The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (1719)

© Copyright Penguin Books
© Copyright Penguin Books

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner is a rich and complex tale of self discovery. It is both a realistic adventure and a religious fable about redemption. Daniel Defoe uses the Robinson Crusoe persona and his familiar first person narrative to weave together these two aspects as well as to strengthen them. Consider the narration’s role in the novel: its impact on the tale of adventure, its effect on the Puritan fable, and how it marries the two facets.

At first glance, the book’s structure seems chaotic. There are no chapters. Occurrences are depicted tediously and repeatedly. The text is filled with run-on sentences:

“I had been concerned for the loss of one of my cats, who run away from me, or, as I thought, had been dead, and I heard no more tale or tidings of her, till to my astonishment she came home about the end of August, with three kittens; this was no more strange to me, because tho’ I had killed a wild cat, as I called it, with my gun, yet I thought it was a quite differing kind from European cats; yet the young cats were the same kind of house breed like the old one; and both my cats being females, I thought it very strange.”

Crusoe is a poor writer, an imperfection that makes him and his adventures more credible. According to its narrator, the whole novel was patched together from flawed memory and a journal he had to cease writing because he ran out of ink. Whether taken from retrospection or an incomplete journal, every event is told in the first person, described entirely from Crusoe’s perspective. He is telling the story. There is no other party to relate his accounts. Crusoe is truly alone.

On the desert island, the narrator looks back at his past greed and faithlessness. Crusoe is no saint. He’s a common man meant to represent humanity as a whole. The way he communicates is a reminder of this. He doesn’t speak or write like an elite scholar. He expresses himself like a man of the middle class: “This I was very glad of, you may be sure, and about the latter end of December, which was our second harvest of the year, I reaped my crop.”

Every man can and must repent for his sins. God exiles Crusoe from society so he can reflect on his past deeds:

“I never had once the word, ‘Thank God,’ so much as on my mind, or in my mouth; nor in the greatest distress, had I so much as a thought to pray to Him, or so much as to say, ‘Lord have mercy upon me’; no, nor to mention the name of God, unless it was to swear by and blaspheme it.”

The use of the first person transforms Crusoe’s depictions into confessions. His redemption becomes more sincere. It also becomes more attainable. This tale is not an abstract parable; these accounts are real. They happened to Robinson Crusoe, a man who communicates directly to the reader.

It’s this relationship with the reader that allows the novel to remain whole. The text is in constant flux. It shifts incessantly from journal to autobiographical prose, from detailed lists of daily responsibilities to elaborate reflections on God’s providence, from adventure story to religious fable. Only one element is consistent in the novel: Robinson Crusoe. By making the story’s sympathetic protagonist its narrator, Defoe incites the reader to establish an intimate link with the novel. In spite of the various changes of pace, Crusoe’s voice remains recognizable throughout the entire book. This allows the tale of adventure and the Puritan parable to share a single identity.

In short, Daniel Defoe reinforces two different facets of the novel, adventure tale and religious fable, by creating an intimate relationship between the reader and the story’s protagonist. He establishes this link by using a first person narrative. This literary technique and the Robinson Crusoe persona are what unify the various components of the book. It raises the question, were it not for its intricate narrative, would The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner still be considered a novel?

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."