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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe with Course Hero's video study guide.

Robinson Crusoe | Context


The Story of Scottish Sailor Alexander Selkirk

Robinson Crusoe reflects its author's interests and experiences. It was written in the midst of ongoing English conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism, and Robinson Crusoe's religious journey addresses various aspects of these conflicts. His encounters with sailors of different nationalities and natives of different continents are flavored with political intrigue and Defoe's experiences in trade.

However, the most direct influence and inspiration for Robinson Crusoe is the story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk. A shoemaker's son from the town of Fife, Selkirk ran away to sea as a young man, just as Crusoe runs away from his family. However, unlike Crusoe, Selkirk also reportedly engaged in a fistfight with his father and two brothers. He also left at least one alleged wife behind in Scotland. He became a privateer, or legalized pirate, and spent several years raiding Spanish ships off the Pacific coast of South America on behalf of the English government. During a conflict with the captain of his ship in 1704 off the coast of Chile, Selkirk demanded to be left on a nearby island. The captain obliged, and Selkirk stayed there for over four years. When he returned to England in 1709, his story became well known.

The island Selkirk likely occupied is in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, roughly 400 miles off the western coast of Chile. The second largest island in the cluster is named Isla Alejandro Selkirk (also known as Isla Más Afuera) for Selkirk. The largest island, known as Isla Más a Tierra, is now sometimes called Isla Robinson Crusoe. However, Crusoe comes to understand from Friday that his island is near the island of Trinidad, in the Caribbean Sea. Isla Robinson Crusoe (and the location of Selkirk's island) is off the coast of Chile, in the South Pacific.

Lasting Literary Legacy

Better known by its abbreviated title Robinson Crusoe, Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe enjoyed unprecedented popularity upon its publication in 1719. It went through nine printings in its first year alone. The amazing success of the novel inspired Defoe to publish two sequels in short order: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which appeared in 1719, and Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, which he published in 1720. Neither sequel sold as well as the original, but Defoe's success as a novelist was already secure and enduring. Since its first publication, Robinson Crusoe has been translated into more than 100 languages and adapted in a number of ways—including children's books and graphic novels. It has remained in print continuously since 1719. The novel is commonly regarded as one of the most influential books of all time because of its thoughtful portrayal of a protagonist whom readers readily identify as an ordinary man who is on an incredible adventure.

In the years since its publication, Robinson Crusoe inspired many other literary works. The first was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in 1726. And the work's influence has been consistent, with noticeable impact on such popular novels as Johann David Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954). South African novelist J.M. Coetzee used Robinson Crusoe as a jumping-off point for his 1986 novel Foe, an exploration of the powers of language and narrative. The novel has seen a number of film adaptations and influenced numerous films and television series, including Lost (2004–10), Cast Away (2000), and The Martian (2015). The classic television comedy Gilligan's Island (1964–67), the continuing saga of seven hapless tourists stranded on an island near Hawaii, directly mentions Robinson Crusoe in its theme song.

Colonization and Racism

Some modern readers may be taken aback by the attitudes and language of Robinson Crusoe about native culture. In many ways, Robinson Crusoe epitomizes English colonialism, the practice of acquiring foreign lands, inhabiting the lands with settlers, and exploiting native people and resources for the economic gain of England. The practice began in the late 16th century and continued into the 20th century, affecting many regions of the world, including the Americas, India, and Africa, among others. Robinson Crusoe's island becomes a microcosm of the British Empire. Crusoe rules the area through a lens of cultural superiority as he brings to the island and its people his language, system of naming, habits, and religion in an attempt to westernize the area. His use of terms such as savages and creatures also conveys this attitude of superiority, and works to dehumanize and subjugate the native people.

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