Descartes' Méthode(1637) expressed a new epistemology. Understanding of reality was no longer to depend on accepting the stable, timeless, traditional world of the Middle Ages. On the contrary, nothing was to be taken on trust. Doubt was now the path to knowledge. This broke with the past and gradually changed thinking based on tradition to that based on individual interpretation. Personal experience replaced the collective tradition in understanding reality.
Relative to the philosophical tradition the novel forms part of the aristotelian mindset which thinks that reality is particular, made of concrete objects and subject to the senses. It was a rejection of the platonic, medieval heritage composed of universals, classes and abstractions.
This epistemological change in philosophy trickled through to the art of storytelling and produced a new art form: the novel. It involved the creation of a variety of new narrative techniques by writers.
Classical texts rarely referred to a specific time and place, individual identities, personal stories or reports of particular human experiences. The novel, on the other hand, relies on these elements to build the story. Its narrative can be compared to the information a jury receives in a court. They hear the time and location of the crime, the accused is identified, witnesses recount their individual experiences in their own words and experts bring objective data before the court. The novel requires individualised references and circumstantial evidence and adopted formal realism as a narrative technique.
The genesis of the novel can be traced to the search for scientific clarity and objectivity in literature. The Royal Society of London, apart from fostering scientific experimentation, also encouraged a style of writing that reflected scientific precision. The trend emerged of keeping diaries and journals; such a process was thought to mimic the procedure of scientific and empirical observation.
The reading public probably influenced the narratives sold and written for them. The number of newspapers and periodicals sold in 1704 was 43,800, which, calculated against the population, meant one newspaper bought per 100 people. Even if the same paper was read by several people it is estimated that only one in eleven of the population were news readers.
Calculated on 18th. century book sales the book buying public was in the tens of thousands. This is still a limited number out of a population of 6 million. Even towards the end of the century preachers handing out religious tracts discovered that 75% of the poor could not read.
The education system was casual and intermittent which impeded progress in literacy. Lower class children left school for work at the age of 6 or 7 and only returned in the few months when labour in the fields and factories was not required. As the industrial revolution progressed factory work became a whole year necessity with no time for schooling. Besides the political view of the day was that if workers were to accept their toil as inevitable it was necessary to accustom them to it as soon as possible. As a result in textile and other manufacturing areas literacy probably dropped in the latter part of the 18th. century.
Book prices also restricted reading since the cost was equivalent to today's but average income was one tenth of the present day. Tom Jones, published in 1749, cost more than the weekly wage of a labourer. The price of a novel would have fed a family for a week.
However, circulating libraries where people paid a small sum to read books began to spring up and in the 1740s seven were recorded in London. These encouraged the reading of novels.
Leisure time is crucial to reading but the hours of labour included all daylight time and holidays were only four: Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, Michaelmas, and in London the 8 hanging days at Tyburn. Sundays were not working days but most people would devote that time to more extrovert activities than reading. Drunkenness on gin was a favourite pastime and did not advance interest in reading.
Robinson Crusoe does not heed his father's wish for home to study law but chooses a life on the sea. He is shipwrecked but saves his life and goes on to establish a successful business as a shipping merchant.
On his next shipping accident his ship is taken by a pirates but he escapes. He gets to Brazil and becomes a successful plantation owner. On a trip to collect African slaves he is shipwrecked.
As the only survivor he needs to tend to his own necessities of food and shelter. He carefully notes the passing of the days in a journal. He also has a religious experience while ill and afterwards feels like a 'king' on his island.
One day he discovers a footprint in the sand and fears cannibals. In one cannibal incursion Crusoe saves a victim whom he names Friday and who becomes his servant. Later they save a ship's captain from mutineers and finally Crusoe can return home in the vessel. He becomes a successful businessman.
- The narrative is succinctly contained in the original title which sums up its subtle intention of realism of place, time, plot and autobiography.
"The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account how he was at last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself."
Crusoe narrates the whole book from an autobiographical point of view. As first person narrator he is an integral part of the plot, the novel's hero, and the reader is thus moved to give him full credibility since there is no competing voice. This is the tale of an individual experience expressed in his own words. The reader in this formal realism narration is like a juror in a court case receiving specific information from a first-hand account.
- To maintain the illusion of realism the protagonist gives detailed descriptions about himself. He describes his origins in a middle class family and his education in a free school. His relationship with his father is like that of the Prodigal son and he rejects the paternal advice to become a lawyer and live a comfortable middle class life. He prefers the adventurous, and prosperous, life of a sea merchant. There is a canny irony in this choice since he appears to reject the staid life led by his prospective bourgeois readers while simultaneosly reinforcing their capitalist values. Another irony is that he refuses to become a lawyer yet his narrative account is worthy of a lawyer's presentation to a jury of readers.
- The plot is based on the real experience of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish privateer and Royal Navy officer, who was marooned on an island. However Defoe's story is more recambolesque with a double shipwreck, slave trading episode, cannibals and a prosperous ending. To maintain readers' attention the author plots a fine line between emotional adventures, realistic references to contemporary trading practises and hard-headed resolutions of practical problems.
- Time is another element that the author uses to reinforce credibility in his storyline. Crusoe's family timeline is carefully inserted at the outset of the story. Selkirk had been a castaway for four years but Crusoe's ordeal was extended to 28 years. He noted down his time of isolation by inscribing the date of his shipwreck salvation on a cross, the symbol of redemption. His Christian faith in God was unwavering during these trying times. As a practical man Crusoe also maintained a journal, an extended practice of the time. Later it would be the basis for the book. This is a nice touch of apparent realism because, of course, the whole tale is fiction. However Defoe himself realises that Crusoe's journal can only infuse credibility to a certain extent. The author abandons the adopted diary format by the excuse of Crusoe's lack of ink when he realises that it is impeding the flow of the narrative.
Dates are also duplicated in the story. The day that he left home corresponds to that of his capture and enslavement. The survival date of his first shipwreck is the same as the one when he was made a castaway and is also his birthday. Is this timing casuality or caused by some rational intervention? Judging by Crusoe's religiosity the events are interpreted as caused by Providence.(Hume argued that causality was a human perception. Interactions were due to casuality.)
- The location of Crusoe's birthplace in York adds to the credibility of the story, just as that of the island in the West Indies. In fact Crusoe knows its exact geographical position since he is able to revisit it towards the end of the book. This is an wink and a nudge to his readers that the account really happened, though we know it didn't. Once again Defoe traces a thin line between reality and fiction. The island itself, however, is not described in detail in the book as classical authors would have done. They were aiming at beauty; Defoe had an eye for the useful. This is one of the new art form's notable departures from previous written accounts: focus on the messy real world, not on a beautiful imaginary one
- Language plays it's part, too, in affirming the authenticity of the novel, in particular the use of technical nautical references. The first voyage is described by the navigational routes they followed. The storm is detailed as is the disaster to the small fleet. This is extended by the description of his escape from slavery along the African coast and later the slave ship voyage to Guinea and the Brazilian captain's remark that they are 11 degrees in north latitude. His descrption of the construction of a boat and a raft to escape the island also lend credence to the atmosphere of reality in the novel. A counterbalance to this practical outlook is the biblical language he also uses. Puritan religion, though, is not divorced from practical work as his readers would have appreciated.
The book uses religious imagery throughout as well as biblical references, quoting as many as 20 passages verbatim. Crusoe aksi presents himself as the Prodigal Son who leaves his father's house yet is able to return blessed with riches. In this long flashback narrative, whose meaning Crusoe interprets as God's will, he reflects on the two shipwrecks:
“… Providence, as in such cases generally it does, resolved to leave me entirely without excuse. For if I would not take this for a deliverance, the next was to be such a one as the worst and most hardened wretch among us would confess both the danger and the mercy."
The above-mentioned duplication of dates in the book also points to a belief in providential intervention. This can be interpreted as a deep religious belief in a divine plan, as if humankind lived in a godly matrix where causality, not casualty dictated events.
"What is this earth and sea of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced? And what am I and all the other creatures, wild and tame, humane and brutal? Whence are we? Sure we are all made by some secret power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky; and who is that?
Then it followed most naturally, It is God that has made it all. Well, but then it came on strangely, if God has made all these things, He guides and governs them all, and all things that concern them; for the power that could make all things must certainly have power to guide and direct them. If so, nothing can happen in the great circuit of His works, either without His knowledge or appointment.
And if nothing happens without His knowledge, He knows that I am here, and am in this dreadful condition; and if nothing happens without His appointment, He has appointed all this to befall me. Nothing occurred to my thought to contradict any of these conclusions; and therefore it rested upon me with the greater force that it must need be, that God had appointed all this to befall me; that I was brought to this miserable circumstance by His direction, He having the sole power, not of me only, but of every thing that happened in the world. Immediately it followed: Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus used?"
Max Weber who explored the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism referred to the character Robinson Crusoe as the ideal example of the Protestant work ethic in action. Weber's fundamental idea was that the Protestant ethic viewed work as a religious value.
Crusoe has an epiphany during his first weeks on the island and emerges as a born-again Christian. Crusoe then establishes a personal relationship with God in his isolated island, with the help of the translated Bible. Labour becomes a way of expressing devotion, a sort of sacred ritual. His work to survive as a castaway became a pious act of worship.
Individualism and work ethic are the hallmarks of Protestantism which was the new faith since the Reformation, replacing the Catholic structure of collective mediation through the Church. It began in the Renaissance which began to use the vernacular as the literary language in Florence. Luther's translation of the Bible to the common language furthered individualism since readers could offer interpretations different from the ecclesiastical ones. Like Bruno, Savonarola and Galileo, many were the martyrs and victims to the cause of self-expression. With the Protestant Reformation the authority of the Church was overcome, resulting in the emancipation of literature. It did not just express individualism, but was the means by which the individual discovered a new voice. Crusoe is working towards his personal physical and spiritual salvation through his toils. God's response to him is the improvements in his circumstances.
The marxist interpretation of Crusoe in Das Capital is that he represents 'economic man'. The interpretation is that Genesis was recast in economics with humankind evolving from a State of Nature and living by the sweat of their brow. Their basic impulse was an innate acquisitiveness, looking out for any gain for the solitary survivor, who is nudged along by the invisible hand, not of a deity, but of self-interest. It is true that before and after his shipwreck the character was a rich merchant. However his whole story as a castaway also included a deep belief in Providence and a striving after salvation. Once again Defoe created his character by treading a fine line between capitalist utilitarianism and spiritual fervour.
True to the formal realism of the narrative Defor offers his readers a detailed account of his economy. He realises that he has limited resources but also the ability to transform them into commodities to suit his requirements through labour. He sets about planting barley and rice. He fashions a rod to fish in the sea. He then gauges how much he should plant and harvest for his needs to avoid wastefulness but miscalculates due to a bad harvest and applies insurance to ensure he always has enough food.
However, as well as counting Crusoe also retains the capitalist ascetic impulse. His discovery of God has given him a purpose in life beyond simply working to survive. His labour is a form of prayer bringing him closer to the divine. He also believes that his religious impulse has saved him from the sin of greed by being isolated from society on this spiritual Eden.
Crusoe realises the essential worthlessness of gold in his situation when he finds coins in the wreck. On his island world there is no need for money or surplus production since there is no exchange. However he discovers a core concept of capitalism which political economy disregards: social value. After cutting down some wild vines he reflects:
"I thought those beautiful vines and those slender young trees were free goods; they belonged to nobody. I thought the costs were all external. But I didn’t realize that when I cut them down, I would be depriving myself of this intangible source of pleasure. Since I am the only one on the island and will be here for some time then it is clear that I did not correctly evaluate my true costs of production."
Locke had established individual rights in his two Treatises on Government. Defoe presents this idea in novel format. Crusoe is removed from society through shipwreck and then from worldliness through his religious conversion which brings meaning to his existence. His individual rights are so strong that he imagines himself as the monarch of his island:
“I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England."
This status is God's sign for Crusoe that he is justified by faith. It is also a message to his bourgeois readers that their individual rights were replacing the feudal aristocratic rights based on primogeniture. Crusoe is the character incarnation of capitalism taking over the products of labour.
Salvation extends to helping a cannibal victim to escape his fate. However this is only to enslave him later, convert him to Christianity and teach him that European civilisation is superior. This master-slave colonial relationship is presented uncritically in the book as seemingly natural. It is also part of capitalist normality that Crusoe grows rich through his plantations in the New World colonies and the organisation of slave ships from Africa to work them.