4 Aug 2023

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Literary context

This short introductory background to the novel is an overview of its historical situation in European literature. The monthly sessions will focus on each novel in itself.

In the middle of the 16th. century there arose a form of fiction that appears to have led to the 18th. century novel. It is exemplified in the anonymous picaresque novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (1554). What separates the picacaresque novella from preceeding texts is its first person narrator who tells his life as it is, without embroidery. He describes sights, sounds and smells which contemporary readers could relate to. The style is confessional, satirical and realistic. A similar style is followed in Cervantes' El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605). Cervantes followed the convention of travelling from adventure to adventure in chivaric romances and picaresque novellas. Each episode is set to refine Don Quixote's identity as in the famous example of the windmills showing the protagonist's false impression of reality.

The picaresque novel was also a genre used in 18th. century French literature. One of the earliest of these novellas was Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715–1735). Not unlike El Lazarillo it is about the education of a young valet as he changes masters.

It is generally recognised that Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers in English to reject plots based on mythology, history, legend or previous literature, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton had done. That literary tradition had been based on the aristotelian premise that Nature is complete, unchanging and definitive. It was Descartes in Discourse on Method (1637) who introduced the modern assumption that the pursuit of truth is a wholly individual matter, independent of past thought and universals. The 18th. century novel reflects this individualistic outlook using the new format of formal realism, a pretence that the narrative is real. In this sense it was truly novel.

The first novel in English is considered to be Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). The original title of the book is a succinct summary of its narrative technique of formal realism:

"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. Written by Himself."

Defoe composed the place, time, plot and autobiographical aspects of the work to maintain an illusion of realism, understood as particularisation. To achieve this readers are presented information in the story as if they were jurors in a court.