Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1957
Most readers should be familiar with the “strange surprising” adventures of Robinson Crusoe, who is cast away on a remote island off the coast of South America and spends almost 28 years living alone the island. Daniel Defoe’s work, often considered to be the first English novel, experienced immediate success upon its first publication and has remained successful ever since. The degree of popularity that the adventures of Crusoe and his temporary companion Friday have reached over the years should firmly save them a spot on most readers’ book shelves. The Anglophone literary world has even named an entire genre after the influential work (the “Robinsonade”) and Hollywood has paid its respects to the sujet with films like “Cast Away” or the TV series “Lost”.
The story raises many fundamental questions about human existence: Is man in the state of nature good? Does society protect him or corrupt him? Defoe’s novel can serve as a basis for philosophical debates just as well as it can be used to address the West’s problematic colonial past, reflected in Robinson’s encounters with Friday and the natives.
But another, at least equally fascinating, aspect of Robinson Crusoe’s story is the scenario it draws up of human existence prior to, or rather outside of, civilization. One man, one island, and no existing economic system. What happens to man, all on his own, far away from any civilization? In this fictional scenario, Robinson builds his own economy almost from scratch by cultivating the land on the island.
Over time the idea of such an economic microcosm has been taken up by various economists, even by Karl Marx in his “Critique of Political Economy”. Overall Marx considers Robinson a positive example of the production of goods since his relation to the working conditions and means of production is much more immediate than ours is today. For instance, Robinson can decide daily how many hours of work and how many hours of leisure time he wants. He also produces only goods that have an immediate utility value for him.
Seen from another perspective the picture doesn’t look quite as rosy. Robinson can also be considered an early kind of homo oeconomicus who judges everything in his environment, including other human beings, in terms of their economic value for him, turning slave trade into a question of costs and benefits.
One characteristic of influential literary works is their ability to raise questions about the fundamental nature of man and society. That “Robinson Crusoe” manages to do just that certainly helps to explain why the novel has outlasted many centuries and continues to be read even today.