A REVIEW OF `ROBINSON CRUSOE' BY DANIEL DEFOE
Almost three centuries have passed since `Robinson Crusoe' was first published in 1719. In that time, the novel has arguably become a victim of its own success. So many times has the tale been told and re-told, that we all seem to assume that we know the story* and therefore neglect the original novel itself. In short, `Robinson Crusoe' has become immortalised by being condensed into a simplistic plot summary: "The book about the man who gets stranded on a desert island." This over-simplification has been intensified by the countless other `classic' novels which have been heavily influenced by `Robinson Crusoe'. These include, Johan Weiss's `Swiss Family Robinson' (1812), R. M. Ballantyne's `The Coral Island' (1857), Jules Verne's `The Mysterious Island' (1874), and R. L. Stevenson's `Treasure Island' (1883) to name but a few. In more recent years, the film `Castaway' and television's `LOST' have dealt with the book's central theme. Even the great Laurel & Hardy got in on the act in 1951 with their final film, `Atoll K', which was released under various titles including 'Robinson Crusoe Land'. In fact, so familiar have we become with the premise of `Robinson Crusoe', that we risk losing sight of what a truly great and relevant book it is.
* For the purposes of this review, I have deliberately avoided telling the story where possible.
In his 2011 BBC Television series devoted to seminal fictional characters, Sebastian Faulks chose to begin with none other than RC. Perhaps the greatest appeal of the character is his humility (The story is narrated in the first-person and Crusoe's tone throughout is highly self-critical.) and resourcefulness. During his remarkable 28 years on the island, Crusoe drags himself from the depths of despair and self-pity to create a surprisingly convincing solitary way of life, which reveals real ingenuity and creativity in terms of setting up his home(s) and sustainable lifestyle. Many of the novel's key themes still resonate today. Crusoe's existence in many ways smacks of `The Good Life' and raises the question, "How much does man really need to be happy?" As the novel progresses, our hero's discovery of a solitary footprint in the sand leads to wild speculation about its owner, leading him to swing from optimistic highs to pessimistic lows. The dizzying analysis echoes the media-frenzies of the 21st century which inevitably follow any `major' event which shakes the status-quo.
Perhaps the greatest misconception about `Robinson Crusoe' is that it is a children's book. This view owes much to its simplistic retellings. However, the story deals with a range of `big' issues, including religious faith, colonialism and cannibalism. In fact, within its pages, there is some pretty strong violence (albeit described with 18th century reserve).
Of course, not everything about a 300-year-old novel still rings true. To the reader used to 21st century prose, Defoe's written style takes a little getting used to. Similarly, the actual action set-pieces of the story are rather top and bottom heavy, coming thick-and-fast at the story's beginning and end. Indeed, it does rather stretch credibility to accept that for almost two decades not a soul should appear on Crusoe's island, given that, by the novel's conclusion, it (almost) resembles Southampton docks with all of its comings and goings! However, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the tale if the hero's lack of concern about any human company for such a protracted period of time, especially that of the opposite sex.
Nevertheless, despite some inevitably creaky joints, `Robinson Crusoe' deserves to be dusted of and read as a novel in its own right. Among its surprises, `Robinson Crusoe' saves the biggest until last. The story ends with our hero stating that he will recount more of his experiences at a later date, which explains the publication in 1720 of Defoe's `Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe'. Now how many of us who think that they know the book knew of this sequel?
Yes, by virtue of its own appeal, the essential premise of `Robinson Crusoe' has been regurgitated countless times over the years. However, for those who enjoy the `classics' or for those who like to genuinely escape into a book, `Robinson Crusoe' still has much to make the modern reader want to cut all ties with the modern world and drift away...
Barty's Score: 8.5/10