What the Dickens!…Defoe no emotion?

Ian Watt notes in his article on “Robinson Crusoe, Individualism and the Novel,” that “Dickens once decided on the basis of Defoe’s treatment of women that he must have been ‘a precious dry and disagreeable article himself’.”

The Norton edition of the novel includes a fuller critique from Dickens that’s even more of an indictment against Defoe’s emotional side. Dickens states that, “Robinson Crusoe should be the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry” (p. 274)

Even Watt himself perpetuates this characterization of a “dry Defoe” by charging that Robinson Crusoe is rather cavalier in personal relationships such as those with Xury and Friday.

I think both Dickens and Watt are just a bit unfair.

For example, we discussed in class the intense jealousy Robinson Crusoe feels when Friday talks lovingly of his native land and family.

And what about the recurring breakdowns Robinson Crusoe experiences when he reflects on his predicament? It’s hard for anyone not to experience, and maybe come close to tears, when Defoe describes the dead boy whose body is cast ashore from a second shipwreck. Defoe’s dreams are dashed upon the rocks as all he retrieves from them is a pair of shoes unsuited for island survival.

And what about the intense and poignant emotional experience of Robinson Crusoe’s religious enlightenment following his near death experience from disease? Although many of us might conclude the end results of the experience were somewhat lacking in substance, the emotional reality of it, for me, was quite convincing.

And there was more than passion. I chuckled on several occasions through the book. Poll the Parrot offered good comic relief from the start. It sounded like he was a bit of a slow learner. Many of us have likely experienced something similar to building a ship on dry land without considering some minor details, like how to get it out to sea. While few of us see the humor in the moment, these experiences generally reveal their comic selves in retrospect.

Although it’s difficult, at least for me, to determine satire, sarcasm and irony from this distance, I strongly suspect the novel is rife with them. A case in point, consider the “warning storm” just pages into the book. It reads in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition:

I made many vows and resolutions that if it would please God here to spare my life this one voyage, if ever I got once my foot upon dry land again, I would go directly home to my father, and never set it into a ship again while I lived . . .

Hah!!! I say if Defoe has anything dry, it’s dry wit….

And of course, there’s plenty of suspense, mystery and adventure interwoven throughout the novel, starting with the long title –

The LIFE and Strange Surprising ADVENTURES of ROBINSON CRUSOE, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the Coast of AMERICA,  near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. WITH an Account of how he was at last as strangely delivered by PIRATES.

Now, granted, Robinson Crusoe never confesses to laying awake at night dreaming about the exotic native beauties so near, and yet so far, or the many conquests he might have pursued had he remained in his native land, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have those dreams. He does say he had to deny the lusts of the flesh, perhaps desire for women was one of them?

At any rate, I don’t think anyone would argue that Dickens, in his work, more than made up for any lack of emotion, real or imagined, in any other English author’s work, including Defoe.



Filed under Commentaries

3 responses to “What the Dickens!…Defoe no emotion?

  1. lmaruca

    I had similar response to Watt’s comments about Friday. On pg. 68, he says, “It is not surprising, therefore, that love plays little part in Crusoe’s own life, and that even the temptations of sex are excluded from the scene of his greatest triumphs, the island.” But then he continues, a sentence or two later, “we observe that he desires a male slave. Then , with Friday, he enjoys an idyll without benefit of women.” He thus seems to be avoiding what is right in front of his face: Crusoe’s intense relationship with Friday, which, if not sexual, is at least affectionate–indeed, an “idyll” (though maybe not for Friday!). But Watt instead switches gears with an abrupt dash, in order to crack this (hetero)sexist joke, “–a revolutionary departure from the traditional expectations aroused by desert islands from the Odyssey to the New Yorker.” Clearly his own preconceived notions of the “desert island” fantasy are blinding him to the reality of the (sub)text.

  2. yj

    Thank you for helping me to see/read into the (sub)text what my less experienced eyes missed!

  3. John Martin

    Dickens is implying that Defoe is gay and therefore ‘dry’to women and prefers young boys.

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