Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe was educated to be a minister but turned instead to commerce, which he found fascinating. As a merchant, he travelled widely in England and continental Europe; later he continued his travels while working as an intelligence agent, visiting Scotland several times to keep the government informed of Scottish public opinion when England and Scotland were uniting as Great Britain. Because of his experiences, Defoe knew far more about travel than most of his contemporaries. He used that knowledge, along with his sharp powers of observation, in his best-selling novels, such as Robinson Crusoe, and in non-fiction travel works, such as his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
About the novel
Defoe never travelled as far as the New World, but he did read about—and possibly meet—Alexander Selkirk, an English sailor who survived several years on an uninhabited island near Chile before returning to tell of his adventures. Drawing on Selkirk’s experiences as well as his own imagination, Defoe produced Robinson Crusoe, the first-person account of a shipwrecked sailor who spends 28 years, 2 months, and 19 days on a deserted island off the South American coast. Crusoe builds a home, raises goats, carefully keeps track of the days, and reads his Bible, all the while hoping and praying for rescue. After several lonely years, he sees a footprint in the sand and encounters a native whom he names Friday, after the day of their meeting. Brought to the island by cannibals from whom he escaped, Friday becomes Crusoe’s servant and companion as the two continue the struggle to survive.
Legacy of a masterpiece
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is often named as the first English novel. As is typical of early novels, Defoe did his best to make his tale seem like it really happened, narrating as the main character and incorporating a wealth of detail to make settings and events ring true. The result is a pioneering work of realistic fiction, its plot and characters so plausible and interesting that they have become literary archetypes, imitated again and again. In fact, the details of Robinson Crusoe are so famous that centuries later, office assistants became known as man or gal Fridays, and when Swiss author Johann David Wyss wrote of a family shipwrecked on a desert island, he called them the Swiss Family Robinson.