Language and Style in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Considered to be the first modern English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, which effectively places it in the late modern English period (1700-1900). Late modern English is characterised by the excessive use of periodic and complex sentence constructions. Robinson Crusoe is a historical novel, as it captures the zeitgeist of the 18th century English and European social order, namely the colonial expansionist programmes, industrialisation, slave trade, adventure and a reflection on the religious issues of the time. The novel is told from the first-person narrative point of view and makes use of a chronological plot structure.

Robinson Crusoe is an eponymous novel because the title bears the name of the hero. In the novel, the hero-narrator, Robinson Crusoe, born Robinson Kreutznaer in 1632 in the city of York, reports his love for wandering and adventure which leads him to forsake ‘the upper station of low life’ or the middle state of life planned for him by his father, who desires that Crusoe should be a lawyer. Instead, Crusoe wants to see the world through voyages. Crusoe’s characterisation captures the restless and the adventurous spirit of the English man in the 18th century. Crusoe is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island where he spends 28 years before finally being able to return home. Among the tropes that I wish to discuss in the work are foreshadowing, allusion, humour, irony and symbols.

Foreshadowing, also known as prefigurement, is a narrative technique whereby the words and events in the present time point to future occurrences. An instance of foreshadowing is seen at the initial stage of the novel when Crusoe’s parents try to dissuade him from leaving home. Crusoe’s father had advised him against travelling, saying that the adventurous life that he is seeking was for desperate people or people who wanted to achieve high fame and fortune (wealth) through extraordinary feat. When Crusoe insists on his life of wandering, his father says that he is not going to pray for him, neither will God bless him, and that he (Crusoe) will regret his disobedience only when it is too late. Reporting on this, Crusoe states, ‘. . . and my inclination to this led so strongly against the will, nay, the commands, of my father, and against all the entreaties and persuasions of my mother and other friends, that there seemed to be something fatal in that propension of nature tending directly to the life of misery which was to befall me’.

Another instance of foreshadowing is seen when Crusoe is bored in the Brazils where he lives the life of a successful farmer but is not contented because it seems to him that he has returned to the same middle station of life that he would have lived had he remained in England. Musing on his loneliness and boredom, Crusoe says, ‘. . . I lived just like a man cast away upon some desolate island, that had nobody but myself’. This statement foreshadows the ill-fated trip that Crusoe would make, alongside other persons, to Africa in the hope of buying slaves. It is during this voyage that Crusoe will be shipwrecked on a deserted Island. Reflecting on this, Crusoe writes, ‘But how just has it been! and how should all men reflect, that when they compare their present conditions with others that are worse, Heaven may oblige them to make the exchange’. In other words, Crusoe should have been contented with his life as a successful plantation owner in the Brazils, instead of looking for an excuse to embark on another perilous journey at sea.

Crusoe’s dream of seeing eleven savages and two boats coming to the island foreshadows his meeting with Friday, apart from presenting him with an idea on how to leave the island eventually. It is interesting that the dream manifests almost exactly as Crusoe had envisioned it.

Allusion is one of the most important narrative tropes in Robinson Crusoe. It refers to a brief reference to events and situations in a work of arts. The major types of allusion represented in the novel are biblical and historical allusion.

Biblical allusion is seen in Crusoe’s statement when a storm arises during his first voyage. Though not serious, Crusoe is shaken by this storm and regrets leaving home against his father’s counsel. According to Crusoe, ‘. . . and I resolved that I would, like a true repenting prodigal, go home to my father’. This statement alludes to the Bible story of the prodigal son as recorded in Luke 15: 11-32. Crusoe’s statement constitutes an analogy achieved through the device of simile. Indeed, this view of Crusoe as a prodigal constitutes a motif in the novel as he keeps likening himself to that Bible character throughout the novel. For instance, when Crusoe’s first voyage fails and he is lucky to be rescued along with the other sailors, Crusoe refuses to return home out of shame and fear of being mocked by his neighbours. Reflecting regrettably on this incident, Crusoe writes that ‘Had I now had the sense to have gone back to Hull, and have gone home, I had been happy, and my father, an emblem of our blessed Saviour’s parable had even killed the fatted calf for me. . .’ Crusoe also attributes his inability to go back home to fate and the supernatural, which is also a motif in the novel, as all of Crusoe’s actions seem fated, meaning that he was designed to experience them and that there is nothing he could have done to escape those experiences.

 Biblical allusion is also seen in Crusoe comparing himself to the Bible character Job when everything eventually works in his favour when he arrives back to England after spending 28 years on the island and realises that he had become extremely rich through his plantation investment in the Brazils. Crusoe writes that ‘the latter end of Job was better than the beginning,’ meaning that after all his travails, he still ends up getting a happy ending for his life. Indeed, the novel illustrates that Crusoe is well compensated by Providence for all the years that he had lost to wandering around the earth. He even gets married and has three children, apart from being able to compensate and settle his family, friends and partners.

Historical allusion refers to a brief reference made to actual historical events in a work of art. Robinson Crusoe is replete with instances of historical allusion, as the novel is itself a historical or realistic novel. Crusoe’s voyages to distant lands alludes to the craze for adventure in the England and Europe of the time in a bid to hunt for treasure, discover new territories and colonise them and trade with other peoples of the earth. The act of Crusoe settling down as a farmer in the Brazils alludes to the cultivation of plantations in the New World by English and European settlers. This practice was also observed in Africa, especially in places like South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, where the settler colonisers could still be found to this day.

Crusoe’s act of attempting to return to the Guinea to buy human beings alludes to the transatlantic slave trade that was in practice at this time in human history. Crusoe also owns a slave in the person of Xury whom he later sells to the Portuguese captain. Crusoe also buys an African slave to work on his farm in the Brazils, an act that alludes to the use that African slaves were put to when they got to the New World. Crusoe’s encounter with man Friday on the island alludes to the practices of colonialism where the colonial masters imposed their cultural values on the natives. For instance, though Friday has his own religion, Crusoe looks down on it and imposes his religion, Christianity, on Friday. Crusoe also refuses to learn Friday’s language, but rather imposes the English language on the poor soul. At a point Friday turns out to prefer English culture to his own culture which he now looks down upon. This is a demonstration of the postcolonial tragedy where the colonial subject devalues their own culture and imbibes the culture of the colonisers.

The novel also alludes to the inhumane nature of the colonial expansionist programme which was characterised by brutality, killing and destruction of life and property in the ‘discovered’ lands. A good instance is the reference made to the Spanish treatment of the Caribs in the New World which sparked world-wide condemnation.

Humour (dark humour) is another important narrative device in Robinson Crusoe, which is marked by tragic tales of adventure and losses. Humour then is used to lighten the grim and grave mood of the novel at every point to make us laugh even in the midst of tragedies. An instance of humour in the novel is seen when Crusoe is shaken by the storm that the experienced sailors know to be mild but he remains calm in the storm that frightens the experienced sailors. It is humorous that Crusoe considers himself King in the uninhabited island, and since he does not have subjects yet, it is funny that he calls a council meeting within himself: ‘Then I called a council, that is to say, in my thoughts, whether I should take back the raft. . .’ Crusoe continues to see himself as King on the island when he finally has company in the persons of Friday, Friday’s father and the Spaniard, all whom he had saved from the cannibals. He now sees them as his subjects. It is humorous how Crusoe sees himself as a liberal king who allows freedom of worship in his domain, as Friday is now a Protestant, his father a pagan, and the Spaniard a catholic (papist). Even when Crusoe was yet to have human company on the island, he saw his pets (cats, dogs and the parrot, Poll) as his subjects. This might be a satire of the Restoration politics in Defoe’s time.

 It is also hilarious when Crusoe refuses to show himself to the mutineers even though he claims to be the Governor of the Island. The reason is that he is not wearing clothes befitting of a Governor. Humour is also depicted in how Crusoe scrambles to secure himself and his dwelling place after finding the footprint of a human being for the first time on the island. The narrator-hero reports: These, I say, I planted like my cannon, and fitted them into frames, that held them like a carriage, that so I could fire all the seven guns in two minutes’ time’. It is humorous that Crusoe mostly remembers God when he gets into trouble. For instance, while fortifying himself and his bower against any attacks from the cannibals, Crusoe remembers to pray to God for protection.

Irony exists at various levels in the novel. For one, it is ironic, and even paradoxical, that Crusoe should abandon a life of ease to pursue adventures that throw him into series of sufferings for a good part of his life. When Crusoe is shipwrecked on the uninhabited island, he decries his loneliness but when he sees the footprint of a human being, he runs to hide in his dwelling place for many days. This is also an instance of dark humour in the novel. The unbalanced nature of the colonial trade depicted in the novel also captures the irony in the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. It is ironic that trifles like toys and mirrors are exchanged for valuable goods like gold, diamond, ivory and even human beings in Africa. Crusoe makes an insane profit on his first successful voyage to Africa (Guinea). It is equally ironic that the hospitability of the natives is usually turned against them by the colonisers, as could be seen in the relationship between the Spaniards and native Americans described in the novel. Friday, whose culture Crusoe looks down upon, is seen asking Crusoe serious questions that expose the faults in the foundational teachings of the Christian religion. Crusoe is taken aback because he did not expect such intelligent questions from a ‘savage’ as he terms Friday and his race.

Symbols are signs whose meaning is realised in other signs. One of the most important symbols in the novel is the ship, which is not only a carrier of people and goods, but also a carrier of culture. The ship is a symbol of man’s ability to traverse time and collapse space, bringing together people of different cultural identities and geographical spaces. The ship also signifies the vulnerability of man’s invention, which is marked by advantages and disadvantages. It is not all the time that the ships get to their destination as the journey itself is plagued with dangers and disasters caused either by man or the weather and the supernatural forces.

The ship imbues the novel with its journey motif, as Crusoe does not only undertake a physical, but also a spiritual journey of self-discovery that leads to the renewal of his relationship with God. Ironically, it is only when Crusoe has problems that he remembers God most of the time in the novel. Once God intervenes and he is safe, Crusoe returns to his religious indifference until his very life is threatened in a dream. Being shipwrecked on the uninhabited island is like being born again for Crusoe. Crusoe has to reinvent himself by starting all over with whatever he is able to salvage from the wrecked ship. The ship then becomes a source of resources for a new beginning, which is not only existential, but also spiritual for Crusoe. There are patterns of growth in Crusoe’s society that mimic the stages of growth of human society in sociological terms – from the fruit gathering stage to mechanisation/industrialisation, except, of course, with some slight variations. Thus, Crusoe’s Island is a microcosm of the human society which begins pure and sinless but is soon filled with all sorts of people and their foibles.

When the English captain is able to recover his ship from the mutineers, Crusoe sees the ship at this point as a symbol of his deliverance from his 28 years of captivity on the island. The ship then is not only that which takes one far away from home in wandering and suffering, but it is also that which brings one home to family, loved ones and forgotten fortunes; except that in Crusoe’s case, his parents had long died and had not included him in their will since they thought that Crusoe had died. It is equally ironic that Crusoe’s parents who thought that Crusoe had died are themselves dead but Crusoe is still alive.

Crusoe himself is a symbolic character. He represents the adventurous and the restless spirit of the English man of the 18th century, who could not stay at home no matter how just his conditions were. Crusoe also represents the resilience in the human spirit, seen mostly in terms of his ability to survive any situation that he finds himself. It is in Crusoe’s characterisation that the theme of survival is realised in the novel. Crusoe is willing to experiment, make mistakes and do everything within his power to survive on the island.

The weather is a powerful symbol of nature and the supernatural in the novel. The sailors are seen to be at the mercy of the weather, and whether a voyage goes well or not is dependent on the disposition of the weather. This equally creates the motif of storm-after-calm and calm-after-storm in the novel, which at the same time poetically mimics the rhythm of human life.

Other literary tropes present in the novel are transferred epithet, oxymoron, Euphemism, simile, synecdoche and inversion, among others. Transferred epithet is seen in the expression, ‘I had been now in this unhappy island above ten months’ (75). It is Crusoe who is unhappy and not the poor island. Thus, the epithet ‘unhappy’ is tranferred from its rightful place beside Crusoe to the island. This also creates a case of pathetic fallacy as the island is imbued with human emotion. Oxymoron is exemplified in the expression ‘During all this time, I was in a murdering humour. . .,’ (141) where ‘humour’ in contemporary English could be interpreted as hilarious or funny but which means emotion or temperament in the context that Crusoe deploys it.

Euphemism is exemplified in the expression, ‘that they had meat dressed’, where ‘meat’ in this context refers to the human flesh that the cannibals prepare to eat whenever they come to the island. Crusoe, the hero-narrator, creates analogy through simile in the novel. Simile is exemplified in Crusoe’s description of Friday’s perfect dentition thus; ‘. . . and his fine teeth well set, and white as ivory’ (158). An instance of analogy is when Crusoe compares finding money on a wrecked ship close to the island to the life of savages in pre-modern societies. He says that he ‘had no more use for it than the Indians of Peru had before the Spaniards came’. This is also instance of historical allusion, as it alludes to the precolonial economy of the West Indians. Synecdoche is exemplified in the expression, ‘. . . for that there were still six and twenty hands on board. . .’ (199), referring to the rest of the disloyal crew on the English captain’s ship. Inversion, a trope in which the normal syntactic order of a sentence is reversed, is seen in the expression, ‘Well,’ said I to him, ‘Friday, what will you do now?’ (228).

I must note the use of endearment term by Crusoe in describing Friday. It is found in the expression ‘my man Friday’ which is also an instance of repetition in the novel. But then one also wonders whether this term implies affection or ownership, or both affection and possession. Friday’s English is postcolonial as it is marked by abrogating features which clearly set it apart from Crusoe’s English and adds to the humour in the novel. An excerpt of Friday’s conversation with Crusoe is given as follows:

Friday: My nation beat much for all that.

Master: How beat? If your nation beat them, how came you to be taken?

Friday: They more many than my nation in the place where me was; they take one, two, three, and me. My nation overbeat them in the yonder place, where me no was; there my nation take one, two, great thousand.

Master: But why did not your side recover you from the hands of your enemies then?

Friday: They run one, two, three, and me, and make go in the canoe; my nation have no canoe that time.

Master: Well, Friday, and what does your nation do with the men they take? Do they carry them away and eat them, as these did?

Friday: Yes, my nation eat mans too; eat all up (164).

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