Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Alone, But King

I've never read Robinson Crusoe, but I had vague ideas about what the book entailed: shipwrecked on an island, hangs out with some dude named Friday, eventually escapes. Defoe's story is well-known enough to be immediately recognizable when someone asks what I'm reading*. I wasn't quite prepared for my reaction to the work as I started reading it for my 18th-Century Literature class.

Robinson Crusoe was written in the early 18th century, when British colonization was in full swing (the American colonies had yet to rebel). Consequently, the book is full of what Lance calls "the Taker mentality". Crusoe kills animals without needing to, just because they are big and there. My modern conscience was appalled at such a unfeeling approach to other creatures, and especially toward other people, namely non-Europeans.

At the beginning of the book, he sells his companion Xury to a Portuguese captain who rescues him, even though he was "very loath to sell the poor boy's liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own" (29). As through the whole book, however, Crusoe finds it easy to smooth over any pangs of conscience and justify his actions.

The book alternates between Crusoe bemoaning his dejected state and telling us how he lived on his island, and after his religious conversion, his bemoaning shifts to reflections on God. He realizes that he could be in a worse state, but it takes him half the book to figure that out. His life, although he is without human contact, is actually quite comfortable: he is able to retrieve food, clothes, tools, and weapons from his ship before it sinks, and with those supplies build himself a "castle" as he terms it.

His view of the world is in-line with the colonists' perspective. This island becomes "his" domain. The creatures that he tames are "his" subjects and servants. And when Friday appears on the scene, he has no thought to make him his equal--he isn't a European after all!--but he becomes his loyal servant to do Crusoe's bidding. Crusoe is king of his little world, and he persists in viewing it this way throughout the book. When other men come to the island, they too end up his subjects, his army, his men to command.

I found the book interesting and engaging (I was never bored in my reading of it); however, the ideas the book represented were ones that were alien to my way of thinking. Robinson Crusoe was a book born of the ideas in its time, and no Englishman reading it would have thought anything the matter with Crusoe's approach to the world. After all, who wouldn't want to be king of an island?

*Usually it's "Ah..." *Looks bored as I try to explain the book*.

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