Robinson Crusoe Summary and Analysis
by Daniel Defoe
Part 1 Summary:
The narrator introduces himself as Robinson Crusoe. He was born in 1632 in the city of York to a good family. His father is a foreigner who made money in merchandise before settling to down and marrying his mother, whose surname is Robinson. His true last name is Kreutznaer, but has been corrupted into Crusoe by the English. There are two older brothers in the family; one died in the English regiment, and Robinson does not know what became of the other.
Crusoe's father has designed him for the law, but early on his head is filled with "rambling thoughts" of going to sea. No advice or entreaties can diminish his desire. His father gives him "excellent advice and counsel," telling him that only men of desperate and superior fortunes go abroad in search of adventures, and that he is too high or too low for such activities. His station is the middle station, a state which all figures, great and small, will envy eventually, and his happiness would be assured if he would stay at home. Nature has provided this life, and Robinson should not go against this. After all, look what happened to his brother who went into the army. The narrator is truly affected by his father's discourse, but after a few weeks he decides to run away. He prevails upon his mother to speak to his father and persuade him to allow one voyage. If Robinson does not like it, he resolves to go home and think of the sea no more. She reluctantly reports their conversation, but no headway is made, no consent given. About a year later, he is able to procure free passage on a friend's boat heading to London. Asking for no blessing or money, he boards the ship and leaves.
Misfortune begins immediately. The sea is rough, and Robinson regrets his decision to leave home. He sees now how comfortably his father lives. The sea calms, and after a few days, the thoughts are dismissed. The narrator speaks with his companion, marveling at the "storm." His companion laughs and says it was nothing at all. There is drinking that night, and Robinson forgets his fear of drowning. Within a few more days, the wind is behaving terribly, and then a true and terrible storm begins. Robinson spends much time in his cabin, laying down in fright. He sees nothing but distress, and is convinced he is at death's door. The ship is being flooded, and he is commissioned to help bail water. At one point Robinson faints, but is roused quickly. The water is coming too fast, so they board life boats. People on shore are ready to assist them, if they can reach land. The boats arrive at Yarmouth, and the magistrate gives the men rooms. They must decide whether or not to continue to London or return to Hull. His comrade notes that Robinson should take this as a sign that he is not meant to go to sea. They part in an angry state. Robinson travels to London via land. He is ashamed to go home and be laughed at by neighbors. Finally he decides to look for a voyage. He is deaf to all good advice, and boards a vessel bound for Guiana because he befriends the its captain. This voyage, save seasickness, goes well, but upon arrival the captain dies. Robinson resolves to take his ship and be a Guiana trader.
On a course towards the Canary Islands, they are attacked by Turkish pirates, who capture them and take them into Sallee, a Moorish port. Robinson is now a slave. His new master takes him home for drudgery work. The narrator meditates escape for the next two years. An opportunity presents itself when his master sends Robinson, along with some Moorish youths, to catch some fish. Robinson secretly stores provisions and guns on the ship. They set out to fish. Robinson convinces the helmsman that they will find fish further out. He goes behind one of the Moors and tosses him overboard, saying that he should swim for shore because he the narrator is determined to have liberty. Robinson turns to the other boy, called Xury, and says he must be faithful or be tossed as well. Xury resolves fidelity and says he will see the world with Robinson. They sail for five days, as the narrator is anxious to get far away. They land in a creek and resolve to swim ashore and see what country this is. For two days they are anchored there. They observe "mighty creatures" yelling on shore and swimming towards the ship. Robinson fires a gun to discourage them from swimming further. They are not sure what animal this is. Although the two are scared, they need water. Together they will go ashore, and either they will both live or both die. The land appears uninhabited. They are able to kill a hare-like animal for dinner and obtain fresh water. Robinson is sure they are on the Canary or the Cape Verde Islands. He hopes to come upon English trading vessels that will allow them to board. The two men remain in the creek. Together they kill a lion for sport as they pass the time. Xury cuts off a foot for them to eat. They begin to sail along the land in search of a river. Eventually they see the land is inhabited by naked black people. Robinson and Xury go closer to shore. The people leave food at the water's edge. They keep great distance from the two men. Another creature swims toward the boat. Robinson kills it, and sees that it is a leopard of some sort. The black people accept the killing happily, so Xury goes ashore for water and food. In the distance Robinson spies a Portuguese ship, but it is too far to make contact. They leave immediately, trying to follow the ship. Robinson fires a gun to get their attention. Joyfully, Robinson finds they will let Xury and himself board, and the captain does not demand any money from them. The ship is headed for Brazil.
Part 1 Analysis:
Defoe immediately introduces the major tension in his novel between adventure and security. Clearly in the view of the author it is not possible to achieve both of these things; you must choose. Defoe makes no secret of his opinion on the subject: security is indeed the correct choice. He demonstrates this painting a negative view of adventure: it causes both of Robinson's brothers to disappear, and it brings misfortune upon the narrator as soon as he leaves home. What is most crucial to note, however, is that adventure exists as something inferior only in relation to the lifestyle of the middle class. This will be the standard by which all other lifestyles are judged. It is a smart innovation on Defoe's part; books focused on the middle class very rarely. This definitely would have extended readership. We might see Robinson's father as the voice of the author, urging his "irreligious" son to be content with a contented life. He is also the voice of a larger society that believes in a type of predestination in lifestyles: by "Nature's decree," Robinson should not go on any voyages because he is neither rich nor poor. Robinson's initial comrade voices a similar argument when he wonders violently how such an "unhappy wretch" wound up on his ship. He appears to be superstitious of Robinson's presence because his sadness is not an acceptable reason for him to be making this voyage. That certain activities are restricted to certain classes of people in certain states of mind indicates how regimented the society is. A modern day reader can admire the narrator in the very least for attempting to break out of these expectations. His voice is factual and tuned to details. Most importantly, it is an individual voice. Robinson speaks for himself and himself alone.
How successful Crusoe is, however, is a matter of dispute. Primarily, the tone of the narration is flatly morose and fatalistic. The narrator is always prefacing his descriptions with comments about what is eventually going to happen: "Had I had sense I would have gone home," "It was my great misfortune that I did not ship myself as a sailor," etc. The reader understands from the start that the story will not work out as Robinson had initially hoped. Alongside any good things that happen in the moment, we are waiting for the impending doom to strike. It is difficult for us to have any hope when Robinson himself has none. Throughout this first part he constantly wavers as to whether or not he made the right decision in running away from home, which is due to the fact that his personality is simply wavering and uncertain. The image of the bobbing sea, constant only in its changes, correlates well to Robinson's persona. His sense of agency comes in spurts of movement. At first he decides to run away, but confesses the plan to his mother. Having seen that he will not be able to get his father's consent, he steals away secretly on the voyage to London. The reader wonders why he bothered to try convincing his parents in the first place. His decisive actions are brief at best. As soon as he is on the ship, he becomes ill, fearful, and regrets leaving. As soon as the weather lightens up, he is happy. Robinson's impressionable youth is apparent in this inability to stay rooted to one emotion or decision. His refusal to go home because he does not want to suffer embarrassment and laughter from the neighbors gives new meaning to the cliched cutting off the nose to spite the face. Robinson is all too willing to take on roles such as sailor and trader with which he has no experience. Clearly he does not know who he is, or who he is supposed to be. We cannot ever be sure that he has faith in himself. This lack of confidence paints a very timid picture of the narrator. It is a picture, though, of who Robinson used to be. The disparity between the narrator and the character he describes is crucial to note. At many moments we cannot help thinking that Robinson has truly made a mistake in leaving; but it appears that the narrator agrees with us sometimes.
Yet as the first part continues, Robinson begins to adjust somewhat. Instead of relying completely on the intelligence and strength of others, he begins to think for himself and show more decisive agency, hatching the scheme to escape from slavery and throwing the Moorish youth overboard. This is his turning point. He is not as wimpy and delicate as he first appears. The killing of the lion for pure enjoyment betrays violent tendencies that would not have been expressed in a middle class life. At the sight of unfamiliar "monsters" in the water, Robinson does not faint as he did at the prospect of bailing water on his first voyage; rather, he picks up his gun and takes decisive actions. The narrator demonstrates intelligence in keeping Xury as a companion. He can admit to himself that he will need help in his search for a European ship. The manner in which these two work side by side is touching and unprecedented: racial bias does not seem to affect their relationship thus far. Xury automatically seems to call Robinson "Master," and he willingly runs errands for the narrator, but for the most part they are equals. Upon exploring the new land, Robinson himself says that they will both go and die together if one must die at all. Out on the sea is the semblance of proprieties, but these two follow their own laws.
Part 2 Summary:
The sea captain is extremely kind to Crusoe. He buys Robinson's boat, all of his worldly goods, and Xury. At first the narrator is reluctant to part with his servant, but the captain promises to free him in ten years if he has turned Christian. As Xury finds this agreeable, Robinson allows the exchange. The voyage to Brazil goes well. The narrator is recommended by the captain to the house of an "honest man." This man lives on a plantation, and Robinson lives with him for a while. Seeing how rich the plantation owners are, he resolves to become a planter, and begins purchasing much land. Once Robinson is planting, he becomes friendly with Wells, his Portuguese neighbor. They slowly increase the diversity of their stock. At this juncture Robinson regrets having sold Xury. He is in a trade that he knows nothing about, and he has no one to talk to but the neighbor. If he had listened to his father, he would have been comfortable at home. Still, he is sustained by his augmenting wealth.
The captain returns and tells Robinson to give him a letter of procuration so that he can bring the narrator half of the fortune he has left with the English captain's widow. He returns not only with money, but with a servant. Robinson is now infinitely richer than his neighbor, and purchases a "Negro slave" and a "European servant." Each year he grows more tobacco and thrives. But he is not completely happy with this life: "Nature" and "Providence" stir him so that he is not content, and winds up throwing himself into the pit of human misery once more. Having made friends during his four year residence in Brazil, he has spoken much of voyages to Guinea, where one can buy desirable items, but especially Negro servants for plantation work. It is a highly restricted trade, though. Three merchants come to him and say they want to buy the Negroes privately for their own plantations. They ask if he will join and manage the trading on Guinea. Ignoring the inner voice of his father, Robinson wholeheartedly agrees to go. He makes the investing merchants promise they will look after his plantation if he "miscarries." He boards the ship on the first of September, eight years after he ran away from home.
Good weather lasts for a while, but then it turns stormy. One man dies of sickness; a little boy is washed overboard. After 12 days it is clear that the ship will not make it due to leakiness. They decide to try and make it to Africa, where they can get assistance. For 15 days they sail, and another storm hits. There is land in the distance, but they are afraid it might be inhabited by savages who will eat them. The ship crashes into sand, and the sea powerfully washes over it. They use their oars to edge closer to shore, but their hearts are heavy because they know as soon as they get there, the ship will be dashed to pieces and they will be overtaken by the undercurrent and drowned. They have to at least try and swim. Once they jump into the sea, Robinson has some good luck and is helped to shore by a wave. He runs as the sea continues to chase him. The water fights him, but he manages to land safely on shore. Robinson thanks God for his deliverance. He looks around, sees nothing to help him, and runs about like a madman until he falls asleep in a tree. The next day is calm and sunny. The narrator now sees that if they had stayed on board, the ship would have made it to land without being dashed. But the rest of the company is dead, and Robinson grieves. He swims out to the ship and takes a few pieces to build a raft. On this he loads the provisions, everything from food to weaponry. Robinson looks about the island for a good place to live and store his supplies. There are no people, only beasts. A tent serves as his lodging. He makes a number of voyages to the ship in the next few weeks and brings back everything salvageable. In order to guard against possible savages, the narrator moves his tent near a cave with steep sides. He sets up a home with cables and rigging. A hammock is his bed. He makes a cave behind the tent to serve as a cellar. Discovering goats on the island, Robinson goes out daily to kill his food. This leads to his making a cooking area. When desolation threatens to overwhelm him, he forces himself to remember the dead company, and how much better off he is. At the very least he has housing and guns to kill food.
Part 2 Analysis:
Generally, we see that there is a major sense of class superiority. Robinson has a "European servant" and a "Negro slave" on his plantation. We are supposed to assume that one is better than the other. The basis of such distinctions is rooted in religion. Defoe introduces what is perhaps the most important background component to the story--the role of Christianity, particularly as it connects to relationships with other people. What appears to be a friendship between Robinson and Xury is turned into a common master-slave relationship when Crusoe decides to part with him so that Xury will be Christian in ten years' time. The fact that he is willing to forsake his companion in this manner indicates how strongly the Christian faith is entrenched within him. Essentially it is the driving force behind this decision. The business-like friendship is further emphasized when the narrator procures a plantation in Brazil. Astounded by the hard work, he wishes dearly for "his boy Xury." The diction of this line demonstrates a possessiveness toward Robinson's companion. Ironically, he only longs for his company when there is back-breaking labor to be done. It appears that Xury's un-Christian status degrades him in the eyes of the narrator and the author. Lack of Christian doctrine and teachings becomes a symbol of ignorance and inferiority. When the captain offers to purchase Xury, he is truly playing the part of a savior, at least in Defoe's mind. Modern day readers cannot help but see this as slightly sarcastic: slavery is not often a device of deliverance. However, the author probably did not intend this reading. Xury is happy, even grateful to forsake his freedom; we must believe for the purposes of this novel that Christianity is the proper walk of life.
"Deliverance" is a word that appears throughout the book. It is introduced to us in this part as the action of Providence. The author seems to define Providence as an ephemeral being, a personification of Christianity's ideals that has the power to decide the fate of its followers. Crusoe uses this concept to justify the course of events that befall him. It is responsible for the kind sea captain who takes Robinson abroad and delivers him to South America, for Robinson's extremely good fortune in purchasing a plantation and amassing wealth. In many respects, he is still a child, depending on the kindness of strangers. Providence, together with Nature, is the temptation that leads him out of his safe, rich haven and onto another sea voyage. Once again, the sea becomes a symbol of trouble and turmoil. Each time Robinson ventures into the ocean, he is punished; first slavery, now a shipwreck. This sentiment is heightened by the fact that the rest of the crew perishes when they might have survived. It is as if the narrator is singled out to suffer. Once more, he laments that he did not heed his father's advice. Yet he is not yet willing to take entire responsibility for his decisions. The will of Providence becomes a convenient escape from the simple fact that Crusoe chooses to be on this island through his own mistaken reasoning and greediness. Plantation money was not enough for him; he needed to try and engage in the risky enterprise of slave-trading. It is ironic that the Christian religion condones such human oppression. The book winds up commenting on religion without intending to do so. Again, this is the interpretation of a modern reading. Still, the narrator's decisive actions in the face of hardship are admirable and surprising. We wait to see whether he will prove to be dexterous enough to manage his fate.
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- Summary and Analysis of Parts 1-2
- Summary and Analysis of Parts 3-4
- Summary and Analysis of Parts 5-6
- Summary and Analysis of Parts 7-8
- Summary and Analysis of Part 9
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