Secret Purposes

P.N. Furbank

  • Defoe and the Idea of Fiction: 1713-1719 by Geoffrey Sill
    Associated University Presses, 190 pp, £16.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 87413 227 4
  • The Elusive Daniel Defoe by Laura Curtis
    Vision, 216 pp, £15.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 85478 435 7
  • Dofoe’s Fiction by Ian Bell
    Croom Helm, 201 pp, £17.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7099 3294 4
  • Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction by Maximillian Novak
    Nebraska, 181 pp, £21.55, July 1983, ISBN 0 8032 3307 8

We owe a large debt to the famous chapter on Robinson Crusoe in Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. Watt really made us use our wits about that novel and forced us to relate it to our most serious interests. Reread after twenty years, moreover, the chapter still has all of its intellectual impact and verve. The trouble is, I now find myself wanting to quarrel with almost every sentence in it. The problem is perhaps epitomised by Watt’s dependence on Max Weber, who, I increasingly think, had quite a genius for getting things wrong. Watt, speaking of Crusoe’s methodical book-keeping, quotes Weber on ‘profit-and-loss book-keeping’ being ‘the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism’. But after all, double-entry book-keeping was a mainstay of commercial prosperity in 15th-century Venice and Genoa (it later became known as ‘the Italian method’). How then can it be ‘distinctive’ of modern capitalism?

Of course, one could make quite a sensible case for regarding Medieval Venetian wealth-making as ‘capitalism’ (though scarcely as ‘modern capitalism’), just as you can make out a sensible case for denying it this name. But if you do refuse to call it ‘capitalism’, this would seem to put you on your honour to use the term with some scrupulousness, not to say soul-searching. On this basis, it is really very hard to see how Robinson Crusoe is, as Watt would argue, an expression of the capitalist ethos. The distinguishing features of capitalism seem mainly conspicuous by their absence on Crusoe’s island, where there is no division of labour, no distribution or exchange, no profit-motive and no competition. Admittedly, this could be precisely the point, and the book could be about capitalism in the sense of demonstrating what a poor thing life would be without it. Such a negative interpretation will not wash, however: for the novel succeeds in attaching strong positive feelings, even a kind of glory, to Crusoe’s island activities.

I think it may be wisest, for the moment anyway, to give up ‘capitalism’ as a key to Robinson Crusoe, and this indeed is what more recent critics have been tending to do. Of the books under review, both Laura Curtis’s and Geoffrey Sill’s offer an ethical rather than a socio-economic interpretation of the novel. Geoffrey Sill’s chapter on Robinson Crusoe strikes me as distinctly the weakest part of what is in some respects a very stimulating book, and I will deal with it rather briefly. He interprets Robinson Crusoe as being about the need to learn ‘moderation and self-restraint’ and the art of pursuing ‘ease and safety’. The ‘real crux of Crusoe’s moral sensibility’, Sill says, is ‘how to judge when to venture and when not to venture’. This, according to Sill, was also Defoe’s recipe for Britain’s political welfare, and before emerging as a novelist, he had been advocating it by fictional methods in various pseudo-biographical works: thus Robinson Crusoe was not altogether a new start. The scheme of Robinson Crusoe and of the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, according to Sill, is to take Crusoe through the various roles of mechanic, monarch, country gentleman and merchant adventurer and so on, thus making him ‘a model of moral restraint that included in itself elements of all social classes’.

The objection to this interpretation seems obvious: that it makes Defoe’s fascinating narrative sound so dreadfully dull (not to mention unsalubrious, for the pursuit of ease and safety does not seem a very inspiring goal). Anyway, the reader is so grateful to Crusoe for not showing moderation and restraint, and for recklessly landing himself in the most appalling holes, that such an ethical scheme would be likely to be counter-productive. More seriously, Sill’s interpretation depends on the claim (as it were, on the analogy of Don Quixote) that the reader will not have got the point of Defoe’s novel till he has reached the end of its sequel, the Farther Adventures – in which the world-renouncing example of the exiled Russian courtier, ‘whose exile strongly resembles that of Harley and Shrewsbury’, guides Crusoe to the knowledge of ‘the Value of Retirement, and the Blessing of ending our Days in Peace’. Now this is as much as to say that, over the centuries, the common reader, who (it is a hundred to one) has never read the Farther Adventures, has not been in a position to appreciate Robinson Crusoe.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in