All aboard the ark of possibility; or Robinson Crusoe returns from Mars as a small-footprint, multi-channel indeterminacy machine.
In an equally unprecedented turn of events, these two schools of interpretation seem to have acceded over the last decade not to other, new and improved critical analyses of this polyvalent novel, but to nothing at all. True, there is a vast up-to-the-minute critical literature on Defoe, yet most of it is aimed at his other works, particularly at works written in a female or a piratical-countercultural voice (Moll Flanders, Roxana, Captain Singleton, Jonathan Wild).(1) Much of this critical literature is rather antagonistic to a middle-class white mercantilist colonialist Protestant adventurer like Robinson Crusoe, being more concerned with applauding Defoe' s minorities and women. Unexpectedly, among Defoe's characters Crusoe would qualify as the most "oppressed" and the greatest victim of injustice. The most moral of Defoe's protagonists, Crusoe spends too much time in prayer to draw the charges--theft, piracy, treason, pickpocketing--that could and have been leveled against Defoe's other characters. Despite all there is to recommend it, however, Robinson Crusoe has become a kind of castaway again, a strange vacuity in contemporary Defoe studies. Moreover, the leading citizens of Defoe's critical island-Ian Watt, J. Alan Downie, Paula Backscheider, John Richetti, Manuel Schonhorn, J. Paul Hunter, Maximillian Novak-are now, in their seniority, entering the laureled world of legend, leaving behind something of an empty atoll, at least with respect to history's favorite castaway.
To some degree, the occasional disappearance of part of Defoe's canon is probably necessary as a critical survival technique. No critical approach can encompass so big, elusive, and protean an author as Defoe. There are probably more tenable approaches to Defoe than there are available Defoe critics. Defoe's taste for strong topics--pirates, pilferers, solitaries, abused women, "what d'ye call 'ems"--encourages critics to try out every possible approach. Disagreement flourishes: Moll Flanders is either about women's liberation or about spiritual whoredom; Captain Singleton is either a celebration of the underclasses or a mystery play against evildoers. Critical conflict is nothing new, but the fact that Defoe's writings can plausibly sustain so many contradictions points up their unique resistance to critical closure. Defoe's diverse, comprehensive narratives--the whole life of a multifarious rogue, the complete history of a multiethnic island civilization--fit poorly with any one critical discourse, no matter how ingenious. The insufficiency of any "approach" to Defoe is played out in an eternal (if closed) critical cycle. John Bender portrays castaway Crusoe as the personification of an oppressive "penitentiary" mentality; Robert Erickson's gynocriticism tightens the pentitential enclosure into a womb; Hunter counters that "odd, lumpy" novels "embarrass" overwrought theories; Downie rebuts Hunter's narratological approach by relocating Crusoe into the "adventures" and "travels" tradition; study of literary tradition leads G. A. Starr to encapsulate Robinson Crusoe in a redemption narrative; consternation over excessive source-hunting and misdirected piety drive Schonhorn to distance tradition and Providence from Defoe's ad hoc literary practice; Schonhornian caution draws Rudiger Ahrens into scrupulous analysis of political rhetoric; distortions in political discourse force Timothy Blackburn to scowl that "Friday" is not a black but an Indian who doesn't mind speaking non-native tongues like English; whereupon the critical loop turns back toward Bender's ideological penitentiary.(2) So with Defoe's oeuvre and audience. Academic critics flock to "feminist" heroines like Moll Flanders, but readers and filmmakers adore Robinson Crusoe. Like Gulliver's Travels. Defoe's fiction attracts nearly as big a juvenile as a scholarly crowd. Unlike Defoe's other period novels, Robinson Crusoe even seems to have the unique property of infinite technical adaptability. Captain Singleton is very much tied to the maritime and shipping world of the eighteenth century, but no one seems to mind or even notice when the Disney studio, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, substitutes a high-tech rocket ship for Crusoe's Augustan arc.
The point of all this is that Robinson Crusoe is an epitome of what might be called the "Defoe problem," the problem of an author who is simply too big and diverse for any literary approach, theoretical or otherwise. Critics of the preceding several decades inadvertently set the stage for Crusoe's marginalization by trying too hard to view him as a coherent figure with definite "personal characteristics" (or other attibutes) that could be compared or contrasted to figures in other novels. Alternatively, critics have tried to prove that Robinson Crusoe is an identifiable novel that could be compared and contrasted to other narratives. Any such attempt at a narratological, ideological, psychological, or even explicative approach to this work is doomed to fail. There are simply too many dimensions to Crusoe' s character and too many variations, vacillations, and irregularities in his putative "novel."
This paper will take another approach to Robinson Crusoe and by extension to eighteenth-century fiction generally. It will suggest that Robinson Crusoe is a sort of multi-channel indeterminacy machine, a perverse if wonderful device for generating alternatives, diversions, and counter-interpretations, indeed for tacitly invoking versions of itself that have yet to be written. The paper will avoid trendy analogies between Defoe' s writing and postmodern science, but it will suggest that Robinson Crusoe is a "chaotic" or "non-linear" formation in the sense that it postulates critical turning points and defines assorted variant trajectories for its characters rather than laying out an architectonic structure or deterministic narrative of the sort that, for example. F. W. Hilles or Martin Battestin rightly sees in Henry Fielding's fiction. Although Robinson Crusoe and its sequels make for a large work, that work is only the small footprint of an almost infinite range of yet-unwritten possibilities--much as computer salesmen brag about the "small footprint," the small amount of space, required by machines capable of infinitely diverse applications. The footprint metaphor is apt, for this paper will argue that Defoe saw the "surprising adventures" of his monomaniac castaway as a model for staying one step ahead of any possible interpretation for thinking in terms of possible, emerging stories rather than reflective scholarly interpretations.
Whoever or whatever Robinson Crusoe might be, he is a raft full of them. Adaptable to almost any critical theory, this everyman is a human flotilla. Watt's Crusoe is a modern capitalist and economic man; Hunter's and Starr's is a player in a pilgrimage narrative; Novak's and James Sutherland's is a nexus of "personal characteristics."(3) Each of these many Crusoes falls short of its archetype, if only because each of the aformentioned critics assumes that this most holographic of figures can be treated as a single character or explicated from a single point of view. These classic interpretations dodge the question of whether Crusoe is a "character" at all-and whether one can take a critical angle on so well-rounded a figure.
For one thing, Crusoe is not just Crusoe, but Crusoe and his island, his environment. True, Crusoe's waterfront developments may exclude him from membership in the Sierra Club, yet he remains more connected than any psychologically sophisticated "character" with his physical, natural, social, and discursive surroundings. Crusoe makes a contribution to "the history of the novel" not by being a "character" so much as by distilling an identity and a life from miscellaneous things, forces, and perspectives. His "character" involves Crusoe's island; despite styling himself as solitary, his many providential deliverances work themselves out through a social enviroment, through cohorts like Friday and Xury. The fact that Crusoe is so much a part of his insular environment points up the unique confluence of necessity and contingency in this story; Crusoe is absolutely, without reprieve, on and in his island, yet his responses to his dilemma are completely optional, ranging from lying down and dying to relying on his somewhat quirky genius to escape this or that predicament. The ease with which we can think of Crusoe as either one of the first "characters" in English prose fiction or as a stick-figure in Puritan redemption narrative corresponds to the ease with which a satirist and social-contractarian like Defoe can bring out both the determinacy and the contingency of both natural and psychological experience.(4) In Crusoe's quantum universe, anything can happen, but only some things do. Hobbesian determinism and Bunyanian providentialism coincide. Defoe explains the ups and downs of Crusoe's life with an ambiguous maxim, "the Blessing of God does not ordinarily follow upon a presumptuous sinning against his Command,"(5) suggesting the operation of a determinate system of rewards and punishments while also leaving open an alternate, more than "ordinary" case in which sin might yield blessing. That alternate case is of course Crusoe, someone who is so emphatically alternative that salvation delivers him even as he serves his time on his nominally hopeless "Island of Despair."
Crusoe is the one who names his island "Despair"; the name and the typology are among the contingencies, not the necessities. In freeing Crusoe from overly allegorical readings, it is important to remember that Crusoe, his "characteristics," and his allegorical meanings are all far more loosely allied than they might be in, say, a medieval romance. The loosening of the seemingly necessary relation between allegorical figure and allegorical meaning had started earlier; John Bunyan, for example, puts forward figures like "Christian" or "Mr. Bad Man," characters who differ from, say, "Despair" or "Sloth" in that they represents whole clusters of variable attitudes and behaviors rather than one determinate trait. Biblical typologists tend to conflate Crusoe with his "propension" to wander (see Crusoe, 7:2 and passim). Crusoe, however, is always more rather than less complex. He may have a wandering propension, but his wandering propension is not all that he is. This "propension" only "tends" to a "Life of Misery," and Crusoe does many things other than wander. Crusoe also has a propension to reiterate compressed versions of his story, with each retelling of his tale varying slightly, with varying effects on the meaning of his wandering propension and on the direction his narrative takes. Crusoe explains his history and lifestyle to the English pirates in the hope that they might imitate it in some variant way (8:72). He makes lists of all the particular manifestations of his basic problem, being cast away, each variant example drifting in a different direction from the ur-text of his "original" sin.(6) Parrot Poll is trained to ask over and over again, "Where have you been? How come you here?" (7:165), as if to draw from Crusoe some new and more satisfactory account of his present plight, as if repetition and variation could eventually produce enough versions of Crusoe's story to reveal the shape and presumably providential destination of his life story. Indeed, Crusoe can report several versions of one event within a few paragraphs.(7) The catalytic moment in Robinson Crusoe, Robinson's sudden decision to go to sea, is one of many impulsive actions yielding similar but not identical (disastrous) results: his premonitory decision not to enter any apprenticeship (7:5), his sudden decision to ship out as an African trader and to do so as a gentleman rather than a tarpaulin (7:16-17); his decision to become a Brazilian planter (7:38); his decision to leave his prosperous plantation and commence slaving (7:44); his decision to leave his comfortable Bedford estate and return to his island (8:111); his decision to sail for the East Indies (8:79-80); and his decision to desecrate the Tartar idol at Nertsinskay (9:182). All these choices typify wandering Crusoe's "original sin," yet their variousness counterpoints as well as corroborates their typological significance.
The possible variations in Crusoe's story are not time-independent or synchronic, but rather exist in time-specific points, as moments at which the narrative could turn in any of several variant directions. There are, of course, turning points in all stories, but in Robinson Crusoe the turning points are not at all theoretical or pre-determined, but presented as genuine and productive instabilities, as opportunities for change in the narrative. There is no controlling omniscient narrator, only events. These crucial events present themselves as events, not as parts of a pre-planned scheme. Crusoe's story is always twisting and turning as he makes one decision after another out of a variety of routes, as if he were inside a pinball machine (as opposed to characters like Fielding's Tom Jones or even Smollett's Roderick Random, who also make many choices but who are certain to end up on the predictable path to a comicromantic happy ending). The odd fact of Crusoe being what he is-he is, after all, a strange duck--could initiate any number of narrative trajectories, each diverted from its typological path by non- typological contingencies. It's easy to be a typical prodigal son until Xury comes along, then one must deviate a bit from that narrative course. Crusoe laments:
I have been in all my Circumstances a Memento to those who are touched
with the general Plague of Mankind, whence, for ought I know, one half
of their Miseries flow; I mean, that of not being satisfy'd with the
Station wherein God and Nature has plac'd them; for not to look back
upon my primitive Condition, and the excellent Advice of my Father, the
Opposition to which, was, as I may call it, my ORIGINAL SIN; my
subsequent Mistakes of the same Kind had been the Means of my
coming into this miserable Condition; for had that Providence, which
so happily had seated me at the Brasils, as a Planter, bless'd me with
confin'd Desires, and I could have been contented to have gone on
gradually, I might have been by this Time; I mean, in the Time of my
being in the Island, one of the most considerable Planters in the Brasils.
It may be tempting to read such a passage, with its prominent "as I may call it" phrase and its description of Crusoe as a memento of an irretrievable past, in a deconstructive vein. Yet Crusoe's self-characterization as sign lacks the retrospective penitentialism of deconstruction. Crusoe thinks of himself as a notable "memento" only so that some memorable past event may serve as a "circumstance" or "mistake," as a point of departure for a new version of his story. Despite all his blunders, Crusoesque time always flows non-entropically, toward increasing prosperity, variety, civility, and semantic significance. His father's warning seems "truly Prophetick" (7:4) only when cast in the past tense, behind four decades of "circumstances" that have greatly multiplied the number of narratives to which his prophecy could apply. In some sense, Crusoe's story progresses, but not toward an ending; an ending is a single option, but the whole momentum of this story is toward multiple possibilities, toward continuation.
As teachers of literature, we have been fooled by our own omnicompetence. We can see, post hoc, the motivations of every character or the shape of every plot and we imagine that those shapes and motivations were planned or superimposed in advance. Defoe gives quite the opposite impression, constructing both story line and character identity through a series of rhetorical feints, retreats, assertions, retractions, and regroupings. An ominous shipwreck at Yarmouth signifies that Crusoe is not a seaman, then the gradual smoothing of the sea--a contrary emblematic wind--modifies Crusoe's course back toward a nautical life (7:8). Touched by the Onanism controversy, Crusoe is always "conversing mutually with my own Thoughts, and, as I hope I may say, with even God himself by Ejaculations" (7:156-57). "Secret Disputes with my self" (7:231) pit various life trajectories against each other, vectoring rather than steering Crusoe along in his story. The space of Crusoe's solitary conversations is elastic and inflationary. Sometimes Crusoe talks to himself; sometimes he reaches out and touches his parrot (7:164); sometimes he talks across the broad legal spaces, as when he debates his jurisdiction over cannibals (8:20); sometimes he chats with distant ships (8:66); sometimes he talks about the public space of free discourse, as when he upbraids the mutineers (9:103). In all these cases, Crusoe's strategy is to go a little distance, see what happens, and then either pursue that narrative course or return to his original situation and start over. A continuous experiment, his story meanders through and by dead-ends and open highways, eventually getting somewhere but only through a series of probes and thrusts in a variety of directions. Crusoe's story can thus be said to be organized statistically as well as narratively. Rather than following the route that conforms to expections, probabilities, or genre stereotypes, it follows the alternative that most often leads to results. Crusoe's contant postulating of alternative courses for his narrative also occurs retrospectively. The supposed "realism" of Crusoe's story takes place in a timewarp, in that the story is told long after the fact by an old and pious Crusoe lightyears removed from his former wandering life. Crusoe prefaces his actions with phrases like "I am now to be suppos'd" (7:226 and passim), as if his future distance from present events or even his poor memory makes his experience both more and less fictive--as if immediate fact co-exists with long-term possibility. From a critical-theoretical point of view, it would be impossible to deconstruct language like Crusoe's that makes no claim to a specific meaning, but only to a range of possible meanings; likewise, it would be equally impossible to postulate any particular ideological meaning for language that is itself a perpetual revolution, that is always opening the possibility that something else will happen or something else will be said.
Crusoe's use of language is a fine case in point of his defining alternative trajectories out of seemingly unambiguous nomenclature. Crusoe has to deal with a variety of languages and dialects, from the incomprehensible shoutings of cannibal warriors to the quaint pidgeon used by his servant Friday. In Defoe's time, many projectors, most notably the indefatigable John Ray, undertook something resembling linguistic surveys, gathering dialect phrases and maxims from around England and publishing them as "guides" to curious regional (or disciplinary) usages, jargon, and idioms. Such surveys were the first attempt to codify while also problematizing the idea of a "national language," a double-edged project much like Defoe's use of dialects to counterpoint ethnic English against a standard English that turns out not to be so standard as thought, or like his use of ambiguous sentences (as in Moll Flander's famous ambiguous prayer, "give me not poverty lest I steal"). Defoe's favorite hedge-phrase, "in a Word," suggests both that events are mutating faster than sentences can be composed and that the world is stable enough to allow Defoe time to turn an apt phrase. Crusoe keeps amalgamating titles--generalissimo, captain, governor--precisely because one word keeps leading to another.
Defoe's experimentation with linguistic instability epitomizes his approach to character interaction on Crusoe's island. Characters for Defoe are, like "catastrophic" moments in physics and mathematics, moments when an unstable system is pushed to its most energetic and most volatile condition and when that system may take not just one determinate, but any of several indeterminate courses to greater stability, much as a bow stretched to the breaking point could either fire an arrow or snap its string. Defoe's character Will Atkins seems to fill all the requirements for classification as a reformed rake.(8) Atkins, however, is no archetypal grotesque. He becomes more human as his story progresses. Defoe's day-by-day demythologization of Atkins from Disneyesque devil to colloquial colonist requires maintaining both a timeless allegorical scheme and a running log of historical details. The facts of Atkins's life, moreover, are "immediate" in two contrary senses: they carry instantly accessible allegorical meaning, meaning that can be seen "on the spot" by perceiving Atkins as icon; they also carry no meaning at all, being immediate, referenceless, transient events. Negotiating between these two immediacies, Defoe brings schematized literary conventions into gradual contact with history, as if grotesques from medieval romance could step out of the timeless hortus inclusus and enjoy lifelong careers on garden island resorts. In his historicized typology, contraries and dichotomies resolve themselves. So with other characters, and so with Crusoe himself. Deistical Crusoe incorporates his French Catholic priest in a "great Circle of Christianity" (9:23) rather than endorsing either a particular or a universal church. In Jure Divino, Defoe declares all churches "Orthodox in Principle" without regard to details or metaphysics. Crusoe himself mediates between his dual roles as solitary and as world citizen. David Blewett, Backscheider, and Richetti have all noted how Crusoe's novelty counterpoints his commonness and universality? At different times, Crusoe reminds readers that his tale is at once unique and, after all, not so unique. He refers to episodes in his life with phrases like "such an Occasion" (7:53 and passim), as if one-of-a-kind happenings could define "such" categories of events. Crusoe calculates the odds of his surviving as "an Hundred Thousand to one" (7:71), yet Crusoe is always alluding to thousands of anonymous persons and unrecorded incidents, a multiplicity that makes his story one in what might be a large, general class of unlikely tales. If enough people live at enough different times, oddity will be expected; singular and general will reconcile, if only because there are so many variations and trajectories that some of them are certain to be similar. Crusoe underlines the mixed singularity and universality of his misery with a simile, noting that every sufferer asks where there might be some other "Affliction like mine" (7:181). If we insist on using the word "novel" to characterize this (and most other) long prose compositions of the time, we might be wise to put it in the plural, as "novels," for Crusoe is in fact a suite of possible similar stories, not just one sequence of events, but an array of alternatives, a kaleidoscope of stories, some written, some possible.
Crusoe himself seems to view himself as a multiplicity. He always sees himself, despite his isolation, in a social context, as a focus of the attention of a vast audience somewhere. Crusoe seems aware that his isolation and oddity could make him a star on the talk-show circuit. His decision to keep so extensive a journal anticipates a future audience. Late in the Farther Adventures, Crusoe chortles that, had he taken a more direct, less eccentric route home, "you had never heard of the second Part of the Travels of Robin. Crusoe" (9:82). His out-of-the-way route is integral to his story being "heard" by the society of readers. Crusoe's description of his fortress as a "compleat Enclosure" that leaves "no Sign in the Out-side of my Habitation" is counterbalanced by writing a best-selling book telling lots of people everything about his supposed invisibility (7:91). Crusoe's expectation that his story will continue indefinitely encodes an expectation of an ever- ready, ever-expanding entourage of spectators. His ever-expanding fortress holds a potentially unlimited number of stories, what with all its quasi-social relationships among birds, cats, and dogs (7:73). Crusoe manages to keep his story going after being "done"--twice!--with his island (9:70, 79). From its beginning, Crusoe characterizes his story as a "Sequel" (7:20), as a series that runs on forever and keeps drawing ever more readers.(10) Students of Defoe's politics, especially his views on absolutism, have been fooled by Crusoe's boasting into thinking that Crusoe lives in an empty political space.(11) "There were no Rivals. I had no Competitor, none to dispute Sovereignty or Command with me" (7:148). Such boasts mask Crusoe's gregarious desire to assume the most companionable of all postures, that of monarch--everyone's friend and colleague. Not only is Crusoe himself a fruitfully unstable array of potential story-lines and alternative possibilities, but he is also a vast collection of potential reader responses. He not only sees the potential for himself to live out a dozen different stories, but also can postulate a dozen different critical readings of his story by dozens of different audiences.
The making of lists is often taken to be a habit characteristic of the organized or even the compulsive, but in fact it is a highly disorganizing practice. Lists draw attention to the spaces between the items comprising them; they also direct attention to a historical discontinuity, in that the reading of a list requires moving from different object to different object over time. The transition between items and events on a list is always a critical moment, a pause in which readers really have no idea as to what is going to come next, the only connection between the items being the sheer fact of their being joined on a common piece of paper. Whatever Crusoe does, he does in steps. He' proceeds by steps to make a home (7:70), to devise a religion (7:71), and even to crawl toward old age (7:72). His calendar is a list of marks (7:72); his journal advances serially (7:79 if.); he enumerates topographical and natural resources (7:112 ff.);(12) his prose reads like a list ("so taking my Gun, a Hatchet, and my Dog, and a larger Quantity of Powder and Shot than usual, with two Bisket Cakes, and a great Bunch of Raisins" [7:124]); his adventures link into a Berkeleian "Chain of Wonders" (8:68), "every Part, in its order" (7:8); he tolls casualties (2:25); every few pages he recites some or other inventory.(13) Crusoe, of course, is a historian of the autobiographical variety, and history is about time. Defoe fills Robinson Crusoe with conflicting, anachronistic, and uncalibrated timescales, the jarring of which indicates that action, dialogue, and progress are underway. Imaginary time, where societies form and dissolve with the stroke of a covenantor's pen, jostles against real time, as measured by Defoe's evenly paced journalistic style.(14) Crusoe names his servant "Friday" "for the Memory of Time" (7:239), making Friday both a permanent memorial to a magic moment and a living, expiring hourglass. Crusoe's calendar ticks off objective, impersonal time while his wandering story runs as it will. A given number of pages may represent twenty days or twenty years. As Crusoe transits from castaway to one-man body politic, time compresses. In but a few pages, the time needed to build a powder magazine shrinks from fourteen to three days (7:69, 81-83). Time shrinks as technology improves; once Crusoe learns to make pottery (7:140-43), events move so quickly that two decades of fort building evanesce in ten minutes of reading time. Time vanishes when Crusoe admits to losing track of a day or two. Indeed, time-lists, historical records, are the purest examples of productive discontinuity, of chaotic or "catastrophic" moments, from which any event could follow any other. The famous solitary footprint on the beach scares Crusoe not because it itself is dangerous but because it opens up the possibility. of invasion. Every instant of a story like Crusoe's is counter-narrative; as an entry in the list, every instant and every event reminds us that anything could happen in the next instant, that we are dealing not with a deterministic narrative but with one of the purest arrays of possibility that literature has ever deployed.
Understanding the propagating of alternatives in Robinson Crusoe helps to explain some troubling features in it, including Robinson's highly impulsive behavior. Richetti puzzles over the suddenness of Crusoe's decision to ship off (7:6; see Richetti, p. 28). Crusoe, however, has been thinking about enlisting for a good while, indeed has always been living a life built on anticipating surprises. The same can be said of the genre of this work. Whether or not Defoe "secularized" the spiritual biography, he certainly complicated it. He lets Crusoe try on contrasting roles--prodigal son, penitent sinner, pirate, slaver, castaway, homo economicus, governor, king, family man, shipping magnate-in a sequence. He preserves but also varies the parallels between Crusoe's life and various Biblical exempla.(15) Through long-term near-repetition, he interposes a buffering series of possibilities between opposing lifestyles. Crusoe is always diverting or digressing, if only to increase the reading time (and logical space) between inconsistent aspects of his life. He takes time to enjoy himself (7:117); he pauses to enjoy the nimbleness of goats (7:69); he plays with parrot Poll; he diverts himself mid-mutiny in Madagascar (9:104); he whiles away the hours touring a Chinese porcelain house (9:163); he interrupts his Pyrenean wolf-war to report on a sporting encounter between Friday and a bear (8:91); his French priest reaches the colony through the most diversion-filled route imaginable (9:15). Everett Zimmerman observes that Defoe's characters develop through a series of contrasting but interlinked biographical memoirs that lead around in circles.(16) Even the manifest contradictions in Crusoe's story--the turf wall that keeps growing until it is out into the ocean, the gigantic canoe that he doesn't notice until too late is too big to move to the water, the presumably gigantic ship that carries enough cargo for fifty men for seven years--can be explained as an exploration of some alternative narrative path, as a test to see what would happen if, that if being more important to Defoe than any modern ideas about narratives or any neo-Aristotelian notions about single unified actions. Indeed, even the length of Robinson Crusoe can be thus explained. Hunter and others opine that Robinson Crusoe dragged on through three installments just to make money. Yet, as Michael Seidel suggests and as we know from travesties like The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Defoe's inexhaustible story has its own inertia.(17) It has spawned countless continuations and travesties. Pushed by "checkered Providence" into endless "Excursions of this Kind" (8:115), Crusoe obsesses about visiting his island because he is obsessed with continuing his tale. Although Robinson Crusoe may continue, it is far from continuous. The entire Crusoe story can be conceived of as a series of cribbed and cut episodes, as an amalgamation of events free from the causal or logical connectedness of a "novel." A collection of "adventures," Robinson Crusoe is episodic as well as unstable, veering from incident to incident without too much of a story line. Once his island adventure ends, Crusoe begins proposing new travels; in his mind, his island exploits condense into one big episode precursory to his even bigger Farther Adventures. Defoe's apparent amorality--his rewarding of naughty characters like Moll Flanders with happy endings--results in part from this urge to move on to new stories without dwelling on old ones, to treat conclusions not as conclusions but as surprising episodes.
It is no surprise, then, that no matter where Crusoe travels-- Bengale, Moscow, Tartary--he spends most of his abundant free time planning not just one, but several ways to get home. The reason, of course, is that his home is alterneity; his is a domain in which anything is possible anywhere, where anything can turn into the new or the old, the domestic or the foreign, the actual or the alternative, at any instant in the narrative. Or, perhaps, the reason is not in the narrative, but in the array of Crusoe's life and story. Crusoe above all else is a man of lists and multiplicities, a man who is always in danger of getting swept into a world of total unfamiliarity and endless innovation, yet who is also always on the brink of domesticating everything, of bringing this ranging multiplicity into the familiar domestic field of his life story. Crusoe's life is more than "chaotic" in the modern, mathematical sense. It is, and it is also somewhat more than, an apparent pattern emerging out of a rush of data; it is not so much a studied relentless juxtaposition , conflation, and finally identification of the alternative and possible with the factual. It is, a story that is both somewhat more and somewhat less than what we nowadays mean when we talk about novelistic prose fiction, that is both a sub-fictional expression of the multiplicity and contingency of eighteenth-century life and a meta- fictional unveiling of the many alternatives to the tired old term "novel."
(1) The True and Genuine Account . . . of the Late Jonathan Wild has recently been "de-attributed" by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens; see Furbank and Owens, Defoe De-attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore's "Checklist" (London: Hamdledon, 1994).
(2) See John Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 43-61; Robert A. Erickson, "Starting Over with Robinson Crusoe," Studies in the Literary Imagination 15.2 (1982): 53-58, 67-72; J. Paul Hunter, "Novels and `the Novel': The Poetics of Embarrassment," Modern Philology 85 (1988): 490; J. Alan Downie, "Defoe, Imperialism, and the Travel Books Reconsidered," Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 75-77; Manuel Schonhorn, "Defoe, the Language of Politics, and the Past," Studies in the Literary Imagination 15.2 (1982): 82; Rudiger Ahrens, "The Political Pamphlet, 1660-1714: Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Aspect," Anglia 109 (1991): 33-34; and Timothy C. Blackburn, "Friday's Religion: Its Nature and Importance in Robinson Crusoe," Eighteenth-Century Studies 18 (1985): 361-62.
(3) See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1957), p. 63; G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Biography (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 75-79; J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), pp. 19, 131-32; Maximillian Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man (London: Oxford Unix,. Press, 1964), p. 14; Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Defoe (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. 1962), pp. 32-39; and James Sutherland, Daniel Defoe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 115-16. John Bernstein warns against interpreting optimism like Shaftesbury's or ironic capitalism like Mandeville's as justifications of economic oppression or as what Basil Willey calls "cosmic Toryism." Rather, he suggests, optimism stressed generous sentiments and protection of the poor; see "Shaftesbury's Optimism and Eighteenth-Century Social Thought," in Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, ed. Alan Kors and Paul Korshin (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p. 87.
(4) Paula Backscheider underscores the importance of uncertainty and contingency in Defoe's novels, in which most characters live under the constant threat of surprises, accidents, and bad luck. Although Backscheider reserves comment on the constructive tendencies of contingency, she provides a useful census of characters afflicted by it. See A Being More Intense: A Study of the Prose Works of Bunyan, Swift, and Defoe (New York: AMS, 1984), p. 154.
(5) The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 8:18. Quotations from Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures are from the Shakespeare Head Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1938) and are incorporated in the text. Quotations from Defoe's other works are from the Shakespeare Head edition unless otherwise noted.
(6) The same process occurs at the semantic and psychological levels. Crusoe interprets all his inner voices and exterior emblems in contradictory ways. For example, he regards his isolation as providentially enforced (to make him a better person) while he interprets his urge to go to the shipwreck as a providential prompting to look for company. See James Foster, "Robinson Crusoe and the Uses of the Imagination," JEGP 91 (1992): 198.
(7) Paul Goetsch notices that Crusoe gives three different accounts of his first day on the island; see "The First Day on the Island: Robinson Crusoe and the Problem of Coherence," in Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian, and British Fiction, ed. Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte (Wurzburg: Konigshausen and Neumann. 1990), pp. 190-91, 198-99. On Defoe's use of Crusoe's parrot to reconstruct the Selkirk accounts (in some of which Selkirk was chatty, in others of which he has lost his faculty of speech), see Eric Jager, "The Parrot's Voice: Language and the Self in Robinson Crusoe," Eighteenth-Century Studies 21 (1988): 316-17, 324-25.
(8) For an excellent discussion of the pirate type character, see Joel Baer, "`The Complicated Plot of Piracy': Aspects of English Criminal Law and the Image of the Pirate in Defoe," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 14 (1985): 3-24. See also Defoe, Jure Divino (1706), 8:185-86.
(9) John Richetti warns that Crusoe is not about isolation but about Crusoe's maturation into a social being. Crusoe's supposed isolation is regularly broken by a "busy thoroughfare" of visitors and invaders (Daniel Defoe [Boston: Twayne, 1987], p. 56). David Blewett interprets Crusoe as an extended attack on the myth of happy retirement, citing the episode of the Muscovite Prince in the Farther Adventures as evidence that Defoe disdained the sentimentalization of isolation; see "The Retirement Myth in Robinson Crusoe: A Reconsideration," Studies in the Literary Imagination 15.2 (1982): 41-42, 48-49. Paula Backscheider suggests that Defoe himself is not the singularity that he seems but rather was an avid imitator of many colleagues, especially Eliza Haywood; see Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 227-29.
(10) "Sequel," of course, meant only "what followed," yet Defoe throughout his life had been interested in (and profited from) continuing productions. Backscheider describes how Defoe continually re-issued his Family Instructor in order to satisfy various audiences (Daniel Defoe, pp. 423-24). Mary Butler reasons that works conceived as sequels are only complete when they are unfinished. Butler catalogues those words and phrases that Defoe deploys to emphasize the uncertainty and incompleteness of his tale; see "The Effect of the Narrator's Rhetorical Uncertainty on the Fiction of Robinson Crusoe," Studies in the Novel 15 (1983): 77-79 and ff..
(11) On Crusoe's use of language to consolidate the idea of monarchy, see James Egan, "Crusoe's Monarchy and the Puritan Concept of the Self," Studies in English Literature 13 (1973): 451-60; and Manuel Schonhorn, "The Literature of Politics and the Politics of Some Fiction," in English Literature in the Age of Disguise, ed. Maximillian Novak (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), pp. 32-35. Novak also points to the extremity of social roles in Defoe's discussions of sovereignty. Defoe doesn't write about middle-class topics but about outcasts who fancy themselves kings; see "Fiction and Society in the Early Eighteenth Century," in England in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, ed. H. T. Swedenberg (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), pp. 51- 70.
(12) Carol Fabricant detects the way that Defoe fused landscape description with projecting, economy, and trade. See "The Aesthetics and Politics of Landscape in the Eighteenth Century," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century British Art and Aesthetics, ed. Ralph Cohen (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985), pp. 60-61.
(13) Harold Fisch elucidates the "thingness" or "Dinglichkeit" of Crusoe's story. The multiplicity of objects produces two contrasting results: emphasizing the raw materiality of Crusoe's life and environment and emphasizing the compelling, hermeneutical, almost mystical power of objects; see "The Hermeneutic Quest in Robinson Crusoe," in Midrash and Literature, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartmann and Sanford Budick (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 216-20. Foster talks about the "spasmodic" structure of Crusoe's story. Defoe vacillates between allegory and mimesis, parable and reportage (p.182).
(14) Defoe takes the same approach to space. As a journal, Crusoe records its protagonist's many journeys over vast continents and vaster oceans; as a set of reflections, it puts its lead character in a stationery posture. As Claude Fierobe explains, motifs of stability, stillness, immobility, and even paralysis run through the book. Crusoe is compartmentalized in the "middle State" of life, his father is "confined by gout," he praises "Moderation and Quietness," he is stuck "between the Mean and the Great," and so forth; see "Robinson Crusoe ou les voies du possible," Etudes Anglaises 45 (1992): 3-4.
(15) On the varieties of typology in the period, see Paul J. Korshin, Typologies in England, 1650-1820 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982).
(16) Everett Zimmerman, Defoe and the Novel (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975), p. 5.
(17) See Michael Seidel, "Crisis Rhetoric and Satiric Power," New Literary History 20 (1988): 167, 174-79, who explains that Defoe tends to focus on crises rather than resolutions, hence tends to keep writing rather than concluding. See also Paula Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1986), pp. 23133, who claims that Defoe focusses on details and environment.
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|Title Annotation:||Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something Like It, 1684-1762; fictional character of English novelist Daniel Defoe|
|Author:||Cope, Kevin L.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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