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Daniel Defoe was an extraordinary man. Although he never had the benefit of a university education, he spoke six languages and was able to read even more. His curriculum included having been a government spy, a shopkeeper, and a journalist. As the latter, he was employed by both major parties. Of course, serving two lord is impossible, so after he got into trouble with both of these parties, he turned to writing as another means of living. The first major difference between Defoe's work and most other books dating from this time is that Robinson Crusoe is really entertaining, quite exhilarating and at times even amusing to read. This is in sharp contrast to most contemporary novels which stuck to a Spartan diet of unreality and dullness, their only charm lying in the complete strangeness to anything human. Basically, most stories at the time were chronicles of wonderful, magical events, not even attempting to resemble human life at all. Robinson Crusoe was one of the first few books to have characters with whom a reader could actually identify. Therefore, it was very popular and this idea of recognition of oneself in a character in a book is nowadays only discussed when it fails, implying that it now has become a natural 'recipe' for writing any book.
Most of today's popsongs become 'hits' due to a hook; a melodic chorus or instrumental piece which basically does not need to convey any meaning whatsoever. Its only function is to keep the listener listening. Defoe also had grasped the idea of a hook. Only his is fairly bigger, namely about 10 pages, than your average popsong-hook, which contains 4-5 words, if any... For sometimes the lyrics are degraded to a repeated monosyllabic sound. Defoe put this theory into practice in Robinson Crusoe. First, he has Robinson's father lecture him on `the middle station' which is apparently `the best state in the world.' Of course, this little section is only needed to charm his middle-class audience. By refusing his father's ideas, Robinson already seems like an ungrateful son in the eyes of the reader.
Defoe adds more Christian morals as Robinson sinks deeper into sin. He drinks his repentance away after his first encounter with a storm, he refuses to listen to the captain who tells him 'you ought to take this for a plain and visible token that you are not to be a seafaring man.
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One. Robinson is a sinner. He refused to submit to what was clearly the will of God.
Two. He was sent to the island because he is destined, it is his fate. He could not help it.
By adapting his story to fit the religious climate of the time, Defoe assures himself of the approval of a substantial religious and social group. However, Defoe may solve one problem, but by doing this, he has caused another. After all, how are people to care for a sinner who refuses to acknowledge the signs God sent him? In this lies the great strength of the book; Defoe actually has us care for him.
In the preface to the novel Defoe says literally "The editor believes the history to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it."
This is of course not true, as we know now. However, it was probably the best excuse for writing an invented story, a practice which was not held in high esteem at the time.
Although we do not think too highly of the literary experience of the average 18th century reader, even he would remain sceptical after taking the author at his word. Defoe's solution to this problem is most original: Fact is his strategy, and triviality his weapon. Of course, this technique of describing as many trivial events as possible to make the story seem more realistic, has (again) become a common aspect of almost every novel to date. In almost 400 years, we have gone from one extreme to another: From a time when it was revolutionary to introduce this formula in literature, to a time where it would be almost revolutionary not to.
It may seem as if I am saying I am strongly inclined to believe that Robinson Crusoe is both a terrific book and a novel which set a new standard for literature in its time. This is true. However, I am not oblivious to some of the weaker points of the book. My foremost criticism is this; Robinson Crusoe is not a real person. He is a character, faintly disguised as a person. At first we are fooled, for all that happens seems realistic enough, but as soon as Robinson is marooned on the island, the illusion is fading. His way of living, his sudden belief, his entire way of looking at the world suggests that someone indeed did make this up. Partly, this has to do with the environment.
When Defoe decided to write a more realistic novel than was usual at the time, he could have done better that to opt for an uninhabitated island. It is very difficult to make a character seem more realistic when he is completely alone. It is very hard to describe in detail solitude on such a large scale of time and still remain true to realism. Solitude may be something we have all experienced at one time or other, but Robinson's long time completely devoid of any human contact whatsoever and his logical despair is incredibly hard to describe convincingly.
Bibliography: "Robinson Crusoe", Daniel Defoe, Penguin books, London, 1985. "An Approach to English Literature", E. van de Laar and N. Schoonderwoerd, Malmberg, 1957.