Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was first published in 1719, and is regarded by some as the first novel in English. The book is a fictional autobiography of an English castaway who spends twenty-eight years on a remote island before being rescued.

The Defoe scholar Michael Shinagel, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Robinson Crusoe (1975, revised 1993), applied the "Page 99 Test" to this classic novel and reported the following:
Jose Ortega y Gasset in his "Ideas on the Novel" stressed the importance of the opening of a novel, likening it to the entry into a wonderful new house. When I teach the novel I invite the class to read the opening of a novel very closely to determine what kind of a fictive world we are entering and who is our guide as narrator. A close reading of the opening page will reveal a great deal about the novel at hand.

But Ford Madox Ford's random test of opening the book to page ninety-nine can also be revealing, as in the case of Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe. If we turn to page ninety-nine in the Norton Critical Edition (second edition), we learn how Crusoe painstakingly makes an "Umbrella" for himself as protection against "the Rains" and "the Heats" on his island. His self-sufficiency prompts him to reflect:

Thus I liv'd mighty comfortably,
my Mind being resigning to the Will of God

and throwing my self wholly upon the Disposal of his Providence.

This made my life better than sociable....

Crusoe describes his "yearly Labour of planting" to insure having his "sufficient Stock of one Year's Provisions beforehand" and his difficulties in building and launching a "Canoe."

So we see how page ninety-nine shows Crusoe finding spirtual solace from God's Providence while at the same time devoting himself to the hard work of making his umbrella and canoe while also planting and curing his crops to secure his self-sufficiency. In the case of Robinson Crusoe the Ford Madox Ford rule applies, but I would also recommend the Ortega y Gasset rule of a careful and close reading of the opening page, which in the case of Robinson Crusoe introduces the reader to a revolutionary new voice in English fiction.
Michael Shinagel received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he is Senior Lecturer in English and Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension.

His specialization is English literature of the Restoration and eighteenth century, and his publications include Daniel Defoe and Middle Class Gentility (Harvard University Press, 1968), Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift (Cornell University Press, 1972), and many articles and book reviews.

Learn more about the Norton Critical Edition of Robinson Crusoe.

--Marshal Zeringue