Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I was reading Robinson Crusoe, I was also reading aloud to my children Edward Eager’s Seven-Day Magic. The children in Edward Eager’s books always end up interacting with the characters of classic children’s literature. Where I was in Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe was still alone on his island, trying to eke out an existence when the children in Seven-Day Magic took a short trip to the island, too, where they noted that Crusoe was followed about by his man Friday and thereby spoiled a bit of the plot for me. It wasn’t a huge spoiler, though; it turns out, as with so many classic works of literature, I was already fairly familiar with the story even though I’d not read it before.

I know, however, that many people (like my spouse) aren’t so blasĂ© about having plot points revealed to them ahead of time, so I will warn you that I will be making reference to events towards the end of the book with impunity. If you don’t want read Robinson Crusoe spoilers, you might want to stop here, read the book, then come on back and read the rest of my review. Otherwise, carry on.

I didn’t realize that Robinson Crusoe was considered a children’s book, although I remember having a copy of it in the “children’s classics” set my parents put on my bedroom bookshelf and of which I never cared to read more than the titles on the spines. I can see where children might enjoy reading about his adventures and imagining themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island, but I wonder what else they would take from the book because there really is a lot more here.

Central to the story is what’s essentially a religious conversion experience that Crusoe has, and his musings about faith and Providence take up a fair amount of text. I could see myself just skipping over those sections as a child, but as an adult, I found the evolution of his personal faith very interesting. I particularly liked Crusoe’s shift from a “Why me, God?” perspective to one of gratitude that he was spared when all the rest of his shipmates perished.

“I learn’d to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoy’d, 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 had not given them. All our discontents about what we want appear’d to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.”

With some updates to the language and more prudent use of semi-colons, this could come from a 21st-century self-help book.

I also really enjoyed reading about the roll that isolation played in Crusoe’s personal evolution. For example, when Crusoe finds evidence of the presence of cannibals on the far shore of his island, he spends years waiting for their return, first in fear and then in plotting their murders before deciding it’s better to not get involved unless they involved him. Without distractions—even without the ability to write down his thoughts and feelings in the moment—and with, as it were, all the time in the world, Crusoe was forced to sit with personal conflicts and crises of faith without the power to act. Defoe does a very good job of showing how that mental space and that practice of mindfulness and reflection lets Crusoe’s emotions run their course and gradually leads him to a more rational plan of action.

I frequently wonder if, by blogging about books I read or issues I face in my life, I’m making too concrete my thoughts about different issues and diminishing their potential to evolve over time. With status updates and tweets and blog posts, it seems like we’re getting into the habit of broadcasting our thoughts the moment we have them. For me, at least, I wonder if this squelches the process of reflection and doesn’t allow the thoughts to mature. Is it like picking an apple before it’s ripe? Or can the process of sharing these thoughts actually enhance the “ripening” process?

I’ve read reviews in which people complain about the level of detail Defoe goes into about Crusoe’s life on the island, but I actually found those alone-on-the-island parts to be the most interesting. Aside from a riveting account of a wintertime trek through the Pyrenees upon his return to Europe, the “action” parts of the story were somewhat less interesting to me. I guess I prefer the accounts of personal growth to the really plot-driven bits. It seemed almost like, when Crusoe was engaged in action of any kind, his personal growth was on break. For example, there was some rather disturbing treatment of a starving bear near the end of the book, which kind of made me wonder if maybe Crusoe’s personal evolution really was entirely dependent on his being alone. Crusoe himself points out that the bear was going about its own business and would likely have ignored them entirely if Friday hadn’t decided to mess with the creature for their amusement. Of course, this doesn’t seem to stop Crusoe from getting as many laughs from the situation as everyone else. Perhaps spiritual evolution was different back when the Spanish Inquisition was still alive and well.

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