Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book #18 - Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe)

I have a friend who owns a tiki bar. I was talking to him about rum one day, and got an earful. To say he's into rum would be putting it quite mildly; he probably forgets more about rum every day than I ever knew, or will know. One of the rums we discussed was Rhum Barbancourt. This 15 year old rum is from Haiti, and apparently is the only rum currently made in Haiti. My friend told me the distillery is notoriously mysterious...his distributor never knows when another shipment of rum is coming in because he's never told ahead of time, because apparently they never know how much of the shipment of rum will make it past the gauntlet of thieves and robbers lurking on the muddy roads of the remote parts of Haiti where the distillery is located. Anyway, I'm sipping some of this rum now...on the rocks, not straight up in a wine glass like Sam Spade would have done. Nonetheless, it's a fitting drink to sip while writing about the book I just finished, "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe.

When I was making the list of the top 105 books I haven't yet read, I first skipped over "Robinson Crusoe", thinking that I had read it. I mean, come on, we all know this book...a guy is stranded on a deserted island, and lives alone for years until he finds a native he names Friday. It's not just a story, it's a cultural icon. Who doesn't know about Robinson Crusoe? But then when I really thought about it, I realized that I'd never actually read the book. So it made the list, and now I've read it. And I have to say it was somewhat different from what I'd imagined. I was thinking it would be more of an adventure story, like "Treasure Island". And it certainly was, in parts. But the book was also surprisingly reflective, and was clearly on a whole different level than "Treasure Island".

Possibly the biggest example of this is the book's discussion of religion. Robinson Crusoe leaves home at a young age, eager to explore the world. He's got wanderlust, much to the horror of his common sense father, who tells him that traveling the world to seek adventure and fortune is for men of desperate ambition or men of superior ambition. The best course of all is the middle road...not exposed to the miseries and hardships of desperation, or to the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. No, peace and plenty were the rewards of the middle station in life, so he should stay at home and not raise a ruckus (Damn, sounds like something MY parents would have said). Anyway, Crusoe can't help himself, and he goes a-wandering, eventually winding up in Brazil where he starts a plantation. Within a couple of years he's doing pretty well, when a friend of him suggests he travel on a trade ship to Africa to pick up some slaves, as they need more plantation labor. So Crusoe sets sail, the ship sinks in a storm, and he's cast away on the deserted island where he'll spend the next 28 years. When he survives the shipwreck, he thanks God for saving his life, but he doesn't seem all that sincere about it. He's bummed out about being alone on the island, and curses his luck. Then he has this weird dream, which strikes me as almost some kind of religious conversion. He is ill with a fever and dreams that a man descends from heaven surrounded by fire, and tells Crusoe he must repent. When Crusoe awakes from the dream, he gets serious about religion, and remains so from then onwards. He reads the bible, he repents for his sins (which he believes are greed and not listening to his father's wise counsel), and, most interestingly, he becomes thankful for being on the island. Instead of bemoaning all the things he lacks, he praises God and is genuinely thankful for all the things he has. After all, he has adequate food (he's learned to plant corn and barley, and raises herds of goats) and shelter, and had managed to save enough things from the boat, like rum and guns, to make his life easier than it might have been. This is a big change in Crusoe, and Defoe's point is hard, be thankful for what you have, and praise God (just like a good English protestant). Actually, this is an interesting point to reflect on in such a wealthy and materialistic culture as early 21st century America...this book may have beem written almost 300 years ago, but it still seems quite relevant in many ways.

Religion crops up again when Crusoe meets Friday. Cannibals come to the island, camp on the beach, and are going to sacrifice and eat Friday, but Crusoe kills the cannibals and saves him. Crusoe befriends Friday, and teaches him not only English, but Christianity as well. But when explaining to Friday about the devil, Friday asks why God, if he's all powerful, doesn't just kill the devil and be done with it. Crusoe is stumped, and admits as much. I got a laugh out of that.

Crusoe's relation to Friday is problematic for the modern reader, I think. Crusoe instructs Friday to call him "master". While Crusoe obviously cares a great deal for Friday, and vice versa, the portrayal of Friday seems dated. He's almost like the happy, innocent savage, who will blindly follow Crusoe everywhere, and even goes back to Europe with Crusoe when they leave the island. I kept thinking "Doesn't he have any wife and kids he wants to get back to? Doesn't Friday want to get laid??" There's no consideration by Crusoe to treat Friday as an equal. He may care for him deeply, and be his friend, but Crusoe is the master and Friday the servant.

And the end of the novel is just kinda whacked. I felt like Defoe didn't know how to end it, and could have used an editor. After helping an English captain recover his vessel after his crew mutinied and tried to maroon him on the island, Crusoe and Friday go back to Europe. They end up in Lisbon, where they decide to travel over the Pyrenees to get back to France and eventually England. It's getting to be winter, and so this is a dangerous trip by land, but Crusoe has no stomach for another sea voyage. So they travel across the Pyrenees where they are attacked by hundreds of hungry wolves, plus a bear, which Friday kills. Then Defoe goes into lots of detail about Crusoe managing his affairs, and getting 20 gold pieces for this, and 37 gold pieces for that, and I'm like "Dude, the story's over, let's put a fork in it". Then Crusoe gets married and has kids, although this is all mentioned in passing, and two paragraphs and many years later the wife dies and Crusoe decides to go back and check on his island, where he left a couple of the mutineers, along with some Spaniards who were also shipwrecked. They're all doing fine, and Crusoe gets them some more supplies, and women too, and Crusoe is pleased to see that the island is now prospering, just like a good English colony should. The End. And everything I describe in this last paragraph all happens in the last 30 pages or so of the book. It's like a weird discontinuous coda. I can see why Crusoe wants to return to the island, because after 28 years, things seem pretty empty in England, and he doesn't seem to be too attached to his wife, given that we don't learn a single thing about her. Ironic, because when he was on the island, all he longed for was to get off of it. Still, this ending seems like it was all just tacked on to an otherwise great story.

But here's my biggest beef: among the things Crusoe salvages from the wreck of his ship is a few barrels of rum. And 28 years later, when he's rescued, HE STILL HAS SOME LEFT!?! WTF?!? What was he thinking?

Ah well...this is a good book, and there's a lot more to it than I have room to discuss here. It's an adventure story, but definitely a more sophisticated one than "Treasure Island", or "Swiss Family Robinson". Hmm, which makes me wonder, is the name Robinson in "Swiss Family Robinson" a tribute to Robinson Crusoe. Never thought of that before. Must be the rum talking...


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

A kid's edition I once read edited out a lot of the religious content, which radically changes the book. So reading the book as an adult held a lot of surprises for me, too.

The beginning (that swimming lion) and end of the novel are terrible, disastrous. Otherwise, it's one of the most idea-rich books ever written.

Matt said...

Interesting. Great minds and all that. I've been trying something similar, although you've been much more dedicated than me. Here's my take on Robinson Crusoe -