Robinson Crusoe and Myth-Making

For a work proclaiming, on its title page, to be “A Romance,” Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone finds itself undeniably fascinated by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which, for critic Ian Watt, is decidedly a novel (as he argues in The Rise of the Novel). It’s a curious dialectic between literary forms separated by more than a century and a half.

Chapter 1 of the First Period opens with a description of what is to be found “in the first part of Robinson Crusoe, at the page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written: ‘Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it’” (21). Is this a novel we’ve begun or a critical essay? For Betteredge, Robinson Crusoe is much more than a novel: it is his sanctuary and advice guide. He consults it by arbitrarily turning the pages, treating the passages he finds with religious reverence bordering on obsession.  Betteredge “[has] worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in [his] service” (22). He even goes so far as to say that “such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again” (22). I think we would be remiss to take this statement as only an indication of an old man’s madness (whether or not we trust Betteredge as a narrator is an entirely different question).

Robinson Crusoe may be a novel in its treatment of the individual, but in respects to its view of colonization, it is certainly idealized. It is the portrayal of the ultimate eighteenth-century British fantasy: a man, shipwrecked on an island, not only survives but flourishes, populating an entire colony in service of God and country. If Robinson Crusoe is the Empire’s dream, then The Moonstone is its nightmare. For Defoe, the periphery is complacent and cooperative. It is productive. Even while on the peripheral island, it is Robinson, not Friday, who remains the focus of the novel (though Robinson and Friday certainly share a questionably intimate relationship). The Moonstone is interested in boundaries and in the crossing of them, both by people and by things. It asks about the consequences of a peripheral push back: what if Friday weren’t complacent? What if the colonies were to infiltrate the core on an existential level that ran deeper than the funneling of raw materials?

The danger, too, in the periphery penetrating the core is also partly mythological: the diamond is not only a raw material, but it is cursed. It is a product of the social relations surrounding it: the three Brahmins, the Sultan, the Colonel… but because the diamond is both a product of social relations and a product of India, it assumes a mystic presence, which haunts the novel. The mythology of the diamond escalates the stakes of the conflict: not only has the periphery insinuated itself into the core, but the core cannot even firmly articulate if the curse of the diamond is simply “a fanciful story” or a threat to be taken seriously (13).

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