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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Defoe

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?

This week, I’m reviewing a classic novel. Because the author will be well-known, let me challenge you for a change with some trivia. I’ll get the fun started with a question about the identity of this week’s featured author.

Monday’s Question: Who is considered the founder of English journalism?


Image via Wikipedia

Monday’s Answer: Among other accomplishments, Daniel Defoe is known as the founder of journalism. Along with writing over 560 books and pamphlets, this classic author is considered to have written one of the first English novels: Robinson Crusoe. Even if Robinson Crusoe can’t claim the exclusive spot of first, it did mark the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre and its success led to many imitators. Indeed, so great was the popularity of Robinson Crusoe that by the end of the nineteenth century, no other book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs, and translations. This Saturday, I will review Robinson Crusoe.

Tuesday’s Question: Many authors pursue a second career along with writing. What other profession did Defoe hold?

Tuesday’s Answer: Daniel Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant. For more than a decade,  he traded in a wide range of goods, including stockings, wine, tobacco, and oysters. He also wrote about trade in the form of countless essays and pamphlets on economic theory. Unfortunately, he was rarely out of debt.

Wednesday’s Question: What inspired Defoe to write his classic novel Robinson Crusoe?

Robinson Crusoe

Image via Wikipedia

Wednesday’s Answer: According to Wikipedia, Robinson Crusoe may have been inspired by any of these sources:

  • The story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years stranded on the island of Juan Fernandez.
  • The English translation of a book by the Andalusian-Arab Muslim polymath Ibn Tufail, who was known as “Abubacer” in Europe. It was an earlier novel that is also set on a deserted island.
  • Henry Pitman’s short book about his escape from a Caribbean penal colony and his subsequent shipwreck and desert island misadventures. His book was published by J. Taylor of London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe’s novel. Defoe may have met Pitman and learned of his experiences as a castaway. Even if he didn’t meet Pitman, upon submitting a draft of a novel about a castaway to his publisher, Defoe would undoubtedly have learned about Pitman’s book
  • The publicised case of a real-life marooned Miskito Central American man named only as Will may have inspired the depiction of Friday.

It may also have helped that Defoe himself was also traveler, whose voyages included visits to France, Spain, the Low Countries, Italy, and Germany.

Thursday’s Question: How has our culture been impacted by Robinson Crusoe?

Cover of "The Tale of Little Pig Robinson...

Cover via Amazon

Thursday’s Answer: According to WikipediaRobinson Crusoe has been frequently referenced in literature. To note one example from children’s books, Beatrix Potter directs readers to turn to Robinson Crusoe for a description of the island to which her hero moves to in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She describes her hero’s island (the land of the Bong tree) as being similar to that of Crusoe’s island–without its drawbacks. Defoe’s novel has also inspired many movies, including one for families by Walt Disney called “Lt. Robin Crusoe” and starring Dick Van Dyke. Last, the book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered our English language. Back in its colonial days, the city of Harrisburg, Illinois was  named “Crusoe’s Island” due to its location on a hill surrounded by swamp. As for Robinson Crusoe’s servant, he inspired the term “my man Friday” and “my girl Friday” which remain popular terms in our language today.

Friday’s Question: What is the full title of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe?

Friday’s Answer: The original title of Robinson Crusoe as it appears on the title page of the first edition is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates.

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