Robinson Crusoe survivor on desert island and in culture

The ideas of the Enlightenment were new and authors of fiction literature wanted to spread them to the readers. The increased interest of new discoveries was reflected in the famous story of Robinson Crusoe put together by Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731).

The story is almost known by everyone: after his ship foundering in the sea Robinson Crusoe as the only survivor manage to save himself to firm ground only to realize what he is stuck on an uninhabited island. He is forced to accept his situation and settles down at the island.

The far traveling at sea and the forced abidance on the exotic island takes the readers on a magnificent trip far beyond the civilization. Besides the excitement of being lost on a desert island, the story depicts in meticulous fashion how Robinson builds a home, cultivate the earth, domesticize animals and how he makes expeditions in attempt to discover new parts of the island. Robinson becomes a proof of the abilities of a man from the civilized  world, and importantly, in an era of enlightenment. It can also be added a social aspect, as the literary historian Charlotte Sussman puts it:

In Crusoe’s solitary world, there is no commodification of goods or laborer; there is no coercion of labor, either, since the only laborer, trough most of the novel, is himself. Crusoe’s accomplishments are based on his own hard work, rather than accorded to him by privilege or inheritance, and this is what has allowed the novel to be read as an expression of an emergent middle-class identity in the eighteenth century.1

There are also some room for social criticism. After the first chock, Robinson reevaluate his destiny and comment that “It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days.” A little later he concludes “I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken solitary condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world”.

Yet, Robinson will in the end leave the island and at this time not against his will (there are some contradictions in the novel). When he finally gets the chance to leave the island and return to civilization ha can conclude that he has been on the island twenty-eight years, two months and nineteen days.

The novel feature also a new approach to fiction literature at this time how things are depicted. The meticulous describing–done partly as a diary–brings a faithful and realistic picture of the life in the wilderness. The wilderness and Robinson’s way to deal with it are itself the main subject of the book. The later part of the book, after the encounter with the cannibals, is on the other hand more filled with “action” and Robinson turns out being some kind of Davy Crockett figure in fights with savages and mutineers.

Robinson Crusoe is a classic novel that still capture the interest of both young and adult readers. It has been adapted for the motion picture many times and the book are constantly printed in new editions. Plenty of alternative versions and stories based on the story or as a comment on it has also gone in print: some of the most interesting examples are Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), Michel Tournier’s Friday (1967) and J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986).

The author

Daniel Defoe was originally best known as a politician. He was also a journalist and was imprisoned for his pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702).2

Today his name is closely related to The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which as the full name of the novel, often just mentioned as Robinson Crusoe. His story was inspired by travel memoirs; among the more known is William Dampiers’ A New Voyage Round the World (1697).

< The Enlightenment


1. Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Charlotte Sussman. 2012, p. 245.
2. Robison Crusoe (1995) Wordsworth Classics. "Introduction" Doreen Roberts, p. XIII