“September 30, 1659. I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal unfortunate island, which I called ‘the Island of Despair,’ all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned and myself almost dead.” (61)
What can a guy like me say about “the first important English novel”? Nothing you’ve never heard before, so I’ll keep this brief. This book admittedly took me a long time to get through, not because its uninteresting—after all, who doesn’t fantasize about being stranded alone on a desert isle?—but because even its most interesting parts seem to drag on and on. Though Robinson Crusoe, the classic of classics, is a short book, it still requires some discipline to finish. Take for example the fact that, once off the island, poor Robinson still has to fight his way through a French forest filled with bears and man-eating wolf packs simply to make his way to Lisbon! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Filled with life lessons that adults and children alike have been devouring for centuries, Robinson Crusoe offers much more than simply a glimpse into a wild, natural world survived by only one, providentially unlucky man. Defoe takes this opportunity instead to deliver a unique glimpse into the experience of sinful man: where a man, because of his rebellion, is damned to suffer until Providence alone saves Him; where meantime joys please only temporarily; where every other human is a friend at best, a cannibalistic enemy at worst, and a savior never. It is Crusoe’s subsequent conversion based upon his readings of the Scriptures that best defines Defoe’s allegory in a very real way. Just listen to his language: “I threw down the book, and with my heart as well as my hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of ecstasy of joy, I cried out aloud, ‘Jesus, Thou Son of David, Jesus, Thou exalted Prince and Savior, give me repentance!’…from this time, I may say, I began to have hope that God would hear me.” (85) He follows up this conversion experience with this not-so-subtle witness: “And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.” (86)
Defoe quips these allegorical lessons and more throughout Crusoe, and here are a few more of my favorites:
“Abused prosperity is oftentimes made the very means of our greatest adversity.” (32)
“By stating and squaring everything by reason and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be in time master of any mechanic art.” (60)
“All the good things of this world are no farther good to us than they are for our use.” (116)
“We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries.” (125)
“How mercifully can our great Creator treat his creatures even in those conditions in which they seemed to be overwhelmed in destruction! How can He sweeten the bitterest providences and give us cause to praise Him for dungeons and prisons!” (133)
“O what ridiculous resolution men take when possessed with fear!…Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself.” (143)
“It put me to reflecting how little repining there would be among mankind at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that are worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better to assist their murmurings, and complainings.” (150)
And I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea: Defoe’s concern is not so much entertainment as it is teaching, and he does it so well, that oftentimes the reader doesn’t even notice. Of course, it does help when the reader (Elliot) takes 6 months to read through the book! But perhaps I’m not the average reader. I recommend this book to any and all readers willing to spend their weekend (or half-year) with a classic of fantastic and spiritual proportions. Enjoy!