All right, Shmoop time travelers, time for a trip in the Wayback Machine.
The place? London. The year? 1719. The bestselling book that everyone's reading? No, it's not yet another vampire novel. (We said London, 1719, remember?) It's an adventure novel about a castaway and his friend Friday: The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner.
Take note, literary time explorers: Just like Twilight, The Hunger Games, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was a commercial blockbuster that captured the imagination of its early 18th-century readers. The book went through six editions in just its first four months on the market (source). Daniel Defoe even wrote a sequel to the novel that same year called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In it, the daring Crusoe continues his journey by heading to spectacular locales in Asia and Siberia. Just like today's Harry Potter fanatics, 18th-century readers just couldn't get enough of Crusoe and his adventures. If the Internet had existed back then, there would have been Robinson Crusoe fan fiction galore.
But why, you might ask, was Defoe's Robinson Crusoe so dang popular?
Well, fellow time travelers, there are obvious reasons, of course. Robinson Crusoe is, quite frankly, a very exciting story (yes, even centuries later). There are sailing ships and stormy seas and a desert island and guns and cannibals and, well, basically a whole bunch of rollicking action in exotic and faraway places. Who doesn't like novels packed with excitement and adventure?
Oh, and get this. Robinson Crusoe may or may not have been based on the true story of a real-life castaway. Yeah. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and he was a Scottish sailor who got stranded on his own desert island off the coast of Chile for four very long years. Selkirk was eventually rescued in 1709 and his story appeared in print and periodicals in England. Did Defoe use him as the basis for his own Crusoe? It's entirely possible.
But, of course, it's not all about action, adventure, and real-life Scottish castaways. There are other reasons for the book's popularity at the time. Robinson Crusoe deals with many of the Big Issues on the minds of people in 18th-century England.
[TIME TRAVEL ADVISORY ALERT: Big Issues on the Horizon]
Big Issue 1: Our dear old friend religion, of course. The novel is basically our title character's spiritual autobiography. He starts off as the typical prodigal son and finds himself struggling against the will of God. His journal on the island charts his spiritual awakening, atonement, and eventual conversion to Christianity. Kind of like Jonah or Job. Eighteenth-century readers would have been quite familiar with these Biblical characters and would have eaten up these kinds of spiritual parables.
Big Issue 2: Philosophy. Robinson Crusoe engages with many of the egghead debates of its day. For example, how does man exist in a state of nature? What is the relationship between man and society? (And when we say "man" we do just mean "man" – women in this novel are few and far between.) Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were already thinking about this stuff in terms of the social contract – that is, man's relationship to the society he lives in. Because this novel is about a man living alone in the wilderness who forms his own little society, Robinson Crusoe is very much a part of this larger philosophical conversation.
Big (and Potentially Confusing) Issue 3: The novel puts great emphasis on the fact that Crusoe's family is staunchly middle class – something Crusoe at first resists. This might not make much sense to our Shmoop time travelers, but it was a big deal for Englanders at the time. The middle class (including such folks as merchants and traders) was just emerging in 18th-century England. In that sense, this book becomes a way for readers to start really thinking through middle-class values and beliefs.
Big (and Pretty Complicated) Issue 4: The role of commerce and imperial expansion. You'll notice that Crusoe is always taking stock of what he's trading and with whom – and how much money he makes from his travels all over the globe. While this might sound kind of boring to us, England was just beginning to expand its trade networks and swap goods all over the world in places like India, Africa, and the Americas. As commercial capitalism boomed, people in England were fascinated by these new exotic goods and the places from which they came. They were also very interested in the people from these different cultures. Take special notice of how people who are not English are depicted in this book. You'll find some pretty striking instances of Eurocentrism here.
Side note: Crusoe's commercial dealings include participation in the slave trade. He is both a slave and a slave owner in this novel – always something to remember.
In sum: Robinson Crusoe is an exciting, action packed novel, sure, but it's also a book that's really plugged into the Zeitgeist of the early 18th century. It sure as heck spoke to the people of England circa 1719, and maybe it will speak to you too.
[TIME TRAVEL ADVISORY ALERT: 18th-Century Novels Ahead]
OK, OK, wait. Hold up. Before we get into the Wayback Machine to return to the 21st century, a caveat (that means, "WARNING!"):
Just because Robinson Crusoe was a bestseller in the 18th century, that doesn't mean that the book is going to look like a 21st-century bestseller. This is not The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest you're holding in your hands.
Daniel Defoe authored Robinson Crusoe before novels were novels. That is, before what we now know as the novel even really existed. This means a couple of things for our time-travelling Shmoopers:
1. The paragraphs are going to go on forever. AND EVER. We're talking huge blocks of text, OK? Take notes as you read.
2. No chapters. Better get yourself a bookmark. (Something appropriately desert-island themed, of course.)
3.Sometimes werds will be spelt in verily weirdeth weys. If you get confused, check in with the footnotes of your edition. They are there to guide you through your time travels.
4. You will Notice that in 18th-century Novels there are Words that are often Capitalized for no apparent Reason. Usually, they're Nouns, but not Always. This Capitalization is Common in 18th-Century Texts. It Doesn't Always Mean that the Words are More or Less important. It just Means that the Practice of Capitalization wasn't exactly Standardized at the Time. Got it?
Now be brave, Shmoop time adventurers, and good luck in your 18th-century travels.
Why Should I Care?
While the 18th century loved Robinson Crusoe, you might say that our own time has become a little Crusoe-obsessed as well. We've seen plenty of proper adaptations of Robinson Crusoe on the big and small screens (see "Best of the Web" for a list), but there's also a whole thriving genre out there known as the Robinsonade.
What is a Robinsonade? Nope, not a new summer beverage. It's a movie, book, television show, or any kind of work that tells a desert island story.
Sound familiar? It sure as heck should. Our culture is filled to the brim with Robinsonades.
There are, of course, the obvious ones: movies like Cast Away with Tom Hanks.
You might even have been in a Robinsonade yourself. Ever played the desert island game? You know, the one where you list the books or movies or album you'd bring if you were going to be stranded all alone on a desert island? If so, you've just had yourself a Crusoe moment.
So, perhaps before you dismiss this Crusoe business as centuries too old, just look around and you might see just how much a part of your life he already is.