because aspects of the novel bore striking similarities to Defoe’s life, many critics feel that Robinson Crusoe was a psychological exercise to resolve the various conflicts he felt personally. Calling the novel an allegory of Defoe’s life, one critic has commented:

Crusoe is not Daniel Defoe. And yet, more than any of his books, it is a kind of day-dream in which the author and his hero dissolve into one another.

(Sutherland, p. 29)

Birth of the novel and formal realism

With Robinson Crusoe, Defoe is said to have invented a style known as formal realism. The style strove for writing that was true to nature and real life without idealizing people, events, or surroundings. Defoe was not writing for the upper classes or commissioned by a patron, or supporter; members of the middle class were the main buyers of his work. As a result, flowery language or aristocratic, larger-than-life characters did not find their way into his novel. Defoe also used Crusoe’s daily journal entries to add to the realism of the story:

June 27. The Ague again so violent, that I lay a-Bed all Day, and neither eat nor drank. I was ready to perish for Thirst, but so weak, I had not strength to stand up, or to get my self any Water to drink: Pray’d to God again, but was light-headed, and when I was not, I was so ignorant, that I knew not what to say; only I lay and cry’d, Lord look upon me, Lord pity me, Lord have Mercy upon me.

(Robinson Crusoe, p. 87)

The details Crusoe records—down to the exact supplies he has, the crops he grows, the tools he makes, and the psychological soul-searching he undergoes—add to the story’s realism as well. They lead the reader to believe that Crusoe’s adventure actually occurred or could have taken place.

PRESBYTERIAN INFLUENCE ON DEFOE’S STYLE

Defoe’s realistic style was heavily influenced by his childhood. Raised by strict Presbyterians to be a preacher, Defoe emulated the schoolmasters and ministers he grew up hearing. He used a direct style of writing, addressing his audience as a commoner or preacher would speak, providing a wealth of facts and figures to back his assertions. Commenting on his simple, journalistic style, Defoe said: “I could give you similes, allegories… and read you long lectures upon the Roman affairs under the government of their consuls and tribunes [but I prefer] a down-right Plainness... both in Fact and Style” (Defoe in Shinagel, p. 22). Defoe, who was not university-educated, assumed that his audience had no prior knowledge of a subject, unlike some writers of his day.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

A new era for England and Defoe

Defoe prospered as long as William of Orange was on the throne, but William died in 1702. When Queen Anne assumed control, Defoe’s life changed drastically. Because Defoe was such a well-known propagandist for William and the Dissenters, he was literally a marked man, regarded as an enemy of both Anglicans (members of the Church of England) and Catholics. When Queen Anne, a devout Anglican, renewed the persecution of Dissenters, Defoe was among the first to feel the queen’s wrath. He was arrested in 1703 and jailed. The promise of reform, tolerance, and peaceful co-existence ushered in by the Glorious Revolution was broken, and a new phase in British politics and Defoe’s life began.

Lord Harley

Defoe’s release from jail was secured by Robert Harley, the speaker of the House of Commons. Harley belonged to the Tories, the political party that had gained power along with Queen Anne. In exchange for Harley’s help, Defoe went to work for him editing a Tory newspaper, The Review. Defoe was called a “turncoat” by many who felt he had abandoned his political and religious views (Earle, p. 19). In his new position, he advocated closing England’s Dissenting Academies (Puritan schools) even though he had been educated at such a school and previously took great pride in his educational experience. Furthermore, he spoke out in seeming support of a Jacobite king in 1713. That is, he seemed to support the claim of a Catholic, James VII, to the throne, a position that angered many. He was arrested a second time and again was bailed out by Harley.

Back to the Whigs

In 1714 Queen Anne died and George I came to the British throne. Harley was imprisoned for treason, and Defoe returned to his original political party, the Whigs, who had come back into power. He became a propagandist for the Whigs, just as he had been for the Tories, and began to write his own works of fiction.

Under King George, the newly unified nation of Great Britain prospered, but social reform and cultural development nearly ceased. George was not interested in art and, unlike Queen Anne, who had been an avid patron of the afts, he did not sponsor writers, painters, or performers. The publishing business was born as a result, when, to obtain money, writers sold their works to publishers, who profited by marketing them to the public.

Defoe was in a unique position to benefit from the change. His novels became early products of the new publishing industry, which relied on sales to the growing middle class. Since Defoe wrote for and about members of the middle class, who had become increasingly literate by 1715, his novels met with success. Defoe was also associated with twenty-six different periodicals, even writing one journal (The Review) single-handedly. Defoe has often been called the father of modern journalism.

Broken promises

The political climate in England changed dramatically by 1719, the year Defoe’s book was published. Wars and bloody conflicts over succession to the throne plagued King William and the rulers that followed. The concepts of social reform promoted by the Glorious Revolution—better representation of minorities in government, social welfare programs, tax breaks for middle-class merchants, and religious tolerance—were replaced with a new emphasis on the individual, a policy of nonresponsibility by the government for social welfare, and religious and political persecution. Though Defoe believed that society could be improved through the betterment of the individual, he also believed in the ideals of the revolution and worked most of his life for social reform.

Defoe, like many in England, experienced a shift in attitude in the decades that followed the Glorious Revolution, and this shift is reflected in Robinson Crusoe. Defoe began as an optimist, yet developed a more realistic outlook on life as he grew older. He saw the promises of the revolution shattered and had personally bent his ideals and morals in order to prosper financially and politically. He had gone bankrupt twice, was jailed twice, was sued at least eight times, and would die poor in a building where he had hid in an effort to evade a bill collector. At the end of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe paints a picture of harmonious coexistence among three different races and religions, yet at the same time states that to his knowledge this is not yet the case in Great Britain or any other nation. He offers a model of tolerance, probably suspecting that the chance of it being emulated was slim.

There is also the issue of materialism. Robinson Crusoe is punished for his materialist goals by being marooned for twenty-eight years on a deserted island. Yet Defoe ultimately rewards Crusoe by making him a wealthy man once he leaves the island. This ending may partly reflect Defoe’s own belief in the rising prosperity of Great Britain and the middle class through foreign trade; this good fortune would continue through the next century.

Reviews

Robinson Crusoe was an extremely popular novel when it first appeared in 1719. But it was never the critical success during Defoe’s lifetime that it became after his death. Writers of his own time, such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, criticized Defoe’s politics and religious views, his plain, journalistic style, and his lack of attention to detail. Critics also noted that Defoe contradicts himself in the novel several times. For example, he first says Crusoe is naked when he is marooned, but Crusoe later fills his pockets with goods from the ship. Still, Pope acknowledged that “there is something good in all that he [Defoe] has written,” and others praised him as “England’s watchdog,” protecting and voicing the interests of the middle and working classes (Sutherland, p. 6).

For More Information

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Earle, Peter. The World of Defoe. New York: Atheneum, 1937.

Keen, Benjamin. A History of Latin America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Shinagel, Michael. Daniel Defoe and Middle-class Gentility. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Smith, Goldwin. England: A Short History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Sutherland, James. Defoe. London: Longmans, Green, 1965.

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