‘But my ill fate pushed me on now with an obstinacy that nothing could resist; and though I had several times loud calls from my reason and my more composed judgement to go home, yet I had no power to do it, I know not what to call this, nor will I urge that it is a secret overruling decree, that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction, even though it be before us, and that we rush upon it with our eyes open.’
Yes, this is the language of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the language of 18th century literature: it sounds clumsy, even somewhat difficult, to modern ears. But what it lacks in brevity it makes up for in thoroughness and precision. So, what is he saying? He’s pondering why he felt compelled to return to sea after narrowly surviving a shipwreck off the English coast, even against good advice and all logic, being instead “pushed by ill fate”. It is this fate – how we accept and deal with it – which is at the heart of Robinson Crusoe. And you thought it was merely about a man shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island?
‘September 30, 1659 – I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came onshore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called “The Island of Despair”; all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.’
The actual shipwreck doesn’t occur until chapter four. Before that he is captured and imprisoned by pirates, then escapes to Brazil where he makes his fortune in agriculture and trade (and possibly – ahem - slave trading). It’s an interesting enough section, but you can skip straight to the shipwreck without it impacting upon the story.
‘All evils are to be considered with the good that is in them, and with what worse attends them.’
Upon first being shipwrecked he questions why he alone of his companions survived, and compiles a balance sheet of his predicament:
I have no clothes to cover me
But I am in a hot climate where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.
And so, he continues. This is reminiscent of a stoic mindset, but make no mistake: this book is overtly religious in its acceptance of fate, with many lengthy sections discussing the nature of God. But if that’s not your thing these can again be easily skipped over with no impact upon the narrative
‘Thus, we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.’
Crusoe’s good fortune (again that positive mindset) is that the wreck of the ship lay only several hundred metres off shore, where he could paddle out to strip it of supplies before it broke up completely. And so, he sets about making everything he needs:
‘I had never handled a tool in my life, and yet, in time, by labour, application and contrivance, I found at last that I wanted nothing but I could have made it…’
Thus, Robinson Crusoe contains lengthy digressions on many aspects of how to survive on an island: building a shelter, hunting, fishing, making bread, pottery, agriculture, and building a canoe (which takes him over five months, only for it to be too heavy to drag to the water). If nothing else, Robinson Crusoe could serve as a more than handy survival manual, even in modern times.
‘But what need I had been concerned with the tediousness of anything I need to do, seeing I had time enough to do it in?
For me, however, Robinson Crusoe is a meditation on time: the time it takes to learn new skills, to experiment through trial and error, and to eventually achieve a level of mastery: The modern reader is forced to slow down to ‘Crusoe time’, as the simplest tasks take weeks or even months. This not only engenders an appreciation in the reader for the efficacy of modern life, but also creates a calmness in the reader. Crusoe feels it also:
‘It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances , than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I had led all the past part of my days, and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my desires were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming…’
And then, just as we and Crusoe are settling into a blissful existence, IT happens:
‘It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore…’
It’s one of the greatest images in literature: so casual and innocent in its initial observation, yet so paralysing in its implications. It demonstrates the deliberate craft of Dafoe’s writing that, up until that point, we had blissfully gone along with Crusoe’s island existence, with no thought of possible danger. It’s a reality check for Crusoe. What follows is a period of nervousness, where he jumps at shadows, every tree stump resembles a man, and he begins to question his sanity, as if he hadn’t imagined it all:
‘Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear! It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief…Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than the fear of danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…’
We share Crusoe’s fear, yet at the same time it is Dafoe’s call to the need to remain focused and think logically. Alas, Crusoe’s fears are confirmed with the intermittent comings and goings of a group of cannibalistic ‘savages’, who thankfully never move beyond the beach whereupon they perform their horrific rituals.
‘I was now in the twenty-third year of my residence in this island.’
He spends countless waking hours formulating how he will deal with what he believes will be the inevitable attack by the cannibals, ranging from meek defence to a suicidal, all-or-nothing offense. From here on the tone of the novel changes somewhat, becoming almost an action adventure as he focuses on getting off the island.
In the end it is through facing his fears that he eventually achieves salvation. This to me is the message of the book. Take control of your fate. Prepare as best you can. Have a plan and commit to it. But be flexible in its implementation.
Be king of your own island.