Stuck at home while coronavirus ravages the country, I might as well do something with my time – so I’ve been improving myself by trying to become literate. Over the last few days I’ve been reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Here’s my review:

It’s considered the first English novel, so everybody thinks they know what it’s about – and they’re probably wrong.

I thought I knew. Man gets shipwrecked on a desert island. Lives there a while, learning how to survive alone. Makes friends with another man who gets washed up there one day. They escape. The end. <b>WRONG!</b>

He doesn’t even get to the island until a considerable way through the book; we have to learn about him first – that he starts out headstrong, choosing to go to sea rather than obey his dying father’s wishes, even though his decisions seem doomed to end in disaster. He spends two years as a slave in Morocco after being shipwrecked, but escapes through initiative and ingenuity, sailing down the coast of Africa until he finds a ship whose captain is willing to take him aboard.

Travelling to Brazil, he founds a plantation but can’t resist an offer to go back to Africa as a slaver – only to be shipwrecked again on an island near Trinidad (some say it may be Tobago).

From here, the vast majority of the book covers the practicalities of life on the island, as tackled by Crusoe. He saves as much as he can from the wrecked ship but then has to work to make a home, furniture and clothes, and to learn when and how to nurture crops.

A big surprise (for me) is when Crusoe becomes ill and has a fever dream in which he believes he is visited by a celestial being of some kind who accuses him of failing to repent his sins and sentences him to death. He wakes up with a severe case of Religion, which is handy as the only reading matter he has is three copies of the Bible. Much of the novel is filled with his musings on Divine Providence and quotations from the Good Book, in consequence.

Some readers may find this epiphany hard to square with Crusoe’s treatment of people who aren’t white Europeans. For example: his companion Friday isn’t washed up – he is brought to the island by cannibals (never mind that it is generally believed that there were no cannibals in the Caribbean) and saved by Crusoe from being cooked and eaten. But Crusoe then makes Friday his slave. This is in line with what we know about Crusoe, and with the times in which he was living – and by the time this happens, we’ve already seen him enslave another person – the luckless Xury, who he takes with him from Morocco, only to sell to the captain of the ship that takes him to Brazil.

Does the description of Friday’s speech show racism by Defoe? Is it a faithful representation of the kind of speech the author had heard from people of colour at the time? Or is it a creation of his imagination? I don’t know, but the way Crusoe describes his relationship with Friday does not suggest any enmity, or wish to belittle people of his race.

Readers who struggle through the slow middle section of the book are then treated to an over-eventful end segment, as Crusoe discovers his island suddenly overpopulated after more than 20 years in solitude, with not only the cannibals returning for a rematch but also European mutineers, along with their ship – which provides an opportunity for Crusoe to escape his island imprisonment.

The book doesn’t end there with a tidy summation of how he has changed and what he has learned, as a modern novel might – and we should not criticise it for this. Defoe was breaking fresh ground and had no idea of how future writers would round out their pieces. Instead, we are treated to Crusoe’s adventures in re-establishing himself, both in England and Brazil – and the novel ends with a promise of more adventures to follow.

So we have an unheroic hero wandering through an unstructured story that is full of distracting diversions into religion and that fails to come to a satisfying ending – yet this book forms the foundation stone on which all other novels have been built.

It’s possible that future authors saw this as an example of what <b>not</b> to do!