The First English Novel

Robinson crusoe rescues friday-1868

Robinson crusoe rescues Friday-1868 (Credit: Wikipedia)

“It is the complete victory of private property over all those of its qualities which are still apparently human and the total subjugation of the property owner to the essence of private property – labor. … Enjoyment is, therefore, subsumed under capital, and the pleasure-seeking individual under the capitalizing individual.”
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

The English novel is traditionally the genre of careful and focused observation of the social behavior. Women were particularly good at writing this kind of novel. It is often associated with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. These authors brought particular insight and attention to the lives and condition of women. I find it rather ironic that the first English novel, written by a man, about a man, lacks any female character important enough to have a name. In fact, for the greater part of Robinson Crusoe there is no opportunity for social analysis at all as there is no society. It is a novel about a man alone on an island.

Could one over imagine a woman writing Robinson Crusoe? There is almost no mention of family, friends or society. Crusoe’s interactions with the others, while he still is around them, is largely commercial. Once he is stranded on the island his story becomes one long account book of objects, supplies, calendars, cost-benefit analysis and labor.

This accounting take precedence over all. Crusoe, long sense having forgotten his own family leads Friday to do the same. Not more than a dozen pages after Friday’s heartrending reunion with his father, barely saved from the verge of death, he sails off following Crusoe to an unknown future without a thought for his father who was supposed to return to the island to meet them at a later date. Once off the island Friday is forgotten and largely disappears from the narrative just as Xury, his previous companion was sold off into slavery with barely a thought.

Crusoe himself, who having spent pages detailing every scrap of cloth and metal removed from the ship, will skip over his marriage, children and death in hardly more than a single sentence; not one of them gets the dignity of being mentioned by name.

I find it peculiar that such an incredibly anti-social tale could be the founding text of that most social of literary genres, the English Novel.


~ by severalfourmany on March 28, 2013.

One Response to “The First English Novel”

  1. Interesting take on this ‘classic’ which I am ashamed to admit I have yet to read. but its on my list…. That term the first english novel is a really tricky one – I did a post on this a while back. Would be interested to know whether you agree with Ian Watts.

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