April 13, 1895. Robinson Crusoe.
Many a book has produced a wide and beneficent effect and won a great reputation, and yet this effect and this reputation have been altogether wide of its author’s aim. Swift’s Gulliver is one example. As Mr. Birrell put it the other day, “Swift’s gospel of hatred, his testament of woe–his Gulliver, upon which he expended the treasures of his wit, and into which he instilled the concentrated essence of his rage–has become a child’s book, and has been read with wonder and delight by generations of innocents.”
How far is the tale a parable?
Generations of innocents in like manner have accepted Robinson Crusoe as a delightful tale about a castaway mariner, a story of adventure pure and simple, without sub-intention of any kind. But we know very well that Defoe in writing it intended a parable–a parable of his own life. In the first place, he distinctly affirms this in his preface to the Serious Reflections which form Part iii. of his great story:–
“As the design of everything is said to be first in the intention, and last in the execution, so I come now to acknowledge to my reader that the present work is not merely a product of the two first volumes, but the two first volumes may rather be called the product of this. The fable is always made for the moral, not the moral for the fable….”
He goes on to say that whereas “the envious and ill-disposed part of the world” have accused the story of being feigned, and “all a romance, formed and embellished by invention to impose upon the world,” he declares this objection to be an invention scandalous in design, and false in fact, and affirms that the story, “though allegorical, is also historical”; that it is
“the beautiful representation of a life of unexampled misfortunes, and of a variety not to be met with in the world, sincerely adapted to and intended for the common good of mankind, and designed at first, as it is now further applied, to the most serious use possible. Farther, that there is a man alive, and well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these volumes, and to whom all or most part of the story most directly alludes; this may be depended upon, for truth, and to this I set my name.”
He proceeds to assert this in detail of several important passages in the book, and obviously intends us to infer that the adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, were throughout and from the beginning designed as a story in parable of the life and adventures of Daniel Defoe, Gentleman. “But Defoe may have been lying?” This was never quite flatly asserted. Even his enemy Gildon admitted an analogy between the tale of Crusoe and the stormy life of Defoe with its frequent shipwrecks “more by land than by sea.” Gildon admitted this implicitly in the title of his pamphlet, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Mr. D—- De F—-, of London, Hosier, who has lived above Fifty Years by himself in the Kingdoms of North and South Britain. But the question has always been, To what extent are we to accept Defoe’s statement that the story is an allegory? Does it agree step by step and in detail with the circumstances of Defoe’s life? Or has it but a general allegorical resemblance?
Hitherto, critics have been content with the general resemblance, and have agreed that it would be a mistake to accept Defoe’s statement too literally, to hunt for minute allusions in Robinson Crusoe, and search for exact resemblances between incidents in the tale and events in the author’s life. But this at any rate may be safely affirmed, that recent discoveries have proved the resemblance to be a great deal closer than anyone suspected a few years ago.