On Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe, just as fictional a character as Don Quixote or Sherlock Holmes, has come to be just as real as Ishmael or Harry Potter. Shipwrecked and alone on a Caribbean island, Crusoe must rebuild his solitary life as an Englishman, lost in a wilderness and with no hope of rescue in the near future. The idea of living for years, abandoned and alone on an island far from civilization, is a frightening one. Most people cannot even begin to imagine what it might be like to live in isolation from all human contact. Of course, there are those who might dream of such an arrangement, but for the most part, we are gregarious and need human interaction to be happy and productive. Human interaction gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Being a “castaway” with no hope of rescue is almost as horrifying as being walled up behind a brick wall. Our literature is filled with these surreal situations which firmly address some of the deepest and darkest human fears, one of which being the fate of Robinson Crusoe: to find oneself totally alone with no hope of relief in the near future. The very term, “castaway,” seems to devalue the victim of an accident over which they may have had no control, such as shipwreck. To be a castaway is to find oneself alone and abandoned, deprived of the creature comforts, deprived of human interaction, deprived of the structures that give our lives meaning–law, commerce, culture, society, ethics, art, time, neighbors, family. The enormous challenge that the character must face is his own motivation for taking care of himself in the face of having to live absolutely alone forever. The idea of rescue is probably the only thing that stands between Crusoe and his own insanity. In other words, the hope of rescue, no matter how small, is that one little glimmer of hope that keeps the castaway from just lying down and dying where he has washed up on the shore of his desert island. What is curious about the novel and Crusoe is how he is faced with reinventing a series of technologies that he has always taken for granted: the wheel, a shovel, baskets, bottles, cooking dishes, barrels. Eventually, he will adapt what he has on the island to solve many of these sorts of problems, but he is very vexed at recreating a table and chair for himself, realizing that the skilled craftsman who create these common everyday items are very highly skilled and armed with the highly specialized tools of their trades. Alone with only a minimum of tools and raw materials, Crusoe must come to terms with his own inadequacy as a craftsman with no training and no skills. Crusoe cannot reinvent England on his island, although he tries very hard. When he is sick, he has no doctor, when he wants to make bread, he has no flour, when he needs advice, he is alone. He lives, eats, sleeps, hunts, works, and walks absolutely by himself. When the tide rises, the storms rise up, the earth shakes, the sun beats down, he must face all of these things alone. Crusoe’s levels of desperation are real and frequently bring him to tears, but the power of self-preservation is so strong and so persistent that in spite of an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, he still gets up every day and stays alive, working, eating, cleaning, planning, inventing, solving problems. Crusoe’s story is credible, verging on verisimilitude, in fact because the human spirit, even in the face of horrific odds, is indomitable and unbending, invincible as it were. Crusoe has lots of failures as he attempts to rebuild English society on his little island, but he also has many successes, growing grain, training a parrot, building his “homes.” In the end, of course, he does leave his island with his man, Friday, but he has spent almost three decades on his desert island jail.