Here I am with my third review for the Classics Club. Robinson Crusoe is a difficult novel for the modern reader. It is one of the earliest novels and as such lacks some of the characteristics we associate with the form. It has no chapters—just a few breaks here and there—little dialogue, minimal characterization, and a primitive plot structure. If you think of the novel as a children’s story, you are wrong (although when I was looking for a cover for this article, I saw that it is marketed as such).
In fact, the story that has made several exciting movies is related in a mundane manner with little notion of building suspense and would probably bore most kids silly. Instead, Crusoe’s novel is an expression of the importance of self-reliance and an assertion of Defoe’s religious faith.
The story is familiar, although I was surprised by just how much happens before the famous shipwreck and after the rescue. As a young man, Robinson Crusoe is in a position where he could live a good life at home. His father urges him to be content, but he determines to be a sailor. He makes several voyages, ending in Brazil, where he accumulates property and an estate. But he is not satisfied to stay at home. He takes on an errand from neighbors to travel back to Europe for business, and that is when he is shipwrecked.
The rest of the novel is about his efforts to survive and make himself a home, his religious musings, and (after years of being alone) his encounters with other people. As I mentioned before, none of the characters are fully realized. In fact, aside from Crusoe, only Friday even has a name. Everyone else is just called by his station. (I say “his,” because there are no female characters.)
Modern readers may also have problems with such issues as racism or sexism in the novel (sexism only in the sense that Defoe ignores women—he mentions a few, but they are clearly unimportant). I don’t think that works should be judged outside the standards of their time, though. By the standards of his own time, Crusoe probably treats Friday pretty well.
The only other novel I have read by Defoe is Moll Flanders, which has the advantage of being bawdy. I think the way to approach this novel is not as an adventure story but as an example of an early novel and as a story about self-reliance.