Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner

---------------------RETRO POST----------------------------

Written in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has been considered a classic amongst academics for years. I was not all too familiar with it, so decided to go ahead and read the book, which is titled thus The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself, and discover for myself why it is called a classic. And my discovery may just get me annexed from the annuls of academia.

The majority of people out there have some vague understand of the story when I say the word, “Robinson Crusoe”. Maybe it’s because they’ve made movies of it, or maybe it’s because they’ve made movies and shows based loosely upon the premise, or maybe still it’s because the book is old and considered a classic. Whatever the reason, an image or idea springs to mind simply upon hearing the words: “Robinson Crusoe”.

But do you know the story as well as you think? I thought I did, in fact, I thought I knew the premise well enough that there was going to be nothing to surprise me. How did Robinson Crusoe become a slave to a Moor? Where did Robinson establish his estate? Do you know who Friday is? What about Poll? Can you tell me how many mutineers were in the boat with Bowson’s mate? If can answer successfully these questions, and do not need the help of Wikipedia or any other outside source, then you have read Robinson Crusoe. Apparently, the book went through 4 editions within the first year of its printing, and hundreds of spin off novels and adaptations have been written. Being that as it is, sometimes people think they have read Robinson Crusoe, and it turns out that they haven’t actually read the complete story, but a spin-off and/or abridged version. Do not let yourself fall into this trap.

But what was my discovery that might get me expelled from academia? The discovery that the story of Robinson Crusoe is not the story of a man stranded on a desert isle, which is usually the way we describe the novel, and neither is it a story about a man who goes mad without human connections, as others have called it, nor is it a tale of culture shock as some have been known to say it is. No, it is none of these things, for it is simply a tale of a man who builds his own nation upon an Island on which he is stranded for 25 years, and the adventures he goes through to defend the said nation.

Robinson Crusoe, despite popular belief, never had to forage for his food or learn how to survive. The first night upon the beach, he builds himself a fire and upon the rising of the sun, he floats a raft back to the grounded boat and spends the next week removing provisions for his own survival, which includes Bread, Corn, Rice, Salt, and enough gun powder and shot to last him the whole 25 years. He never seems to be in real want because he only finds grapes when he goes out to discover the whole of the island. He hunts the wild goats and pigeons and turtles that he finds upon the island, and even has a dog and two cats that he rescued from the boat. After four years, he discovers that he can plant and harvest more than enough Corn and Rice to supply himself with a constant supply of those vegetables for 21 more years, and even enough seed to leave for the Spaniard and Mutineers who inherit the island after his departure from it.

Robinson Crusoe very seldomly relies on the island for any part of his survival. Even the planks of wood that he uses to build his fortress and his summer home are pieces of debris from the wreck of his ship. Only the reeds he uses as camouflage and as thatching for his roof could be considered as living off the land. In true English fashion, he adapts his environment to meet his needs and not the other way around, redesigning the cave to make it a more level storehouse for his goods, hammering nails into the rock so that he can hang shelves for his journals, tilling the ground before he even ventures out to discover what resources the island has to offer. In short, I wouldn’t call Robinson Crusoe a survivalist more than I would call him a colonist.

I didn’t feel like I could sympathize with him, because it never seemed to me as though he were in dire straights. Hint for those of you who are amateur writers: if your character doesn’t have to struggle, you’re going to have a harder time convincing your readers that they’re worth caring about. Not to say you need have an elaborate affliction, but it becomes easier to get readers to care if the character finds themselves experiencing pain. And with Robinson Crusoe, I didn’t feel that pain. With his religious practices, both weekly and yearly, his peaceful resignation to the providence of God, it seemed to me that he was content there upon the island and could ask for nothing more than some soft clean clothes and a cap. Water was in supply, food was in supply, and books were in supply. He was not lacking in tools either, because he found some on the boat.

To be honest, the only time when I really began to feel like I cared about Robinson Crusoe was near the end of the novel when he and the other English travelers are going through France on their way to England and find themselves surrounded by wolves. Friday is the more impressive fighter in the book, and Robinson is well off because he saved the boy’s life. With Friday’s skill and Robinson’s expertise with gun powder, they get away from the Wolves, but only after their guide is maimed.

All in all, I think Robinson Crusoe is more the story of a man who establishes a one man nation and then discovers that his nation is in the middle of cannibal territory. After building his army, he finds his way and from there begins to live the life that had been waiting for him since he left for the Africa’s to open slave trading ports—which he did in the original Defoe version. He grew his nation to the size and quality sufficient of his subjects, and as they grew, so did he prepare and organize and grow his nation to house them. In the end, he had an English Captain and crew, a savage boy name Friday, Friday’s father, and a Spaniard as his merry subjects and more immigrants on the way.

As far as being a quaint Victorian adventure story, it was okay, but I did not like it overall. I thought it too long winded and not really about the superficial things that many people mistakenly think the story is about. I do recommend that you spend some time with the novel, mostly because it is considered a classic, and because it will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the English language.

No comments: