Reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a somewhat uncanny experience. You know, or you think you know, the general lineaments of what has become a classic narrative and founding myth of modern civilization’s relationship both to nature and to (purportedly) premodern barbarism. This is, after all, a familiar or even over-familiar story. Crusoe is the name of a seventeenth-century castaway who reconstructs a civilized life on a remote island with primitive tools; he finds a footprint on the beach and realizes he is not alone on the island; he subsequently is aided by and tutors his man “Friday.”
Presumably at some point Crusoe and Friday are rescued, but the story as it exists in popular consciousness doesn’t have (and perhaps doesn’t need) any particular conclusion: it is a tale about origins, not conclusions. Any destiny the tale may imply is that incarnated in the process of gradual civilization itself, a process that is (it’s suggested) without any fixed end.
Coming to the book itself, however, is a disconcerting reminder of how much is omitted, simplified, or corrupted as narrative becomes myth. For Defoe’s novel bears at times little more than a passing resemblance to this idea of Robinson Crusoe that has become embedded in our cultural (un)consciousness.
To begin with, the story as told by Defoe takes an awfully long time to get to the famous island. Crusoe isn’t shipwrecked until almost forty pages in, and before that point he’s already had a whole set of other adventures and misfortunes: a terrible storm in the North Sea on his maiden sea voyage; kidnap and captivity at the hands of Barbary Coast pirates; escape across the North Atlantic, in the company of a young Spanish Moor, Xury; and a stint as a planter in Brazil.
So the origin (if the book is really a story about origins) is several times deferred or, perhaps better, foreshadowed and so repeated in advance. The North Sea storm anticipates the hurricane that will shipwreck Crusoe’s boat in the Caribbean; his captivity in North Africa will be duplicated by the sense that his island home is a prison; his negotiations with Xury are a preemptive mirror of his relationship with Friday; and his life as planter foreshadows his attempts to establish agriculture as a castaway. By the time that we get to the founding moment, when Crusoe finds himself alone on his island, everything is already repetition.
A similar doubling can be found in the narrative provided of and on the island itself. For while the book opens as more or less standard first-person (pseudo-)autobiographical narrative, at the beginning of his sojourn Crusoe also starts to keep a journal, which he includes more or less verbatim in his account of those early days and months. So the same events are often told twice: once by Crusoe as novelistic narrator, and a second time in quotation as it were, by Crusoe as character. (Compare 37-56 with 57-61.) And so although the journal is intended initially as a kind of therapy–so “as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring on them, and afflicting my mind” (53)–this doubleness threatens a kind of narrative madness, the possibility of an endless proliferation of accounts. What, after all, if in the journal he had written up the process of writing the journal itself? An aporia threatens to open up, of narratives redoubled like reflections in multiple mirrors.
After a while, Crusoe appears to realize the senselessness of this procedure by which everything has to be described twice–a senselessness brought on ironically by an activity designed to give sense to his experience. As such he notes, for instance, of one construction he had made that “This wall being described before, I purposely omit what was said in the Journal” (61). Not long after, the conceit of quoting the journal is abandoned altogether or rather, as its conclusion or the end of the citation is never signaled with anything like the clarity that its introduction had apparently merited, the journal and the broader narration seem simply to blur one into another. What is quoted becomes part of the frame, and so the written account becomes part of the “real” world of the narrative. This, of course, in turn mirrors the strategy of the novel as a whole, which purports to be the true story of a castaway mariner, in other words to propose that the character’s narrative is one with that of the world itself, that “his story” is simply history.
Another surprise, for me at least, was that the famous footprint in the sand turns out not to be Friday’s; my assumption that it was collapses a whole sequence of events. The “print of a man’s naked foot on the shore” (122) comes almost exactly halfway through the narrative; but Friday doesn’t arrive on the scene for another forty pages (163). Again, then, there is a strange delay. Here, however, it’s a case of the sign preceding the thing; the two, which in my understanding of the story had been closely associated, are in fact much more loosely related.
More generally, in the novel as a whole signs are quite tenuously related to things. For the most part, in fact, Crusoe seems quite uninterested in naming or charting what he finds in this unfamiliar territory. He tells us early on that he calls his land “the island of despair” (57), but that name is never used again; perhaps like “primitives” are supposed to do, he sees little need to give a name to an environment in which he is fully immersed. But rather more strikingly, he makes no attempt either to follow the standard colonizing practice of naming the various geographical and topographical features that constitute the island: none of the bays or hills or woods have any signifiers attached to them; at best, he calls his initial settlement his “sea-coast house” (82; subsequently his “castle” ) and his inland outpost his “country-house” (82). Nor, though he notes his unfamiliarity with much of the island’s flora and fauna, does he bother to come up with words for them, either. Indeed, overall Crusoe is remarkably uninquisitive about his surroundings: he doesn’t even care to do much in the way of exploring–which is why the regular visits of so-called cannibals from the mainland escape his notice for so many years.
In short, Crusoe’s attitude is far from that of the typical colonizer, however much he does at various points consider himself the “prince and lord of the whole island” (118). He shows little or no interest in surveying, mapping, and so symbolically or even actually securing the territory that he considers his.
The one exception to Crusoe’s peculiar inhibition regarding naming is, of course, his manservant to whom he famously gives the name “Friday” because that was “the day I sav’d his life; I called him so for the memory of the time” (163). And yet this, too, is a remarkably uncertain signifier: Crusoe has repeatedly told us that he relatively soon lost track of the days, despite his best efforts. In an early fever he feels he surely “lost a day in [his] accompt, and never knew which way” (76), so Friday should by rights be either “Thursday” or “Saturday” or even (if Crusoe has tried to compensate for his error, either one way or the other) perhaps “Wednesday” or “Sunday.” In any case, the notion that the name will help fix memory and time is surely an illusion, as Crusoe should be fully aware.
In short, then, Robinson Crusoe turns out to be a rather odd and even singular book. It most certainly fails to ground in any secure way the various narratives of origin that claim it as some founding example loaded with significance, whether these be the fantasy of heroic self-fashioning (the economists’ “homo oeconomicus”) or the black legend of anti-heroic imperialism (the postcolonialists’ ur-colonizer). If anything, it actively destabilizes such accounts, by demonstrating the unknowability and precariousness of origins, narrative, and signification in general. Which is a striking conclusion to take from a book that supposedly has none.
To put it another way, Crusoe’s tale is best understood as more of a posthegemonic anti-narrative in which the many affects that mark the castaway’s long isolation soon undo any claims to construct hegemonic narrative. And yet, of course, in the popular (un)conscious those stories continue regardless.