Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Robinson Crusoe seems like an odd reading choice for someone who writes zombie adventures, but I promise I had a reason for diving into these murky waters. Everyone knows the general gist of the novel, English sailor gets shipwrecked on tropical island and has to survive alone for long stretches of time. It struck me that this premise is essentially one of the first examples of post-apocalyptic survival fiction, and I set out to find out how Robinson dealt with being a LMAO (last man on Earth) survivor. I thought maybe they would be some handy tidbits you could apply to a zombie apocalypse survival scenario.
Boy, was I wrong.
Robinson Crusoe was not the book I expected it to be based on youthful impressions. I could have sworn I read this book when I was a kid and loved it, but it turns out that book I read was a condensed YA-stylized version where exciting things actually happened more than once every fifty pages. The basic plot of the book is young English would-be gentleman runs away from home and takes to sea, surviving one mishap after another, until he lands a 27 year stretch on a deserted island as the sole survivor of a shipwreck. He learns to make do on the island and despite having a huge list of supplies from the ship and abundant natural resources, acts like a ninny most of the time.
If you do decide on reading it, or more likely, are forced to, keep in mind that the novel shows its age. It’s written as a series of journal entries that rambles, wanders, backtracks, sidetracks, and generally talks to itself like an insane person for half of the novel. You’ve been warned.
If you stripped down the novel and took out the huge glaring flaws of the main character, you’d actually have a great story. Shipwrecks, rescues, cannibals, friendship, survival, gunfights, mutineers… all these elements are well described in the story, it’s just that by the time you get to them you’re so fatigued by the droning, it’s hard to muster much excitement. For me, the novel was also a fascinating look at the perspective of the English Colonials in the 1600s. The absolute certainty that Robinson has as he makes his claims over the new lands (and inhabitants) as master and lord—simply by right of being born English—is mind-blowing to a modern educated man. If the opinion was respective of it’s time, it’s a great window into the thinking that launched the British Empire.
Defoe is preachy and long winded and absolutely NOTHING happens for long stretches of the book. Modern genre fiction this is not. He doesn’t begin at the action and tells instead of shows, plenty. I also find his attempt at religious epistemology ridiculously ham-handed. First God is punishing Robinson, then he’s rewarding him, then he was really punishing him all along, oops…wait, no he was really rewarding him. For fuck sake, make up your mind, you sorry castaway! Also, and this has to be said, Robinson Crusoe the character, is a major dick. He’s a sniveling, cowardly, short-sighted, selfish prick. By the time the novel was two-thirds of the way through, I was rooting for the cannibals.
If you’re interested in historical fiction and travel tales, then this book would actually be fairly interesting to you. It’s historical purely by being old though, so be prepared to slog through what folks in the 1700’s thought was exciting stuff. If you like survival fiction (My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, etc.) give this a pass. There’s really not much here worth reading about. Maybe all the different uses for goat skin? For every one else, it’s slow, it’s boring, and it’s preachy. Save yourself some time and rent one of the movie adaptations, maybe something starring Tom Hanks. You won’t be missing much.
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