Eighteenth Century / Robinson Crusoe

What is the nature of British identity?

“Thus from a Mixture of all Kinds began, That Heterogeneous Thing, An Englishman”

–          The True Born Englishman

Daniel Defoe declares in the preface to Robinson Crusoe that “the wonders of this man’s life exceed all that…is to be found extant; the life of one man being scarce capable of a greater variety”[1] – and variety permeates the pages of the adventure. A striking variety of locations, of objects, of identities, and of things confront the reader, even as the novel denies a variety of characterizations.  The contradiction between the singular cast and his multiple surroundings motivates a plethora of critical attempts to make sense of Crusoe’s isolation.[2] Through his travels, Crusoe demonstrates mobility and seeming independence; a single man venturing out in the world, Crusoe, in both his circulation and his isolation has, indeed, become an emblem of the eighteenth century.[3]  Yet strikingly, Crusoe rarely defines himself in singular terms. Opening his narrative, Crusoe discloses:

“I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull: …[he] lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.”[4]

A traveler from the narrative’s inception, Crusoe guides the reader through the migrations of his family, linking himself to a past in Bremen, Hull, and, finally, York.  Much as Crusoe defies a singular point of origin he defies nominal singularity entirely. Named Robinson after “relations” this individual takes his name from a good family of multiple members, and even his surname represents doubling as it is “corrupted” from Kruetznaer to Crusoe.[5]

This obfuscation of identities is certainly familiar to Defoe scholars, as it is frequent in his writing, but also in his biography. As Paula Backscheider articulates, Defoe’s own origin story is quite illusive, as it is “from two of [Defoe’s] own offhand statements, [that] it has been surmised…he was born in the fall of 1660. The evidence to support this opinion is entirely circumstantial, but there is no evidence to refute it.”[6] Both Defoe’s and Crusoe’s variety affirm that the Englishman, indeed, is a “heterogeneous thing.”[7]

IDefoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. (New York: Oxford UP), 1. All future references to Robinson Crusoe come from this edition.

[2]. As Watt writes, Crusoe reveals “that vast complex of interdependent factors noted by the term ‘individualism’” The Rise of the Novel. (Berkley: University of California Press, 1957), 60-92.

[4] Defoe, Crusoe, 3.

[5] Flint, Christopher. “Orphaning the Family: The Role of Kinship in Robinson Crusoe” (ELH. 5, no. 2, 1988), 381-419. Christopher Flint assesses this moment of “skepticism about the linguistic permanence of his name” (385) as a reflection of the complicated relationship Crusoe has to kinship.  I find Flint’s arguments highly persuasive, but, through and examination of Crusoe’s relationship to “things” I posit that this narrative introduction establishes Crusoe as multiple rather than individual – he, like the tortoise and the cannibal represents an intense connectedness to both origin and alteration.

[6] Backscheider, Paula R.: Daniel Defoe: His Life. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), 3. 

[7] Defoe, Daniel. The True-Born Englishman: a Satire. (Leeds: Printed by Alice Mann, 1703), 17.


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