Wednesday, January 11, 2012


(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)


Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, (1718; London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2010), 287 pp.

Possibly based on the true account of Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe is set some decades before that unfortunate event, in the mid-1600’s. Against the warnings of his father and the pleadings of his mother, young Robinson Crusoe resolves to go off on adventures, which plan pans out like so: “never any young adventurer’s misfortunes, I believe, began sooner, or continued longer than mine” (p. 16.) Indeed, by the time the prodigal son returns home, his parents are no more, and he is on the verge of becoming an old man. No doubt the book’s popularity has had much to do with the obvious moral that a son disobeys his parents at his own peril. Notwithstanding the divine oversight that saves Crusoe from perishing time after time, the misfortunes that make this care necessary may be enough to discourage some young man from tempting Fate.

Though ‘something fatal in that propension of Nature’ (p. 11) is said to drive Crusoe to disobedience and misery, the effect of this reflection is not licentious. The concept of being predestinated to misery tends to produce revulsion from those acts that might fulfill the prophecy. So there is no cause to fear the book on that account.

As nearly obvious as the moral on obedience is the moral on contentment. The story may be interpreted as the fallout from not being content with what Providence has supplied. Somewhere in between poverty and riches are the safest and happiest stations in life to be found, according to Proverbs 30.8. This verse and the teachings that surround it are alluded to on page 12. In fact, the Proverb is well preached there. ‘The middle state’ is the blessing Crusoe is born into and so soon gives up at great personal cost.

The opportunities he gets to settle back into that blessed state in spite of having ‘broken through good advice’ (p. 39) is what breaks open the moral on God’s forbearance, which moral persists until Crusoe is finally brought to repentance by the fact of divine patience breaking in upon him (pp. 92, 128.) This awakening to the goodness of God causes Crusoe to rethink his past judgment of things. He had supposed that the grain springing up beside his makeshift hut was due to some miracle of Providence, for example. Then when he remembered pouring some chicken feed out where the grains were now growing, his “religious thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate” (p. 80.) But Robinson Crusoe, once enlightened, sees that the train of events necessary to the remarkable blessing of growing grain is a wonder that merits thankfulness to God as much as a miracle would. Present-day miracle-mongers might learn from this. They are like Crusoe before his conversion: their religion is deflated so long as no miracles are happening. “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” (p. 96.)

Robinson Crusoe is a narrative catalogue of morals. For those seeking to learn the basics of sorrow leading to repentance in the easiest possible way, but with some force, a novel like this might faithfully serve. And it’s as clean and righteous a novel as one can wish for. Notice how discreetly Defoe describes a bodily function that your modern novelists would take advantage of for the sake of being what they call ‘true to life’: “in short, I turned away my face from the horrid spectacle; my stomach grew sick, and I was just at the point of fainting, when Nature discharged the order from my stomach” (p. 158.) Class resists the allure to be crass.

Which leads naturally to a comment or two on Daniel Defoe’s style. His sense of rhythm is superb, which he sometimes achieves by combining the right amount of syllables with similar sounding words: “It is not easy for any one, who has not been in the like condition, to describe or conceive the consternation of men in such circumstances” (p. 45.) At times he closes a sentence oddly, which keeps him from slipping into cliché boredom: “and shot him into the head again which dispatched him quite” (p. 33.) You might say that Defoe, like Crusoe, ‘called a council in his thoughts’ (p. 57) in order to arrive, only for different reasons. The novel’s faults are few and paltry. It may be that penguins never journey as far north as Trinidad (pp. 107, 200), the mention of which gives us the most certain idea of where Crusoe’s desolate island paradise generally is. Would it get dark there during the rainy season, or any time of the year, for that matter, as early as seven o’clock? (p. 79.) Such matters are not worth checking out. There’s only one cumbersome sentence in the whole book, a burdensome affair of twenty lines (p. 183.) But even this can be gotten hold of without too much strain. The worst error is Crusoe’s assumption that an anonymous kidnap victim is Christian, for which reason he fights off the savages preparing to kill and eat him (p. 216.) But this may be just Crusoe’s fault, not Defoe’s; for all we know the author put that in on purpose to show a character flaw in the chief subject of his book.  

The story of Crusoe is much occupied with relating the mundane details of how to survive and then prosper on a deserted island. A sense of wonder is maintained through all of that by observations on incidental events: “I believe it was the first gun that had been fired since the creation of the world” (p. 56.) This sense of wonder is executed by tantalizing speculations too, conjectures on the nature of what we call gut instinct (pp. 177, 230.) These lines of guesswork come right up near the edge of superstition. Maybe one of them walks off the edge into dark, dangerous territory (p. 166.) The story does contain ‘a whole collection of wonders’ (p. 238), by which is meant ‘a life of Providence’s chequerwork’ (p. 278.) But this recitation of so many wonders is a little choked by pages and pages of detail on necessity being the mother of invention on this island. Because of that, mainly, this novel, like Pilgrim’s Progress, continues longer than it should, and makes for much reading for too little gain. Had it been cut to half, the impression would have been more wonderful, and Robinson Crusoe would be known today as one of the greatest short stories. As a novel, however, it is good but not great. This edition is sketched by George Cruikshank, ‘the preeminent English caricaturist and book illustrator of the 19th century.’ These twenty-two illustrations, along with the glossary at the end, make for pleasant, carefree reading.

Content: A- (On Disobedience, Contentment, Forbearance, Providence, and Salvation.)
    Style: A- (Extraordinary moments.)
    Tone: A- (Humble, matter-of-fact, and discreet.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
                      B: an average book: let it go.
                      C: read only if you have to.

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