In 1830, a few months before he died in a Soho rooming-house, Hazlitt published a lengthy essay on a new biography of Daniel Defoe in the Edinburgh Review, where he remarked that in Robinson Crusoe Defoe abandoned the political and religious subjects he addressed in his pamphlets, and confined himself to 'unsophisticated views of nature and the human heart'. Hazlitt's misreading is not uncommon. The novel is seen as the archetypal Puritan adventure story, a self-sufficient fiction which transcends the controversies Defoe addresses in his journalism. This is rather like saying that TV programmes such as Castaway and Big Brother tell us nothing about the social moments that created them. Although some recent scholars have noticed that Crusoe's rhetoric of absolutism and submission 'places the right and might of sovereignty in the office of the monarch', as Manuel Schonhorn puts it in Defoe's Politics (1991), his rather lopsided, overly monarchist study, critics tend to link the novel only intermittently to the historical period it covers, and have not succeeded in offering a critical view of the text as a historical allegory or parable. If Hazlitt - one of Defoe's heirs and like him nourished in Dissenting culture - missed the point, it is not surprising that later readers have also failed to grasp that Robinson Crusoe is an epic account of the experience of the English Dissenters under the Restoration.
LRB 19 July 2001 | PDF Download