Study Guide

Robinson Crusoe Analysis

By Daniel Defoe

  • Tone

    Penitent

    Since Crusoe's story also doubles as his spiritual autobiography, he frequently reflects on his life as a sinner. After his conversion, he often engages in various religious observations.

  • Genre

    Adventure

    Robinson Crusoe is, quite frankly, a very exciting adventure story. 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. Basically, it set a standard for all other adventure stories that followed.

    Oh, and get this. Robinson Crusoe might have been based on the true story of a real-life castaway. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and he was a Scottish sailor who was 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 all over England. Did Defoe use him as the basis for his own Crusoe? Seems totally possible to us.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, also known simply as Robinson Crusoe, is the story of one solitary, individual man who is stranded all alone on a desert island. As he's the primary character in the book, and it's his development as a character we're concerned with, it makes sense that his full name would appear in the title.

    The "Life and Strange Adventures" part is perhaps then less important, but not altogether so. These words indicate (especially to 18th-century readers) that the novel will be filled with action ("adventures") in far off and exciting places ("strange"). No wonder it flew off the shelves!

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of the novel, Crusoe returns to Europe, where he comes into a great deal of money from his sugar plantations. He then gets married, has children, and eventually revisits his island. The novel ends with this following note:

    All these things, with some very surprising Incidents in some new Adventures of my own, for ten Years more, I may perhaps gave a father Account hereafter.

    The last lines of the novel, then, are a promise of continuing adventures, and indeed, Defoe delivered just that when he wrote The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe the very same year.

  • Setting

    The Transatlantic

    Crusoe begins his journey in September 1659 and travels to Africa, Brazil, and a lost island in the Atlantic. He moves primarily through and around the Atlantic Ocean. In this sense, the setting of the novel is a transatlantic one. The significance of this setting is that it is also the primary location of eighteenth-century trade routes – including the slave trade.

    For some tidbits on the historical context surrounding Robinson Crusoe, check out "In a Nutshell."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    Crusoe is an adventure novel, sure, but it's an 18th-century adventure novel. The large blocks of text and occasional archaic spelling mean that this book can be tough stuff for some younger readers. Also remember, it's not all cannibals and shipwrecks: there are quite a few passages filled with Crusoe's spiritual reflections and loads of mundane details about his life on the island. Even experienced readers should proceed armed with readerly courage and determination.

  • Writing Style

    Catalogue

    As a tradesman, Crusoe likes to take stock of his surroundings and describe things in great detail. He often catalogues his inventory – whether on the ship or on the island. For example, check out the following passage:

    The generous Treatment the Captain gave me, I can never enough remember; he would take nothing of me for my Passage, gave me twenty Ducats for the Leopard's Skin, and forty for the Lyon's Skin which I had in my Boat, and caused every thing I had in the Ship to be punctually deliver'd me, and what I was willing to sell he bought, such as the Case of Bottles, two of my Guns, and a Piece of the Lump of Bees-wax, for I had made Candles of the rest; in a word, I made about 220 Pieces of Eight of all my Cargo, and with this Stock I went on Shoar in the Brasils. (31)

    As a man of trade, Crusoe is very interested in acquisition of goods and wealth, and here we can see him tallying up his stock and profit.

    Also, did you notice Defoe's weird spelling and random capitalization decisions? For more on that, see "In a Nutshell."

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Sea

    As a mariner and traveler, the sea plays a pretty big part in Crusoe's life. Whenever a storm hits the ocean, Crusoe is immediately penitent and begs God for help. When the skies are clear and the waves are calm, Crusoe seems to forget all about that religious stuff. For example:

    In a word, as the Sea was returned to its Smoothness of Surface and settled Calmness by the Abatement of that Storm, so the Hurry of my Thoughts being over, my Fears and Apprehensions of being swallow'd up by the Sea being forgotten, and the Current of my former Desires return'd, I entirely forgot the Vows and Promises that I made in my Distress. (10)

    The ever-changing sea serves as a useful metaphor for Crusoe's fickle relationship with God.

    The Bible

    Three Bibles are among the wreckage of the ship. The Bible is hugely important for Crusoe's time on the island, as it will serve as his moral compass and means of spiritual reformation.

    …also I found three very good Bibles which came to me in my Cargo from England, and which I had pack'd up among my things. (56)

    The book is a symbol of Crusoe's connection to God and later becomes a tool with which to teach Friday the basics of Christianity.

    The Flu

    Crusoe might have been spiritually sick, but it's not until he becomes physically ill that he decides to save his soul. In the grips of the flu (or "Ague" as Crusoe calls in on page 75), Crusoe has a fever dream in which a man comes down from the heavens and admonishes him for not yet repenting, and tries to kill him with a spear. He begins to see that his past behaviors have been sinful and his present miseries are punishments for his rebellious behavior. He finally repents and utters his first prayer. This is the beginning of Crusoe's spiritual life.

    The Footprint

    Crusoe sees that fatal on the island and realizes that (gasp!) he's not alone. He describes the scene as follows:

    It happen'd one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz'd with the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition; I listen'd, I look'd round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing, I went up to a rising Ground to look farther, I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one, I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my Fancy; but there was no Room for that, for there was exactly the very Print of a Foot, Toes, Heel, and every Part of a Foot; how it came thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus'd and out of my self, I came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground I went on, but terrify'd to the last Degree, looking behind me at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying every Stump at a Distance to be a Man; (130)

    Why might the footprint be terrifying to Crusoe?

    Cannibals

    The cannibals on the island offer Crusoe an opportunity to reflect on the differences between cultures. Should he intervene in their affairs or not? Should he judge their actions, or leave that up to God? He reflects on the topic in the following passage:

    Religion joyn'd in with this Prudential, and I was convinc'd now many Ways, that I was perfectly out of my Duty, when I was laying all my bloody Schemes for the Destruction of innocent Creatures, I mean innocent as to me: As to the Crimes they were guilty of towards one another, I had nothing to do with them; they were National, and I ought to leave them to the Justice of God, who is the Governour of Nations, and knows how by National Punishments to make a just Retribution for National Offences; and to bring publick Judgments upon those who offend in a publick Manner, by such Ways as best pleases him. (146)

    After much thought, Crusoe realizes that he cannot kill the cannibals, as that would be taking up God's office. It's up to God to punish nations of people who do wrong, not the individual man. Note, however, that Crusoe does later decide to intervene in the cannibals' actions when he sees that they are ready to kill and eat a Spaniard. Why?

  • Narrator Point of View

    Robinson Crusoe tells his own story retrospectively from his personal point of view. This means we get to read every little detail that goes on his head – very important, since we'll be interested in the interior spiritual awakening that Crusoe undergoes over the course of the novel.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    Youthful Rebellion

    Before landing on the island, Crusoe's father wants him to be a good, middle-class son. Crusoe, who wants nothing more than to travel the world in a ship, is definitely not into this idea. He struggles against the authority of both his father and God, and decides to thumb his nose at both by going adventuring on the sea instead.

    Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

    Crusoe on the Sea

    Crusoe sails around in ships and makes a bit of money in trade. Eventually, he gets captured and made into a slave off the coast of Africa. Here, he befriends a young man named Xury, with whom he escapes from captivity. Picked up by a Portuguese sailing captain, Crusoe makes it to Brazil.

    Frustration Stage

    Brazil

    Safely in Brazil, Crusoe buys a sugar plantation. He does fairly well financially, but soon grows tired and restless. He decides he could have had this kind of life back in England. Inevitably, he becomes involved in a venture to procure slaves from Africa and sets sail once again.

    Nightmare Stage

    The Island

    Crusoe is shipwrecked all alone on a desert island. During his time there, he builds three main structures: his initial shelter, his country home on the opposite side of the island, and his guns and ammo fort in the woods. He spends his time planting corn, barley, and rice. He learns to make bread. He builds furniture, weaves baskets, and makes pots. Crusoe also raises goats and tends to his little animal family of cats, dogs, and a parrot. Most importantly, though, Crusoe becomes stronger in his religious faith, eventually submitting to the authority of God. He devotes himself to much religious reflection and prayer.

    Thrilling Escape

    Overtaking the Mutineers

    Crusoe sees a footprint on the shore one day and learns that he is not alone on the island. There are also (gasp!) cannibals. Crusoe struggles with the question of whether or not he should take revenge on the cannibals. Eventually, he meets with Friday, a native man whom he is able to rescue from the cannibals. Crusoe teaches Friday English and converts him to Christianity. The two become like father and son (more or less). Friday and Crusoe also rescue a Spaniard and Friday's father from a different group of cannibals.

    Eventually, an English longboat full of sailors lands on the island. Crusoe learns that the men have mutinied against their captain. After Crusoe helps restore order to the ship, the men and captain pledge allegiance to Crusoe and agree to take him home.

    Return

    Crusoe Goes Home

    Crusoe returns to Europe with Friday, where he comes into a great deal of money from his sugar plantations. Crusoe gets married and eventually revisits the island in his later years. The novel ends with promise of more adventures in the sequel.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Crusoe wants to see the world. His father forbids it.

    Crusoe is the youngest of his middle-class family. He is curious and wants to travel the world and sail the seas. His father doesn't think this is such a good idea, and offers a warning that becomes a curse: if you leave home, you will experience nothing but trouble. In this initial set-up, we see Crusoe defying his father's wishes and showing no respect or reverence for God.

    Conflict

    Crusoe leaves home and travels the world. Bad luck follows.

    Everyone always seems to forget that Crusoe had a life before he landed on that dreaded island. When Crusoe leaves home, though, he has plenty of adventures. He sails to Africa, were he gets captured and made into a slave. After his escape, he is taken to Brazil, where he makes a living for several years on his sugar plantation. He always seems to be running into bad luck, repenting, and then sinning again promptly. This is a pattern Crusoe will follow for a good long while.

    Complication

    Crusoe is shipwrecked on a deserted island

    On a voyage to procure slaves for some plantation owners, Crusoe is shipwrecked on a desert island. Crusoe is a lonely boy on a lonely island, since no one else survived the shipwreck. Completely isolated, he somehow manages to survive. He also has a spiritual awakening and begins reading the Bible.

    Climax

    Crusoe finds a footprint in the sand.

    After many years of solitude we finally learn that Crusoe is not alone on the island. There are others and they are, horror of horrors, cannibals!

    Suspense

    Crusoe meets Friday.

    While deciding what to do about the cannibals, Crusoe saves a man from certain death. He names him Friday and teaches him English. Friday converts to Christianity and the two become friends, of sorts. Friday and Crusoe then rescue two more men from the cannibals: a Spaniard and Friday's father.

    Denouement

    Crusoe helps overtake the mutineers.

    An English longboat full of sailors lands on the island. Crusoe learns that the men have mutinied against their captain. After Crusoe helps restore order to the ship, the men and captain pledge allegiance to Crusoe and agree to take him home.

    Conclusion

    Crusoe returns home.

    Crusoe then returns to Europe with Friday, where he comes into a great deal of money from his sugar plantations. Crusoe gets married and eventually revisits the island in his later years. The novel ends with promise of more of his adventures in the sequel.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I: Before the Island

    Before landing on the island, Crusoe's father wants him to be a good, middle-class son. Crusoe, who wants nothing more than to travel the world in a ship, is definitely not into this idea. He struggles against the authority of both his father and God and decides to thumb his nose at both by going on a seafaring adventure instead.

    After sailing around a while, he makes a bit of money in trade, but then gets captured and made into a slave off the coast of Africa. Here, he befriends a young man named Xury, with whom he escapes from captivity. Picked up by a Portuguese sailing captain, Crusoe makes it to Brazil, where he buys a sugar plantation. He does fairly well financially, but soon becomes involved in a venture to procure slaves from Africa. On the voyage out, he gets shipwrecked and is left as the only survivor on a deserted island.

    Act II: Life on the Island

    This portion of the novel is dedicated to Crusoe's time alone on the island. He builds three main structures: his initial shelter, his country home on the opposite side of the island, and his guns and ammo fort in the woods. He spends his time planting corn, barley, and rice. He learns to make bread. He builds furniture, weaves baskets, and makes pots. Crusoe also raises goats and tends to his little animal family of cats, dogs, and a parrot. Most importantly, though, Crusoe becomes stronger in his religious faith, eventually submitting to the authority of God. He devotes himself to much religious reflection and prayer.

    Act III: Escape from the Island

    In final section of the book, Crusoe sees a footprint on the shore one day and learns that he is not alone on the island. There are also (gasp!) cannibals. Crusoe struggles with the question of whether or not he should take revenge on them. Eventually, he meets with Friday, a native man whom he is able to rescue from the cannibals. Crusoe teaches Friday English and converts him to Christianity. The two become like father and son (more or less). Friday and Crusoe also rescue a Spaniard and Friday's father from a different group of cannibals.

    Eventually, an English longboat full of sailors lands on the island. Crusoe learns that the men have mutinied against their captain. After Crusoe helps restore order to the ship, the men and captain pledge allegiance to Crusoe and agree to take him home. Crusoe then returns to Europe with Friday, where he comes into a great deal of money from his sugar plantations. Crusoe gets married and eventually revisits the island in his later years. The novel ends with promise of more adventures in the sequel.

  • Allusion

    Literary and Philosophical References

    The Bible is the ultimate intertext in Robinson Crusoe and appears continuously throughout the novel. For more on this topic, see "Themes: Religion."