Study Guide to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
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Study Guide to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Intelligent Education

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eBook - ePub

Study Guide to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Intelligent Education

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About This Book

A comprehensive study guide offering in-depth explanation, essay, and test prep for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, believed by many readers to be based on the true story of a real-life castaway, Alexander Selkirk.

As a novel of the eighteenth-century, Robinson Crusoe sparked the movement of realistic fiction as a literary genre and led to the rise in publication of castaway novels. Moreover, the book has gone on to become one of the most broadly published books in history, and its name is used to define a genre, the Robinsonade. This Bright Notes Study Guide explores the context and history of Daniel Defoe's classic work, helping students to thoroughly explore the reasons it has stood the literary test of time. Each Bright Notes Study Guide contains:

- Introductions to the Author and the Work

- Character Summaries

- Plot Guides

- Section and Chapter Overviews

- Test Essay and Study Q&As

The Bright Notes Study Guide series offers an in-depth tour of more than 275 classic works of literature, exploring characters, critical commentary, historical background, plots, and themes. This set of study guides encourages readers to dig deeper in their understanding by including essay questions and answers as well as topics for further research.

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Daniel Defoe is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe. However, his life encompassed such a diversity of activities that no single word such as “novelist” adequately describes him. His literary output was enormous, with some five hundred publications to his credit, but the few works of fiction were written late in his life. Propagandist and pamphleteer, novelist and reporter, Defoe also found time to write histories, biographies, travelogues and poetry. In addition to his literary activities, Defoe also pursued a number of other careers. He prided himself on his business ability and always maintained that he was primarily a merchant. For a number of years he also acted as a secret agent for Robert Harley, the Secretary of State. Very much involved with contemporary affairs, Defoe’s writings, whether fictional, reportorial or polemical, reflect the interests and opinions of his times. For a fuller understanding of Defoe himself, it is therefore necessary to know something about his England.
During Defoe’s lifetime (1660-1731), six monarchs reigned in England. The Stuart king, Charles II, was restored to the throne which had been vacant since his father’s beheading twelve years before, in 1660. Charles II had considerably more tact than his ancestors and did not allow his personal preference for absolute rule and Roman Catholicism to offend the more democratic and Protestant susceptibilities of his subjects. His brother James II, who succeeded him in 1685, was less wise and openly avowed his Roman Catholicism. As a direct result of the birth of a son in 1688, the “Glorious Revolution” (so-called because it was brief and bloodless), replaced James by his elder, Protestant daughter, Mary and her husband William of Orange. They had no children and were succeeded by Mary’s younger sister Anne in 1702. None of Anne’s children survived her, so she was succeeded by a distant, Protestant relation, George I of Hanover, in 1714. His son, George II, ascended the throne in 1727.
While Charles II and James II reigned, England maintained peaceful relations with Louis XIV’s France. However, William III soon involved England in his lifelong feud with the French. Although peace was declared in 1697, war again broke out in 1701. This, the “war of the Spanish succession,” continued until 1713. In both cases England was the victor.
The terms of the settlement by which William and Mary ascended the throne vacated by James II established that England would be a constitutional monarchy, governed by Parliament. Although the king remained in nominal control, his ministers now had more power than previously. The ministers were members of Parliament and they retained office only as long as they were able to control Parliament. Since no one man could be sure of the support of more than a few of the members of the House of Commons, several men who had similar ideas concerning the way in which the country should be run would join together. In this way political parties were formed. During Defoe’s lifetime there were two parties, called the Whigs and the Tories. The Tories belonged to the upper classes, supported the supremacy of the Church of England and favored the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of James II’s son, the “Old Pretender.” The Whigs, on the other hand, often belonged to the middle class, favored toleration for the various Protestant groups and supported the Hanoverian dynasty. Between the two extremes there were many moderates. All those Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) were called Dissenters. Dissenters were not permitted to hold office, but many of them did by attending the Anglican Church occasionally. Defoe was against this practice of “occasional conformity” and wrote a pamphlet attacking it.
During the period of the Stuart monarchs, Scotland and England were allied because they shared the same king. James I of England was also James VI of Scotland. With the overthrow of the Stuart dynasty in 1688, it became apparent that closer political ties with Scotland would have to be established. Therefore, the two countries were legally unified by the Act of Union in 1707. Defoe was quite active in furthering this treaty which brought England and Scotland together.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the rise of the middle class to a position of power and prestige. Their influence would cause England, in the nineteenth century, to be known as a “nation of shopkeepers.” Trade was occupying a more important position in the nation’s economy than it ever had before. With ability, luck and a few influential friends, a young man could rise to be a great merchant. He might even marry the daughter of a duke or become a member of the nobility himself. Daniel Defoe undoubtedly had ambitions of this nature.
Born sometime in 1660 (the year of Charles II’s restoration to the throne), Defoe was the son of a Dissenting tradesman. His father, James Foe, did not believe in infant baptism, so we have no record of Defoe’s birth. (Defoe added the aristocratic prefix “De” to his family name toward the end of the century.) Born and brought up in London, Defoe spent the greater part of his life in or near it. He was probably only five years old when the great plague of 1665-66 broke out, but he remembered what he was told about the tragic epidemic and wrote the effective Journal of the Plague Year in 1722. In September of 1666 occurred the great fire of London which destroyed most of the old city, but stopped short a few blocks from the Foe home. Defoe went to schools run by the Dissenters, and the education he acquired here stressed subjects such as history and geography, rather than the Latin and Greek which predominated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (which were open only to Anglicans). He originally intended to study for the Presbyterian ministry, but decided that he was unsuitable and instead prepared himself to become a merchant, like his father.
By 1683, Defoe was established as a merchant, dealing primarily in haberdashery. The following year, he married Mary Tuffley, whose father was moderately wealthy. Although in later years Defoe was able to give sound advice to young men beginning business careers, he never followed his own precepts. He persistently overreached himself in financial matters, becoming involved in more risky and ultimately unsuccessful ventures than profitable undertakings. He was also involved in a number of lawsuits. Biographers differ on how guilty he was of the many charges of dishonesty leveled against him, but it is unlikely that he was completely innocent in all cases. Defoe also suffered some severe financial losses as a direct result of King William’s war with the French, when ships he insured were captured by the enemy. As a result of bad luck, poor judgment and perhaps dishonesty, Defoe found himself unable to pay his bills and was declared a bankrupt in 1692. Within ten years, the greater part of the debt had been repaid, but Defoe was forever after haunted by the threat of debtors’ prison.
Defoe, as a good Dissenter, feared the consequences of a Roman Catholic sovereign. He therefore supported the uprising of 1685 (which attempted to replace James II by Charles II’s natural son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth) but escaped punishment when the revolt failed. Defoe was firmer in his support of William III; one of his first political pamphlets, “A Letter to a Dissenter from his friend at the Hague” (published anonymously in the summer of 1688), openly criticized James II’s policies. Welcoming William III’s arrival in England, Defoe soon made himself useful to the new monarch and his ministers, and was rewarded by several minor government positions. By the end of the century, Defoe was writing pamphlets fairly regularly in support of William’s policies. In 1701, Defoe published a satirical poem, “The True-Born Englishman”, as an answer to critics who complained that England was being overrun by “foreigners” that is, by William III’s Dutch friends and advisers. The point of the extremely popular poem was that the ancestors of all Englishmen were foreigners once. During the same year, Defoe did an even greater service for William in writing “Legion’s Memorial” to the House of Commons. Parliament, instead of voting military supplies to support William’s war, had been bickering about unimportant matters. Defoe’s pamphlet, which he personally gave to Robert Harley, then Speaker of the House, warned Commons that Parliament should serve the people, and if it did not, the people could overthrow it.
Defoe felt that his position was now secure. Unfortunately, William III died on March 8, 1702. His sister-in-law, Anne, favored the extreme Tories, so Defoe, as a Dissenting Whig could hope for no more royal favors. At the end of this year, angered by sermons and speeches advocating religious persecution of all Dissenting sects, Defoe anonymously published a pamphlet called “The Shortest Way” with the Dissenters. Written tongue-in-cheek, “The Shortest Way” advocated extreme repressive measures against the Dissenters, such as hanging and banishment. Unfortunately, the sermons Defoe was satirizing used language that was just as violent, and for a while everyone thought that the anonymous author was sincere. When it was found that Defoe was the author, both the Dissenters and the Tories were extremely angry with him and the Tories decided that he should be punished. Accordingly, Defoe was charged with writing a seditious libel and sentenced to the extremely severe punishment of standing three times in the pillory, paying a fine, and remaining in prison for an indefinite time. Defoe’s Whig friends managed affairs so that, while Defoe had to stand in the pillory (a T-shaped construction with holes for the head and hands) his public exposure turned into a personal triumph. Instead of jeering and throwing things at him, the crowd cheered and bought copies of his latest satire, “A Hymn to the Pillory”. The calculating Harley, having decided that Defoe’s pen would be useful, waited several months to insure Defoe’s gratitude and then arranged his release from prison. Defoe was now a hero to the London mob and was secretly bound to the ambitious Harley.
Robert Harley (later created Earl of Oxford) became Secretary of State in 1704. He was a moderate Tory, but Defoe seemed to have no trouble in adapting his political beliefs to conform with Harley’s. There was, basically, little difference between the moderate Whig and Tory positions. Defoe’s duties, as Harley’s protege, consisted of writing pamphlets and newspaper articles in support of government policy, taking informal public opinion polls throughout England and “campaigning” for the election of Harley’s supporters. His usefulness could last only as long as his connection with Harley remained a secret. Defoe remained a servant of the Ministry, through several different administrations, until the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

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