Allison's Book Bag

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Posted on: December 24, 2011

Do some literary classics become dated? Should such books ever be rewritten in modern English? Should such books ever be abridged? These are questions that my husband and I discussed after I finished reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

There is no doubt that Robinson Crusoe is important to literary history. First published in 1719, it is among one of the first novels ever written. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction, with its success leading to the popularity of castaway novels. I doubt however that the style and content of the original version of Robinson Crusoe will appeal to today’s young readers.

It sure didn’t when I first read it as a high school student. Then again, that might have been because I was too busy falling for my literature teacher to care about the rebellious main character, who against his family’s wishes decided to take to the sea. Or so I told myself recently when our family decided to read it for our monthly discussion group. And thus I decided to give this literary classic another chance. Perhaps inspired by real-life Alexander Selkirk who lived for four years on a Pacific island, Robinson Crusoe tells the fictional story of a castaway who spends twenty-seven years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. While on this island, Crusoe builds shelter and tools, hunts animals, and plants crops. He also witnesses cannibalism and rescues their prisoners/food. Sounds as if Robinson Crusoe has huge potential for a great adventure story, right? Too bad it’s such a bore.

First, let’s consider the style. It is so rambling and repetitious that it made my head hurt to read it in large chunks: “My father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent share of learning, as far as a house-education and a country free school generally goes, and designed me for the law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to the sea; and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay, the commands, of my father, and against all the entreaties….” Besides writing novels, Daniel Defoe apparently also wrote manuals. I believe it! A second problem I have with Defoe’s style is how analytical and impassive his descriptions are: “Before I set up my tent, I drew a half circle before the hollow place, which took in about ten yards in its semi-diameter from the rock, and twenty yards in its diameter from its beginning and ending.” I can’t remember the last time I checked my email so often during one page.

Next, let’s consider the content. It irritated me on two levels. First, Defoe was badly in need of an editor. There is an old adage amongst writers that one should cut the first chapter. With any other novel, this would probably eliminate the bulk of the background text. With Robinson Crusoe, one would have to keep hacking away to cut out the multiple stories about the times Crusoe went to sea, encountered storms or other dangers including captivity at the hands of the Moors, and subsequently repented (and then rescinded) of his foolishness.  I’m all for skipping ahead to that fatal seafaring journey where he is marooned, because from that point until his rescue I somewhat enjoyed the story. There is also an old adage that when a story has been told, one should STOP. Someone should have given Defoe this advice. In my version (a slightly shortened form of part one published in The Children’s Illustrated Classics by E.P. Dutton & Co.), after Crusoe is rescued, Defoe tortured me for twenty-five additional pages with accounts of Crusoe’s life back in England. The content irritated me on a second level, in that there is material which begs for footnotes so that readers understand the context of the times wherein Defoe wrote. For example, slavery was an acceptable part of life in Defoe’s time. Readers who have heard how Robinson Crusoe is a beloved story of friendship between Crusoe and his man Friday might be surprised and shocked to realize that Friday referred to Crusoe as “master”. Even if Crusoe taught Friday to speak English and later converted him to Christianity, today’s readers would struggle to understand how their relationship is an example of friendship.

At this point, I would be amiss if I didn’t point out what I did enjoy about Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe created an extremely realistic character. Crusoe reacts initially with fear to storms and natives, but eventually calms down enough to react logically to dangers. When a storm leaves him shipwrecked, he methodically salvages supplies. When a footprint appears on the other side of his island, he figures out when natives are most likely to visit and so when he should stay hidden. Crusoe is very human. I also enjoyed reading about all the tools that Crusoe created during his sojourn on the island, along with his ponderings on moral dilemmas such as when is it right to kill another man and what role God should have in his life. At first, Crusoe turns to God only in times of trouble. As God continues to provide for him on the island, Crusoe develops a sense of thankfulness and contentment for what God blesses man with in his daily life.

As you can see, there are gems in Robinson Crusoe. Unfortunately, they’re so grimed in repetition and unnecessary content that they become drudgery to mine. For that reason, I found myself wondering:  Do some literary classics become dated? Should a book ever be rewritten in modern English? Should a book ever be abridged? What do you think?

For more discussion of this question, check out Adaptions for Children at the Rebecca Reads review blog.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

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2 Responses to "Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe"

You concluded your review by asking these questions: “Do some literary classics become dated? Should a book ever be rewritten in modern English? Should a book ever be abridged?” I would have to answer “Yes” to all three questions. However, with the possible exception of the third question, I don’t think that Robinson Crusoe is one of them. I’ll explain why by commenting on a few statements that you made in your review.

“I doubt…that the style and content of the original version of Robinson Crusoe will appeal to today’s young readers.” That may be so, but it wasn’t written for them. It was written for adults in early 18th century England. However it immediately became the favourite adventure story for readers of all ages and has remained popular over the almost 300 years since then. I wonder how many of today’s best sellers will still be around 300 years from now.

“It is so rambling and repetitous that it made my head hurt to read it in large chunks.” I had the same problem with The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books, which many people like. I prefer Robinson Crusoe over them because I enjoy realistic stories better than fantasy.

“A second problem I have with Defoe’s style is how analytical and impassive his descriptions are.” They are, but it’s those very qualities that make them credible, adding to the realism of the book.

“I’m all for skipping ahead to that fatal seafaring journey where he is marooned.” I would be too if Robinson Crusoe were just a story. However, as you point out later in your review, it’s also the portrayal of a character, for which the earlier material is important.

“After Crusoe is rescued, Defoe tortured me for twenty-five additional pages with accounts of Crusoe’s life back in England.” I would also like the book to end sooner than it does. That is a reason for my thinking that Robinson Crusoe should possibly be abridged for today’s readers.

“There is material which begs for footnotes so that readers understand the context of the times wherein Defoe wrote.” Again, I agree with you. Footnotes could also clarify old English words and phrases.

One of the questions that we’ll be discussing in our family reading of Robinson Crusoe is: “Would you recommend Robinson Crusoe to a friend? Why or why not?” My tentative answer is: “Yes, I would recommend Robinson Crusoe to a friend because it tells an interesting story and because it stimulates the reader to think about different issues. What I found most interesting about the story was Robinson Crusoe’s telling how he provided for himself on the island. The issue that I thought most about was becoming and growing as a Christian.”

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my review of Robinson Crusoe. I appreciate readers being able to hear the viewpoint of someone who did like Robinson Crusoe.

At some point, literature fans should read Robinson Crusoe. It’s such an important book in literary history.

I’d also love to hear from those who have read an updated or abridged version. What version did you read? Would you recommend it?

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