Robinson Crusoe as Bildungsroman

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„Robinson Crusoe” as Bildungsroman

Daniel Defoe’s life is full of gaps and mysteries, of contradictions and dramatic turns. As a journalist, he excelled in the writing of the political pamphlet, and his criticism of the system made him highly controversial, and even landed him in prison. In time, his journalistic career in time gave birth to a literary career. Defoe was sixty in 1719 when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, and during the following five years he was to write most of his fiction, thus becoming one of the most prolific writers. Defoe’s journalistic experience influenced both his style and his choice of characters. His heroes belong to the lower and middle class (Moll Flanders is a London prostitute, Robinson is the son of a lawyer); his novels tell their adventures and account for the way their experiences shape their characters. Defoe’s language is simple, plain, and expressive, again owing to the clarity required by journalistic writing. At the same time, his narrative strategies owe a lot to the popular writings of the day, to the Elizabethan romances, to the picaresque stories created either in England or on the continent, but also with other popular narratives, such as the lives of criminals, or contributory forms like the essay and biography. Despite the popularity of some of his other writings, such as Moll Flanders (1722), the story of a London prostitute and of her progress towards middle-class respectability, undoubtedly the work by which posterity remembers Daniel Defoe remains Robinson Crusoe (1719). In literary history, the book is regarded not only as a classic travel and adventure story, but also as the prototype of the novel, because of its focus on the daily, external and internal activities of ordinary people, in its exploration of both the internal and of the external aspects of their existence. Inspired by the real story of the survival of Alexander Selkirk, a sailor who had survived a five years of solitary existence on a desert island, Robinson Crusoe is presented as a story told by an old man about his adventurous life: his experiences on several sea voyages, his adventures as a slave with the Moors, as a planter in Brazil, as a castaway on a desert island, and finally his return to civilization. The novel covers thirty-five years, twenty eight of which cover Robinson’s stay on the desert island. These represent the most fascinating part of Defoe’s creation, as they follow both Robinson’s transformation of his environment, and his use of religion as a way of finding balance in his solitude. At the end of these twenty eight years, Robinson had managed to re-create on the island a small version of the world he had left behind. His help and servant is a native he names Friday, and his other companion is a parrot. Robinson is rescued by a ship and returns to civilization, to take up his place in the social hierarchy he had rejected as a young boy. Because of the emphasis on the development of the individual, Robinson Crusoe can also be interpreted as the fruit of a synthesis of two existing traditions: the picaresque novel and the personal journal or the memoir. The first emphasized the adventures of one individual in his journey to progress, and represented to some extent a modern version of an initiation journey at the end of which the hero finds maturity and respectability. The second emphasizes the mental states and evolutions of the individual, thus narrating the psychological processes that give shape the inner life of its heroes. Robinson does both. It is a first person narrative, and the action and events – the picaresque elements – are all filtered through the mind of the narrating-I – the journal elements. As a result, we can say that the novel maps the meanders of Robinson’s internal exploration of himself, of his process of coming of age, and of the creation of his personality as a fully grown man. Because of this, Robinson is also considered to be the prototypical Bildungsroman in...
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