I’m still reading “Robinson Crusoe” to my eleven-year-old son. (This is going to take a while!) And I’ve been thinking about how much Defoe manages to do with so little. After all, it’s not just Crusoe on the island with few resources. Defoe isolates himself as well as writer, allowing himself just one character for most of the book, one voice, no love interests, and no plot–except for the fundamental questions: will Crusoe survive? and will he be redeemed?
Of course the power of “Robinson Crusoe” comes from its focus on one man and his soul. This novel is a pure example of the strength of the first person in all its immediacy and intimacy. Defoe uses journal, recollection, testimony and the tropes of seafaring memoir all together to craft a novel that seems so real in all its details and in the set backs Crusoe suffers. His struggle has dramatic moments, but its his undramatic faltering progress that makes his tale seem so authentic. Defoe might have written a faster book, a more triumphant book and a book more dramatic on the surface–with miracles and sudden coincidences and heroic fights. Indeed, Crusoe’s initial seafaring adventures seem to suggest this kind of story. But Defoe abandons these dramatic flourishes when he shipwrecks Crusoe. Then the tale turns inward, the action becomes solitary, and Defoe suspends suspense, and time itself to focus on Crusoe’s spiritual struggle. In a sense, Defoe says: I am going to write the story inside every other story: the story of the transformation of the soul.
I was thinking about this today: the power of the first person narrative and the inner narrative. If you think of the novel as a tree, then this first person reflective narrative becomes one branch. “Robinson Crusoe” stands as an early English example of the novel of reflection and inner spiritual progress, but here are some of Crusoe’s novelistic descendants. These books include other characters, other voices and subplots, but their power comes from a meditative first person voice:
Can you think of others?
Now what of the other branch of the novel-tree? These are the love stories, the novels of family, and community, the books crowded with incident and relationships–social, political, domestic, satirical novels. “Robinson Crusoe” reads as a devotional novel. I would call these other books delectable novels. The delectable novel spreads out a feast for the reader–and comments on that feast as well. These are novels about society and its delights and discontents. They are about virtue and vice not only in the individual case but in the communal case as well.
In the English tradition, I’d call “Gulliver’s Travels” an early example of the delectable novel. Like “Robinson Crusoe,” “Gulliver’s Travels” begins with shipwreck. But Gulliver’s recollections focus on the new worlds he visits, worlds teaming with life–worlds resembling and indicting Gulliver’s own. While Defoe explores one man’s soul in isolation, Swift explores human relations. Robinson Crusoe’s spirit enlarges through lonely contemplation. Gulliver’s spirit shrinks with understanding of his fellow human’s limitations. The reader follows Robinson Crusoe with fascination, pity and fear. The reader follows Gulliver with amazement, rueful laughter, delight and disgust. We see ourselves in Crusoe. To our shame–we see others in “Gulliver’s Travels.”
What other novels emerge from the delectable branch of the novel tree?
I’d say the descendants of “Gulliver’s Travels” are:
“Pride and Prejudice”
“War and Peace”
Can you think of others?