Defoe Publishes the First Novel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robinson Crusoe, a fact-based, realistically detailed account of a shipwrecked man struggling for survival, was the first novel written in English. The genre as a whole would come to be defined in terms of several of Robinson Crusoe’s key features, especially its studied focus on character psychology, its association of detail with realism, and its alignment with middle-class values and experience.

Summary of Event

Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe) was immediately popular, going through four printings in four months and attracting a huge middle- and lower-class readership. Literature;working class Readers seemed to identify with the shipwrecked man’s painful isolation, his search for food, water, and safety, and his ultimate mastery of his environment. Crusoe appeared to be an average Englishman, who, despite the adversity that had befallen him, was making the best of it. [kw]Defoe Publishes the First Novel (Apr. 25, 1719) [kw]Novel, Defoe Publishes the First (Apr. 25, 1719) [kw]First Novel, Defoe Publishes the (Apr. 25, 1719) [kw]Publishes the First Novel, Defoe (Apr. 25, 1719) Robinson Crusoe (Defoe) [g]England;Apr. 25, 1719: Defoe Publishes the First Novel[0540] [c]Literature;Apr. 25, 1719: Defoe Publishes the First Novel[0540] Defoe, Daniel Tuffley, Mary Oxford, first earl of (Robert Harley) William III

A Protestant Dissenter, Dissenters (Protestants) Defoe identified himself with the Puritans, Puritanism whose rebellion against the established Church of England during the seventeenth century marked the beginning of the rise of the middle class. As a merchant, Defoe had gained a favorable business advantage through the dowry of his wife, Mary Tuffley. His fondness for trade had led to an interest in politics, specifically political writing of a sort so provocative that he was frequently imprisoned and once pilloried. He became known as the chief pamphleteer of King William III.

After Queen Anne succeeded to the throne, Defoe’s political writings earned him a powerful patron in Robert Harley, who in 1710 would become the first earl of Oxford and the head of a Tory ministry. Harley secured Defoe’s release in 1703 from Newgate Prison, where he had been incarcerated for seditious libel for six months (during which time his business went bankrupt). In return for his release, Defoe served Harley for years as both a writer and an intelligence agent, until the politician’s fall from power led to his own imprisonment in 1715.

Defoe wrote voluminously in defense of the Dissenters, their beliefs, and their values. Through the years, Defoe had filled numerous books and pamphlets with political and economic arguments and discussions, biographies, histories, and travel adventures. His gift for lively writing included dialogue, character development, and an interest in the mundane activities of the world, all of which contributed to his role in creating a new kind of fiction.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe distilled his life experiences into an adventure story that shunned the erudite, poetic language of earlier English authors, using instead a plainspoken narrative that detailed the title character’s efforts to survive on a deserted island. Defoe’s realistic, Literature;realism precise, prose accounts of the shipwreck, Crusoe’s salvaging of supplies from the ship, the building of his “fortress,” and his adaptation of the island’s resources to further his own existence communicated to his readers a compelling individual effort to gain control of his own environment. Defoe’s audience was not the upper classes but shopkeepers, artisans, servants, and the like.

Robinson Crusoe was more than adventure story; in its preface, Defoe stated his intent to provide moral and religious instruction, in accordance with the Puritan literary tradition of his day. Because the Puritans disdained imaginative writing, specifically fiction, Defoe assured his readers that Robinson Crusoe was true—an illusion that was supported by his meticulous, precise details. While it was well known that a British sailor named Alexander Selkirk had in fact been marooned on an island in the Pacific Ocean for four years, Defoe’s Crusoe and his adventures began essentially as a cautionary tale designed to warn readers of the evils and dangers that befell Crusoe in the story.

Early in the narrative, Crusoe disobeys his father by going to sea, a decision that results in his being shipwrecked as well as suffering guilt and remorse for his sin. The rebellion against his father, viewed by Crusoe as similar to the biblical disobedience of Adam and Eve against God (and perhaps the Puritan rebellion against the Church of England), results in his being cast off from civilization, much as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Crusoe’s acknowledgment of his wretched condition and total dependence upon God marks a turning point in the novel, wherein Crusoe ceases bemoaning his miserable state and begins to work to improve his condition.

Crusoe’s repentance and conversion lead directly to his desire for prosperity, the acquisition of which becomes his sole occupation. Without advantage of birth, fortune, or connections, Crusoe relies upon his own courage, ingenuity, and ambition to control nature for his own benefit and is rewarded with food, clothing, and shelter. His strong work ethic concerning the husbandry of the island provides him with everything he needs and much more. In his diary, Crusoe obsessively itemizes the materials he recovered from the shipwreck, keeps an inventory of the island—including the number of goats and cats he has accumulated—and records his understanding of weather patterns in order to maintain crop production.

Through the character of Crusoe and his situation, Defoe treated most economic and religious issues of his time. Crusoe’s delight with fashioning a cooking pot and his surprise at new grain growing from cast-off seeds form a complex pattern with his questioning of God about the cause of his suffering and his desolation. Crusoe’s need for survival in an alien and hostile place where social, religious, and economic codes no longer function forces him back on himself. However, the result of this self-reliance is that Crusoe re-creates the very social, religious, and economic codes that he supposedly left behind when he was exiled from civilization. His meticulous accounting of his wealth, which is equated with a proper religious attitude and its natural reward, demonstrates this wholesale importation of British middle-class values into a self-contained, isolated world.

Even as Defoe’s own life was dependent upon social relationships, Crusoe’s stark realization of his own solitude and his total remove from personal relations signals the beginning of the novel’s focus on the breakdown of relationships and its primary concern with individualism. Crusoe’s struggle for survival connects with his obsessive search for his own identity in a world of radical change and his establishment of a relationship with God as well as his place in the world.


While many established eighteenth century writers, notably English poet Alexander Pope and Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, condemned Defoe’s writing as vulgar and contemptible, numerous other authors were impressed with the number of readers Defoe attracted. Some appreciated Defoe’s originality and attempted to capitalize on his success by publishing adventure stories similar in character and situation.

More modern assessments of Robinson Crusoe concur that it is a masterpiece. As the work generally credited with being the first novel written in English, it established a connection from the very beginning between the novel as a form and the interests and values of the emergent middle class. Middle class;literature The novel had the ability to function as a catalog of objects and possessions, to describe in intimate detail the world of things that was the middle class’s focus while simultaneously portraying the inner thoughts of a properly religious person. As a result, this new type of fiction could represent both the experience and the desires of a middle-class subject to an extent of which no previous form of literature was capable. As the development of the novel paralleled the rise of the middle class, it continued to produce, to mirror, and to absorb this new class’s ideologies and its members’ ideas about their identity and place in the world.

Using first-person narration, Defoe emphasized the character of Crusoe and his experiences by providing readers with an opportunity to observe him moving between his experiences and his thoughts. This direct portrayal of Crusoe’s meditations upon his pain, his isolation, and his strategies for survival facilitated a focus upon character psychology that would become the very hallmark of the modern novel, one of the central features that would distinguish it from other forms of representation.

As Defoe’s adventure story follows Crusoe’s life and experiences, it assumes a linear form that lacks the symmetry of classical poetry or drama as it focuses on the randomness of experience. This randomness would ultimately shape not only the novel but drama and poetry as well, as all literary forms would be influenced by the novel once it became the dominant form of literature and narrative in the Western world. Perhaps Defoe’s greatest contribution to the novel, though, is simply to be found in his creation of a fully realized character who, through circumstance, breaks with his past and begins his own search for meaning in his life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Backsheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986. Consideration of Defoe in relation to the literary traditions and conventions of his time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Laura. The Elusive Daniel Defoe. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield, 1984. An argument that the ambiguities in Defoe’s writings are caused by contradictory drives in his own personality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Edited by Cynthia Wall. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Defoe’s vivid chronicle of the great plague of 1665 and its devastation of London, first published in 1723.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Voluminous discussion of ambiguities in Defoe’s life, reputation, and writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. 2d American ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. New edition of Watt’s classic account of the social conditions, attitudes, and literary traditions of the eighteenth century, including extensive discussion of the relationship between the invention of the novel and the invention of the middle class.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998. Provides details of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, especially the political and social environment that influenced Defoe’s career.

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Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Daniel Defoe; Henry Fielding; Alexander Pope; Samuel Richardson; Jonathan Swift. Robinson Crusoe (Defoe)

Categories: History