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From L. J. Swingle's Introduction to Robinson Crusoe
People who have never actually read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe often think of it as a children's book. It is a tale, so they suppose, that belongs on the shelf upstairs in the playroom alongside Lassie, the Hardy Boys books, and Charlotte's Web. But to discover the fallacy of this notion we need only sit down with a child and start trying to read the book. Reading Robinson Crusoe to a child usually turns out to be a different, somewhat less amiable adventure than telling the child about Robinson Crusoe in our own words. The child can eagerly attend to our retelling of the Crusoe story, relatively inept storytellers though we may be. The experiences of a man shipwrecked alone on a desert island-his initial fears, his efforts to escape, his struggle to secure food and shelter, his discovery of a footprint in the sand-all these things take powerful hold on a child's imagination. But if plunged into Defoe's original narrative of Crusoe's experiences, a child immediately senses that the waters of storytelling have suddenly gotten uncomfortably deep, that the exciting shallows of the story as Mom or Dad would tell it at bedtime have been left behind, that many things going on around the margins of the adventure story in Defoe's book are not attractively adventurous. How can a person possibly wade through this strange book that pretends to be Robinson Crusoe? Some sort of incomprehensible adult trickery must be going on here.
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is a novel for grown-up minds that has been kidnapped for, though obviously not by, the kids. In this respect it's interestingly akin to another supposed children's book that would be published midway into the next century, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Like Crusoe, Alice presents us with the story of a person transported from our own familiar world into foreign territory that offers opportunity for exciting adventure, obviously, but also for an encounter with some complex intellectual issues. A child, responding eagerly to the adventure but brought up short by the intellectual issues, is likely to sense immediately that neither Crusoe nor Alice is a book for the playroom. Both belong in the library downstairs, where adults retreat to contemplate the shadowy mysteries of their own minds and experience.
Once we adults rescue Robinson Crusoe from the playroom and begin thinking about its significance for ourselves, it is helpful to consider some things we might expect to find in the novel that either do not appear there at all or that appear in unfamiliar forms. Writing Robinson Crusoe in the early years of the eighteenth century, Defoe reveals himself to be in several important respects not quite of our mind. True, he's an intellectual precursor of the modern mind and, as such, some aspects of his basic interests and values are relatively close to our own. Rudiments of the Crusoe story exert considerable contemporary popular appeal, and not just to small children. Many movie adaptations have been made of the story. In the last few years alone, for example, we've had Aidan Quinn play Crusoe in a 1988 film of that name; we've had Pierce Brosnan, of James Bond fame, play Crusoe in the 1996 Robinson Crusoe; we've had Tom Hanks play a rather interesting loose translation of Crusoe as a plane-wrecked Federal Express man in the 2000 film Cast Away. The name "Robinson Crusoe" itself has entered the public domain; like "Gatsby," "Tarzan," "Superman," and "Mickey Mouse," it has become a useful shorthand term in contemporary popular thought, meaningful to people who have never encountered the literary source.
But if we go back to the novel Robinson Crusoe and see what Defoe made of the story in 1719, we run into some intriguing basic differences from common inclinations of thought in more recent centuries. These differences constitute an important part of what makes Robinson Crusoe not simply entertaining-occasionally almost more puzzling, or even more irritating than entertaining-but thereby greatly worth reading for the mind's sake.