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Reviving the classics: Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is a classic story of a man stranded on an island. The inspiration for the novel’s central theme can be traced back to the many accounts of the case of Alexander Selkirk- a Scottish sailor who spent four years on a desolate island. This book is also one of the first examples of the novel form, making it an exciting read for those interested in classics and the history of literature.

The novel describes Robinson’s life on the island; from the constant fight for survival to quite comfortable living, he builds for himself with hard work. Defoe relates his character’s daily existence, his struggle with natural forces and later on with the natives. While reading this book, we have to keep in mind that the world contemporary to the author was different to ours in many aspects. Some ideas are dated, and some attitudes would be considered controversial or unacceptable today.

From the scholarly point of view, this book is crucial, as one of the first novels. The most important feature, distinguishing it from earlier fiction, is the story’s realism constructed by attention to detail in describing all aspects of Crusoe’s life on the island. Ian Watt claimed that historians of the novel ‘have seen ‘realism’ as the defining characteristic which differentiates the work of the early eighteenth-century novelist from previous fiction’[1]. Another quality of the novel genre is a clear timeline. Watt says that ‘in early fiction, […] the sequence of events is set in a very abstract continuum of time and space’[2]. Defoe in Robinson Crusoe places all of the events in time as he lets the reader know what his character’s typical day looked like, how much time did he spent hunting, how many days it took him to bring all the goods from the shipwreck or build storage behind his cave.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this position, although some scenes left me fuming. The novel can be considered racist today, as it expressed the opinions of a white male European, who from a victim changes almost into a landowner or coloniser. It is not a light read but essential for those with a deeper interest in literature.

[1] Ian Watt, The rise of the novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (London: Pimlico, 2000), p. 10.

[2] Ian Watt, p. 23.


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