Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719, London. Public Domain.
Editor's note: Since this year began with a discussion of fiction in this space, we'll end on that too.
If there is one name synonymous with adventure, it is Robinson Crusoe. He has become a cliché, invoked every time we have to endure isolation or the lack of modern technology, even seared in the popular imagination through his unfortunate inclusion in the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. Some 300 years on, the outlines of his story are so well-known, it can be difficult to remember that he never existed, but for the imagination of Daniel Defoe. In fact, when Defoe published this work at the height of the colonial era, when British ships commanded the high seas throughout the world, it quickly became so popular that even then, people assumed it to be an autobiographical travelogue from the "real" Crusoe.
In fact, Robinson Crusoe (originally titled, in the unimaginative publishing style of the time, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates) is considered by many one of the earliest novels, giving rise to that art form that has shaped the modern English language Western man's self-understanding ever since.
Prior to writing Crusoe, Defoe had been a struggling businessman and occasional political dissident. He stirred up society with critical essays and pioneered economic and political journalism during the period of turmoil following the death of King William III, Queen Anne's persecution of the nonconformists, and the union of England and Scotland. His political writings briefly landed him in prison in 1703. That such a man came to be regarded by many simply as the writer of fantastical adventures (a sort of proto-Robert Louis Stevenson) is one of the great accidents of fame.
Of course, if one is to actually take up and read Robinson Crusoe (and not one of the many abridged versions) on its own merits, the story fits together much better. After reading it myself recently, I realized that most of us only think we know the story, and many others who do read it do so only to subject it to harsh postcolonial and deconstructionist criticism. The actual story reads much less like an adventure (though it certainly is that) or a not-so-subtle statement of the superiority of British civilization to the rest of the world (though it has plenty of elements in that vein also), and more like the complex morality tale Defoe seems to have intended it as. The extended moral of the story could be distilled down to: "Honor thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee" (Deut. 5:16).
I have seldom read such a Christian novel. Robinson goes to sea against the loving advice of his father, instantly regrets it, and just as quickly forgets his regret. He is tossed about by storms, enslaved by pirates, nearly killed by wild animals, and forced to settle in a foreign land. Still, he refuses to turn from his wandering (and increasingly wicked) ways, and eventually becomes involved in a business scheme to buy African slaves for his farm. This is the endeavor that results in his most famous shipwreck and marooning on this uninhabited island. There, though, the isolation, mysterious provision of all his needs by God, and the Bible he procured from the ship work to soften his heart so that he cries out in repentance. The theological clarity of Crusoe's prayer and understanding of salvation is astonishing. Even his later interaction with the cannibals and his "man Friday" are filled with an inner dialogue which mingles fear, trust in God's sovereignty, and missionary zeal.
Again, most of us are familiar with the broad details of this famous book, so they do not bear repeating beyond this. My encouragement to you is to make time in the new year to engage with this classic. It is a delightful read, but far from simple entertainment, it may strengthen your faith to walk through this (more) modern prodigal's journey to redemption.
Take: Required Reading