O poor Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly do so?

In Daniel Defoe’s novel, the eponymous hero, Robinson Crusoe, during the 28 years he spends on his desert island, sometimes asks himself whether his fate was God’s punishment for having committed the primal sin of disobeying his father. And it struck me, even on my first reading as a child, that, given that Crusoe had been the owner of a plantation that was worked by slaves, and that, further, given that Crusoe had himself been a slave trader, there were somewhat greater transgressions than merely filial disobedience that the Almighty could have punished him for. Crusoe’s failure to see something so obvious as this struck me then, and strikes me still, as a chilling piece of irony that underpins the entire novel. And to the question “Did Defoe intend this irony?” I’d answer “Does it matter?”

Not that I’m one of those readers who divorces the text from the writer, seeing the former as merely a product of its times, and hence, no more than a reflection of the various power structures of those times. Far from it. The terrible irony I see underpinning Robinson Crusoe strikes me as very much a  literary quality: it shifts the focus of the novel from that of human resourcefulness and self-sufficiency (which are usually taken to be the novel’s principal themes) to the more interesting themes – from my perspective, at least – of the human capacity of self-delusion, and humanity’s failure to recognise its own moral culpability, repining as we do at the thought of imagined sins when far greater crimes are staring us in the face.

Now, all the available evidence concerning Defoe indicates that this irony was not intentional on the author’s part, but I really don’t see what that should make a difference to the way I perceive this novel. Especially when this irony enhances both its literary and its moral qualities.

This year is the three hundredth anniversary of this very famous novel, and it is perhaps only natural that we should be disturbed by its content. I will not list the various reasons why modern readers may find the content disturbing: they are well described in this article that recently appeared in The Guardian. However, the headline-writer appears not to have read the article: “Robinson Crusoe at 300: why it’s time to let go of this colonial fairytale” says the headline, although Charles Boyle, the author, says quite explicitly:

The argument here is not with Defoe, who was a clever and contrary man. His acceptance of slavery as necessary for profitable business is one thing; his belief that Britain is a nation of immigrants and his championing of education for women are others. Nor is the argument with the novel itself … My quarrel is with the way the novel has been used, and continues to be used …

His quarrel, in short, is with interpretation. And Defoe’s novels, in general, are open to various interpretative stances. This is primarily because each of his major novels (at least, the ones that I have read: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana) is a first person narration, and can, and, to my mind, should, be taken as a dramatic monologue. Thus, we find ourselves compelled to evaluate what is being said in the context of our understanding of the person who is saying it. In Moll Flanders, for instance, we notice the irony of Moll expressing, near the end of her narrative, penitence for her criminal life, while, at the same time, being content to live on the proceeds of that same criminality. That Moll is not aware of this irony is no reason why we shouldn’t take a different view. In Robinson Crusoe, we go a step further: not only is the fictional narrator not aware of the irony underpinning his narrative, it appears, from evidence external to the novel itself, that Defoe himself was possibly not aware either. But the irony nonetheless exists, and, to my mind, makes it a greater novel.

Charles Boyle’s other criticism – that of the pedestrian nature of the prose – may be possible harder to counter. Defoe was primarily a journalist, and only took up novel-writing comparatively late in his career; and he made a point of writing his novels in clear, precise, journalistic prose. It was, it seems to me, a conscious artistic decision. I must admit I do not find the prose “pedestrian” at all: indeed, the nature of the prose seems to me to serve its purpose well – to provide the utmost clarity and transparency even while concealing subtleties and ironies hidden even from the narrator. This conflict between transparency of the narrative style and the secrets hidden within the narrative itself seems to me to reach its apogee in Roxana (the work I take to be Defoe’s masterpiece), where, by the end, despite the absolute clarity of the prose, we cannot even be sure of what precisely happens, let alone how we are to interpret it.

It would be very wrong to “throw away” Robinson Crusoe as the Guardian headline-writer seems to suggest: but perhaps we should look again at this novel and, indeed, at Defoe’s other novels too, all of which seem to me to contain far more than is immediately apparent.

One response to this post.

  1. This is brilliant.

    Reply

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