The earliest English novels in a wider historical context began to emerge in the middle of the 18th century, a period that was characterised by a lot of socio-political changes in England. The English novel developed during the 18th century, partly in response to the growing middle class which caused an expansion in the reading public. One of the major early works in this genre was Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. The 18th century novel emerged with different styles which have endured to the contemporary times. The styles include loosely structured and semi- comic like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones which is considered a comic masterpiece; the epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa and the autobiographical form like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which we will discuss in this article. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is acclaimed to be the first English novel and that is why it will be the first novel we will study in this article.
Background of the Author
Daniel Defoe was a prolific writer with over 370 known publications who could and in fact actually wrote on almost any topic. However, many of his contemporaries saw him as a man without integrity because they claim that “he was a man who sold his pen to the political party in office…” (Mckeon 1987, 87). He was a puritan but a great realist and is said to have initiated the convention of realism to the English novel. He also bequeathed the art of vivid and detailed description of incidents, events and the environment and also the realistic portrayal of characters to the English novel.
His characters were mainly average people from the middle and lower classes. He adopted different styles in his writings. For instance, in Robinson Crusoe he used the autobiographical technique which enhances realism. At a point in his career as a writer, his reputation began to decline, perhaps because of his involvement with politics. However, critics redirected attention to his works after a succession of biographies and editions of his works was published from 1780-1830 and his popularity grew.
Also his works received widespread and consistent serious critical attention in the twentieth century, and his works have been subjected to several interpretations from modern theoretical perspectives like, Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and poststructuralist. His first and famous novel Robinson Crusoe was popular and a financial success when it was published in 1719. That same year, he also wrote The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which was not as successful as the first one. The following year, he recycled some of his essays as Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe. He also wrote Moll Flanders. It is believed that his greatest work is Robinson Crusoe which we will discuss in details here.
The story begins with the narrator who is also the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe giving us an insight into his family background. As the story progresses, we discover that his ambition for adventure is so strong that he sets sail in spite of his parents objection. For instance, his father called him into his chambers and enumerated the reasons why he should not travel and promised to ensure that Crusoe is provided with everything that would help to make his life very comfortable but the offer is turned down by Crusoe. His father explained to him that the life of the middle class to which they belong is far better than the life he
proposes to live. Crusoe is adamant and runs away from home when he could not persuade his mother to prevail on his father to give him his blessing before the proposed trip. The story takes us through Crusoe’s experiences in and outside the ship, his regrets, repentance, desire to return home, his escape, solitary life, that spanned over twenty years taking him to Islands, Brazil and other countries. He also had to contend with dangerous wild animals and other life threatening encounters with humans.
The main theme of the novel is dignity of labour which is exemplified in Crusoe who, in the novel, strives very hard to achieve mere subsistence. His sense of industry is also highlighted in Brazil. The novelist therefore does not only show that there is dignity in labour but also demonstrates that man can achieve success through hard work thereby triumphing over his handicaps. Most of the characters in the novel are engaged in the single-minded pursuit of economic gains. Another issue raised in the novel is the rise of the growing self- consciousness of a mercantile middle class. Robinson Crusoe, like most of Defoe’s works, was conceived in rebellion against the organisation of society in general and the middle class in particular (Palmer 1986, 33).
Robinson Crusoe may have left home because of his disenchantment with middle class life. This is seen in the argument between him and his father before he set sail. In his father’s speech, we see an obvious glorification of middle class life. Crusoe does not seem to like that kind of life so in order to resist the temptation of conforming to the middle class values of easy life in a conventional mode of existence, he decides to set sail and tries to exhibit his repulsion for that middle class life.
He may be able to make his fortune more easily yet he leaves. Defoe therefore uses Crusoe as a representation of some young middle class English men and women of his age who leave home for overseas because the conventional but constricting ease of middle class life offered them few opportunities for developing their talents to the full and achieving complete self- fulfillment.( Arnold 1960, 23) . Crusoe therefore “rejects the soft options offered by his class and proceeds to an Island to create an existence which is almost as comfortable and serene, but he does it on his own terms, making use of his ingenuity, industry and courage” (Palmer 1986, 65).
Other issues raised in the novel include honesty and reward. Crusoe’s friend was compensated when he discovers that he dealt honestly with him. This shows that honesty is a virtue that should be emulated.
Robinson Crusoe: Robinson Crusoe is the main character in the novel and the whole story revolves around him. He is strong-willed, ambitious, tenacious, and kind hearted. His generosity is handsomely rewarded one way or the other. He is creative, resourceful, and hardworking hence he was able to build an Island out of nothing and made it fit for human habitation. He is magnanimous and shared his wealth with the poor and all those who were helpful to him. He is resilient so is able to adapt to situations, places, and relationships.
It appears that the desire for leadership as the Governor, King or Prince is intrinsic to Crusoe’s nature, an ambition which he could not realise in the competitive and rigidly stratified structure of English society but which he however achieves with ease on the Island he founded. He has delusions of grandeur and perceives himself as some kind of god. This is highlighted in the dream in which he rescues a ‘savage’ from his enemies. He recounts: “. . .1 seeing him alone, and not perceiving that the other sought him that way, showed myself to him. . . and he kneeled down to me, seeming to pray me to assist him;. . .” (p.145).
His real feeling is highlighted in his use of such Biblical terms as: he shows himself to the native (Jesus shows himself to his disciples) and smiles upon him, and the latter kneels down to him and prays him to assist him. Crusoe exhibits traces of imperialist mentality and superiority complex especially in his relationship with Friday who he sees as an inferior, a servant. He extends this attitude to other natives he meets who he regards as servants or slaves. He did not bother to ask him his name but immediately calls him Friday and teaches him to call him Master to assert his superiority and to heighten the master-servant relationship. When he conceives of the idea of building a boat which he would use in leaving the Island, He assigns dirtier and heavier tasks to Friday and his father. He approves of slavery and believes that all natives as savages so is surprised to discover that Friday is capable of demonstrating filial affection just like Europeans.
Crusoe’s character presents an ambiguity in that he is generous but very selfish. He shows little interest in anyone except himself yet seems to have a tremendous capacity for eliciting affection and compassion from almost everyone. For instance, he treats the members of his family, including his father, with studied indifference and when he marries, he shows no signs of any feelings for his wife or children. In his relationship with the people he meets on his travels, Crusoe behaves with the same cold detachment. He has no hesitation in selling the
devoted and self-sacrificing Xury to a Portuguese Captain and justifies himself with the fact that the Captain would set the boy free in ten years if he is converted to Christianity. Again, Crusoe separates Friday, his excellent servant, from his Father, takes him to England without any consideration for Friday who might prefer to be reunited with his father and when Friday dies, he is dismissed with a few words of compassion. Robinson Crusoe is a hero whose actions are despicable yet loveable.
Friday: Friday is the character Crusoe met on the Island and describes as a savage and changed his name to Man-Friday because they met on a Friday. Friday is an epitome of honesty, sincerity, zealousness and courageousness. He is very trustworthy, always cheerful, appreciative and rational. He assisted Crusoe in his survival drive after the shipwreck. Daniel Defoe presents him as a very resourceful and useful person but who needs guidance and direction from another person. His courage and bravery was manifested in several ways but was very obvious during their encounter with the wolves whereby if not for his wisdom and strength, the wolves would have slaughtered them. He is loyal and steadfast, and remained a true and faithful friend till the end.
Crusoe’s Father: He is a middle class Englishman who Crusoe describes as “wise and grave”. He wished that his son would follow his footsteps and be content with their position in the society. He therefore tried all he could to dissuade Crusoe from embarking on his proposed adventure but the latter was adamant. He is an average man who is content with his life as neither poor nor too rich.
The Old Man The Old Man is another honest and sincere character in the novel. He took charge of Crusoe’s wealth during his absence and when Crusoe returns after about thirty years, the Old Man gave him a correct account in all fairness.
Xury: Xury is a young African slave. He helped Crusoe in the course of their sea voyage to escape from dangers several times. In fact, if not for Xury, Crusoe would have perished and would not have escaped successfully from the Captain of the Rover. In the end, Xury was sold to the Captain of the Brazil-bound ship who promised that he would be freed after ten years.
There is graphic, detailed and vivid description of the environment in the novel. The author mentions locations, Islands, cities, and countries existing in real life. This helps to render the adventure not only realistic but also authentic. Known places mentioned in the novel include London, Tarmouth, Madrid and West Indies. The Island where most of the actions take place is in the vicinity of Trinidad.
Robinson Crusoe is widely acclaimed as the first English novel. It presents the story of Robinson Crusoe’s adventures. It is presented in first person narrative technique and this makes it look like an autobiography and also gives a note of authenticity to the narrative. The story presented in the novel takes the reader through the account of Crusoe’s background, his life history, his strange adventure and incursions into precarious situations and survival through his tenacity, determination and hard work.
In this article, we discussed the first full length novel. You need to read the novel to be able to understand the discussion in this unit. We presented the plot, the themes, setting and discussed some major and minor characters in the novel. The novel as a work of art is open to many interpretations. From our perspective here, we see Crusoe as a generous hardworking man but also a selfish racist. We see that initially, he saw himself as a king and the animals as his subjects but we discover that when human beings replaced the animals, Crusoe’s attitude to them does not change as he treats the human beings-Friday and others as less human.