Daniel Defoe's ground-breaking novel was presented as the autobiography of Crusoe, a middle-class Englishman marooned on a remote island near Trinidad for 28 years.
The first edition's title page is itself a classic, giving an entertaining glimpse of 18th century London's publishing culture. The title and extensive subtitles, appearing next to a woodcut of Crusoe in animal skins, read:
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account how he was at last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates.
After a series of adventures at sea, Crusoe is marooned after a shipwreck on what he calls "the island of despair." With a few tools salvaged from the ship, including guns, Crusoe teaches himself to build a shelter, make clothes and hunt for food.
One day, he discovers a footprint in the sand. It turns out that a group of cannibals keep prisoners on the island for eating. Crusoe saves one of the prisoners, a black man he calls Friday, after the day of the week they first encounter each other.
The book has been seen as expressing British imperialism, colonialism, exploitation of indigenous people, Puritan work ethic, inventiveness, scientific curiosity, wanderlust and literary genius. Reading a Bible salvaged from the ship, his only book, Crusoe turns into a religious believer who sees his salvation as god's providence.
With all of his English righteousness, Crusoe still comes to not condemning the savages for their cannibalism. He reasons that the practice is not immoral if not considered evil by their beliefs.
Through the years, Robinson Crusoe has inspired many imitations, making up a separate genre called Robinsonades. An abridged version was a popular children's book when I was a boy. In those days, Robinson Crusoe was one of the classics still read by middle-class students.
The Robinson Crusoe story lived on in books like "The Swiss Family Robinson," made into a popular Disney film. Crusoe and Friday were also staples of cartoons and comic books. Plot elements were recycled in TV shows like "Lost in Space."
Although Robinson Crusoe continues to inspire books, poetry, films, plays and TV shows, the book is no longer taught in British schools, according to a recent Times Literary Supplement article. The book with its archaic language is difficult to read, and its themes now look oppressive.
Yet the story of a man shipwrecked on an island and using his wits to survive still registers in the human imagination.