I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family • Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800
1726 Gulliver’s Travels, by Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift, is published as a traveller’s tale and fictional autobiography and becomes an immediate success.
1740 English author Samuel Richardson publishes Pamela, a fictional autobiography that chronicles the life of its lead character, a maidservant, through a series of letters.
1749 The comic novel autobiography Tom Jones, by English writer Henry Fielding, is published and follows the adventures of a high-spirited foundling boy.
1849—50 David Copperfield, by English author Charles Dickens, is published; although a fictional work, the life of the main protagonist has close parallels to Dickens’ own.
Constructing the narrative of a literary text around a fictional autobiography is a device that not only enables a writer to tell the tale of the life of an individual as if that person were the author but also gives the impression that the words spoken are a direct transcription of actual events. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (originally entitled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe) was the progenitor of this fictional autobiographical voice. A number of other notable 18th- and 19th- century characters followed Crusoe, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
The title page of the first edition of Robinson Crusoe did not cite Defoe as the author: instead, the words “Written by Himself” appeared beneath the title — and so readers may well have imagined the story to be true. The book’s opening sentence, which begins “I was born in the year 1632”, suggests that this is a real tale recounted by the individual who experienced these adventures. The details of the “author’s” birth lend authenticity to the work as an autobiographical text — and therefore also as a true narrative. Such verisimilitude is enhanced by the fact that parts of the novel take the form of a journal.
Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both use an autobiographical voice to present their tales of travel as factual accounts of real-life experiences; they nevertheless differ in several crucial respects.
Robinson Crusoe is widely credited as a foundational text of realism, and, for many, it also ranks as the first English novel. It is believed that Defoe’s work was inspired by the account of a real-life castaway, Alexander Selkirk, who, in the early 18th century, was marooned on an island in the Pacific. An instant success on publication, Defoe’s story mentions expeditions in exotic regions of Africa and Brazil, and a slaving mission that leads to shipwreck on a Caribbean island.
Crusoe tells of his attempts to rescue provisions from the ship and of his solitary existence on the island. He builds a shelter and makes tools with which to hunt, farm, and forage. He keeps track of the days by cutting notches in a wooden cross; he reads the Bible and thanks God. He domesticates a parrot. For years this is his life.
Then — in one of the most iconic moments in literature — Crusoe discovers a footprint in the sand, leading to an obsessive fear that he will be attacked by “savages”. After two years spent barricading himself in a fortress, he encounters a native from a nearby island who is fleeing from cannibals. Crusoe “rescues” him, puts him to work, and names him Friday, after the day on which they met. The relationship between the two has been critiqued as one of master and slave (a European explorer/exploiter and an indigenous local); Crusoe, as a bearer of “civilization”, is a symbol of burgeoning British imperialism. Just as European nations claim land for colonies, so Crusoe assumes dominion over the island, and sees himself as an owner and “absolute Lord”.
Crusoe’s “autobiographical” island memoir proved remarkably resilient, inspiring endless re-imaginings and giving rise to an entire subgenre, the Robinsonade. A pivotal text in English literature, it has had a significant influence — perhaps unrivalled by any other individual work — and its motifs have become part of the general culture.
"[H]e kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and … set my foot upon his head; this it seems was in token of swearing to be my slave forever."
Daniel Foe is thought to have been born in London in 1660 (he later added the prefix “De” to his name). In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, then spent many years as a businessman and merchant, but went bankrupt in 1692. In 1697, he became a confidant of King William III and travelled Britain as a secret agent. In 1702, his pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters led to his imprisonment, due to its political content, and to a second bankruptcy. Released thanks to politician Robert Harley, Defoe acted as Harley’s spy, travelling around Britain and reporting back on public opinion. Defoe did not turn to novel writing until his late 50s, and became a key figure in the construction of the form, finding great success with Robinson Crusoe. Defoe died in 1731.
Other key works
1722 Moll Flanders
1722 A Journal of the Plague Year
See also: Gulliver’s Travels • Tom Jones • David Copperfield • The Catcher in the Rye