written by: Peter Boysen
• edited by: Noreen Gunnell
• updated: 1/6/2012
This is a study guide on Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe, designed to introduce students to the basics of the novel and give them the tools they need to make more detailed lines of inquiry as they read the story.
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A Quick Look at Plot
The best place to begin a study guide of Robinson Crusoe is with the underlying events of the story. Crusoe's father had wanted him to become a lawyer, but he wanted to see the world by traveling at sea. Crusoe at first decides to go to law school but then boards a ship with his friend, heading for the wonders of London. This experience emboldens Crusoe to start a merchant business, and his first venture is a success.
However, his second voyage ends in capture by pirates, and Crusoe becomes a slave in North Africa. He breaks free and starts his own plantation in Brazil. However, on a voyage to get slaves, he ends up shipwrecked near Trinidad. He spends several years isolated on his island, until a crew of cannibals arrives, and he rescues Friday (who becomes his sidekick) from them. Later on, he and Friday overpower a group of mutinous sailors, and head back to England. His plantations in Brazil have amazingly prospered in his absence. He becomes an East Indies trader after selling his plantations for a considerable profit, and travels to his old island, finding it a prosperous Spanish colony.
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The most important character for a study guide of Robinson Crusoe is the title character himself. He's no Captain Jack Black, not even a dour Lemuel Gulliver. However, he does show persistence -- he takes months to build a sound canoe, and he can build usable structures with almost no materials. He's not a hero, but he gets things done effectively. Crusoe lacks depth of emotion, however. He abandons his family without any emotion, other than worrying about the spiritual implications of going against his father's wishes. And while Crusoe can be financially quite generous, he is generally not affectionate. He actually comes across quite dull in the story itself. In his quite, competent materialism, he is the prototypical Colonist.
Friday is a symbol of all of the indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia and Africa who were enslaved by the European colonizers -- look no further than the fact that Crusoe teaches Friday to call him "Master" to get an idea of the racial and social mores of the day. Ironically, Friday appears to be enjoying life a lot more than Crusoe -- his chance to see his father again makes him just giddy -- a feeling we would never associate with Crusoe himself.
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Themes at Work
This study guide of Robinson Crusoe points out two themes: the power of repentance, and the necessity of self-knowledge. Crusoe has his most powerful spiritual moments when he is asking God for forgiveness for the way he rebelled against his father. This sort of repentance is not common in our own time, because it requires people to admit dependence on a higher being. Near the end of the story, after Crusoe has returned to England to find his fortune well-preserved, he compares himself to Job, who in the Old Testament had his belongings and relatives scattered throughout the world, only to have some of them restored to him, and his children replaced with new ones.
Self-knowledge, or self-awareness, is crucial to a meaningful and successful life. Even when he's lost, Crusoe keeps a careful journal of everything that happens to him. He doesn't want to lose consciousness of himself. This was an even more valuable lesson in the time of Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, than it is in our own, more self-analytic time. An instance that shows Crusoe's self-awareness is the fact that he teaches his parrot to ask him, "Poor Robin Crusoe...where have you been?" Even his bird wants to know his progress, the things that have happened to him, and where he is going next.