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  • The Cave and the Grotto: Realist Form and Robinson Crusoe’s Imagined Interiors
  • Maximillian E. Novak (bio)

It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy-framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.1

In this essay on Daniel Defoe’s use of the related images of the cave and the grotto in The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, I will stress his imaginative processes and their sources. I think, then, that at the outset it is important to state two critical notions with which I am in complete agreement. The first is that Robinson Crusoe is a realist text. This has been argued forcibly by what seems like an army of critics from Walter Scott in the nineteenth century to Ian Watt and Michael McKeon in the twentieth. Scott praised the “unequalled dexterity with which our author has given an appearance of reality to the incidents which he narrates,” and Watt argued that Defoe was the first master of “formal” or “circumstantial” realism.2 The second (and perhaps more controversial) point is that fictional narratives that are generally considered realist texts are frequently made to seem [End Page 445] more real by the use of dream and fantasy, from the dreams and drug-induced scribbles of Clarissa after she has been raped to the grotesque figures and grim cityscapes of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. Crusoe has his dreams and fears of otherworldly beings on the island, but his island and its objects have a concreteness that has impressed critics from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Virginia Woolf. If my discussion seems to stress the less tangible aspects of the island, at no time do I consider these as being in opposition to the real.

As for my second point, it may be argued that the figures of the cave and the grotto with which I will be concerned in this essay offer a kind of material topography of the realist novel, in which fantasy is not the outside other of the real (the realm against which realism opposes itself), but rather the interior space of the realist novel itself. As I have argued elsewhere,3 Defoe has no lack of Roland Barthes’s “reality effect”—those unessential details that contribute to the concreteness of the text—throughout The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.4 But I want to argue that it is through his use of the imagery associated with the cave and the grotto, those classic locales of daydream and psychological landscape, that Defoe solidifies Robinson Crusoe ’s position as a realist text.

In the process of writing Robinson Crusoe, Defoe became increasingly aware of the possibilities of his protagonists’ situation. It is that awareness, that consciousness about his text and the way he involved Crusoe in that process I want to examine in this essay, and I want to do so in association with the related but distinct clusters of ideas and images that centre on the cave and the grotto. In focusing on these two related topoi, I am following much the same method that I employed in my essay “Imaginary Islands and Real Beasts: The Imaginative Genesis of Robinson Crusoe.”5 There, by analysing Defoe’s writings over the years [End Page 446] preceding the publication of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures, I attempted to probe into Defoe’s imaginative processes, particularly the nightmarish scenes of wild beasts rampaging in the Pyrenees, terrible storms and floods in Europe, and the images of the Scottish Covenanters driven out of their villages into an inhospitable nature.6 In this present essay, I want to explore how the cave and the grotto, which have such a rich associative history in painting and sculpture as well as literature, influenced Defoe’s imaginative processes. I intend to do this by emphasizing the pictorial vividness of what Defoe was attempting to describe, his sense of the real, as it combined with the visionary and, indeed, ecstatic experiences he was treating during the years he was writing his Robinson Crusoe volumes.

One of the points of origin for this essay was an attempt to annotate a line from...


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