An unnamed editor explains his reasons for offering us the narrative we are about to read. He does not mention the name or story of Robinson Crusoe explicitly but, rather, describes the narrative as a “private man’s adventures in the world” and focuses on its realism when he calls it a “just history of fact.” He claims it is modest and serious, and that it has an instructive value, teaching us to honor “the wisdom of Providence.” Thus, the editor asserts he is doing a great service to the world in publishing Crusoe’s tale.
I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner. . . .
A man named Robinson Crusoe records his own life story, beginning with his birth in 1632 in the English city of York. Crusoe’s father was a German, originally named Kreutznaer. Crusoe is the youngest of three brothers, the eldest being a soldier and the second one having vanished mysteriously. As the youngest son in the family, Crusoe is expected to inherit little, and, as a result, his father encourages him to take up the law. But Crusoe’s inclination is to go to sea. His family strongly opposes this idea, and his father gives him a stern lecture on the value of accepting a middle station in life. Crusoe resolves to follow his father’s advice. But when one of his friends embarks for London, Crusoe succumbs to temptation and boards the ship on September 1, 1651. A storm develops. Near Yarmouth the weather is so bad that Crusoe fears for his life and prays to God for deliverance. The ship nearly founders, but all are saved. Crusoe sees this ordeal as a sign of fate that he should give up sea travel, and his friend’s father warns him against setting foot on a ship again, echoing his own father’s warning.
Crusoe parts with his friend and proceeds to London by land, where he meets a sea captain who proposes that Crusoe accompany him on an upcoming merchant voyage. Writing to his family for investment money, Crusoe sets off with forty pounds worth of trinkets and toys to sell abroad. Crusoe makes a net income of 300 pounds from this trip, and considers it a great success. Taking one hundred pounds with him, and leaving the remaining 200 pounds with a widow whom he trusts, Crusoe sets off on another merchant expedition. This time he is pursued by Moorish pirates off the coast of Sallee in North Africa. His ship is overtaken, and Crusoe is enslaved, the only Briton among his Moorish master’s slaves. Crusoe is assigned the task of fishing because of his natural skill. One day the slaves’ fishing vessel gets lost in fog, and the master installs a compass on board. The master also stores some gunpowder on board in preparation for a shooting party, but the guests do not come. Crusoe waits.
Robinson sets off on a fishing expedition with two other slaves, a man named Ismael and a boy named Xury. Sneaking up behind Ismael, Robinson pushes him into the water. Ismael swims alongside the boat and begs to be taken in. Crusoe pulls a gun on him and tells him to return to shore or else be killed. Crusoe then asks Xury whether he will accompany him and serve him faithfully, and Xury agrees. By evening, Crusoe calculates they have sailed 150 miles south of Sallee. They see wild creatures onshore that Crusoe recognizes as lions. Crusoe shoots one dead, and he and Xury skin it. They proceed southward toward what Crusoe believes are the Cape Verde or Canary Islands. They see naked black people onshore, and they fear them until the natives offer them food. When the Africans witness Crusoe shooting a leopard, they are impressed, and they offer the skin to Crusoe. Unsure where to head, Crusoe is surprised by a European ship in the distance. The ship picks up Xury and Crusoe, and its kind Portuguese captain offers to take them to Brazil. The captain buys Crusoe’s boat as well as Xury.
These chapters introduce us to Crusoe’s particular style of narration, which revolutionized the English novel: he speaks openly and intimately, with none of the grandiose rhetorical effects notable in earlier ages of English literary history. In telling us frankly how much profit he makes from his first merchant venture, and in acknowledging his inner struggle about obeying his father or following his desire to go to sea, Crusoe addresses us as if we are his close and trusted friends. He is also an exceedingly practical and fact-oriented narrator, as the editor emphasizes in calling the narration a “just history of fact.” Crusoe is fixated on precise details, telling us the exact day he set off on his voyage and the number of miles south of Sallee he is. His feelings are less fully narrated, though he does relate his anguish at disobeying his father. Crusoe also shows his basic kindness and humanity in sparing the life of Ismael, though it is clear that this act is a minor detail for him. His focus on facts, actions, and details helps mark the beginning of the novelistic form in English literature.
Crusoe’s narrative is not just an adventure story about storms and pirates, but also what in religious literature is called an exemplary tale: a tale told for purposes of moral and religious instruction. In the Preface, the editor explicitly tells us that this novel will teach us to honor “the wisdom of Providence.” We are meant to learn something spiritually useful when reading this story. Crusoe underscores this spiritual aspect by focusing on his wickedness in disobeying his father’s orders, and the punishments that come upon him for doing so. In Chapter II he refers to the “evil influence which carried me first away from my father’s house,” and the word “evil” is important: this choice is not just a foolish decision, but one made with a morally wicked influence. Moreover, the evil curiously makes Crusoe its passive victim, introducing another central aspect of Robinson’s story—his own passivity. Crusoe’s place as the rebellious younger son in the family, resembling the Prodigal Son in the Bible, enhances the religious side of Crusoe’s story.
The idea of foreignness is introduced as an important foreshadowing of Crusoe’s later long existence as a castaway in an alien land. Interestingly, despite the story’s beginning in Hull and London, Crusoe does not focus much attention on any Englishmen in his narrative. The friend who tempts him on board the ship is not named, and Crusoe shows no real affection for him. Not even Crusoe’s family members are named. The English simply do not appear to excite his interest. By contrast, Crusoe is quick to tell us the names of the other slaves, Ismael and Xury, on the Moorish fishing boat. The Portuguese captain is not named, but he is described with much more vividness than the first English captain. Crusoe reveals a basic predisposition toward foreigners that underscores his early inclination to go to sea and leave England. As the son of a foreigner—his father’s name was Kreutznaer—this roaming may be his fate. Perhaps like Odysseus in The Odyssey, he is simply destined by nature to leave home.