Robinson Crusoe Summary

Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe

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Robinson Crusoe Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe was by many readers thought to be an autobiographical work when it was originally released because, in the first edition, the title character was give the author byline.  Robinson Crusoe is the fictional autobiography of a man born Robinson Kreutznaer who was a castaway for twenty-eight years on a desert island near Trinidad.  He recounts various adventures before his eventual rescue.  While fictional, there is thought to be an historical basis for the book.  Although not universally accepted or verified as Defoe’s inspiration, it is possible that the experiences of Alexander Selkirk a Scotsman who spent four years as a castaway on a Pacific island that became part of Chile served as source material.  That island, Mas a Tierra, was christened Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.  Robinson Crusoe is an important entry in the canon of English literature as the text is considered to be the book that gave rise to the “realistic fiction” literary genre and is frequently cited as the first English novel.

Crusoe’s saga begins when he sets sail, against his father’s wishes, from the Queen’s Dock in Hull in 1651.  His initial journey ends with the ship he is aboard being wrecked in a storm.  Undaunted he goes out again only to have the ship commandeered by pirates and he is taken into slavery by a Moor. Two years hence he escapes by boat and is rescued by a Portuguese ship near the coast of Africa.  He ends up as part of a slave trading expedition and is once again shipwrecked and finds himself on the island he calls the Island of Despair near the Orinoco River of South America in 1659.  Only Crusoe and a few animals have survived the disaster.  He manages to salvage some tools, weapons, and supplies from the ship before it sinks.  He constructs a shelter, gathers food, and keeps track of the passage of time by placing marks on a wooden cross. He spends time reading the Bible and his thankfulness to God for what he still has and the depth of his religion increase.

After several years pass he discovers that there are cannibals who sometimes come to the island to kill and eat prisoners. After first thinking he should kill them because of their deeds, he becomes aware that what they do is not known to be a crime to them and he changes his mind.  He obtains a companion when a prisoner escapes. Crusoe names him Friday, after the day he first met him, and teaches him the English language and introduces him to Christianity. When additional natives appear to join a cannibalistic ritual, Crusoe and Friday kill the majority of them and rescue two prisoners, including, as it turns out, Friday’s father. The other rescued man is a Spaniard who knows of a group of shipwrecked Spaniards on the mainland and they construct a plan whereby he and Friday’s father will fetch the others and build a ship on which they can travel to a Spanish port. While they are gone, a mutinied English ship reaches the island and those who had taken over the ship plan to maroon the captain on the island.  Crusoe and the captain plot to retake the ship and to set sail with the loyal members of the crew while leaving the mutineers behind. Before embarking on the journey Crusoe teaches the ones being abandoned how to survive on the island where they will soon become castaways. Crusoe arrives in England in 1687 where he finds himself destitute because his family, assuming he was dead, left nothing for him in his father’s will. He journeys to Lisbon and claims the profits from an estate he had in Brazil. Deciding that avoiding sea travel would be wise, he returns to England by land with his wealth. The trip is not totally without danger, as he and Friday have an encounter with hungry wolves in the Pyrenees.

Besides the aforementioned contributions of Robinson Crusoe as the first English novel and as a prototype for realistic fiction it made other significant literary contributions. Prior to the creation of Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, characters rarely if ever displayed the kind of introspection Crusoe does as a first-person narrator.  He shares his doubts and engages in self-examination.  The novel also works on an allegorical level.  Crusoe’s struggle to survive on a physical level is parallel to his spiritual growth as he seeks inner strength and confidence. The Biblical connection is strengthened by what can be interpreted as a variation of the story of the prodigal son with Crusoe initially setting out against his father’s wishes, finding himself in despair, but eventually finding God. While not autobiographical in a formal sense, Defoe has confirmed that creating a character that struggles to survive on a deserted island and overcomes all obstacles did to an extent represent the setbacks he had to overcome in his own life.