‘…he comes in the end to make common actions dignified and common objects beautiful’. So wrote Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader (1935), encapsulating the enduring power of Robinson Crusoe. Undoubtedly one of the greatest novels of all time, it is often asserted to be the first novel. A literary masterpiece, which set the standard for the form we now know and love so well, it is a classic that has endured for centuries.
Although the book is perhaps difficult to get into at first, due to the antiquated style and language, the characters and detailed adventures cannot fail to draw you in. By turns entertaining, exciting, serious and heartbreaking, few other novels could contain the same mixture of emotions and styles within the constricted framework and language Defoe's period demanded. He writes with a detached coldness, never really describing Crusoe’s emotions, but creating a tragic poignancy which seeps through the emotionless prose. He details Crusoe’s small triumphs, such as the capture of his first goat, and small disasters – the loss of a day on the calendar means he can't tell exactly how long he has been marooned. Whilst Crusoe’s long musings on the meaning of life and the nature of God, and his materialistic and colonialist attitude may make him a dislikeable character to many readers, his resolute determination to survive and his cheerfulness when everything turns against him cannot fail to earn him our sympathy and admiration.
There are many readings of the novel – colonialism, materialism, redemption, religion or searing critique of society. If nothing else, the intricate details make it a fascinating guide to survival on a desert island. Critics may complain about the many pages devoted to building a raft and fetching supplies from the sunken ship, but Defoe is careful to set out all aspects of Crusoe's survival, demonstrating his resourcefulness and strength of character. We only see the psychological strain of his solitude expressed occasionally: when he is searching for solace in the Bible, or when he finds another sunken ship with all the sailors drowned – all possibility of companionship snatched away. It is part of the great power of the novel that we only become subconsciously aware of Crusoe’s deepest emotions – they are never stated outright.
Although immediately a great success (four editions were published within the first year, bringing Defoe instant fame), the novel was also widely derided, particularly by the Puritans who were suspicious of any fiction. Defoe had sought to appease them by setting the Bible at the heart of the text, and by suggesting the account was a true story. Furthermore, he employed strong Christian themes: Crusoe gets his comeuppance for going against his father’s will, then is redeemed in his solitude through finding God.
Today, Robinson Crusoe is revered as one of the greatest novels of all time. It features on hundreds of syllabuses, and holds a central position on the Classics shelf. Defoe takes us on a deep, personal journey of adventure and self-discovery, achieving a subconscious understanding and empathy with Crusoe. Readers feel as if they too have survived shipwreck and solitude, and are now possessed of all the new knowledge the experience brings. No literary life can be complete without reading the world's "first novel".