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Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719, read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of a young, wealthy Englishman who leaves the comforts of his well-off family to seek his fortune on the high seas. His father warns him against it, telling him to instead find comfort in the warm cocoon of the upper middle-class.

Instead, his life takes him from well-off scion to dilettante sailor to slave to slave-owner (literally just assuming that his co-escapee, also a slave, would just continue to be his slave once they’d escaped their common owner) to plantation owner to wannabe slave-trader to castaway to nearly incomprehensibly rich ship and island and plantation owner (through nearly no effort of his own, as he’d been stranded for nearly three decades, doing literally nothing to grow the fortune that he mysteriously gets anyway).

Robinson embarks in August of 1651 and soon disembarks from a shipwreck, but safe in a harbor. He sets off again, but is beset by pirates, who take him captive and sell him to the north-African Moors as a slave. He is two years a slave before he can take a boat and escape along the coast of Africa, with fellow escapee Xury. They are finally taken in by a Portugese ship with a very generous and fair captain, who agrees to buy Xury and takes Crusoe to Brazil, depriving him of not one possession.

Crusoe doesn’t at all question his assumed superiority to Xury, nor his right to sell him to the captain. That they consider him to be chattel does nothing at all to diminish their firm opinions that they are both good men.

Continuing to fail upward, Crusoe manages to parlay his minor fortune into a pretty major fortune. For a few years, he owns a plantation in Brazil before the wanderlust takes him again. In 1659, he agrees to head up an expedition to secure slaves from Africa for his and other plantations. Continuing his excellent seafaring luck, he shipwrecks about 40 miles out of the Orinoco river. No-one else survives.

The ship is still upright enough and is beached on a sandbar, close enough to shore to reach by swimming. The storm has abated. Crusoe makes several trips to the boat to retrieve supplies and float them back to the island.

He sets up life on the island, building a shelter, shooting goats and collecting water. A year in, he finds God. He explores the island, finding the other half to be much more hospitable, but is loath to move from what he now considers to be “home”, with its view of the sea and possible rescue.

He is inordinately terrified of “cannibals” and keeps his head down over years and even decades, with only his raving imaginings of potential attack to keep him company. E.g.,

“[…] where are found the worst of savages; for they are cannibals or men-eaters, and fail not to murder and devour all the human bodies that fall into their hands.”

Obviously. For they’ve nothing better to do than lust after his precious rump roast. Further on, Defoe tries to give birth to a sentence, but can’t find the end of it:

“Then, supposing they were not cannibals, yet they might kill me, as many Europeans who had fallen into their hands had been served, even when they had been ten or twenty together—much more I, that was but one, and could make little or no defence; all these things, I say, which I ought to have considered well; and did come into my thoughts afterwards, yet gave me no apprehensions at first, and my head ran mightily upon the thought of getting over to the shore.”

This sentence is a work of art. It’s convoluted to the point of incomprehensibility, seeming to have trapped the author into a whirlpool from which he can only escape via several awkward and completely nonsensical semicolons. Before that, though, he expresses his casual racism toward “cannibals”, who almost certainly don’t exist, and expresses a fear that they will kill him, although his countrymen have probably killed the islanders many hundreds of times more.

On page 147, he admits that “I had lived there fifteen years now and had not met with the least shadow or figure of any people yet,” so he’s not really in imminent danger. He goes through 18, then 23, then 24 years without seeing another soul (though he had seen a single footprint once, which terrified him, ruining his sleep, for years).

It is at this point, that he finally gets his “Man Friday”.

“It came very warmly upon my thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was the time to get me a servant, and, perhaps, a companion or assistant; and that I was plainly called by Providence to save this poor creature’s life.”

Of course, he’s going to shower the man with his beneficence by allowing him to become his slave. Nearly a quarter-century of island-living has done nothing to dim his internalized attitude toward others and his belief in the superiority of Englishmen and their proper place at the top of whatever hierarchy they may find themselves in.

Luckily for our Englishman, the “slave” is very aware of his role and jumps in with gusto, as evidenced by the passage where they meet.

“[…] and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every ten or twelve steps, in token of acknowledgment for saving his life. I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever.”

I mean, obviously, this is hugely convenient, because our hero is doing the slave a favor of allowing him to be a slave, which he so clearly desperately wishes to be, in order to express his eternal gratitude to the obviously superior Englishman. It gets even more uncomfortable when he describes the man he’s acquired. The description is basically slave-owner porn, reading more like the description of a beast of burden or a racehorse.

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight, strong limbs, not too large; tall, and well-shaped; and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age. He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled.”

He is saved from ugliness by having aspects of the Continent about him, thankfully. It goes on at length like this, ending two pages later in a repetition of the passage above, assuring the reader that the fealty is nearly entirely the idea of the slave.

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived.”

So porn-y. It reads like a teenage boy’s dream journal about ruling an island. On top of that, we are reassured that, having found a new God to worship in the person of our narrator, Friday has no desires. No want to return to his people. Or to his wife or family. He is content to be with and to learn from his new God.

“I began really to love the creature; and on his side I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before”

The love is mutual, but his is a love for a beast, whereas Friday’s is the adoration of a God.

When more people show up, captives he and Friday rescue from cannibals and others who escape a mutiny that ends in shipwreck, our narrator reflects on his position, after over 27 years on the island.

“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected—I was absolutely lord and lawgiver—they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me. ”

Again, this is like young-adult fiction, massaging the ego of the reader. It goes on at length like this, with the narrator expressing amazement at his own magnanimity in allowing everyone to practice the religion they preferred (and, of course, Friday, absolutely prefers the religion of our narrator).

He, of course, inherits the ship of the crew who he and Friday saved—because of course they would just give him everything in thanks. There are many passages of this sort, assuring the reader that everything truly is going to work out perfectly well for Crusoe.

“He anticipated my proposals by telling me that both he and the ship, if recovered, should be wholly directed and commanded by me in everything; and if the ship was not recovered, he would live and die with me in what part of the world soever I would send him; and the two other men said the same.”

It’s nice to be super-rich and only temporarily inconvenienced rather than made destitute or a slave (again, though the first time was nearly inconceivable).

An overland trip to bring his riches back to England from Madrid is kind of tacked on to the end of the book. He ends up with a tremendous fortune, with no-one cheating him out of anything and the world seemingly showering him with goods. Also, his overland journey has adventures, but he loses nothing. Also, the island is obviously acknowledged as belonging to him. He owns it and everyone who lives on it. He even “sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them,” breeding people like he did his goats when he still lived there.

The book shows its age, having no lasting philosophical statement that survives in the modern age. The writing style is convoluted and the prose is often quite childish in concept. I wouldn’t read anything by Defoe again.

Citations

“But as I had no instruments to take an observation to know what latitude we were in, and not exactly knowing, or at least remembering, what latitude they were in, I knew not where to look for them, or when to stand off to sea towards them; otherwise I might now easily have found some of these islands. ”
Page 24

So, basically, if he had any clue whatsoever as to his whereabouts, he would easily know where he was.

“In this manner I used to look upon my condition with the utmost regret.  I had nobody to converse with, but now and then this neighbour; no work to be done, but by the labour of my hands; and I used to say, I lived just like a man cast away upon some desolate island, that had nobody there but himself.  But how just has it been—and how should all men reflect, that when they compare their present conditions with others that are worse, Heaven may oblige them to make the exchange, and be convinced of their former felicity by their experience—I say, how just has it been, that the truly solitary life I reflected on, in an island of mere desolation, should be my lot, who had so often unjustly compared it with the life which I then led, in which, had I continued, I had in all probability been exceeding prosperous and rich.”
Page 33

Wow. Just hugely and shockingly convoluted.

“was now infinitely beyond my poor neighbour—I mean in the advancement of my plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a negro slave, and an European servant also—I mean another besides that which the captain brought me from Lisbon.”
Page 34

This is the story of a young scion who never has to worry about money. Everything works out. He just bought a slave like buying an ox.

“I descended a little on the side of that delicious vale, surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure, though mixed with my other afflicting thoughts, to think that this was all my own; that I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England. ”
Page 94

Obviously.

“but if not, then it was the savage coast between the Spanish country and Brazils, where are found the worst of savages; for they are cannibals or men-eaters, and fail not to murder and devour all the human bodies that fall into their hands.”
Page 102

Obviously. For they’ve nothing better to do than lust after your precious rump roast.

“It might be truly said, that now I worked for my bread.  I believe few people have thought much upon the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing this one article of bread.”
Page 110
“Then, supposing they were not cannibals, yet they might kill me, as many Europeans who had fallen into their hands had been served, even when they had been ten or twenty together—much more I, that was but one, and could make little or no defence; all these things, I say, which I ought to have considered well; and did come into my thoughts afterwards, yet gave me no apprehensions at first, and my head ran mightily upon the thought of getting over to the shore.”
Page 117

This sentence is a work of art. It’s convoluted to the point of incomprehensibility, seeming to have trapped the author into a whirlpool from which he can only escape via several awkward and completely nonsensical semicolons. Before that, though, he expresses his casual racism toward “cannibals”, who almost certainly don’t exist, and expresses a fear that they will kill him, although his countrymen have probably killed the islanders many hundreds of times more.

“learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it, who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them, because they see and covet something that He has not given them.  All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.”
Page 122
“But being now in the eleventh year of my residence, and, as I have said, my ammunition growing low, I set myself to study some art to trap and snare the goats, to see whether I could not catch some of them alive; and particularly I wanted a she-goat great with young. ”
Page 136
“that to have seen one of my own species would have seemed to me a[s] raising me from death to life, and the greatest blessing that Heaven”
Page 146
“then reflected that[,] as”
Page 147
“place; that I had lived there fifteen years now and had not met with the least shadow or figure of any people yet”
Page 150
“I knew I had been here now almost eighteen years, and never saw the least footsteps of human creature there before; and I might be eighteen years more as entirely concealed as I was now, if I did not discover myself to them, which I had no manner of occasion to do; it being my only business to keep myself entirely concealed where I was, unless I found a better sort of creatures than cannibals to make myself known to. ”
Page 155
“It put me upon reflecting how little repining there would be among mankind at any condition of life if people would rather compare their condition with those that were worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complainings.”
Page 157
“thought [o]f digging
Page 158
“I was now in the twenty-third year of my residence in this island, and was so naturalised to the place and the manner of living, that, could I but have enjoyed the certainty that no savages would come to the place to disturb me, I could have been content to have capitulated for spending the rest of my time there, even to the last moment, till I had laid me down and died, like the old goat in the cave.”
Page 168
“As all these were but conjectures at best, so, in the condition I was in, I could do no more than look on upon the misery of the poor men, and pity them;”
Page 175

24 years: another shipwreck.

“It came very warmly upon my thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was the time to get me a servant, and, perhaps, a companion or assistant; and that I was plainly called by Providence to save this poor creature’s life. ”
Page 189

25 years in.

“I beckoned to him again to come to me, and gave him all the signs of encouragement that I could think of; and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every ten or twelve steps, in token of acknowledgment for saving his life.  I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever.”
Page 190

White-person porn.

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight, strong limbs, not too large; tall, and well-shaped; and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age.  He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled. ”
Page 192

It goes on at length like this.

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived. ”
Page 192

So porn-y. This reads like a teenage boy’s dream journal.

“in which Friday worked not only very willingly and very hard, but did it very cheerfully: and I told him what it was for; that it was for corn to make more bread, because he was now with me, and that I might have enough for him and myself too. ”
Page 199

Friday has no desires. No want to return to his people. Or to his wife or family. He is content to be with and to learn from his new God.

“Besides the pleasure of talking to him, I had a singular satisfaction in the fellow himself: his simple, unfeigned honesty appeared to me more and more every day, and I began really to love the creature; and on his side I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before.”
Page 199

Case in point.

“mused some time on this.  “Well, well,” says he, mighty affectionately, “that well—so you, I, devil, all wicked, all preserve, repent, God pardon all.”  Here I was run down again by him to the last degree; and it was a testimony to me, how the mere notions of nature,”
Page 204

I can’t tell if Defoe is being sarcastic here about the supposed superiority of the Englishman.

“This observation of mine put a great many thoughts into me, which made me at first not so easy about my new man Friday as I was before; and I made no doubt but that, if Friday could get back to his own nation again, he would not only forget all his religion but all his obligation to me, and would be forward enough to give his countrymen an account of me, and come back, perhaps with a hundred or two of them, and make a feast upon me, at which he might be as merry as he used to be with those of his enemies when they were taken in war.”
Page 209

Obligation.

“I was now entered on the seven-and-twentieth year of my captivity in this place; though the three last years that I had this creature with me ought rather to be left out of the account, my habitation being quite of another kind than in all the rest of the time. ”
Page 214

They’ve Just finished building the boat with rudder and sail.

“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked.  First of all, the whole country was my own property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion.  Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected—I was absolutely lord and lawgiver—they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me.  It was remarkable, too, I had but three subjects, and they were of three different religions—my man Friday was a Protestant, his father was a Pagan and a cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist.  However, I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.”
Page 225

Such a generous and benevolent God.

“He anticipated my proposals by telling me that both he and the ship, if recovered, should be wholly directed and commanded by me in everything; and if the ship was not recovered, he would live and die with me in what part of the world soever I would send him; and the two other men said the same. ”
Page 238

Oh c’mon. This is childish.

of[f]
Page 242
“And thus I left the island, the 19th of December, as I found by the ship’s account, in the year 1686, after I had been upon it eight-and-twenty years, two months, and nineteen days; being delivered from this second captivity the same day of the month that I first made my escape in the long-boat from among the Moors of Sallee.  In this vessel, after a long voyage, I arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty-five years absent.”
Page 259
“Never was anything more honourable than the proceedings upon this procuration; for in less than seven months I received a large packet from the survivors of my trustees, the merchants, for whose account I went to sea, in which were the following,”
Page 264

Its nice to be super-rich and only temporarily inconvenienced rather than made destitute or a slave (again, though the first time was nearly inconceivable).

“As soon as we came clear of the trees, which blinded us before, we saw clearly what had been the case, and how Friday had disengaged the poor guide, though we did not presently discern what kind of creature it was he had killed.”
Page 273

Now they’re traveling from Madrid to Languedoc/Gascony, fighting wolves and bears.

“In the meantime, I in part settled myself here; for, first of all, I married, and that not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction, and had three children, two sons and one daughter; but my wife dying, and my nephew coming home with good success from a voyage to Spain, my inclination to go abroad, and his importunity, prevailed, and engaged me to go in his ship as a private trader to the East Indies; this was in the year 1694.”
Page 283

His wife of five years.

“Besides this, I shared the lands into parts with them, reserved to myself the property of the whole, but gave them such parts respectively as they agreed on; and having settled all things with them, and engaged them not to leave the place, I left them there.”
Page 284

Somehow everyone agrees that the island belongs to him as well

“I sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them. ”
Page 284

Wow. Breeds people like he breeds goats. Marriage for love is a modern invention.