Two star review, originally posted here on November 4, 2021.
I’m glad I read this supposed classic, but that doesn’t mean that I liked it.
First, our protagonist is a thoroughly bad person. Maybe, just maybe, an argument could be made that Crusoe is an unreliable narrator or an antihero, but… I dunno, that doesn’t seem to be Defoe’s intention. It sure as hell feels like we’re supposed to see him as a relatable hero. But he’s not. He’s human garbage who learns nothing along the way (or rather, learns all the wrong lessons). He is a sexist, racist, arrogant, entitled, greedy, uncaring douchebag. And this book, in allowing such a doucehbag to prosper and flourish, is in itself sexist, racist, and straight-up bad.
I tense up when I see other reviewers haughtily claim that anyone who finds the problematic elements of this book problematic is unfairly viewing it through the woke lens of the modern reader. Certainly we have to consider books in the environment in which they were written and make some allowances (for example: every time I hit the word “negro” when reading an early 18th century book I tense up, then remember that was considered an acceptable term at the time). But that’s not what’s going on here. There are plenty of other books from the same time period that somehow manage to not champion the slave trade, that recognize villainous behavior as villainous, and that treat women as human beings. I know, crazy, right?!
It’s not just the casually racist descriptions of Carribean natives as cannibalistic savages. Those types of stereotypes were pretty prevalant workdwide and, as we know, are still alive to various degrees today (think of beloved Dr Seuss books being recently pulled from publication due to stereotypes of different ethnic groups).
It’s the fact that Crusoe is presented again and again with opportunities to learn from his experiences, only to continue treating other human beings like garbage:
– He himself was enslaved early on! So… you’d think that might make him think “hmm… enslavement is bad.” But instead, when he makes his escape, he forces another slave to leave the boat to swim back to enslavement! He keeps a young slave kid with him, and then, after escaping together, he fucking sells the kid! He ALMOST starts to feel bad. Almost. But when the kid’s new owner promises that he’ll be forcefully converted to Christianity, everything is hunky dory!
– After his own escape from slavery, he winds up in a boat off the coast of Africa, where he has friendly interactions with a bunch of local African people. Gee, that’s so nice! I bet this experience will make him less likely to try to enslave African people in the future! Hahahahano, just kidding, of course he still wants slaves! In fact…
– In Brazil, where he is already a successful plantation owner, he thinks “Boy, this would be way more lucrative if I had some slaves!” But slaves are, like, expensive and shit. So he and his other evil plantation-owning buddies decide to rent a boat or whatever and GO STEAL THEIR OWN SLAVES FROM AFRICA!!!!! Like he sees black people so SO INHUMAN, and SO DISPOSABLE that he’s not EVEN willing to pay money for them! He’d rather go violently kidnap them himself! WHAT. THE. FUCK.
– It’s on his way to kidnap human beings for personal gain that Crusoe has his (second) shipwreck and he winds up on his island. And he starts to have lots of personal insights and moments of self-reflection. He thinks about God a lot, and about God’s plan for him, and what message God is trying to send him via shipwreck. Now you MIGHT think, hey, this is a good moment for Crusoe to think about all the wrong he’s done in the world, and how maybe God stopped his slave kidnapping mission to teach him that kidnapping and slavery are wrong. BUt nope! Instead, Crusoe goes “Hey, he killed everyone else on my ship, but saved me, which means I am deserving of salvation! Everything I do is good and right! I am more deserving than everyone else! I am the fucking best guy in the wooooorld!” Exactly zero. lessons. learned. Unbelievable.
– After decades alone on an island, when he rescues Friday (whose real name we never learn), he finally has a chance to make his first friend. Is that what he does? NO! Instead, he obtains himself a subservient and frankly idiotic slave! Now he can force this slave to do all his manual labor for him! And Friday is fucking HAPPY to do it! Because Crusoe teaches him how everything he has ever known and cared about it stupid and wrong, and how being subservient to white invaders and converting to Christianity ir right!
The ending is just as infuriating. Crusoe and Friday accidentally rescue Friday’s dad. Huzzah! Crusoe hears that there’s a boatload (literally, harhar) of Spaniards on the mainland and he wants them to come work for him or something (I dunno- point is Spaniards are European which makes them human, unlike the local savages who just eat each other and wait to be converted to Christianity), and he sends Friday’s dad off in a boat to find them and bring them back to the island. Then some Englishman land on the island, and Crusoe goes “Cool, let’s get out of here, Friday!” They leave for Europe, never for a moment stopping to think how fucked up it is that they separated Friday from his dad, promised a reuinion, and then just bounced. What ends up happening to Friday? WE DON’T KNOW! We know he travels across Europe a little (for some reason we tacked on a few chapters of mountain trekking and settling of financial accounts at the end), and then… he disappears from the narrative. Maybe there was a sentence somewhere that I missed that said “And Friday died” or “and Friday stayed by Crusoe’s side!” or something. But I don’t recall seeing it.
Instead, Friday just vanishes from the narrative. Crusoe, on the other hand, gets married. We have zero idea to whom why, but why should we care? She just a woman! Together they pop out some kids (names? ages? genders? who gives a fuck?! They’re just his stupid children!). Then the wife dies, and he’s left with motherless kids, and he think “Ok, this is the perfect moment to completely abandon my family and go back to my island.” Back at the island, the supposedly rescued Spaniards and the leftover munitnous Englishman from the boat he escaped on have been all stranded together. He declares himself their overlord, then imports some women from Brazil so his underlings have something to do sex to.
End of book! So as you can see, we’ve all learned plenty of valuable lessons about how fucking awesome this cis white male is!
Most of the book, though, wasn’t this sexist and racist bullshit. Most of it, instead, was super boring and repetitive tales about his actual survival attempts on the island. It’s the worst. It might have been ok if we heard it one time through, but instead… we just repeat over and over. At some point he finds ink and decides to start keeping a diary, which we are then stuck reading, and which repeats back all of the events of the day that we had just finished reading about! It’s agony. It shouldn’t be, though. I’ve read other survival books. They should be fascinating. And I know this was an early example, so here I’ll allow a little bit of leeway, but still… God it’s boring. (Oh, and if casual animal cruetly bugs you, you also might find it disturbing since he does shit like murders cats for no discernible reason. Plus he hunts a lot and and starts to domesticate goats. But this is the exact material where I do tend to put away my woke modern lens and just kinda accept that some of this was necessary for survival.)
The boring survival stuff dragged on for FOOOOOREVER. Which is crazy because supposedly this was a short book. But I swear it did not FEEL short. I couldn’t wait for it to end, and every time I got through a chapter I looked at how much I had left and I swear, I think Kindle was just adding extra chapters as I was reading to mess with me.
The best thing I can say about the experience of reading this book, though, is that it’s really helpful for the book I’m currently writing. There’s some elements of iperialism and racism addressed in my book, and at times it feels cartoonishly evil. But then I read this, and went “Oh, wait, no… this dang book was a beloved adventure tale for centuries. People really ARE this evil.” So, it was helpful to get into that mindset.
The other good news is I can now scratch one more book off my poster of 100 Must Read Novels. Huzzah!