Historians are still piecing together what happened to Alexander Selkirk, upon whom Robinson Crusoe was based.
He had spent four years and four months on Más a Tierra, a windswept island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, 650 kilometers (404 miles) off the coast of Chile. He was as alone as a human being can be. For Selkirk, there was no “Man Friday,” a character Defoe created for his novel.
Selkirk was rescued by pirates and become one himself, making a fortune in the process. (via ny times ideas)
Since it’s considered one of the first English novels, Daniel Defoe can be forgiven for just kinda trailing off at the end of Robinson Crusoe. Even so, I found it hard to like, this book that everyone from Karl Marx to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Edgar Allan Poe seems to adore. Defoe’s basic storytelling of how Crusoe survived on the island is wonderfully imaginative, but the segues into religion and the underlying classism & racism were a bit too much for my contemporary mind to handle.
For instance, after years alone on the island, Crusoe rescues a native, names him Friday, and makes him his servant even though Friday is his only companion, the first person he’s talked to in over 20 years. For awhile, the book is all Friday-this and Friday-that and then a European shows up (followed by more Europeans) and, poof!, Friday is pretty much forgotten by Crusoe and Defoe, except for running errands and fetching things.
This is pretty much par-for-the-course thinking for 1719 (when the book was published) or the mid-1600s (when the book takes place), but I can’t understand how Defoe can write about Crusoe’s humble experiences on the island (i.e. all shipwrecked and stranded men are equally screwed) and then think that the natural thing to do with a fellow traveller in peril is relegate him to the role of servant because he’s not European. Somehow Crusoe is a lot less humbled by his solitude than one would expect, and Defoe’s failure to connect the dots between Crusoe’s situation and the larger issue of equality was disappointing to me.
Note: Since Robinson Crusoe was first published in the 1700s, it’s well out of copyright and available online in its entirety. As is Mary Godolphin’s version of it written with one-syllable words.