Points to Ponder
Robinson leaves his family at an early age, brushing aside his father's suggestions that he lead a prudent, middle-class life, pursue a stable profession such as the Law, and settle in England. Such a course would be in line with developing capitalism, allowing Robinson to profit from the kinds of intense professionalization and specialization that capitalism encourages. Instead, he chooses a life of travel, claiming that he is simple unable to corral his wanderlust and non-traditional desires. Ironically, of course, Robinson ends up profiting much more from his supposedly idiosyncratic lifestyle than he would have if he had stayed in England. He buys a plantation, and eventually sells it, winding up with enormous amounts of money. If Robinson's sin was to have defied the seemingly boring and bourgeois suggestions of his father, what do we think about the fact that Robinson eventually establishes a business that reaps increasing amounts of profit from an original investment of money? Indeed, even after 28 years away from his plantation, Robinson's business was able to produce profit without his intervention, perpetuating the capitalist myth the money is able to simply breed more money in an infinite progress of interest. This falls in line perfectly with capitalism's tendencies. What kinds of ironies might Defoe be either pointing out or unwittingly repeating in this trajectory?
Robinson treats Xury -- with whom he escapes the pirates -- somewhat differently than he treats Friday. Both are non-Western, but Robinson sells Xury to the Portuguese Captain, while he often seems to treat Friday as an "equal." This might be said to be an example of Defoe's intent to show how Robinson changes on the island, learning the value of human life and differentiating humans for commodities. The argument in favor of this would show that Robinson bought slaves for his plantation, and, although he was unwilling, sold Xury for a profit; on the other hand, he sits and debates religion with Friday, and repeatedly comments to the reader on Friday's "European" qualities. But while the way in which he treats Friday differs to some extent from his treatment of Xury, he immediately has Friday refer to him as "master," and even stresses the fact that Friday is under implicit contract to follow Robinson's will because Robinson has saved his life. He is also determined to make Friday realize the superiority of a Western God. Robinson's attitude towards Friday, then, may indeed be distinct from his feelings about Xury, but it may not be that their relationship is truly one of equals. What are the ways in which Robinson believes himself to be treating Friday as a peer? What are some of the ways in which he enforces his will over him?
Crusoe's Preface is traditionally regarded as the place where Defoe equivocates between wanting to say that the text that follows is a history or a novel. An Editor is spoken of in the third person, and we learn that this Editor "believes the thing [Robinson Crusoe] to be a just History of Fact," and that "neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it." This seems to be the moment at which Defoe puts his foot down, preferring to frame his text as history. But if we read closely, we see that the Editor does not, in fact, know whether the text is fact or fiction -- he only "believes" the text to be fact. How is the reader to judge, then, what genre of writing -- nonfiction or fiction (and furthermore, what sort of fiction) -- Robinson Crusoe might be categorized as? And, moreover, is the reader asked to come out on one side or the other, after all? That is, Defoe's Preface gives us a fifty-fifty option: either the book is fact or it isn't, but in the end, what might be more important isn't whether or not the tales are true, but what kinds of readerly tasks such waffling makes possible. If we can't know for sure what kind of text Crusoe is -- and if, then, the question of determining what sort of text Crusoe is, isn't all that important -- what kinds of questions should we be asking the text? And what sorts of tools should we use to encounter the text, if empirical tests have been declared to be inconclusive from the start? We might say that the reader's imagination must supplement this always-deferred question of genre. How do you think the Preface frames the rest of the text? How do some of the questions raised in the Preface get played out in Crusoe more generally?
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Points to Ponder
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