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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Robinson Crusoe | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe is an iconic tale chronicling the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a traveler and merchant. After various episodes Crusoe becomes a castaway stranded on a remote and deserted island where he rescues a native, whom he names "Friday," from a group of cannibals. Friday acts as Crusoe's servant on the island.

Readers and critics today are fascinated by the story itself as well as the implications of British imperialism within the text. Written at a time of great expansion in Britain's global empire, Robinson Crusoe is indicative of the mentality of imperial conquest, as the relationship between Crusoe and Friday is particularly representative of European attitudes toward the native inhabitants of their colonies.

1. Readers originally thought Robinson Crusoe was the memoir of a real castaway.

Robinson Crusoe's initial popularity came from the fact that the author was credited as Robinson Crusoe himself, and the public believed it to be a true story. Even when DeFoe was revealed as the author, many readers thought the story was an account of real-life events.

One critic in particular, named Charles Gibson, was intent on exposing the "memoir" as a lie and thought of "Robinson Crusoe only as an absurd romance." He was quick to point out plot holes that undermined the accuracy of Crusoe's story. One such event that was called into question is when Crusoe stuffs his pants pockets full of biscuits. Gibson said:

I don't find how the pockets of a Seaman's Breeches could receive any Biskets, that being generally no bigger than to contain a Tobacco Pouch, or the like.

2. Robinson Crusoe's full title is 68 words long.

When the novel's first edition came out in 1719, the title page read 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. Not surprisingly, the full title is rarely used.

Title page of the first edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1719.

Title page of the first edition of Robinson Crusoe, 1719.

3. Robinson Crusoe was based on a real castaway tale.

Although the public eventually realized that the book was a fictional account, Robinson Crusoe was based on the story of Alexander Selkirk, a privateer who raided Spanish ships for the British crown. Apparently Selkirk demanded that his captain leave him on a large island near Chile after an argument, only to regret his temper when no other men joined him in the would-be mutiny. A statue of Selkirk, modeled after the literary depiction of Crusoe, marks the spot of his old cottage in his hometown of Lower Largo, Scotland.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Fife, Scotland.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Fife, Scotland. SylviaStanley CC BY-SA 3.0

4. The Chilean government renamed an island after Robinson Crusoe.

The island where Alexander Selkirk was thought to be marooned, originally called Más a Tierra Island, was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island by the Chilean government in 1966 to capitalize on the tourism opportunities from the novel's popularity. The island's unique landscape makes it a popular destination for fishing, diving, and hiking.

5. The famous Irish writer James Joyce considered Robinson Crusoe to be the embodiment of British imperialism.

On the island, Crusoe establishes his own rule and exerts his will over the island's natives—he says that "the whole Country was [his] own mere Property." Joyce believed the novel was the most defining work of the British Empire's colonialist mentality. He stated:

The true symbol of British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday ... is the symbol of the subject races.

6. During World War II, survivors in Warsaw were named after the character.

The "Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw" were individuals who hid within the bombed and ruined city as a last resort. Many of these people were Jews who feared leaving the city, being discovered, and sent to concentration camps. After Warsaw's liberation by the Red Army in 1945, the survivors were given the name by the press due to their resilience and ability to survive in such terrible conditions.

7. Robinson Crusoe is considered by some critics to be the first English novel.

Historians don't unanimously agree, but many consider Robinson Crusoe the first English-language text that closely parallels the modern-day novel. In his book The Rise of the Novel, the influential literary critic Ian Watt argued in defense of Robin Crusoe:

Robinson Crusoe is certainly the first novel in the sense that it is the first fictional narrative in which an ordinary person's daily activities are the centre of continuous literary attention.

8. An economic model is based on Robinson Crusoe.

An economic model first mentioned by Karl Marx, commonly called the Robinson Crusoe Economy, supposes that there is one producer, one consumer, and two goods produced. On his island Crusoe is seen as both agents, as he must produce food for himself while also "consuming" the surroundings of his island. The two goods in question are his free time to daydream and the food he needs. Trade is impossible, and so all production must come from existing stockpiles on the island.

9. Defoe's character Friday has become an English-language idiom.

The term man Friday or girl Friday refers to a loyal and competent employee, servant, or second-in-command. In the story, Friday proves himself a trusted sidekick, helping Crusoe as willing laborer, servant, and soldier. Friday is named after the weekday on which Crusoe rescues him.

10. The character Robinson Crusoe has Puritan undertones.

Defoe was a devout Puritan, from the same sect of Christianity as the Pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts. The group's conservative ideology was always controversial in England, but Crusoe is portrayed as a pious individual who regularly meditates on biblical scripture. His attempts to "civilize" Friday are also in line with Puritanism, as the Puritan settlers attempted to convert and dominate the native civilizations they came into contact with in the Americas.

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