Robinson Crusoe the myth

If you've ever seen the show Survivor (Isola dei famosi) or the movie Cast Away, those are really influenced by Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. If you're a reader of novels, which I hope you are, it's good to know that Defoe was actually one of the earliest writers of the English novel and he is considered as the father of it.

Daniel Defoe's birth name was actually Daniel Foe. He was born in 1659 in London. He'd add that more dignified-sounding prefix to his surname a little bit later on. Daniel Defoe was raised as a dissenter, that is a group of people who didn't believe in the Church of England, which maybe now, when we live in a society that celebrates freedom of religion, might not seem like a big deal, but this wasn't an era of religious tolerance in England. It was a rough time to be a dissenter. They often faced a lot of persecution and animosity from people who disagreed with them.

In 1719, when Defoe was around 60 years old, he published his best-known work, which is Robinson Crusoe. You're probably familiar with this or some later version of it. It's inspired a lot of adventure stories. The book tells the fictional story of a castaway who lived for nearly 28 years on a remote island. The book was an immediate and massive success and you can see lots of other novels that tie back to Robinson Crusoe and were inspired by it and we’ll talk about that and go through some of those novels and films.

But why was Defoe's Robinson Crusoe so popular?

Robinson Crusoe is a very exciting story even centuries later. There are sailing ships and stormy seas and a desert island and guns and cannibals and, well, basically a whole bunch of rollicking action in exotic and faraway places.

But, of course, it's not all about action, adventure, and real-life Scottish castaways. There are other reasons for the book's popularity at the time. Robinson Crusoe deals with many of the Big Issues on the minds of people in 18th-century England.

  1. Our dear old friend religion, of course. The novel is basically our title character's spiritual autobiography. He starts off as the typical prodigal son and finds himself struggling against the will of God. His journal on the island charts his spiritual awakening and eventual conversion to Christianity.
  2. Philosophy. Robinson Crusoe engages with many of the egghead debates of its day. For example, how does man exist in a state of nature? What is the relationship between man and society? (And when we say "man" we do just mean "man" – women in this novel are few and far between.) Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were already thinking about this stuff in terms of the social contract – that is, man's relationship to the society he lives in. Because this novel is about a man living alone in the wilderness who forms his own little society, Robinson Crusoe is very much a part of this larger philosophical conversation.
  3. The novel puts great emphasis on the fact that Crusoe's family is from middle class. The middle class was just emerging in 18th-century England. In that sense, this book becomes a way for readers to start really thinking through middle-class values and beliefs.
  4. The role of commerce and imperial expansion. You'll notice that Crusoe is always taking stock of what he's trading and with whom – and how much money he makes from his travels all over the globe. While this might sound kind of boring to us, England was just beginning to expand its trade networks and swap goods all over the world in places like India, Africa, and the Americas. As commercial capitalism boomed, people in England were fascinated by these new exotic goods and the places from which they came. They were also very interested in the people from these different cultures. Take special notice of how people who are not English are depicted in this book. You'll find some pretty striking instances of Eurocentrism here.

But what is different in the other novels? We have read three different novels inspired by the original ‘Robinson Crusoe’:

Robinson by Muriel Sparks 1958

  • Crusoe’s daughter by Jane Gardam 1985
Monumental, godlike Crusoe. Monumentally and deistically taking control of his emotions. And I, Polly Flint, after the knowledge of my loss, set out to be the same. Theo’s face and being and presence at her shoulders, Polly Flint blots out, and lets the noble and unfailing face and being and presence of Crusoe become her devotion and her joy. Crusoe is her idol and her king. Crusoe’s mastery of circumstances. Crusoe, Polly Flint’s father and her mother.

Foe by JM Coetzee 1986

Susan asks Cruso, “Why in all these years have you not built a boat and made your escape from the island?” (Coetzee 13). He replies, “And where should I escape to?” (13). Cruso’s answer confuses Susan, and she determines that talking to Cruso is “a waste of breath” (13). She cannot understand that Cruso does not have a history. He is a character without a past who sees no need to reflect on how he came to exist, but instead remains content to build terrace after terrace like one confined to the pages of a novel, destined to repeat the same action over and over. He does not desire escape; he would die without the island.

All these novels have a woman as the protagonist and narrator and all of them show their connection to the original novel in the title. But let’s analyze one by one.

The connection between Spark’s and Defoe’s novels is apparent in the title, but, paradoxically, the constant repetition of the name “Robinson” dulls the sense of continuity between the two texts. There is an ironic resemblance between January and Man Friday: both their names mark an important moment: the month of her birth for January and the day of his entrance into Crusoe’s life for Man Friday. In both the novels there is the important presence of a journal: Robinson kept a journal/diary beginning with an entry dated “September 30, 1659,” that inaugurates his account of life on the “Island of Despair,” as he calls it.

Robinson gave January a journal ‘for the purpose…I began to by writing my name, the place and the date as follows: January Marlow, Robinson May 20, 1954

January was not alone on the island but she was with two men.

In Crusoe’s daughter instead we have a little girl at the beginning of the novel, Polly Flint, that becomes a 87 years old woman by the end of it. In 1904, when she was six, Polly Flint went to live with her two holy aunts at the yellow house by the marsh -- so close to the sea that it seemed to toss like a ship, so isolated that she might have been marooned on an island. And there she stayed for eighty-one years while the century raged around her, while lamplight and Victorian order became chaos and nuclear dread. So here the setting is completely different but the connection with Robinson Crusoe is real all throughout the novel that ends with a dramatic dialogue between the protagonist and Crusoe himself. Polly Flint is the biological daughter of a sea captain, but her spiritual father is Daniel Defoe. She discovers a copy of Robinson Crusoe in the gloomy study of her aunts' house, and the book comes with her when she is taken off to a new home. She stays true to the plainness of Defoe, arguing that Robinson Crusoe is "full of poetic truth … and an attempt at a universal truth very differently expressed".

On one level, this is a book about a woman’s life in England throughout the twentieth-century; abandonment and loneliness, introduced in the first pages when Polly’s father dies, flare up all the time, even amidst joy. On the narrative level, then, it’s the compassionate story-telling.

As we can glean from the title, one book had a particular influence on Polly: Robinson Crusoe. When Polly feels abandoned in real life, it’s with Crusoe she finds companionship, and not really just as a literary friend. It becomes a conscious choice when she is twenty and her childhood crush.

Finally we read a passage from Foe written by Coetzee a rewriting of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. John Michael Coetzee is a South African writer. In 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his novel, it isn't just Cruso, without the "e" and Friday stranded on a deserted island. There's a lady there, too. Her name's Susan Barton. Coetzee's story goes like this: Susan Barton is rescued, and goes back to England, where she tries to get Foe (Daniel Defoe), to write the story of the island from her perspective. The following paragraph is from the novel: "The story I desire to be known by is the story of the island. You call it an episode, but I call it a story in its own right. It commences with my being cast away there and concludes with the death of Cruso and the return of Friday and myself to England, full of new hope. Within this larger story are inset the stories of how I came to be marooned (told by myself to Cruso) and of Cruso's shipwreck and early years on the island (told by Cruso to myself), as well as the story of Friday which is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative, (I picture it as a buttonhole, carefully cross-stitched around, but empty, waiting for the button)." (p. 121)

J.M. Coetzee reinvents the story of Robinson Crusoe—and in so doing, directs our attention to the seduction and tyranny of storytelling itself. In 1720 the eminent man of letters Daniel Foe is approached by Susan Barton, lately a castaway on a desert island. She wants him to tell her story, and that of the enigmatic man who has become her rescuer, companion, master and sometimes lover: Cruso. Cruso is dead, and his manservant, Friday, is incapable of speech. As she tries to relate the truth about him, the ambitious Barton cannot help turning Cruso into her invention. For as narrated by Foe—as by Coetzee himself—the stories we thought we knew acquire depths that are at once treacherous, elegant, and unexpectedly moving.

Foe was the original name of the writer before adding ‘De’ later when he was forty, but it also means ‘enemy’, but who is the enemy? Considering it is a post colonialism novel the enemy could be the white man that colonized Africa. Defoe's Friday has a voice. His Crusoe has discourses with him. It's all very civilised; his Friday (a handsome Caribbean youth with near-European features) quickly learns his place. Cruso's Friday (now cast as an African slave) has had his tongue cut out of him. Is Coetzee presenting the true face of colonialism here?

But the enemy could be also Susan, a woman that wants to write her own story without any male interference. "I am not a story, Mr. Foe," she protests, "I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire" The world never meets Cruso, for he dies on the voyage home.

Coetzee’s novel is indeed a feminist fable; it is also a political allegory the more powerful for being unspecific (Friday brings to mind not only the black people of South Africa but also the voiceless oppressed in every society) and a fiction about the writing of fiction. Shifting easily from dreamlike vision to witty disputation, FOE is in its own right a rich work of the imagination, not merely a parasite on the genius of its model.

The very fact that Susan's tale, published in 1986, is inextricably tied to an eighteenth-century novel—indeed, could not make sense without the prior existence of Robinson Crusoe. Foe is, after all, metafiction, a novel about the writing of novels. Indeed, Coetzee's novel is as shackled by conditions as its heroine, desiring freedom from the father (Robinson Crusoe). The dialogue Coetzee creates between Foe and Susan, competing authors, presents the conflict between "ancients" and "moderns.

In this link you can find a report about a family that chose to have the same experience as Robinson on a desert island, please read it: http://blog.ted.com/how-a-ted-talk-inspired-me-to-take-a-mid-career-sabbatical/

Bibliografia 1. http://study.com/academy/lesson/introduction-to-daniel-defoe-biography-and-major-works.html 2. http://www.shmoop.com/robinson-crusoe/ 3. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/crusoe/section3.rhtml 4. http://fiftybooksproject.blogspot.it/2009/11/robinson-by-muriel-spark.html 5. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/dec/09/comfort-reading-jane-gardam-crusoes-daughter 6. http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2012/06/01/jane-gardam-crusoes-daughter/ 7. http://www.shmoop.com/postcolonial-literature/metanarrative-characteristic-foe-example.html 8. http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.it/2009/10/foe.html

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Giovanna Tanzillo
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