Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, at the beginning of a century that witnessed great changes in the economic order. The rise of capitalism throughout the period exposed individuals to a system of evaluation that differed quite a bit from aristocratic tradition. Instead of an individual’s place in society being determined at birth, and being wholly related to their family name and rank, people entered professions and new social arrangements based not on family or church, but on their work. A relevant example of this is the fact that we don’t learn much at all about Robinson’s family — he abandons them in England within the first few pages of the book — which indicates precisely the degree to which family and other collective relations were taking a back seat to the elaboration of the individual.
The shift from an aristocratic order to a capitalist system was a complicated one, and it would be difficult — not to mention futile — to attempt to pinpoint the precise moment of transition. But nonetheless, the century witnessed great changes, such as the rise of print culture, the first copyright legislation, increased industrialization, and a shift from focus on community to an emphasis on autonomous individualism. Defoe is said to be one of the first writers to represent this kind of economic individualism, and Robinson Crusoe — his first novel — is one of the best places to see this at work.
Homo Economicus (“economic man”) was the symbol used to discuss the new individualism of the eighteenth century — one which depended explicitly one an individual’s participation in a newly competitive, credit-based marketplace. Robinson, Defoe’s protagonist, spends the opening sections of the novel in heavy pursuit of money. He readily admits to the reader his reasons for travel: it is more profitable to trade with indigenous peoples of non-Western cultures, since they value goods differently than Europeans do. It is possible, then, to trade trinkets that Westerners place little stock in — like buttons and baubles — for gold and precious stones. Getting more for one’s money than it is “worth” is one of the prime directives of a capitalist economy, and Robinson is hooked on it from the moment he makes his first trade. With the money he makes from trading, he’s able to buy a plantation in Brazil and begin reaping great profit.
Even romantic love is secondary to economic gain. Living alone on the island, of course, Robinson doesn’t have opportunity for romance. But he doesn’t worry about it much, either. While long passages are devoted to his reflections on how being away from Europe has changed his ideas of what’s valuable — he has no need for money, for example, but finds an old burlap sack a much more useful item — there is not a single moment of reflection on or longing for love. Critics have suggested that Defoe saw romantic love as an obstacle to economic advancement, since it is commonly held that romance does not follow logical dictates, while market practices are assumed to hold to some sort of logic or calculation.
Robinson, the protagonist of Defoe’s novel, is a headstrong young man when we meet him in 1651 in his home town of Hull, England. His parents are German and his father’s original last name was Kreutznaer, before he came to England from the German town of Bremen. In 1652, against the will of his parents, Robinson begins a life of sea-faring adventure. On only his second trip, however, he is captured by a pirate ship and spends the next two years as a slave to the pirate king. After he escapes with another young slave, Xury, he is taken in by a Portuguese trading ship. He makes friends with the Captain and is taken to Brazil where he sets up a plantation. His next trading venture is ill-fated, however, and he is shipwrecked off a deserted island. Robinson is the only survivor of the voyage and must learn how to make his way alone and stranded. He spends 28 years making the island his home. Among other things, he grows corn and barley, herds goats, gathers wild fruits, hunts, and builds an elaborate fort. Late in his stay, he begins to notice cannibals landing on his island to make human sacrifices. He befriends one of the victims, who had escaped before being eaten. He names the man Friday, and the two live together for several years, debating vigorously one of Robinson’s favorite topics: the virtues of Protestantism. Friday’s father is also taken to the island. Together, the men plan to build a large canoe and escape. But when a British ship finally lands on the island, its sailors in mutiny, Robinson sees his chance and forms and alliance with the captain. Together, they fight off the mutinous sailors and return to Europe. Robinson gives up his plantation, but with the profits that have gone uncollected for 28 years, settles a rich man in England. The story ends with Robinson’s wanderlust flaring up again, and he determines to travel once more.
Friday is the name that Robinson gives to his companion for his last years on the island. He is a cannibal, and was in the process of being sacrificed by his countrymen when he escapes and is found by Robinson. Instead of killing him, Robinson makes a big show of sparing Friday’s life. This gesture indebts Friday to Robinson and the two live together until they leave the island. Friday even allows himself to be weaned off human flesh by Robinson, as well as to be schooled in Protestantism. Robinson estimates Friday’s age to be about 26 when they meet.
Xury is the young boy that had been enslaved with Robinson when he lives with the pirates. The two escape together one morning when they are ostensibly on a fishing journey. When they are rescued by the Portuguese ship, Robinson reluctantly “sells” Xury to the Portuguese Captain, who agrees to set Xury free in ten years if he accepts a Christian God. Xury agrees to the deal, even though Robinson voices concern over the buying and selling of human beings.
The Portuguese Captain
The Captain of the ship that rescues Robinson becomes Robinson’s friend until the end of the novel, and he becomes the person that Robinson trusts most in the world. He helps Robinson set up camp in Brazil, and when Robinson returns after 28 years on the island, the Captain — who had been receiving a portion of the profit from Robinson’s plantation while Robinson was away — calculates how much money he owes Robinson and pays him back.
Points to Ponder
Robinson leaves his family at an early age, brushing aside his father’s suggestions that he lead a prudent, middle-class life, pursue a stable profession such as the Law, and settle in England. Such a course would be in line with developing capitalism, allowing Robinson to profit from the kinds of intense professionalization and specialization that capitalism encourages. Instead, he chooses a life of travel, claiming that he is simple unable to corral his wanderlust and non-traditional desires. Ironically, of course, Robinson ends up profiting much more from his supposedly idiosyncratic lifestyle than he would have if he had stayed in England. He buys a plantation, and eventually sells it, winding up with enormous amounts of money. If Robinson’s sin was to have defied the seemingly boring and bourgeois suggestions of his father, what do we think about the fact that Robinson eventually establishes a business that reaps increasing amounts of profit from an original investment of money? Indeed, even after 28 years away from his plantation, Robinson’s business was able to produce profit without his intervention, perpetuating the capitalist myth the money is able to simply breed more money in an infinite progress of interest. This falls in line perfectly with capitalism’s tendencies. What kinds of ironies might Defoe be either pointing out or unwittingly repeating in this trajectory?
Robinson treats Xury — with whom he escapes the pirates — somewhat differently than he treats Friday. Both are non-Western, but Robinson sells Xury to the Portuguese Captain, while he often seems to treat Friday as an “equal.” This might be said to be an example of Defoe’s intent to show how Robinson changes on the island, learning the value of human life and differentiating humans for commodities. The argument in favor of this would show that Robinson bought slaves for his plantation, and, although he was unwilling, sold Xury for a profit; on the other hand, he sits and debates religion with Friday, and repeatedly comments to the reader on Friday’s “European” qualities. But while the way in which he treats Friday differs to some extent from his treatment of Xury, he immediately has Friday refer to him as “master,” and even stresses the fact that Friday is under implicit contract to follow Robinson’s will because Robinson has saved his life. He is also determined to make Friday realize the superiority of a Western God. Robinson’s attitude towards Friday, then, may indeed be distinct from his feelings about Xury, but it may not be that their relationship is truly one of equals. What are the ways in which Robinson believes himself to be treating Friday as a peer? What are some of the ways in which he enforces his will over him?
Crusoe’s Preface is traditionally regarded as the place where Defoe equivocates between wanting to say that the text that follows is a history or a novel. An Editor is spoken of in the third person, and we learn that this Editor “believes the thing [Robinson Crusoe] to be a just History of Fact,” and that “neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” This seems to be the moment at which Defoe puts his foot down, preferring to frame his text as history. But if we read closely, we see that the Editor does not, in fact, know whether the text is fact or fiction — he only “believes” the text to be fact. How is the reader to judge, then, what genre of writing — nonfiction or fiction (and furthermore, what sort of fiction) — Robinson Crusoe might be categorized as? And, moreover, is the reader asked to come out on one side or the other, after all? That is, Defoe’s Preface gives us a fifty-fifty option: either the book is fact or it isn’t, but in the end, what might be more important isn’t whether or not the tales are true, but what kinds of readerly tasks such waffling makes possible. If we can’t know for sure what kind of text Crusoe is — and if, then, the question of determining what sort of text Crusoe is, isn’t all that important — what kinds of questions should we be asking the text? And what sorts of tools should we use to encounter the text, if empirical tests have been declared to be inconclusive from the start? We might say that the reader’s imagination must supplement this always-deferred question of genre. How do you think the Preface frames the rest of the text? How do some of the questions raised in the Preface get played out in Crusoe more generally?
Did You Know?
Robinson Crusoe was an enormously popular book — especially with adolescents throughout the nineteenth century. But Charles Dickens detested the book, complaining about it’s lack of “’tenderness,’” and famously said that it was “’the only instance of a universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.’” But Thomas DeQuincey, a Romantic author, found Crusoe so rich and compelling that he professed girls and boys alike loved the novel, though for different reasons. He said that Defoe “’makes them [his books] so amusing, that girls read them for novels; and he gives them such an air of verisimilitude, that men read them for histories.’”
There have been over seven hundred published editions of Robinson Crusoe. One critic has even claimed that it has been reissued more than any other book except the Bible.
Robinson Crusoe opens with an extremely quick rundown of Robinson’s family life: he was born in 1632; his parents are German, and left their hometown of Bremen to settle in Hull, in England. They are middle-class, and Robinson’s father strongly advocates a middle-class life for Robinson too, encouraging him to pursue law as a profession. Both of Robinson’s brothers are missing — one was killed in battle, and the other hasn’t been heard from since he began a life of travel and adventure. Robinson wants to pursue travel as well, but is dissuaded by his father. In 1651, against his parents’ wishes, however, Robinson leaves on a series of ill-fated voyages in search of indigenous non-Western peoples with whom he can trade. On one such voyage, Robinson’s ship is captured by pirates and he is made personal slave to the pirate king. After two years, he manages to escape with a fellow prisoner — a Moor, Xury — and the two are taken in by a Portuguese trading ship and brought to Brazil. Robinson becomes quite friendly with the Captain of the ship and sells Xury to him on the condition that he free Xury in ten years (if, the Captain insists, Xury converts to Protestantism). Robinson sets up a plantation in Brazil, growing tobacco, and it quickly begins prospering. Though he could stay and continue to manage his plantation, however, Robinson is struck with the urge to take to sea again, and leaves on a voyage that will eventually lead to disaster. The ship encounters a huge storm, and Robinson is the only survivor to make it onshore a deserted island. He begins to make a life on the island, and will stay there for 28 years.
He keeps a journal early on cataloguing his activities, which include building a fort in which to sleep. He is very concerned that he will be found, either by people indigenous to the area, or by Europeans, and he does not want to surprised or caught off guard. He disguises his fort by walls and vegetation, and builds a ladder to get over the barricades. He also begins domesticating wild goats, building them an enclosure in another part of the island that he refers to as his “Country Seat.” He kills some of them for food, but also milks them and makes cheese and butter. He teaches himself how to make earthenware pots, and even fashions a makeshift kiln for firing them. He plants corn and barley. He has a pet parrot named Polly, who is the only beast with whom he speaks English for much of the time on the island.
During the course of his stay, he makes his way out to his own shipwrecked boat, as well as to other boats that are wrecked, and ransacks them for their supplies. He eventually comes to live a relatively content, comfortable life that consists for the most part in tending his flocks, occasionally hunting for food, harvesting and gathering grain, and making things like baskets and pots. Late in his stay, however, he notices a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island. This makes Robinson extremely nervous. He begins imagining what sorts of men might have come to his island. He can’t find evidence of where they might have come from, but he is nonetheless in a state of perpetual awareness, going out in the mornings to lurk and wait for visitors. After some time, however, no-one shows and Robinson begins to relax again. But just when he settles down, he finds a collection of bones and the remains of a fire on shore. He knows instantly that they are human bones, and he resolves immediately to kill the cannibals should they ever cross his path. He doesn’t see any cannibals, however, for the next year and a half, and in that time he decides that since they haven’t really done him any harm, he can’t justify killing them. Soon after this determination, he spots five canoes full of cannibals landing on shore. They have two prisoners in tow. He watches one of the prisoners run up the shore and escape his three pursuers. When Robinson comes upon the prisoner he spares his life, even though he realizes that its likely that this man is also a cannibal. The man, who Robinson begins referring to as “my Savage,” expresses extreme gratitude, and although they don’t speak the same language, Robinson understands that the man will be indebted to him for the rest of his life. Robinson names the man “Friday,” and the two live together on the island for the rest of Robinson’s stay there. Robinson teaches Friday some English, and they spend much time debating the virtues of their respective religions. Robinson is determined to make Friday accept Protestantism, however, and lectures him at length about what he believes to be its superiority over tribal customs. Robinson claims not to own Friday like a slave, but of course the issue is complicated because he does believe Friday to be under a binding contract to do whatever he wants of him. The issues of slavery and bondage are extremely complex in this novel, and it is important to pay attention in these moments to the difference between what Robinson claims to be his attitude towards Friday, and how he actually regards and treats him. Giving Friday a European name, for example, might be understood as an implicit gesture of ownership.
Friday and Robinson finally escape the island when a British trading ship lands onshore and its sailors mutiny. Robinson befriends the Captain, and organizes himself and other sympathetic sailors together to win the ship back. Robinson has much stored firepower so they overwhelm the rebel sailors and in 1687, 28 years after he arrived on the island, they take off for Europe. At this point Robinson tries to return to his plantation but finds that he is uncomfortable with a life of luxury, so he decides to return to England. He determines to travel by land because he is afraid of his luck at sea. However, en route to England, his party is attacked by a wolf pack and Robinson is lucky to escape with his life. He appears to be settled back in Hull, but the novel closes with Robinson’s wanderlust creeping up on him again. He can’t stay away from the life of trade, and has decided, at last, to return to sea.
Defoe’s preface is less than a page long, but is important to pay attention to because it lays out the “Editor’s” rationale for publishing Robinson Crusoe’s history. This “Editor,” however, is not Defoe’s real editor, but rather the first fictional character of the novel. The Preface, then, is Defoe’s method for framing the upcoming narrative in terms of issues relevant to the early eighteenth century. Since the period saw an explosion of book selling (the printing press had come into its own), as well as the first copyright law ever to be instituted, early modern culture felt overwhelmed by the availability of books to the public. With such a relative wealth of books, people wondered, how would one know which books were worth reading and which weren’t? Perhaps in response to this, Defoe’s Preface seems obsessed with justifying its own publication, even going so far as to claim that it is not a novel, and is instead a history. As a history, the Editor argues, Robinson Crusoe is worth publishing because it can provide a (negative) example to readers — showing them what not to do in order to live a satisfying and safe life. The Editor then goes on to say that this history is the most publicity-worthy of any he knows because Crusoe’s life is more filled with unbelievable adventure than any other. He is thus making two arguments: the first is that we should regard Crusoe as a true (that is, believable) history, and the second is that this history is worth telling precisely because of its unbelievability. Although the Preface seems designed to clarify the terms of the novel, then, Crusoe begins with a contradiction.
The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, & c.
Middle Class Virtues Vs. Early Wanderlust
Robinson opens the story with a brief history of his upbringing; he’s part-German, we learn, although his last name is fully British. It was changed from Kreutznauer, he tells us, when his father left Bremen for Hull, the English town where Robinson grew up. Robinson has two brothers, one killed in battle by the Spanish, and the other gone missing. Although the middle classes in eighteenth-century England traditionally taught their sons trades so that they could earn a living, Robinson is uninterested in pursuing the law — the trade for which he had been prepared. He is much more strongly inclined towards a life of adventure and travel, and he lets us know even on the first page that this tendency will end in great unhappiness.
When Robinson informs his parents about his wanderlust, they attempt to dissuade him. Robinson’s father explains to him that travel is only for the desperately poor, who have nothing to lose, or for the fabulously wealthy, who can afford to risk their fortunes on adventure. Middle class boys, he tells Robinson, must be content with a life of work. Furthermore, this is the most satisfying life, he argues, claiming that rich and poor alike are jealous of those who earn their living by their own merit, and whose pleasures — like quiet and sociability — are domestic ones. Robinson’s father pleads with him so earnestly, even sobbing openly, that Robinson decides to try to put his desires aside and continue to live at home. A year later, however, he can bear it no longer and one day while he is down at the docks, mingling amongst sailors, Robinson meets up with a friend of his who is bound for London. Without so much as a second thought, Robinson tells us, he joins him.
The Travails of Travel
Immediately, however, Robinson regrets his decision. The ship is wracked by bad weather and he becomes violently ill. He prays to God to let him make it to shore. He pledges to go home. The other sailors mock Robinson for his terror; this is but minor turbulence, they tell him. And by the next day, the storm subsides and Robinson’s promises — made in the midst of miserable nausea — fade. He begins to enjoy life at sea, watching the sunset and sunrise over the water, and thinking delightedly that it is the most beautiful sight he’s ever seen. The following day, however, a strong storm hits and Robinson is shaken once again. He again prays to God to allow him to change his mind and return to Hull. The storm wreaks havoc on the boat, and the sailors fire their guns wildly as a distress signal. Never having heard guns before, Robinson faints dead away on the deck and is kicked aside by his mates. When he wakes, he finds himself forced to abandon ship with his comrades. Rescued by a passing boat, Robinson watches over his shoulder as the ship he vacated only moments earlier plunges to the bottom of the ocean.
One would think that Robinson might turn back now. But he pushes on, obstinately attached to the idea of a wayfarers life. What’s more, he is ashamed to think of his neighbors laughing at him, and refuses to return home. He travels to London on foot instead, and stays there for two years, becoming friendly with the master of another ship, who entices Robinson on a voyage to Guinea. This is the trip that settles it for Robinson, provoking an addiction to travel and seducing him by the process of trading with indigenous peoples. Since non-Westerners did not value gold in the way that Western Europeans did at the time (indeed, Western Europe was developing a capitalist economy that depended on the gold standard during this time), traders were able to receive much more for their barter than they would on the continent. Robinson is hooked, and after he returns to London, laden with booty, he wants immediately to head out again. On his next trip, however, Robinson’s boat is raided by pirates, who capture him and make him the personal slave of their leader, a position that Robinson maintains for another two years — enough time to ingratiate himself to the pirate king.
Because his master (who Robinson refers to as his “patroon”) trusts Robinson, he eventually slips up. He had asked Robinson to serve himself and some visiting Moors while the group takes a fishing journey. Robinson prepares the boat for the guests, but when it comes time for the trip, his patroon comes on board alone, explaining that the guests are delaying their visit. He suggests that Robinson take the boat out by himself to do some fishing for the pirates, and Robinson, seeing his chance for escape, agrees. Robinson is outfitted with servants of his own — a Moor named Ismael and a young boy named Xury — and he convinces Ismael to load lots of supplies onboard the boat — gunpowder, tools, beeswax (to make candles), and twine. The three set out to sea and Robinson begins fishing as if he had nothing up his sleeve. When Ismael isn’t looking, however, he pushes him overboard, and continues out to sea with Xury, who he feels certain he can train to be loyal to him.
The Seductions of Travel
The two men set out to sea, and drop anchor off an unknown coast. Robinson is deeply apprehensive about the foreignness of this land, and describes passing a night filled with ominous noises coming from wild creatures. Robinson’s account of the animals of this land converges with his fear that it also harbors indigenous peoples, and this is one of the novel’s first lengthy amalgamations of wild animals with non-Westerners, whom he refers to as “savages.” When they land and search for water, however, Robinson and Xury find the coast uninhabited by men. There are plenty of beasts, though, and Robinson shoots a lion, which they skin and take with them, for Robinson is becoming savvy about the possibilities for trade, and believes that the lion skin may come in handy.
The duo can find no people, though, and at this point they want to for their provisions are running low. Robinson is hoping to meet with other European trading ships, and they scan the coastline for inhabitants as they travel. When Robinson spots some Africans, he attempts to strike up an exchange with them, indicating by sign language that he and Xury are looking for food. When the Africans bring the food, Robinson worries initially that he has nothing to trade for it, but just then two leopards appear on the scene, affording Robinson the opportunity to repay the natives by shooting one and scaring the other away. This rescue sets the scene for a more extended trade between Robinson and the Africans, and he receives more food and earthenware vessels.
After eleven more days of travel, Xury spots another ship, one that Robinson identifies as Portuguese, and they set off after it. The two quickly board the friendly ship, and the Captain offers to put Robinson up for nothing in exchange. The Captain, does, however, want to buy Xury off of Robinson, who, incidentally, had not owned Xury to begin with. Robinson is hesitant at first, since he has come to value liberty after his own time as a pirate slave. But the Captain promises to give Xury his liberty in ten years on the condition that he accepts Christianity, so Robinson accedes. The ship heads for Brazil, and on arrival Robinson buys a plantation and sets up home there for two years, eventually becoming a tobacco farmer in conjunction with his neighbor, a British-born Portuguese named Wells. Robinson is not entirely satisfied with this new life, of course, since he realizes that he is now approaching the middle-class status that his father had urged him towards earlier. He is a comfortable landowner, but begins to feel confused. If he’s gone through all the hardship at sea just to end up where his father wanted him to be all along, what use was it?
His friend the Portuguese Captain offers Robinson a deal: he will procure Robinson’s holdings — whatever money and possessions he has — from London on his next visit there. When he receives his things, Robinson immediately sells them, for British goods are more valuable in Brazil. With the money, he buys a slave and a servant. Robinson is becoming very wealthy, and yet he is still drawn to a life of adventure. He begins telling his neighbors about the thrill of trading with indigenous peoples. Robinson emphasizes particularly the opportunities such trade provides to procure gold at an incredibly cheap rate, since non-Westerners do not value gold in the way the Europeans do, and are willing, Robinson explains, to accept trinkets such as shells and beads in exchange for gold. Robinson also mentions the possibility of buying slaves in Guinea. He is careful to explain to the reader that ordinarily slave-buying is only possible through the assent of the Kings of Spain, which makes it a very rare and expensive enterprise. The neighbors are especially interested in this. When they propose to Robinson that he come along and assist them in buying slaves, he hesitates only to ruminate on the fact that to leave his prosperous plantation now would be to court financial disaster. As a born adventurer, however, and as someone who dances dangerously close to self-destruction, he agrees to the trip.
Unsurprisingly, the group meets with a ferocious hurricane almost immediately after they set sail. The ship is thrown desperately off course, and they are forced to land wherever they can find a coastline. Making towards land in a lifeboat, the group is swallowed by a huge wave. Fortuitously, and only after he is tossed violently for some time, Robinson is washed up on shore. Night is coming on, and he is of course panicked, since he has no clothes save the wet ones he’s got on, no comrades (they all seem to be dead), no food, and no provisions of any kind. He is at the mercy of the elements, as well as any wild animals that come upon him. He sleeps in a tree, hoping that that will shelter him from any attack.
In the morning, Robinson finds that his ship has moved during the night, and is now stuck on a large rock. He manages to swim out to it and raids the ship for food and water. He then begins to think of building a raft to carry his booty to shore. Robinson’s description of building the raft is rather detailed, and part of the reason for this is in order to explain the surprising turn of events in Robinson’s thoughts about value. Whereas the trip itself is premised on his money-hungry desires — his urges for more gold and cheap slaves — during the building of the raft he realizes that the wood he’s found is worth more to him than any amount of gold would be. You can’t float on gold.
Robinson takes ammunition, guns, swords, water and food with him on shore. After landing — no small task considering he has no rudder to guide him or oars to propel him — he begins to seek a place to set up camp. Upon exploration of the landscape, Robinson is more dejected than ever: he is on an island. And what’s more, it’s barren. He decides to return to the ship several more times to gather supplies like tools, clothes, a hammock and a spare sail. He is also pleased to discover a vast supply of bread.
After he’s finished emptying the ship of its useful contents, Robinson builds a tent — another enterprise that is described in great detail. He even provides himself with a door. He brings his provisions inside, including the gunpowder, which he carefully separates into bags and stashes inside his dwelling, which he now refers to as his cave. Only after he explains how he is able to produce this makeshift home for himself, does Robinson describe his state of mind. He’s preoccupied, he tells us, with the conviction that he will end his days on the island — a thought that produces tears when he thinks about it. Robinson also muses on the cruelty of a divine force that would abandon him so helplessly, leaving him in such a desolate, impossible state. He finds it hard to be thankful that his life is saved. Nevertheless, Robinson always falls short of total misery when he reminds himself that the other ten sailors perished in the sea. When he considers that he alone was spared this death, and furthermore that he was able to retain much of the ship’s provisions, Robinson feels fortunate.
The Pros and Cons of Stranding
Robinson next lists things which are less obvious necessities — less obvious, that is, than the saving of his life, and the making of shelter — such as the tools he uses for keeping track of time, carving such information into a post, and cutting a notch for every day he spends on the island. He also tells us that a dog and two cats have survived the shipwreck, and cohabit the island with him. He finds pen, ink, and paper, and explains that he is interested in writing down his experiences on the island — not to leave to any spawn he may produce, for he feels sure that he is unlikely to have any heirs, but in order to give vent to the thoughts that besiege him during the day. He has no outlet, no other human beings to distract him or converse with him. He turns to writing instead. He lists the pros and cons of his situation, referring to them as the evils and the goods of his life on the island. Among the evils, he lists:
The impossibility of his recovery.
His lack of sufficient clothes.
His relative lack of defense against wild beasts.
His lack of another person to speak with .
Among the goods are the following:
The fact that he is alive.
The possibility that if he was saved by divine providence from the shipwreck, he may be saved from the island by divine providence as well.
That he is not starving.
That he has not seen any menacing wild beasts yet.
The fact that he was able to get supplies from the ship.
Robinson uses the list as an example for the reader that anything negative, such as his shipwreck, can also contain positive elements in it. Sufficiently cheered, Robinson sets about learning how to build things that he previously did not know how to construct, such as a chair and a table. He reflects happily that any man can learn mechanical skills, given the opportunity. He also begins to keep a journal, which he then reproduces for the reader. We should note also that Robinson reconstructs the journal as if he’d been keeping it from the beginning of his stranding, when, in fact, he has not.
September 30, 1659
He is shipwrecked.
He discovers the ship’s proximity.
He pillages the ship.
It rains and the ship breaks into pieces.
He searches for a place to pitch his tent
He sets up his tent and stores his provisions inside.
He kills a goat for food
He spends the first night in the tent on a hammock
He begins to set a schedule for himself.
He kills a wild cat and preserves her skin.
He makes his table
He makes his chair.
He makes boxes for storage
He begins to dig in the rock behind his tent to make more storage room.
He tries, and fails, to make a wheelbarrow.
For the next 18 days, he widens and deepens his cave so that it forms a warehouse area, a kitchen, a dining-room, and a cellar. (Note that the cave is distinct from his sleeping area, which he refers to as his tent).
A large amount of dirt falls in from the roof of the cave.
He is busy trying to fix the cave’s ceiling.
He begins to furnish his house and fashion a dresser. He makes another table.
He kills a goat and injures another which he brings home and patches up. He begins to entertain the thought of breeding tame animals.
He works on building a wall to protect his living area, like a fort. He is satisfied that if visitors come to the island, they would not be able to recognize his fortification as a dwelling.
Robinson’s journal breaks off here and he begins speaking at length again of his goings-on in general. He is happy to report that he has become able to make more things that he had thought impossible to construct, such as a cask to hold water and a candle (which he makes from the tallow of a killed goat). He also notes that at one point he had shook out the contents of an old bag in which corn had been stored onto the ground. He finds, some time later, that the seeds have — through no tending of his own — begun to sprout. He takes this as another sign of divine providence.
On the 14th of April Robinson finishes his wall, furnishing it not with a door, but with a ladder for climbing over it, just to ensure that it does not appear to be the gateway to a dwelling. But just after he finishes the wall, the ceiling of the cave falls in again, and Robinson finds that he is in the middle of a large earthquake, and stands in awe of the consequent landslides he watches happening all around him. He resolves to move his dwelling from the cave to something that is out from under the earth, so that if an earthquake happens again he’ll be in a less perilous position. It will be a huge job, he realizes, and is reluctant to begin it. He makes a grindstone to help him fashion tools for the construction job. In the middle of the work, though, Robinson realizes that the late hurricane has caused the ship to run aground closer to shore. He is able to walk out to it when the tide is low. He begins dismantling it, reserving the wood, iron and lead for future projects. He works on the wreck until June 15.
Robinson falls ill and prays to God, he tells us, for the first time since the storm he experienced on leaving Hull.
In his illness, Robinson hallucinates a man coming down from a raincloud — a huge man, shaking the earth as he steps closer to Robinson. The figure threatens Robinson that because he has not repented for his wayfaring ways and his rebellion against his father, he will die. Robinson imagines the man lifts a spear to kill him. Robinson is inexpressibly horrified, and also reflects on the absolute lack of self-reflection that he’s shown up until this point. He remembers the way in which he did not feel thankful when he was rescued by the Portuguese Captain. He also notes that while when he first landed on the island, he was thankful for his rescue, these feelings subsided into a simple happiness to be alive, without a sense of the divine will by which his salvation must have been delivered. He reflects that he’s become too comfortable on the island. But his sickness, he realizes, brings on thoughts of God again. He prays to God directly now, and asks for help. The next night, when eating his dinner of turtle in the shell, Robinson notices that he says grace for the first time in his life.
As he languishes, Robinson decides that God must have put him on the island for a purpose. Which leads him to the question: why has God done this to him? His conscience quickly answers that this misery is payback for a life of rebellion against his father and repudiation of middle-class comfortability. Before going to bed, Robinson chews some tobacco and drinks some rum — both medicinals he’s learned from the Portuguese. He also says a prayer before bed that night — another first.
When Robinson awakes, he’s miraculously better. He continues his treatment with tobacco and alcohol. As he begins to recover, he worries that if God has thus saved him, what has he done to glorify God? He knees and thanks God out loud. The next morning he begins reading the New Testament. Robinson’s prayers begin to transform: whereas previously he prayed to be delivered from his isolation on the island, or from sickness, he now prays to be delivered from the weight of guilt that he bears for his misspent life, and ceases asking to be delivered from physical afflictions.
Robinson begins to get better and determines to get a better sense of the island’s terrain and layout. He finds meadows that he hadn’t known were there. They boast wild sugar cane and tobacco in abundance. He also locates forests, with grapes and limes growing in them. He begins stockpiling these foods in preparation for the wet season. When he forays out again, he leaves the grapes and limes back at the tent, and on his return he finds that they have been trampled and consumed by a wild animal he has not yet seen. He builds a bower, and hangs grapes from it, having gathered quite a few by the time the rains come. He also plants corn and barley, and experiments through the months of February, March and April with sowing and harvesting techniques.
With what he learns from planting, Robinson reconceptualizes his year on a non-European model. He bases this new year, instead, on the harvesting cycles, and splits it up into four sections: two rainy and two dry. He begins to refer to the bower area and its surrounding crops as his country house, or country “seat” — a term borrowed from a tradition of British landownership. He takes up wicker-work, fashioning twigs into baskets for corn. As he explores the opposite side of the island further he finds numerous turtles and fowl, and regrets building his home on the barren side, where he washed up. On one of these journeys he gets lost, and since a haze settles over the island for several days, he is unable to use the sun as a guide to find his way home. During this time, his dog injures a young goat and Robinson makes it a collar, and leads the goat to the bower, where he leaves it. He has now been absent from his tent for a full month and is anxious to get back. He resolves to go back and get the goat, though, who had had left without food, and it is so starved that it responds to him as a dog would, following him around for sustenance.
He has now been on the island for two years. On the anniversary of this occasion, he thanks God humbly for the luxuries and good fortune he has come across — the abundance of food and his ability to eke out a comfortable existence. He thanks God for making up for his isolation through His presence. He begins to feel as if his solitary existence is in fact happier than the life he had been living in society. He reflects that whereas previously he had walked about the island acutely conscious of his loneliness and his entrapment there, he now feels as if it is more possible to be happy in his solitude than it would be to be happy in civilized society. He thanks God for bringing him to the island.
Robinson embarks on this third year on the island, which he will recount in great detail, he tells us, but which consists mainly of reading the Bible in three separate sittings a day, searching for food every morning for three hours, and preserving and cooking the animals he shoots or fruits and vegetables he gathers and harvests. He works on his corn and barley crops, refining his methods of protecting them from scavenging birds. He teaches himself how to make bread — a turn of events that he is very delighted with, and remarks that he now works for his bread, thus making the idiom quite literal. Robinson is in awe of all the factors that go into something as simple as bread. He spends six months making the tools he needs to grind the grain and make the corn ready for integration into a loaf.
Robinson also acquires a parrot, who he spends time teaching how to speak his name, Poll. This is the first word he hears spoken since he’s landed on the island. He also teaches himself to make sun-baked earthenware pots, by great trial and error. He improves upon this system by fashioning a kind of ad hoc kiln, after which he has pots in abundance. He is now able to make himself a stew. He also equips himself with a mortar and pestle for pounding grains into meal.
Robinson becomes interested in finding the wreck of his boat once again. He travels up the island in search of where it is beached. He uses planks from the boat to fashion a kind of raft-like mechanism large enough to hold himself and all his possessions. Unfortunately, however, he finds himself unable to get the canoe, as he calls it, the 100 yards to the water.
He finishes his third year on the island and reflects on his absolute distance from the civilized world. He conceives himself to be so removed from it as to not even desire to return. What does he enjoy about being apart from Western society? He does not feel lust on the island, first of all. And neither does he feel pride. He covets nothing — he is envious of no-one; who would he have to be envious of? He is in competition with no-one, and must bear the laws of no sovereign. He avoids the pitfalls of luxury, since if he produces more corn than he can eat, for instance, or kills more animals than he can stomach in a reasonable period of time, the meat and vegetables will simply spoil. Robinson decides that the only good things in this world are those that we can use, as opposed to luxury items that exceed our immediate needs. This emotion, of course, is described as in direct contradistinction to the overriding attitude of the Western world.
Robinson begins to notice that some of the supplies that he brought from the boat are deteriorating or have been almost entirely consumed. His ink, for instance. And his clothes are decaying, which is a problem since without them, he will be unable to bear the sun’s strength. He uses the skins of animals that he’s killed to produce makeshift apparel as well as an umbrella. After some more time passes (Robinson’s now been on the island for five years), he digs a canal from where the canoe is, to the water. He is able to launch it at last. He decides to tour the perimeter of the island on the boat, and makes a mast and sail for it, also fixing the umbrella to it for shade. He sets out on November 6th, in the 6th year of his stay on the island. His voyage quickly turns dangerous, however, as Robinson gets caught up in a current, and finds himself unable to land again on shore. He looks on his island with longing and wishes only to be on shore again. By chance, the next day, the winds change, and he is brought close into shore again, finally able to land.
Of course, Robinson has landed quite a ways from his habitation on the island, and doesn’t want to have to sail back, since the travel was perilous. He stashes the boat on shore and sets off on foot. After some searching, he finds his country house and falls into a sleepy stupor from which he is roused by someone calling his name and asking where he’s been. When he rouses himself enough to focus, he finds that Poll is calling him. He is amazed that the parrot has traveled from the tent to the country house, and welcomes the bird warmly. He spends the next year very sedately, he tells us, working on his earthenware, carpentry and wickerware. He is concerned, however, at the dwindling of his gunpowder — something that he cannot reproduce. He has been on the island for eleven years. He springs traps for goats now, so that he can capture them without wasting gunpowder. Robinson resolves to keep most of the captured goats, to breed them tame instead of shooting wild ones. He sets about enclosing a space of land to keep them in — no small task, of course. He learns to milk the goats and to make butter and cheese. He is pleased with himself, and begins to regard himself less as a prisoner of the island, and rather as its Sovereign. He also refers to his country house and his primary fortification as his two plantations. He imports terminology, in other words, from his former life and applies it to life on the island.
Robinson is determined to get his boat back to his side of the island, and goes back to fetch it. Along the way, he notices that the sea is much calmer than when he had sailed it. He attributes this to tidal flow, and determines to get a sense of when it is more safe to sail. He decides, finally, to build another canoe for the other side of the island, rather than hazard sailing the original one again.
Things proceed swimmingly until Robinson notices the footprint of a man on the shore near his boat. There’s just the one footprint, though. No other tracks coming or going. Robinson is amazed and dumbfounded. He flees home to his tent, which he begins referring to thenceforth as his Castle, since it is fortified against intruders. He decides the footprint must be the work of the Devil in human form, since he thinks it impossible that any other human would have found their way to the island. But then again, he also finds it amusing to imagine that Satan would take human form simply to leave a footprint on a deserted island. Improbable, he thinks, and begins to imagine that it must be the mark of some savage (as he calls them), having traveled by canoe, and come and gone from the island with the currents.
These apprehensions put Robinson in the mind that someone might come and steal his crops and all his food, leaving him to die of want on the island. He begins to doubt his earlier faith in God now, too. He no longer feels confident that God will provide for him upon the island. He resolves to plant more corn than is necessary for each year, to stock up in case his provisions are pillaged. It’s strange, furthermore, he reflects, that the thing for which he had so ardently wished — that he might meet another man upon the island — is now something he is deeply averse to. In the face of such surprising turns of events, Robinson turns his faith back to God. He even begins to consider that the print might have been one of his own. He finally builds the courage to come out of his castle, which he’s been shut up in for three days.
He is determined to go back to the print and measure it against his own. But when he does so, he finds it quite a bit larger than his, which again send him into a panic, and straight back to his enclosure. He wonders if he should tear up his crops and let his cows loose, just so that this other man might not find the booty and enjoy it himself. In a panic, he builds another fortification with a double wall. He arranges muskets around the perimeter. This fortification is within a grove of trees he had planted twelve years prior, and in another five years, he tells us, this new castle is so deeply enclosed that no-one would imagine a habitation to exist beyond the trees. Bear in mind that Robinson has now spent five years, by his account, fortifying himself against possible attack from a man who has never seen. He has become depressed and anxious, constantly worrying about being at the mercy of savages or cannibals (again, his terminology). He finds that it was much easier to pray when he had peace of mind, and much more difficult when his mind is already roused and anxious.
One day, when exploring the now anxiety-producing shore, Robinson comes across a sight that leaves him aghast: the shore is littered with human skulls and bones, as well as the remains of a fire. Robinson is absorbed with thoughts of the brutality and inhumaneness of cannibalism and devotes some writing to this topic. After vomiting he feels better, and returns to his side of the island, utterly thankful for his home, and for having been spared death at the hands of these supposed cannibals. But his fear and depression about the cannibals keeps him close to his castle, his bower, and his goat-enclosure for another two years.
Meeting the Enemy
Robinson convinces himself, however, that the cannibals do not come to his side of the island — that this side is not on the route to or from wherever they travel. He cautiously moves beyond the perimeters of his fortifications once again. He is obsessed, however, with the idea of killing some of the cannibals himself and of rescuing their victims. He invents many imaginative schemes for demolishing them. He finds a suitable hiding place from which he may watch the cannibals land, and furnishes the spot with muskets. He begins touring the area every morning, searching for the cannibals. After two or three months of this routine, he has still seen nothing. With time and space, he begins to wonder if he should in fact be putting himself in the position to judge and execute the cannibals, if God has not seen to it to punish them already. He compares their killing of captives to his own killing of animals for eating. He begins to wonder if the cannibals are murderers after all. After all, he thinks, English armies kill other men in war; they just don’t eat them. He also notes that the cannibals have never done anything to personally injure him. He thinks that perhaps killing the cannibals might be like the Spaniards’ killing of indigenous Americans — for no other reason than to usurp their land, and justified, they claimed, because of the seemingly barbaric rites that the native peoples practiced. Robinson regards such colonizing efforts with skepticism now, and so too does he revise his earlier opinions about the cannibals. He resolves to simply keep away from them and leave the rest up to God.
Robinson decides to try to make as little noise as possible so as not to attract cannibals, and feels that striking a nail or hammering on wood will alert them to his presence. He leaves off his inventions and embellishments of his accommodations. During this time he also finds a natural cave. Stepping into the cave he sees a pair of eyes. Briefly he worried, he pauses and then heads in. Inside he finds a huge old goat dying on the ground. He looks around the cave further and finds it not too large — about twelve high at its highest point. The next day he returns with candles, and finds the place very pleasant — not too damp, not filled with vermin. He feels more secure in the cave, certain that no-one would think to look for a man in there, even if they could find it. He has no lived on the island for 23 years.
That December, Robinson sees a fire about two miles away from his home, on his side of the island. He prepares himself with ammunition and firearms and sets out to observe who’s made the fire. He sees nine non-European men with two canoes. They appear, he thinks, to have built the fire to eat human flesh. He sets his mind at ease, however, noticing that they must have come in with the tide, and will likely leave as soon as the tide is favorable again. Which they, in fact, do. Robinson notices, as they leave, that they are all naked, and that not all the members of the group may be men. He does not notice them visiting the island again for the next fifteen months. He is back to feeling murderous, however, and is preoccupied with thoughts of how to kill them. He sleeps very badly during this time.
One night he thinks he hears a gunshot coming from the sea. Thinking it is a distress call from a European ship, he makes a fire to attract them. In the morning, however, he sees that the ship has foundered and broken up on the rocks. Robinson feels thankful again that he’s been spared such a death. He is miserable, as well, that not one person has survived to become his companion. Robinson also resolves to go out to the boat to see if there’s anything of value to him on it. He finds a great stock of things including rice, rum, raisins, fresh water, a compass, bread, an umbrella, barley cakes, goat’s milk and cheese. He brings the booty back to shore, but is unable to land near his home. He has to wait until the tides are favorable to launch his little boat again. As he makes his way around the island he finds another wreck, with a dog still living on board. He gives the dog some food and water and boards the boat. He finds muskets, a shovel and tongs to tend a fire, shirts, sweetmeats, linen, neckcloths, and a copper pot. He leaves behind bars upon bars of gold. They are not useful to him, he says, and of course, in his condition, they’re not.
When he arrives back on land, Robinson dreams that he sees two cannibals landing their canoe with a victim in tow. The victim escapes, however, and Robinson rescues him, making him his servant and eventually guiding him off the island and to safety. On waking, Robinson decides that he must in fact save one of the cannibals’ victims. He believes that this course of action will end in his salvation.
Befriending the Enemy
One morning, a year and a half later, Robinson notices five canoes landing onshore. He sees two captives waiting to be slaughtered, and then sees that one escapes and runs up the shore, towards Robinson’s encampment. The escapee is pursued by three cannibals, who run a course near Robinson, but without perceiving him. He surprises them and inserts himself between the cannibals and their victim. He knocks one down with his gun, but doesn’t shoot him because he is afraid the others will hear the noise. He finds he has to shoot the next one, however, for he is off at a distance, preparing to fire an arrow at Robinson. He spares the victim — a gesture which the man recognizes as merciful. He kneels to Robinson and puts Robinson’s foot on his head to symbolize his bondage to him. Robinson now begins referring to this man as “my Savage.”
Robinson gives the man bread and raisins and fresh water. He also furnishes him with a mat to sleep on. He observes the man while he sleeps, deciding that he is very handsome, and about 26 years old. His hair is black and straight. His skin is lighter than black. He is, as Robinson describes him, a savage with European qualities. Robinson is careful to distinguish the man from what he calls “Negroes.” Please refer to the Historical Context and Summary Questions for more on this. (Young, how is this sort of thing normally handled? When one comes to a part of the story that obviously needs commentary? Does one make it within the body of the text summary? I’m not sure what to do. . .).
The next day, Robinson names the man “Friday,” and teaches him to call Robinson “Master.” He also teaches him “Yes” and “No.” Robinson clothes Friday the following day, since he had been up until this point entirely naked. Friday suggests that they dig up his aggressors and eat them. Robinson lets him know just how unacceptable this is to him, making vomiting gestures and angry faces. The two of them go together to the cannibals’ bonfire, where they find the bones and skulls of the other three victims — all of whom were in a struggle with their King, including Friday. Robinson has Friday gather up all the bones and burn them into ash.
Robinson makes a tent for Friday between his two encampments. He doesn’t have Friday sleep with him in his own tent, but this isn’t, he tells us, because he fears him. Rather, he finds Friday to be the most gentle and loving man he can imagine. He believes Friday to regard him as a kind of father.
Robinson decides to try to wean Friday off the hunger for human flesh by letting him taste other kinds of meat. They set out together to kill a goat, and when Robinson shoots it, Friday panics and thinks himself to be shot, stripping off his clothes and searching for a bullet hole. He doesn’t yet know how guns work, and assumes that because Robinson used one to kill his pursuer, using it at all will inevitably end in his own death. Robinson tries to demonstrate the principles of shooting to Friday by pointing at animals, and then at the gun, demonstrating that the latter will affect the former. Friday is so overwhelmed by the gun’s mechanisms that Robinson fears he will start worshipping him and his gun.
When they arrive home, Robinson makes a stew for Friday, who reacts well to the meat, but not at all to the salt that Robinson puts on the food. He spits it out dramatically. When Robinson prepares some roast lamb for Friday, he likes it so much he indicates to Robinson that he will never eat human flesh again.
Within the year, Friday begins to speak English. Robinson is quite happy with the arrangement, and says it’s the best year he’s had on the island yet. They begin to love each other quite much, according to Robinson who feels that Friday must have more affection for him than he has ever had for anyone in his life.
Friday has information about the nearest mainland, and explains to Robinson the sea routes that he and the other cannibals ordinarily took to reach the island. Robinson concludes, from Friday’s description, that they must be somewhere near the Caribbean. Friday tells him that in order to reach populated islands, Robinson must build a boat as large as two canoes.
Robinson next becomes absorbed in teaching Friday about Protestantism — the religion that Robinson subscribes to. He describes Christ’s dying for the sins of the people. He explains the importance of prayer. Friday’s responses indicate to Robinson that he does has a sense of religion, though not quite the same as a Westernized version. He believes that after death all souls go to “Benamuckee,” who is their god, and that there are a kind of clergy called “Oowocakee.” When Robinson learns this, he concludes that even amongst the most seemingly savage nations, there exists a sort of organized religion, even one that is recognizable to Europeans as such. He suggests to Friday, however, that this religion is fraudulent because it fails to recognize his, European, God. He suggests that perhaps this Benamuckee is in fact the Devil in disguise. Robinson draws several specious links between the savagery and “backwardness” of the non-Western world, and the possibility that the Devil has set up camp there, holding sway over its inhabitants. Robinson finds, however, that the notion of the Devil is even harder to impress upon Friday than is the notion of a Western God. Friday, it turns out, has no concept of evil. He asks questions that in fact give Robinson pause to wonder, such as, if God is so strong, then why doesn’t he simply kill or otherwise do away with the Devil? Thrown for a loop, Robinson struggles to come up with a response. The only way he is able to explain the existence of the Devil is by making an analogy to human beings. Robinson says that if God was going to kill the Devil for his evil, He might as well kill most human beings, who daily struggle against the evil in their hearts. Instead, says Robinson, God gives everyone the chance to learn and repent. Friday is still somewhat reluctant to buy into Robinson’s scheme, at which point Robinson gives up and hastily draws the conversation to a close, concluding that nothing but divine revelation can make Friday understand. He begins to pray to God that Friday will see the light. He spends the next three years conversing with Friday on such topics. He describes this time together as utter happiness. At the end of three years, Friday, he says, is a Christian.
Robinson next embarks on explaining to Friday how it is that he came to live on the island. At hearing of the shipwreck, Friday becomes very excited, and reveals that a shipwrecked boat of white men washed up at his homeland, perhaps around the same time that Robinson describes his own wreck to have occurred. Robinson begins to wonder if perhaps the remaining men from his ship did not die, but in fact came upon a different island. Friday says that these white men are now living amongst the natives on his island more or less amicably.
Robinson also begins suspecting Friday of treachery at this point, wondering if when Friday returns to his homeland, he would gather his friends and arrange a group to come back to kill and eat Robinson. He tries to hide his suspicions from his friend, but wonders if Friday can discern his hesitation. He asks Friday if he wants to go home, to which Friday says that he would. He then asks if he would become a cannibal again. Friday says that he would not, that he would instead teach his comrades about Robinson’s God, to eat only animal flesh, and to drink milk. Robinson suggests that Friday’s people will kill him if he advocates this lifestyle, to which Friday replies that they will not, that they love to learn and will be willing to accept this new way of life. He adds that they already have learned much from the white men who washed up on their shore. He insists that he would keep Robinson safe from harm. Robinson begins to wonder if he might travel to Friday’s native country, and they begin to build a boat.
Friday is confused, however, and thinks that they’re building the boat so that Robinson can send him away. He protests quite a bit, saying he doesn’t want to go live in a land without his Master. He suggests that Robinson come with him and teach his countrymen. They begin to build a large boat that takes them 14 days to get drag to the water. When they set out, Robinson finds Friday to be quite able with the oars. Robinson then outfits the boat with an anchor and sail. The work takes him two months. He then asks Friday to teach him how to paddle and navigate a canoe. They practice sailing it. He has now been on the island for 27 years.
When the dry season comes, Robinson begins readying the boat for sail. As they’re getting set to go, Robinson sends Friday out to search for turtle. He comes running back, panicked. He’s seen three canoes headed for their shore. Robinson declares that they must fight the cannibals. At first, he is determined only to scare them so he gives Friday a hatchet, and outfits himself with a sword and gun. He plans to shoot the gun and scare them off with the noise. As they approach, however, Robinson becomes overwhelmed with disgust at their purpose, which is to drag victims ashore and eat them. He resolves to kill the cannibals and enlists Friday’s help for their purpose. He gives Friday a pistol and three guns. He arms himself similarly. And yet, as they set off on their errand, Robinson has another change of heart, remembering that these people intend him no harm, and so are innocent, he says, as far as he is concerned. He tells Friday to hide with him and observe.
Friday steps out of cover and gets a look at the party on shore, reporting back to Robinson that their victim is a white man. Robinson changes his mind again and decides to kill the cannibals. He and Friday shoot down from their hiding spot at the cannibals, and mayhem ensues, with the cannibals running around bloody and wounded. They run down to free the man while any cannibals who are able to do so flee in their canoes.
Robinson unties the man and learns that he is Spanish. He gives him bread and drink. He gives him a pistol and a sword and the man leaps up and sets about trying to kill any cannibals who remain on the island. The three men kill 21 cannibals — almost the entire group, save the few who escaped in the canoe. Robinson is then surprised to find, lying at the bottom of one of the beached canoes, another victim, bound but alive. It turns out to be Friday’s father, and the two have a joyful reunion. Robinson is moved and surprised, as well, to see such affectionate kinship amongst people that he still considers to be savages.
As the two freed men are too weak to walk back to Robinson’s encampment, he brings beds of straw for them to sleep on down at the shore. Robinson is very gleeful with his visitors, and feels himself to be king of the island — a king who now has three subjects. He is pleased that all three men owe their lives to him, and so would be willing to sacrifice themselves for his sake.
The Spaniard tells Robinson the story of how he’d come to live with the cannibals, explaining that he too had been shipwrecked, but with sixteen other men. They lived in relative peace with the cannibals, but did not have sufficient provisions. Robinson wonders if it would be possible to join forces with these men, but he is hesitant because of the great animosity between the Spanish and the English. The Spaniard assures him that his comrades would be nothing but grateful for his help. Robinson makes the Spaniard agree to swear his men to be under Robinson’s command.
Within a month’s time, the two victims are rested and the four men begin planting and sowing crops together. Robinson has Friday and his father cut down trees, putting the Spaniard — unsurprisingly, considering Robinson’s Western bias — in charge of their work. Now that they have a supply of food for their potential visitors, Robinson orders the Spaniard to go back to the mainland and bring his fellow men back with him. Friday’s father goes with him. He waits for their return. But instead of seeing a canoe approaching, Friday and Robinson see an English boat, called a long-boat. Robinson is excited at the possibility of seeing fellow countrymen, but he is apprehensive that these may be murderers or pirates, since the English don’t have much trade established in that part of the world.
The boat lands. Prisoners are brought onto the shore. Then the men begin to explore the island. And although the prisoners are not bound, and could also run about the island, Robinson observes them simply sitting on the ground in despair. He concludes that the prisoners are so bewildered by having landed on what they believe to be a deserted island that they have simply given up. The other seamen continue to run around the place, screaming about their predicament — they are unable to dislodge the boat until the next tide. Robinson waits until dark to make his move. He wakes up the prisoners — who are set apart from the rest of the crew — and asks what sort of men they are. The men believe Robinson to be an angel, and cry with relief at the sight of him. But he corrects them, insisting that he is an Englishman and asks if he can help them.
One man speaks, telling Robinson that he was captain of the ship but that his men mutinied against him. And instead of killing him, they have determined to leave him on this island to perish. Robinson asks where the men are, and it is revealed that they are in a thicket nearby. Robinson offers to strike a deal: he says that if he wages battle against the crew, the Captain and his two supporters must pledge allegiance to him, to do his bidding, as well as give him free passage to England on board their ship if he can win it back. They agree to the conditions. Robinson provides the men with muskets, though the Captain says he is reluctant to kill all but two of the men. Robinson disagrees with this line of action, pressing the Captain to go through with the killing. The battle begins, and they bind any men who are simply wounded, indeed sparing some lives. But they haven’t captured all of them — the rest of the sailors are scattered throughout the island.
Leaving the Island
The Captain and Robinson tell each other their stories. They decide to take any crewmen who aren’t completely wedded to the idea of mutiny on the ship with them, to assist in sailing it. The Captain is worried that because his crewmen have pledged to live a life outside of the law, if he brings them back to England they will rise up against him again, since they know that they will be hung in Europe. Robinson concludes that they must lure them on board the ship and surprise them into the journey. They strip the boat of all provisions and make a hole in its bottom so as to make it unseaworthy. Now the men cannot take the boat away from Robinson’s party. They bring the boat up onto the beach. Another boat of rogue men approaches and lands. They make an effort to steal back their boat, but finding it with a gaping hole, are unable to do so. They set up a search party to look for their fellow flauters of the law. There are ten men in this party — seven who come on shore and three who stay with their boat. They won’t find their comrades, though, since Robinson has bound them and stashed them at his encampment. As the group is getting ready to set off again, Robinson, Friday and the Captain attack them. Robinson takes three prisoners of war and wins them over to his side. He now has an 8-man army: himself, Friday, the Captain and his two supporters, and the three prisoners of war. They vanquish the rogue sailors who lay down their arms in surrender and Robinson et al bind them up and send them either to Robinson’s cave or to his bower. Once the Captain and his men secure the boat back from the three still left on board, he tells Robinson that the boat and his men are his to command. Robinson is overcome with gratitude. He cannot believe his good fortune. The Captain gives Robinson the best clothes he has on board, and other presents such as liquor, lime juice, lemons, and tobacco. Robinson then sets the rest of the prisoners free upon the island, after having given them the choice to return with him to England where they will likely be hanged, or to remain there. He tells the men who will stay on the island some of his secrets for survival, and leaves some of his guns with them. He also shows them how to work with the goats, and how to make butter and cheese. The following day he boards the ship.
On leaving the island, Robinson takes the following souvenirs with him: a cap he’s made of goatskin, the umbrella he made, his parrot, and any money he had salvaged from his wreck and from the wreck of the Spanish ship. He leaves the island on December 19, 1686 — 28 years, 2 months, and 19 days after he landed there.
He arrives in England June 11, 1687 after having been gone from his native country for 35 years. He finds that his parents are dead and all of his relations except for two sisters and the two children of one of his brothers. He has little money and decides to go to Lisbon to see if his plantation still exists. Friday accompanies him. He finds his old friend the Portuguese Captain. He reports that Robinson’s partner at the plantation has been receiving Robinson’s share of the profits for all the time that he’s been gone. He says that this partner is now quite rich. The Captain says that he’s also received some part of the profits, and he calculates how much he owes Robinson, offering to pay him back in gold. Robinson is quite moved by the man’s honesty on this account. He weeps with emotion. Robinson now plans to take over the plantation, which he does with surprising ease. He also finds that the heirs to his trustees are willing to pay him back. They send lots of supplies to him, such as tobacco and sugar, as well as gold. Strangely, though, Robinson’s relief and gratitude turns to sickness and he falls ill with joy. He continues to be ill for some time until his blood is let under orders of a physician, and he begins to recover himself.
Robinson now has an estate to direct, but he’s uncomfortable. He’s become used to only wanting enough to subsist on, but now he’s experiencing overwhelming luxury. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. He doesn’t trust other people, thinking they might be out to get money from him. He will only trust the old Portuguese captain. He decides to return to England, but is reluctant to go by ship. This is not surprising, given the hardship that sea travel has led him into. He decides to travel by land. He refrains from discussing his trip in detail, but does note that he witnesses an attack by a wolf — which is broken up by Friday — in France. His party is also tracked by a bear in these same parts, though here too Friday disposes of the wild beast. The entire party is attacked by a wolf pack, as well, before the end of the trip, although they are able to scare them off with pistol reports, wounding some twenty to thirty of them in the process.
After arriving in England, Robinson decides to sell his plantation because he realizes that moving back to Brazil would mean giving up his Protestantism (Brazil is a Catholic country), and reaps great profit from it. The novel comes to a quick close after this. He marries, has three children, and then his wife dies. He is seduced into trade again, however, this time in the East Indies. The novel closes with Robinson’s return to a life of adventure.