The English novel was born with ‘Robinson Crusoe’ 300 years ago this year
A convincing case can be made for Daniel Defoe’s story about a castaway on a tropical island to be the first novel in English
April 25, 2019, marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — and thus the 300th anniversary of the birth of the English novel. One can quite reasonably claim Robinson Crusoe was the first novel in the English language, if the novel is regarded as primarily, or necessarily, a realist form.
Defoe (1660–1731) wrote Robinson Crusoe in six months or less when he was in his late 50s and it became a publishing phenomenon.
By the end of 1719, there had been four editions, and it went on to become one of the most widely published books ever. By 1900, no book in the history of western literature had more editions, translations and imitations. The trend continued through the twentieth century, in film — more than 20 movies — television and radio, even in pantomime and opera, as well as in legacy fiction, leading to the founding of a genre, the ‘Robinsonade’. The book’s protagonists, Crusoe and ‘Man Friday’ (later ‘Girl Friday’, of course, in spin-off media) have become household words.
Robinson Crusoe masqueraded as a ‘true history’ — ‘history’ was the term used for such fiction until the word ‘novel’ came into use towards the end of the eighteenth century. Thus Robinson Crusoe was published to appear not as fiction, but as a chronicle of real events.
Its title page read: ‘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.’
The author’s name does not appear here; indeed, Robinson Crusoe was credited as the author — ‘written by himself’ it says at the foot of the title page. Not only are all attributes of fiction avoided, the ‘editor’ of the book roundly dismisses any idea that the story might be invented.
Defoe’s inspiration probably came from stories of real-life castaways in his time; the most likely source for Robinson Crusoe is the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk who spent four years on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernandez Islands in the South Pacific, off Chile. He was marooned there voluntarily after he refused to continue a voyage on a leaky ship. In 1966, the island was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.
Selkirk’s rescue in 1709 by an English expedition led to the publication, in 1712, of his adventures in A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World and A Cruising Voyage Around the World.
Key precursors to Robinson Crusoe in the history of the novel would be John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), and Aphra Behn’s short work of fiction Oroonoko (1688). Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess, published in the same year as Robinson Crusoe, could also be described as an early novel. It has been suggested that even earlier works, including Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485) and the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400), could be considered as the beginnings of the novel.
Internationally, claims for the first novel go back to Don Quixote (1605, 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (c1547 -1616) — perhaps even to the Theologus Autodidactus written by the 13th century Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis between 1268–77, or the Tale of Genji, by the 11th century Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, and dated to 1010.
What of Defoe himself, the man who invented the English novel as we know it? He was a colourful character. The son of a London tallow-chandler, James Foe, Daniel came from a Dissenting, or Puritan, background. In about 1695, he changed his name to Defoe for the appearance of a more elevated social status.
He was an exceedingly prolific journalist, whose collected works would fill many volumes, but a lifelong bankrupt, although an indefatigable entrepreneur. The new economic individualism of his time, when mercantilism was on the rise, explains much of Defoe’s (and Robinson Crusoe’s) character.
Defoe produced no fewer than 560 journals, tracts and books, many published anonymously or under assumed names. He was always trying to extricate himself from massive debts and stay out of the clutches of creditors. Ill-fated schemes of Defoe’s included attempts to sell marine insurance in time of war and to breed civet cats. For nine years, from 1704–13 he wrote a thrice-weekly journal, The Review, single-handedly. He was sentenced to punishment at the pillory when irony in one of his pamphlets in 1702 was taken seriously and mistaken for incitement against Dissenters (see James Charles Armytage’s 1862 line engraving of this event).
At the same time, Defoe was a spy for the Tory government, sending in secret reports about the political manoeuvring surrounding negotiations for the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.
It’s not that well-known that Defoe went on to write two sequels to Robinson Crusoe: later in 1719, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe appeared, and in 1720, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Cruisoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World.
So what was it that made Robinson Crusoe different from previous English fiction? We can answer this question under six headings.
Plot. Defoe was the first major writer in English literature who did not take a plot from mythology, history, legend or prior literature. The next was Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) whose immensely important novel Pamela (1740) it is relevant to mention a little later. In the plots of these two writers we see the difference, for example, from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton.
Time. Defoe was the first to convey the reality of time, to portray a life in the bigger picture of a historical process, and in terms of day-to-day thoughts and activities. Although his timings are inconsistent, his narrative convinces us that it is occurring at a particular time.
Place. Defoe was the first to produce a whole narrative as if it took place in a physical environment to which a character was attached by means of vivid detail: the description of objects, for example, such as clothing and implements. Previously and traditionally, place was treated in vague and generalised way, with only incidental physical description.
Prose style. In Defoe, the use of figurative language, which had been a prominent feature of the romances hitherto, was noticeably reduced; it was much rarer in Defoe and Richardson than any writer before. This resulted in a certain immediacy — primarily physical in Defoe and emotional in Richardson — absent from fiction previously.
Realism. Within the new prose style that Defoe and Richardson deployed lay a formal realism which was required to convey a complete and authentic account of human experience which, of course, became a convention and has stayed with the novel ever since.
Introspection: For the first time in fiction, in the character of Crusoe, we are admitted fully to a person’s inner life, his introspection in solitude, his thoughts, indeed his moral being. This advance was of paramount importance. Defoe, born and bred a Puritan, achieved this by using a common literary expression of Puritanism: the autographical memoir, or spiritual journal, a feature of the spiritual individualism then gaining ground alongside that of the economic.
I’d like to discuss the depiction of the interior life in Robinson Crusoe because it is so important in the emergence of the novel — against a background of social change in the eighteenth century including a growing middle class and reading public and new philosophical thought — and its subsequent development.
We need to start with the theory of the thinking subject put forward by Descartes (1596–1650) which signalled a major change in Western psychological understanding by locating the source of meaning, creativity and truth within human subjectivity itself, this anthropocentric trend reflected in the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century.
John Locke (1632–1704) proposed a causal connection between sensation and knowledge which particularly influenced creative writers and critics in the eighteenth century, and replaced metaphysics with the psychological.
The psychological insight we are given into the interior lives of Crusoe — and later of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a character which, I think, is important to link with Crusoe in this context — reflects a reconceptualisation of the soul as mind, brought about mainly by Locke who revealed the mental mechanism through which experience generates truth.
Such insight conveys an intense engagement with questions of existence, and provides evidence of the way in which mental imaging was now breaking loose from metaphysical structures which previously had required some transcendent origin or truth. In both characters, the significance of the unconscious mind is exposed, not least in its workings through dreams and disordered mental states.
In Robinson Crusoe, as touched on above, the presentation of the protagonist’s interior life is linked to the idea of spiritual autobiography which portrays the Puritan drama of the soul, or psyche, and to the intentions of Defoe as moralist, set out in his Preface, with regard to the ‘Instruction of the Reader’.
It also involves the depiction of Crusoe’s reliance on intuition, and his recognition of the ‘invisible world’ from which come dreams, premonitions and the proleptic imagination; and its persuasiveness arises from the dramatic portrayal of Crusoe’s inner struggles, and the creation of a believable ‘round’ character, using E M Forster’s term (a ‘round’ character develops and alters while a ‘flat’ one does not).
Crusoe’s ‘strange surprizing adventures’ take place not only in the external world, but in the internal one, too.
With Richardson we have the direct rendering of the minds of his characters in the very moment of thinking and feeling, and in Pamela, as in Robinson Crusoe, the persuasiveness of the presentation of the interior life lies in the communication of Pamela’s mental turmoil and the concomitant achievement of a ‘round’ character.
While Richardson is much more interested in analysing feelings and mental processes than Defoe, the approach of both writers is to combine psychological realism with didacticism; Richardson, in his Preface, says he wants to ‘instruct and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes’, and I feel an important part of the purpose of the presentation of Pamela’s interior life is to show the deliberations which lead to ‘virtue rewarded’, to quote the sub-title of Pamela.
Given his non-conformist, dissenting background, Defoe would have been familiar with the tradition of spiritual autobiography. Actually, the Puritan custom of keeping a journal of one’s journey to salvation had spread beyond the dissenting groups, and a pattern of spiritual development is clearly seen in Robinson Crusoe.
Storm and shipwreck have always been powerful metaphors for spiritual conflict, and Crusoe’s isolation and alienation reach a dramatic climax in episodes of bibliolatry and frenetic conversion.
Crusoe’s sense of sin — after acknowledging his inner struggle over his rejection of his parents’ station in life which he eventually regards as his ‘original sin’ — a dark night of the soul, repentance, conversion, and even evangelism in his instruction of Friday, all contribute to spiritual progress, Crusoe’s reflections upon which eventually cause him to rejoice that he was brought to the island.
Some commentators see Defoe’s fiction as having evolved out of genuine memoirs of spiritual autobiography written in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the traditional sequence of which Robinson Crusoe follows, for a primary concern of Defoe is the spiritual development of his hero.
A powerful drive to growth in faith is Crusoe’s thoughtful and reasoning nature. He uses his mind not just for spiritual self-analysis but to analyse, interpret and understand what today we might call ‘the bigger picture’. He thinks through the strengths and weaknesses of his situation, his values and his own mental make-up. In a sense, the whole narrative is a reflection of Crusoe’s inner life, especially after he arrives on the island with his continuing battle of inward grace with outward temptation.
After Crusoe finds the discomfiting footprint in the sand, which banishes his ‘religious Hope’, he is thrust into a mental turmoil of ‘Cogitations, Apprehensions and Reflections’, enters ‘the utmost Debate with myself’, and has ‘frightful Dreams’. One night, unable to sleep, he runs over the whole of his past life, with thoughts whirling through ‘that great thorow-fare of the Brain, the Memory’, and realises how infinitely good providence has been to protect him.
Indeed, the Christian notion of providence — the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power, as well as the proleptic preparation for future eventualities — is a central concern in Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe often feels himself guided by a divinely ordained fate, thus explaining his robust optimism in the face of apparent hopelessness.
Providence comes to be bound up with intuition, the ‘secret Dictate’ which Crusoe never fails to obey, and which amounts to the promptings of the unconscious mind, the ‘invisible World’ that warns of danger. His various fortunate intuitions are taken as evidence of a benign ‘Converse of Spirits’. Crusoe also has a premonitory dream of rescuing a savage, brought to the island by cannibals, and making the man his servant.
In a key passage, Crusoe refers to ‘secret moving Springs in the Affections’, which seems to bear out the influence of Descartes and Locke — with regard to experience and observation being the source of ideas — on Defoe’s attitudes to the inner life, and where Defoe has used the then commonplace analogy of ‘clock-and-divine-clock-maker’, or well-balanced machine, for man and the universe.
Turning again to Richardson, his innovation was to treat prose as a medium for expressing thoughts and feelings, or ‘sentiments’ as they were described in his day, the drama for the first time taking place inside the characters, and the epistolary convention was the device he used to create the illusion of ‘living in a character’s mind’.
Richardson taught his contemporaries that the written word could be used as a vehicle for inner journeys, and to convey new states of intensity of consciousness; the fact that Pamela has to keep her writings hidden from censorious forces suggests, perhaps, an unconscious unease on the part of Richardson — at a time when the hold of religious faith was still extremely strong — with that movement of mental imaging away from its prior involvement with a transcendental deity to that of the newly exalted realm of personal subjectivity.
Nevertheless, Richardson knew that well-written letters could reveal all the ‘finer springs and movements’ (the clock analogy again) of the inner life.
Richardson seems fascinated by the point where unconscious personal and archetypal feelings and perceptions rise to the conscious mind, where inner and outer worlds conjoin in the act of writing. Pamela is in the process of making a self, Richardson giving the impression that she is developing and changing from within.
Many psychologists have encouraged patients to use cognitive therapy to overcome anxiety and other conditions characterised by negative thought patterns. Some write down their negative thoughts and counter them with positive ones in what is intended to be an honest appraisal of their thought processes. Seeing the results on paper objectifies their mental status and puts it in a proper perspective.
Crusoe performs just such an exercise, soon after being cast up on the island, to ‘deliver my Thoughts from daily poring upon them, and afflicting my mind’, and later carries on a journal until he runs out of ink. Similarly, Pamela includes in her letters an account of the inner debate that persuaded her against suicide at the pond’s edge: ‘What art thou about to do, wretched Pamela?’
Pamela’s meditation on suicide is probably the most powerful description of her thought processes in the book. She describes how she sat by the pond, began to ponder her condition, and reasoned with herself. She imagines her dead body dragged from the pond, causing her tormentors to ‘lament their misdoings’, but then finds herself presumptuous, asks who gave her power over her life, or authorised her to end it, and realises that, in taking her own life, she would be guilty of a sin that could not be forgiven.
Crucially, the inner debate leads Pamela to the conclusion that, although she would have praised God if she had managed to escape by the back door as she planned, she had greater reason to praise him for delivering her from herself — a worse enemy even than her ‘wicked keepers, and my designing master’. In psychological terms, Pamela has confronted and overcome the ‘dark side’ of her nature.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), who was partly educated under Locke, made a case for an innate moral sense which, when developed and cultivated by reflection, enabled right to be distinguished from wrong ‘immediately, spontaneously and intuitively’, an approach to life which, I suggest, Richardson exemplified in the character of Pamela generally, and specifically in the outcome of the meditation on suicide.
Pamela’s letters and poetry (and her rewriting of the psalm) are the indisputable evidence of an interior life, of the workings of conscience and moral sense, leading even to the first stream of consciousness in fiction as Pamela interrogates herself immediately after her conversation with Mr B by the pond.
It has to be admitted, however, that, as various critics have pointed out, the continuity of the direct and spontaneous voice that we take as Pamela’s own — the way in which she becomes ‘real’ to the reader — is often undermined by a second, distanced voice which we may attribute to the moralising Richardson himself, betrayed by the unrealistic aspects of the epistolary convention.
If reality is to be found above all in the activity and growth of a character’s consciousness, then Crusoe’s substantial internalisation of experience is crucial. The evidence for this lies in his journal, his ruminations on existence, his faith in intuition, his spiritual progress, and the actions of memory which are enmeshed with spiritual forces in the psyche urging him towards a more generous and humane identity.
The persuasiveness and purpose of the presentation of the interior lives of Crusoe and Pamela are to be found in the way in which the reader is able to share their responses to experience, and in how the lived consciousness of the reader is touched at a much deeper and more profound level than ever before in English fiction.