Last week, I watched the first few episodes of House of Cards, a new Netflix original series centered on a corrupt congressman played by Kevin Spacey and his wheelings and dealings in a fictionalized version of Washington, D.C. Having spent three years living in D.C. and working in politics, I found myself preoccupied by the show’s minor errors and implausibilities, such as Spacey’s character seeming to have such a small congressional staff, or the appearance of NYC-style yellow cabs in a city that has none. I felt that inconsistencies like these detracted from the narrative and relevance of the show, especially when they seemed so small and easily fixed.
I kept reflecting on this as I worked my way through Robinson Crusoe over the weekend, noticing that some felt the same way about Daniel Defoe’s novel when it was published in the early 18th century. Particularly in the early sections of the novel wherein Defoe sets the historical and geographical stage for his protagonist’s adventure, the text is pocked by errors and inconsistencies, several of which are pointed out in our edition’s Explanatory Notes. Crusoe and his father speak of his elder brother’s death years before the battle in which he is said to have been killed takes place; sailing down the coast of Africa, he claims to have been able to see islands that are in reality almost 400 miles away; he errs in describing the history of Spanish Asientos in the slave trade, claims to see penguins in a region that no species of penguin inhabit, and fashions himself an umbrella decades before they were introduced to the Western world.
Such errors, our text notes, were the subject of criticism from a contemporary “embittered rival,” Charles Gildon, but also more serious academic criticism over the years, including a 1912 essay by William T. Hastings, which includes an exhaustive list of chronological errors that arise from Defoe’s commitment to precise, obsessive detail:
It is generally recognized that Robinson Crusoe is a triumphant piece of verisimilitude, that it is unsurpassed among fictitious narratives for its air of guileless veracity. It is not so generally recognized that in securing this realism and this appearance of truth Defoe was led not infrequently to violate actual “truth” or consistency.
Only with the distance of a few centuries’ time am I able to see how trivial and meaningless such nitpicking really is. What do minor errors and inconsistencies have to do with Robinson Crusoe’s larger narrative, its thematic content, its political and historical relevance? Is its spiritual and moral message invalidated by an anachronism or two? Does the irony embedded in Crusoe’s untroubled acceptance of the institution of slavery, which arguably forms the crux of the novel, lose its potency? Of course not. Great fiction, like all great art, becomes timeless, rising above petty implausibilities and discrepancies of fact — penguins and yellow cabs alike.