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  • Autobiographical Acts in Robinson Crusoe
  • David Marshall

From the first words of its title page, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner announces itself as a Life. "Written by Himself," as the title page also announces, the narrative tells the life story of Robinson Crusoe, the story of his life, but it also tells the story of his Life,the story of the writing of his Life . Robinson Crusoe(the book) narrates how Robinson Crusoe (the character) comes to find himself the author and subject of an autobiographical account. From the outset, the narrative is preoccupied with autobiography itself as Robinson Crusoe engages in repeated and at times almost compulsive acts of autobiography.

The most obvious of these autobiographical acts within the autobiography is the journal that Crusoe writes while on the island. Beginning about fifty pages into the text with a new title and consecutive dated entries, it interrupts and, for a time, takes over the text until Defoe seems to lose interest and Crusoe runs out of ink. The journal exemplifies Crusoe's turn to autobiography but it is only one of a series of attempts to narrate his life as the strangely non-linear narrative keeps beginning again and circling back on itself—alluding to, joining with, and diverting from other versions of Crusoe's autobiography. Early in the narrative, before the shipwreck, Crusoe writes: "I wrote the English Captain's Widow a full Account of all my Adventures, my Slavery, Escape, and how I met with the Portugal Captain at Sea, the Humanity of his Behavior, and in what condition I was now in."1 Although we don't see this account, we learn that Crusoe wrote and sent to the widow a version of the fifteen pages that we just read. In the same sentence he recounts further how "a full Account of my Story" was "represented" to the widow by a merchant (31).

There are accounts throughout Crusoe's narrative, including (of course) economic accounts. After he secures paper, pen, and ink from the shipwreck, before he starts the journal, he decides to "draw up the State of my Affairs in Writing" but the "Accompt" he provides of his life story is not a narrative but rather a two-column accounting of the good and evil in his condition. Accounting for himself "like [End Page 899] Debtor and Creditor," Crusoe turns his text into a kind of double-entry book-keeping that lists the positive and negative sides of his circumstances (53-54). This type of accounting is familiar to readers of Defoe: his characters are always taking stock of themselves in material and spiritual terms, figuring their profits and losses and answering moral and metaphysical questions with the same calculations. To take stock of oneself, to list one's debts and assets, is to enter autobiography, and to write an autobiographical account is to account for oneself, account to oneself, to render an account of one's domestic funds. This cohabitation of capitalist and Puritan is familiar to readers of Defoe, but I dwell on the word "Account" here because as it adds up throughout Defoe's text it always means both calculation and narration.2 Accounts must be read in the autobiographical register of Robinson Crusoe:for Crusoe, autobiography must tell , in the sense that a teller in a bank tells. What he counts, what he tells, is time.

The first autobiographical account that Crusoe keeps after his shipwreck is designed to tell time by acting as a calendar. After Crusoe relates the events of the first days on the island, he promises to "give a full Account" of certain details, after he gives "some little Account of my self, and of my Thoughts about Living" (51). Then, after a brief representation of an inner dialogue in which he expostulates with himself about his condition, he announces:

And now being to enter into a melancholy Relation of a Scene of silent Life, such perhaps as was never heard of in the World before, I shall take it from its Beginning, and continue it in its Order. It was, by my Account, the 30th. of Sept. when, in...


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