"Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe

Considerada una de las primeras novelas en lengua inglesa, esta obra
–posiblemente basada en una historia real– ­disparó la imaginación de los lectores de la época, e inauguró un subgénero literario y cinematográfico.

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Sarah Davison

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Why are we so obsessed with the idea of finding ourselves shipwrecked on an island? How many times have we been asked ‘What would you bring with you, if you were stranded on a desert island?’ The answer is to be found in a story told almost three hundred years ago, when The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was first published in London. Its author Daniel Defoe was part-prolific writer, part-businessman, with a fixation on making money. The book immediately captured the imagination of an expanding reading public and it became a huge commercial success. With six editions published in just four months, it was the Harry Potter of the 18th century! 

based on true facts?

Books about the sea and the perils of navigation were very popular at the time. 

Apparently the plot of Robinson Crusoe is based on the true story of a Scottish sailor who, in 1704, was shipwrecked on an island and only rescued five years later. The story was widely publicised in England and received a great deal of interest. Many readers thought that the story of Robinson Crusoe, written in the form of an autobiography, was a true account of this sailor’s life. 

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The plot of the book is well known: a nineteen-year-old boy leaves his family and runs away to sea to find his fortune. During an expedition to Guinea to buy slaves, he is shipwrecked on a desert island in the middle of the Atlantic.

“I cast my eyes to the stranded vessel, when the breach and froth of the sea being so big, I could hardly see it, it lay so far off; and considered, Lord! how was it possible I could get on the shore?”

“Gettai uno sguardo al vascello arenato, che potevo a malapena vedere, tanto era distante, per via degli enormi frangenti e della schiuma, e mi dissi “Signore! Come è possibile che io abbia potuto raggiungere la riva?”

There he manages to survive alone for some twenty-eight years. He builds himself a shelter, keeps a day-by-day journal, and even encounters cannibals. In the end, he is rescued by an English ship and returns to his homeland and to a comfortable financial position. The story unquestionably contains all the ingredients of an 18th century coming-of-age novel: rebellion against one’s family, punishment, repentance and a final successful return home.

A middle-class Englishman

Robinson Crusoe spoke to contemporary readers. This is because he embodies the ideals of an emerging English middle-class: practical and methodical, thanks to his intelligence and hard work, he adapts to a new situation.

The novel is a celebration of the pioneer spirit: a new age of commercial development was just beginning and Crusoe s a man of trade with a strong sense of the value of things and a belief in the concept of private property. 

“... a secret kind of pleasure ... to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly and had a right of possession.” 

“... un piacere segreto ... il pensiero che tutto ciò era mio, che io ero re e signore di tutto questo territorio, inconfutabilmente, e ne avevo il diritto di possesso”.

After twenty-three years coping with solitude, Crusoe rescues a native from some cannibals, names him Friday and makes him his servant.   

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and set my other foot upon his head ... and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.”  

“Alla fine appoggiò la testa sul terreno, accanto al mio piede, e mise l’altro mio piede sulla sua testa ... dopo di che compì ogni atto di soggezione, di servitù e di sottomissione possibile e immaginabile, per farmi comprendere che mi avrebbe servito per tutta la vita“.

This is highly suggestive of the 18th century European colonialist attitude towards non-Western cultures: the savage must be civilised, so is taught the English language and values, and converted to the Christian religion.

“I likewise taught him to say 'Master,' and then let him know, that was to be my name; I likewise taught him to say 'yes' and 'no, and to know the meaning of them.” 

“E così gli insegnai a dire 'Padrone' e gli feci intendere che quello sarebbe stato il mio nome; allo stesso modo gli insegnai a dire 'sì' e 'no' e a comprenderne il significato”.


Daniel Defoe’s novel is one of the most widely translated books after the Bible, and the film industry has continuously drawn inspiration from it: from Cast Away to Life of Pi to The Revenant. By the way: did you know that a word has been coined to describe a literary genre of adventure stories about castaways? The word is, naturally, ‘Robinsonade’.  

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