Crusoe (the family name corrupted from the German name "Kreutznaer") sets sail from the Queen's Dock in Hull on a sea voyage in August 1651, against the wishes of his parents, who want him to pursue a career, possibly in law. After a tumultuous journey where his ship is wrecked in a storm, his lust for the sea remains so strong that he sets out to sea again. This journey, too, ends in disaster, as the ship is taken over by Salé pirates (the Salé Rovers) and Crusoe is enslaved by a Moor. Two years later, he escapes in a boat with a boy named Xury; a captain of a Portuguese ship off the west coast of Africa rescues him. The ship is en route to Brazil. Crusoe sells Xury to the captain. With the captain's help, Crusoe procures a plantation.
Years later, Crusoe joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but he is shipwrecked in a storm about forty miles out to sea on an island (which he calls the Island of Despair) near the mouth of the Orinoco river on 30 September 1659. He observes the latitude as 9 degrees and 22 minutes north. He sees penguins and seals on his island. As for his arrival there, only he and three animals, the captain's dog and two cats, survive the shipwreck. Overcoming his despair, he fetches arms, tools and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks. He builds a fenced-in habitat near a cave which he excavates. By making marks in a wooden cross, he creates a calendar. By using tools salvaged from the ship, and some he makes himself from "ironwood", he hunts, grows barley and rice, dries grapes to make raisins, learns to make pottery and raises goats. He also adopts a small parrot. He reads the Bible and becomes religious, thanking God for his fate in which nothing is missing but human society.
More years pass and Crusoe discovers native cannibals, who occasionally visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At first he plans to kill them for committing an abomination but later realizes he has no right to do so, as the cannibals do not knowingly commit a crime. He dreams of obtaining one or two servants by freeing some prisoners; when a prisoner escapes, Crusoe helps him, naming his new companion "Friday" after the day of the week he appeared. Crusoe then teaches him English and converts him to Christianity.
After more natives arrive to partake in a cannibal feast, Crusoe and Friday kill most of the natives and save two prisoners. One is Friday's father and the other is a Spaniard, who informs Crusoe about other Spaniards shipwrecked on the mainland. A plan is devised wherein the Spaniard would return to the mainland with Friday's father and bring back the others, build a ship, and sail to a Spanish port.
Before the Spaniards return, an English ship appears; mutineers have commandeered the vessel and intend to maroon their captain on the island. Crusoe and the ship's captain strike a deal in which Crusoe helps the captain and the loyal sailors retake the ship and leave the worst mutineers on the island. Before embarking for England, Crusoe shows the mutineers how he survived on the island and states that there will be more men coming. Crusoe leaves the island 19 December 1686 and arrives in England on 11 June 1687. He learns that his family believed him dead; as a result, he was left nothing in his father's will. Crusoe departs for Lisbon to reclaim the profits of his estate in Brazil, which has granted him much wealth. In conclusion, he transports his wealth overland to England to avoid travelling by sea. Friday accompanies him and, en route, they endure one last adventure together as they fight off famished wolves while crossing the Pyrenees.
The book was published on 25 April 1719. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions.
By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children's versions with pictures and no text.
The term "Robinsonade" was coined to describe the genre of stories similar to Robinson Crusoe.
Defoe went on to write a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). It was intended to be the last part of his stories, according to the original title page of its first edition, but a third part, Serious Reflections During the Life & Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, With His Vision of the Angelic World (1720), was later added.
There were many stories of real-life castaways in Defoe's time. Defoe's immediate inspiration for Crusoe is usually thought to be a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 by Woodes Rogers' expedition after four years on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández Islands off the Chilean coast. Rogers' "Cruising Voyage" was published in 1712, with an account of Alexander Selkirk's ordeal. However, Robinson Crusoe is far from a copy of Rogers' account: Selkirk was marooned at his own request, while Crusoe was shipwrecked; the islands are different; Selkirk lived alone for the whole time, while Crusoe found companions; Selkirk stayed on his island for four years, not twenty-eight. Furthermore, much of the appeal of Defoe's novel is the detailed and captivating account of Crusoe's thoughts, occupations and activities which goes far beyond that of Rogers' basic descriptions of Selkirk, which account for only a few pages. However, one must not forget that Defoe presented himself as the editor of the story. He was adamant to maintain his claim that the actual author was "Robinson Crusoe": a real person who was still alive in 1719–20.
Tim Severin's book Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002) unravels a much wider and more plausible range of potential sources of inspiration, and concludes by identifying castaway surgeon Henry Pitman as the most likely. An employee of the Duke of Monmouth, Pitman played a part in the Monmouth Rebellion. His short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony, followed by his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures, was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Row, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel. Severin argues that since Pitman appears to have lived in the lodgings above the father's publishing house and that Defoe himself was a mercer in the area at the time, Defoe may have met Pitman in person and learned of his experiences first-hand, or possibly through submission of a draft.
Severin also discusses another publicised case of a marooned man named only as Will, of the Miskito people of Central America, who may have led to the depiction of Man Friday.
Novelist James Joyce noted that the true symbol of the British Empire is Robinson Crusoe, to whom he ascribed stereotypical and somewhat hostile English racial characteristics: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist. ... The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity." In a sense Crusoe attempts to replicate his society on the island. This is achieved through the use of European technology, agriculture and even a rudimentary political hierarchy. Several times in the novel Crusoe refers to himself as the "king" of the island, whilst the captain describes him as the "governor" to the mutineers. At the very end of the novel the island is explicitly referred to as a "colony". The idealised master-servant relationship Defoe depicts between Crusoe and Friday can also be seen in terms of cultural imperialism. Crusoe represents the "enlightened" European whilst Friday is the "savage" who can only be redeemed from his barbarous way of life through assimilation into Crusoe's culture. Nonetheless Defoe also takes the opportunity to criticise the historic Spanish conquest of South America.
According to J. P. Hunter, Robinson is not a hero but an everyman. He begins as a wanderer, aimless on a sea he does not understand, and ends as a pilgrim, crossing a final mountain to enter the promised land. The book tells the story of how Robinson becomes closer to God, not through listening to sermons in a church but through spending time alone amongst nature with only a Bible to read.
Conversely, cultural critic and literary scholar Michael Gurnow views the novel from a Rousseauian perspective. In "'The Folly of Beginning a Work Before We Count the Cost': Anarcho-Primitivism in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe," the central character's movement from a primitive state to a more civilized one is interpreted as Crusoe's denial of humanity's state of nature.
Robinson Crusoe is filled with religious aspects. Defoe was a Puritan moralist and normally worked in the guide tradition, writing books on how to be a good Puritan Christian, such as The New Family Instructor (1727) and Religious Courtship (1722). While Robinson Crusoe is far more than a guide, it shares many of the themes and theological and moral points of view. "Crusoe" may have been taken from Timothy Cruso, a classmate of Defoe's who had written guide books, including God the Guide of Youth (1695), before dying at an early age – just eight years before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Cruso would have been remembered by contemporaries and the association with guide books is clear. It has even been speculated that God the Guide of Youth inspired Robinson Crusoe because of a number of passages in that work that are closely tied to the novel. A leitmotif of the novel is the Christian notion of Providence, penitence and redemption. Crusoe comes to repent of the follies of his youth. Defoe also foregrounds this theme by arranging highly significant events in the novel to occur on Crusoe's birthday. The denouement culminates not only in Crusoe's deliverance from the island, but his spiritual deliverance, his acceptance of Christian doctrine, and in his intuition of his own salvation.
When confronted with the cannibals, Crusoe wrestles with the problem of cultural relativism. Despite his disgust, he feels unjustified in holding the natives morally responsible for a practice so deeply ingrained in their culture. Nevertheless, he retains his belief in an absolute standard of morality; he regards cannibalism as a "national crime" and forbids Friday from practising it.
In classical, neoclassical and Austrian economics, Crusoe is regularly used to illustrate the theory of production and choice in the absence of trade, money and prices. Crusoe must allocate effort between production and leisure and must choose between alternative production possibilities to meet his needs. The arrival of Friday is then used to illustrate the possibility of and gains from trade.
Tim Severin's book Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002) unravels a much wider range of potential sources of inspiration. Severin concludes his investigations by stating that the real Robinson Crusoe figure was Henry Pitman, a castaway who had been surgeon to the Duke of Monmouth. Pitman's short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony for his part in the Monmouth Rebellion, his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Street, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel. Severin argues that since Pitman appears to have lived in the lodgings above the father's publishing house and since Defoe was a mercer in the area at the time, Defoe may have met Pitman and learned of his experiences as a castaway. If he didn't meet Pitman, Severin points out that Defoe, upon submitting even a draft of a novel about a castaway to his publisher, would undoubtedly have learned about Pitman's book published by his father, especially since the interesting castaway had previously lodged with them at their former premises.
Severin also provides evidence in his book that another publicised case of a real-life marooned Miskito Central American man named only as Will may have caught Defoe's attention, inspiring the depiction of Man Friday in his novel.
The novel has been variously read as an allegory for the development of civilisation, as a manifesto of economic individualism and as an expression of European colonial desires but it also shows the importance of repentance and illustrates the strength of Defoe's religious convictions. It is also considered by many to be the first novel written in English. Early critics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, admired it, saying that the footprint scene in Crusoe was one of the four greatest in English literature and most unforgettable; more prosaically, Dr. Wesley Vernon has seen the origins of forensic podiatry in this episode. It has inspired a new genre, the Robinsonade, as works like Johann David Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) adapt its premise and has provoked modern postcolonial responses, including J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986) and Michel Tournier's Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (in English, Friday, or, The Other Island) (1967). Two sequels followed, Defoe's The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and his Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the angelick world (1720). Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) in part parodies Defoe's adventure novel.
The book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered the language. During World War II, people who decided to stay and hide in the ruins of the German-occupied city of Warsaw for a period of three winter months, from October to January 1945, when they were rescued by the Red Army, were later called Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw. Robinson Crusoe usually referred to his servant as "my man Friday", from which the term "Man Friday" (or "Girl Friday") originated.
Robinson Crusoe marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. Its success led to many imitators, and castaway novels, written by Ambrose Evans, Penelope Aubin, and others, became quite popular in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these have fallen into obscurity, but some became established, including The Swiss Family Robinson, which borrowed Crusoe's first name for its title.
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, published seven years after Robinson Crusoe, may be read as a systematic rebuttal of Defoe's optimistic account of human capability. In The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man, Warren Montag argues that Swift was concerned about refuting the notion that the individual precedes society, as Defoe's novel seems to suggest. In Treasure Island, author Robert Louis Stevenson parodies Crusoe with the character of Ben Gunn, a friendly castaway who was marooned for many years, has a wild appearance, dresses entirely in goat skin and constantly talks about providence.
In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on education, Emile, or On Education, the one book the protagonist is allowed to read before the age of twelve is Robinson Crusoe. Rousseau wants Emile to identify himself as Crusoe so he can rely upon himself for all of his needs. In Rousseau's view, Emile needs to imitate Crusoe's experience, allowing necessity to determine what is to be learned and accomplished. This is one of the main themes of Rousseau's educational model.
In The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, Beatrix Potter directs the reader to Robinson Crusoe for a detailed description of the island (the land of the Bong tree) to which her eponymous hero moves. In Wilkie Collins' most popular novel, The Moonstone, one of the chief characters and narrators, Gabriel Betteredge, has faith in all that Robinson Crusoe says and uses the book for a sort of divination. He considers The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe the finest book ever written, reads it over and over again, and considers a man but poorly read if he had happened not to read the book.
French novelist Michel Tournier published Friday, or, The Other Island (French Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique) in 1967. His novel explores themes including civilization versus nature, the psychology of solitude, as well as death and sexuality in a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe story. Tournier's Robinson chooses to remain on the island, rejecting civilization when offered the chance to escape 28 years after being shipwrecked. Likewise, in 1963, J. M. G. Le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, published the novel Le Proces-Verbal. The book's epigraph is a quote from Robinson Crusoe, and like Crusoe, Adam Pollo suffers long periods of loneliness.
"Crusoe in England", a 183-line poem by Elizabeth Bishop, imagines Crusoe near the end of his life, recalling his time of exile with a mixture of bemusement and regret.
J. M. Coetzee's 1986 novel Foe recounts the tale of Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman named Susan Barton.
The story was also illustrated and published in comic book form by Classics Illustrated in 1943 and 1957. The much improved 1957 version was inked/penciled by Sam Citron, who is most well known for his contributions to the earlier issues of Superman.
A pantomime version of Robinson Crusoe was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1796, with Joseph Grimaldi as Pierrot in the harlequinade. The piece was produced again in 1798, this time starring Grimaldi as Clown. In 1815, Grimaldi played Friday in another version of Robinson Crusoe.
Jacques Offenbach wrote an opéra comique called Robinson Crusoé, which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 23 November 1867. This was based on the British pantomime version rather than the novel itself. The libretto was by Eugène Cormon and Hector-Jonathan Crémieux.
There is a 1927 silent film titled Robinson Crusoe. The Soviet 3D film Robinzon Kruzo was produced in 1946. Luis Buñuel directed Adventures of Robinson Crusoe starring Dan O'Herlihy, released in 1954. Walt Disney later modernized the novel with Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., featuring Dick Van Dyke. Peter O'Toole and Richard Roundtree co-starred in a 1975 film Man Friday which satirically portrayed Crusoe as incapable of seeing his dark-skinned companion as anything but an inferior creature, while Friday is more enlightened and empathetic. In 1988, Aidan Quinn portrayed Robinson Crusoe in the film Crusoe. A 1997 movie entitled Robinson Crusoe starred Pierce Brosnan and received limited commercial success. Variations on the theme include the 1954 Miss Robin Crusoe, with a female castaway, played by Amanda Blake, and a female Friday, and the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, starring Paul Mantee, with an alien Friday portrayed by Victor Lundin. The 2000 film Cast Away, with Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee stranded on an Island for many years, also borrows much from the Robinson Crusoe story.
In 1964 a French film production crew made a 13-part serial of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It starred Robert Hoffman. The black and white series was dubbed into English and German. In the UK, the BBC broadcast it on numerous occasions between 1965 and 1977. In 1981 Czechoslovakian director and animator Stanislav Látal made a version of the story under the name Dobrodružství Robinsona Crusoe, námořníka z Yorku (The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a sailor from York) combining traditional and stop-motion animation. The movie was coproduced by regional West Germany broadcaster Sudwestfunk Baden-Baden.Robinson Crusoe, Oneworld Classics 2008. ISBN 978-1-84749-012-4
Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Classics 2003. ISBN 978-0-14-143982-2
Robinson Crusoe, Oxford World's Classics 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-283342-6
Robinson Crusoe, Bantam Classics