There is no doubt that Robinson Crusoe is important to literary history. First published in 1719, it is among one of the first novels ever written. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction, with its success leading to the popularity of castaway novels. I doubt however that the style and content of the original version of Robinson Crusoe will appeal to today’s young readers.
It sure didn’t when I first read it as a high school student. Then again, that might have been because I was too busy falling for my literature teacher to care about the rebellious main character, who against his family’s wishes decided to take to the sea. Or so I told myself recently when our family decided to read it for our monthly discussion group. And thus I decided to give this literary classic another chance. Perhaps inspired by real-life Alexander Selkirk who lived for four years on a Pacific island, Robinson Crusoe tells the fictional story of a castaway who spends twenty-seven years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. While on this island, Crusoe builds shelter and tools, hunts animals, and plants crops. He also witnesses cannibalism and rescues their prisoners/food. Sounds as if Robinson Crusoe has huge potential for a great adventure story, right? Too bad it’s such a bore.
First, let’s consider the style. It is so rambling and repetitious that it made my head hurt to read it in large chunks: “My father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent share of learning, as far as a house-education and a country free school generally goes, and designed me for the law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to the sea; and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay, the commands, of my father, and against all the entreaties….” Besides writing novels, Daniel Defoe apparently also wrote manuals. I believe it! A second problem I have with Defoe’s style is how analytical and impassive his descriptions are: “Before I set up my tent, I drew a half circle before the hollow place, which took in about ten yards in its semi-diameter from the rock, and twenty yards in its diameter from its beginning and ending.” I can’t remember the last time I checked my email so often during one page.
Next, let’s consider the content. It irritated me on two levels. First, Defoe was badly in need of an editor. There is an old adage amongst writers that one should cut the first chapter. With any other novel, this would probably eliminate the bulk of the background text. With Robinson Crusoe, one would have to keep hacking away to cut out the multiple stories about the times Crusoe went to sea, encountered storms or other dangers including captivity at the hands of the Moors, and subsequently repented (and then rescinded) of his foolishness. I’m all for skipping ahead to that fatal seafaring journey where he is marooned, because from that point until his rescue I somewhat enjoyed the story. There is also an old adage that when a story has been told, one should STOP. Someone should have given Defoe this advice. In my version (a slightly shortened form of part one published in The Children’s Illustrated Classics by E.P. Dutton & Co.), after Crusoe is rescued, Defoe tortured me for twenty-five additional pages with accounts of Crusoe’s life back in England. The content irritated me on a second level, in that there is material which begs for footnotes so that readers understand the context of the times wherein Defoe wrote. For example, slavery was an acceptable part of life in Defoe’s time. Readers who have heard how Robinson Crusoe is a beloved story of friendship between Crusoe and his man Friday might be surprised and shocked to realize that Friday referred to Crusoe as “master”. Even if Crusoe taught Friday to speak English and later converted him to Christianity, today’s readers would struggle to understand how their relationship is an example of friendship.
At this point, I would be amiss if I didn’t point out what I did enjoy about Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe created an extremely realistic character. Crusoe reacts initially with fear to storms and natives, but eventually calms down enough to react logically to dangers. When a storm leaves him shipwrecked, he methodically salvages supplies. When a footprint appears on the other side of his island, he figures out when natives are most likely to visit and so when he should stay hidden. Crusoe is very human. I also enjoyed reading about all the tools that Crusoe created during his sojourn on the island, along with his ponderings on moral dilemmas such as when is it right to kill another man and what role God should have in his life. At first, Crusoe turns to God only in times of trouble. As God continues to provide for him on the island, Crusoe develops a sense of thankfulness and contentment for what God blesses man with in his daily life.
As you can see, there are gems in Robinson Crusoe. Unfortunately, they’re so grimed in repetition and unnecessary content that they become drudgery to mine. For that reason, I found myself wondering: Do some literary classics become dated? Should a book ever be rewritten in modern English? Should a book ever be abridged? What do you think?