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  • Desert Islands and Urban Solitudes in the Crusoe Trilogy
  • Jason H. Pearl

Daniel Defoe was a dogged promoter of overseas trade, so we have good reason to treat Robinson Crusoe (1719) as another iteration of a familiar rallying cry. Defoe wrote about trade continually in A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France (1704-13), at one point envisioning a globalized world balanced perfectly by commercial interdependence: "[E]very nation has something to fetch from and something to send to one another; every nation something to spare which another Country wants, and finds something wanting another country can spare. And this occasions exchanging with those countries to the advantage of both; and that we call TRADE" (Defoe's Review 123). Defoe would have admitted that such reciprocity was an ideal, not a present reality, and of course he imagined England and Europe at the center of the process, a supposition that has come under scrutiny in recent years. The point, for my purposes, is that he championed England's participation in wider spheres of contact, engagement, and exchange, spheres where Crusoe necessarily risks safety and autonomy for profit. In the final number of the Review, Defoe maintained, "Writing upon Trade was the Whore I really doated upon," and historians and critics have borne him out, reading Robinson Crusoe in the vein of his long-held ideological commitments.2 From these interpretations, Crusoe emerges an adventurous man of the world, or even globe, herald of both the power of the British Empire and the profits of far-flung trade routes. His island becomes a model colony or entrepôt, a fictionalized imperial possession or hub of Atlantic commerce (see McLeod 164-215 and Marzec).

Some, however, have viewed the island in a very different light, seeing it as a utopian alternative, an idyllic inversion of metropolitan excess. Crusoe, after all, is the novel that launched a thousand "robinsonades," or what Frank [End Page 125] and Fritzie Manuel call "the state-of-nature utopia" (433). For Rousseau, Defoe's novel laid out "an education according to nature," stripped of distorting acculturation (176). Marx lauded the detailed accounting of labor and the transparent valuation of tools, extrapolating from Crusoe's solitude to imagine "an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force" (Capital I:171). More recently, Maximillian Novak has identified in the novel a host of traditional myths about the Golden Age and the Garden of Eden, as well as contemporaneous concepts of primitivism (see Nature of Man 22-36, "Wild Man Comes to Tea," and "Edenic Desires"). Others, including Novak, have stressed the role of providence and spiritual autobiography, regarding the island's landscape as less material than allegorical, as a metaphysical testing ground that guides its inhabitant to godlier ways (Hunter, Reluctant Pilgrim; Starr). What is important, for my purposes, is that these interpretations presuppose as their enabling principle the possibility of fully separate geographic space.3 Crusoe's utopia is defined primarily by its boundaries, and it is the island's remoteness— its disengagement from the rest of the world—that permits its categorical and transformative differences, whatever these specific differences may be.4 The interpretation works, of course, only if we focus on the solitary episode before a diversity of visitors draw the island into larger orbits of Caribbean and Atlantic interaction.5 Indeed, the early section's substitutions for existing social formations are not themselves social. It is a fantasy of hermetic retreat, an escapist projection onto a blank space on the map, and it becomes especially attractive as a counterweight to Defoe's own expansionist agenda, which would render such seclusion impossible.

In the following, I argue that Crusoe's adventures, and farther adventures, are propelled largely by questions of geography, chiefly the question of where to imagine utopia, how to reconcile its otherworldly separation with the "realistic" norms of worldly interconnection. Throughout what I refer to as "the Crusoe trilogy," Defoe incorporates, deconstructs, and reconfigures the boundaries that bulwarked early modern utopias, rejecting these boundaries for their inability to sustain absolute...


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pp. 125-143
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