Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, read by Simon Vance
Read: because the character Gabriel Betteridge went on and on about it in The Moonstone. Plus, I found a audiobook version read by Simon Vance, who masterfully read The Art Thief. (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages)
Rating: 6 out of 10 (finished 1/25/10)
Synopsis: Daniel Defoe’s most famous novel was published in 1719 with the full title, The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It is based, in fact, upon the experiences of Alexander Selkirk who had run away to sea in 1704 and requested to be left on an uninhabited island to be rescued five years later. Defoe himself was in his late fifties when he wrote the book, which is often considered to be the first English novel. Crusoe ends up on a desert island in the manner of Selkirk.With only a few supplies from the ship he builds a house, a boat and a new life. His island is not wholly uninhabited, though, and there is the exciting but ominous presence of cannibals who Crusoe occasionally encounters and saves a native from. The latter becomes his servant, Man Friday. The crew of a mutinying ship finally rescue our hero.
Overall Impression: This is a book that I somehow missed, despite years of English classes. I might have read the abridged kids’ version a long time ago (Anyone else remember those? They had illustrations?), but I could be confusing it with The Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island or some other sea-faring novel. So, this book involves a lot of exclamation points. We all know the plot — Shipwreck! Crusoe makes it to an island! Some savage named Friday shows up! But there was a lot of plot in this book that I didn’t know about. There’s a huge chunk in the beginning before he gets stranded on the island that include: A near shipwreck! Plantations! An actual shipwreck! Slavery! Savages! Giant animals! There is also a huge chunk of the book after Crusoe leaves the island. Plantations! A sea voyage that doesn’t involve a shipwreck! A trek over a mountain! A fight with a bear! WOLVES!
Side note: I have to admit, when Crusoe was nearly devoured by wolves in the Pyranees, I couldn’t help but think about that (crappy) movie The Day After Tomorrow. Everything is going all climate-change-crazy and they have to leave the giant library for some reason and Jake Gyllenhaal and crew are attacked by WOLVES! Like life wasn’t bad enough with the end of the world and all. I rolled my eyes at that point in the movie (granted, I’d been rolling my eyes through a lot of that movie), and I rolled my eyes during that part of the book, too. Perhaps it’s just wolves in general that provoke eye rolling for me. I’m not sure.
Anyway, other than all of the exclamation points, what really stood out to me was the obvious parallels to British Colonialism. Crusoe takes no opportunities to learn anything outside his comforable culture, and forces his ideas and practices and religion on anyone he runs into (yes, despite him being stranded on an island for 28 years, there quite the list of supporting characters). I was doing a little research about the history of the book, and came across this quote by James Joyce: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” And that’s a lot of what I got through this book. For example, he never thinks to learn Friday’s real name or language or customs. He just jumps right in Westernizing the man. Still, There are moments when Crusoe struggles with cultural relativism — when he sees the canibals feasting on their enemies, he realizes he can’t judge them because he doesn’t know their culture. But those moments are few and far between, and mostly Crusoe runs around making everything as British as possible.
Pros: Excellent writing — especially in the details, a fun story that makes you wonder if you could survive on an island (my answer — not a chance), interesting thoughts on God and religion, cannibals!
Cons: Overt racism, no female characters, some parts dragged (get to the island part already!), WOLVES!
Other books I’ve read by Daniel Defoe: none.
Other audiobooks narrated by Simon Vance: The Art Thief