Thursday 23 February 2012

Robinson Crusoe: dull and unlikable?

Well, I finally finished Robinson Crusoe, and am the first to admit it took me quite a time, partly because I got side-tracked by other books, partly because I found some bits more than a little tedious, and partly because on several occasions I was so exasperated I switched the Kindle off – had I been reading a ‘proper’ book I would have hurled it across the room. I’ll start by saying it was not as I remembered from my childhood: I suspect the version I read then had been extensively abridged, because I don’t recollect it being so religious, and I certainly don’t remember the cannibalistic savages. In addition, there’s a whole heap of stuff that happens before ever Crusoe is shipwrecked, and he doesn’t find Friday (just Friday, not Man Friday) until it’s almost time to be rescued.

It’s one of those novels that seems to have become so much part of our heritage you think you know it, but really what you have is a kind of myth, cobbled together from pictures, films, references to the book, and stories about other castaways. Witten by Daniel Defoe in 1719, it is generally thought to have been inspired by the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an uninhabited tropical island (at his own request), for more than four years. However, other travellers had also been rescued from deserted islands, so perhaps Defoe’s tale is an amalgam of several survivors.

Daniel Defoe. The original portrait is in the
 Natioanal Maritime Museum, London.
At any rate, his hero goes off to sea, despite objections from his parents. There’s a shipwreck, but that doesn’t deter him, and he sets off again, but this time he’s captured by pirates, becomes a slave to a Moor, escapes in a small boat and is rescued by a ship bound for Brazil, where he sets up a plantation. Time passes. He goes to sea as part of an expedition to acquire African slaves. If all that sounds exciting, it isn’t, and I nearly gave up, but I persevered. Anyway, now, finally, comes the bit I’d been waiting for: the shipwreck. Everyone dies except Crusoe, who fetches up on island 40 miles out to sea. Being a resourceful sort of fellow, he builds a raft and manages to salvage guns, ammunition, food and all kinds of useful things from the ship before it breaks up completely.

Now begins the fun part. He creates a home for himself, tames goats and a parrot, dries wild grapes to make raisins, and raises rice and barley from chicken feed rescued from the ship. It takes him years and years to produce a decent crop, as he saves the seed from successive harvests to multiply his plants. He learns to make bread, pottery, furniture, a small canoe, a wooden spade, a pipe to smoke, and various other tools, as well as stitching clothes from goatskin, and an umbrella, which I think is very ingenious. Crusoe also reads his Bible and reflects on his life, thanking God for providing him with sustenance and shelter.

Time passes. He discovers cannibals from the mainland visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At this point I resisted the temptation to throw the Kindle at the wall and merely turned it off.

More time passes. Crusoe has a strange dream where he frees a prisoner who becomes his servant – and the dream comes true when a native prisoner escapes. Crusoe calls the man Friday, teaches him and converts him to Christianity. More time passes. More cannibals arrive, more prisoners escape. One is Friday’s father, the other is Spanish. A cunning plan is hatched to send the two newcomers off to the mainland to bring back shipwrecked Spaniards, build a boat and sail away. Here I lost the plot completely. Had Friday and Crusoe built a boat to get to the mainland? Were they going to build a boat? Or had they got the natives’ boat? Did I miss a vital development in the plot when I turned the Kindle off?

Next thing you know, mutineers arrive to maroon their captain, but in the end they are left behind while the captain, Crusoe and Friday sail for England. But they don’t stay at home. The intrepid duo set off for Crusoe’s Brazilian plantation on a journey which involves them fighting wolves in the Pyrenees...  just don’t ask me how or why.

Gabriel Betteredge, the old family retainer in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (one of my favourite novels) thought Robinson Crusoe the best book ever written and used it as a guide for life, as people once did with the Bible. When anything troubled him he would seek an answer within its pages, and always found something pertinent to his situation.

Personally I would take issue with Betteredge’s view. I know it’s a classic, and I know it’s views on race and religion are very much of its time, and are echoed in other writings of the period, but it’s certainly not a book I would read again. Quite frankly I thought quite a bit of was dull, and I’m not sure that Crusoe is a particularly likeable character – but I guess likeability is not a quality that would enable anyone to survive on their own on a desert island for 28 years. 

1 comment:

  1. I can sympathize, I'm marooned in the middle of Tom Jones - which actually sounds like more fun than Robinson Crusoe, and I haven't been tempted to throw it across the room yet. I've been wondering if I should add this one to the reading list, but from your review I won't rush out to get it.