Robinson Crusoe - The Enlightenment Man
When Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719 he had obviously studied the popular story about Alexander Selkirk and his “Cruising Voyage round the World”. Selkirk was stranded on an island for five years, his story was told by the captain of the ship that rescued him, and was published in 1712.
These were the times of tales from distant shores and adventurous travels. Reading about remote and undiscovered places was the entertainment that really went down well with the audience of the early 18th century. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and Defoe’s mission was to enlighten and entertain. The full title of the book goes: “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived eight and twenty years in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by himself.” Selkirk was also stranded on an island west of Chile, and Defoe’s story bears a clear resemblance to “The Surprising Account of one Alexander Selkirk written by his own hand”.
The story of Crusoe’s adventures fits brilliantly with the cultural agenda of the Enlightenment. The archetypical enlightenment stories were travelling accounts and diary notes told in a first person narrative where the protagonist had to fight the untamed nature to survive. And that is exactly what Robinson does. With what he can rescue of tools and equipment from the shipwreck, he builds his own little universe, making use of whatever he can find of raw materials on the island. He has to rely on himself entirely, because like he says: “I could not wait for any divine interference to get by.”
And it is not only nature that is wild and untamed. Robinson encounters savage cannibals who come to his island to feast on captives from some other tribe. He rescues one of these captives who is to be eaten by his savage enemies, and he calls him Friday. They end up in a rather peculiar relationship; Friday becomes Robinson’s project. He wants to teach this savage the ways of the civilised world, and convert him to Christianity, the quest of a true English gentleman. In a current perspective this is a somewhat dubious enterprise, but at the time it was only what was expected from a civilised representative of the enlightened world.
Robinson’s progress on the island, as well as with Man Friday is the way man wanted to be seen during the Enlightenment – the conqueror of the primitive and rude, capable of creating a civilised universe around him by a systematic and scientific approach.
The first link is a brief extract from the novel with some task, the second one will give you some issues to discuss in a broader perspective.