Crusoe as Cultural Looking Glass

THE ROBINSON CRUSOE STORY By Martin Green Pennsylvania State University Press 221 pp., $19.95

ROBINSON CRUSOE was not the first man - in fact or fiction - to be marooned on a desert island. Nor, as Martin Green's survey of the myth and its retellings indicates, are we likely to have heard the last version of this particular story.

From Daniel Defoe's journalistic-style account in 1719 of a shipwrecked sailor who survives and prospers through self-reliance and ingenuity to William Golding's dark parable about castaways descending to a state of barbarism (``Lord of the Flies'' in 1954), the story has maintained its hold on writers' and readers' imaginations, even as its meaning has continued to undergo radical reinterpretations.

Green, a professor of English at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., calls himself a ``cultural studies critic.'' His chief enterprise in this book is not to interpret a text, but to examine the shifts in cultural attitudes reflected in the ways that different writers retell the Crusoe story. Indeed, the very idea of a ``text'' is a remote concern when it comes to a story that is retold in so many different versions and languages. The works that Green examines include Rousseau's ``Emile'' (1762); two Ge rman versions of 1779 featuring German heroes; Johann David Wyss's ``The Swiss Family Robinson'' (1812), featuring an entire family as hero; James Fenimore Cooper's apocalyptic vision of ``The Crater'' (1847); Jules Verne's ``L'Ile mysterieuse'' (1874); Robert Louis Stevenson's ``Treasure Island'' (1883); J.M. Barrie's ``Peter Pan'' (1904); and Michel Tournier's ``Vendredi'' (1967).

The story of a solitary man thrown back on his own resources and triumphing through reason, pragmatism, self-reliance, and self-discipline had great appeal to Rousseau and other figures of the Enlightenment. To them, Robinson Crusoe embodied the new values of science, progress, freedom, and individualism breaking loose from the bonds of feudalism, the class system, and the ancient dominions of church and empire. (In fact, the book was banned in Spain.)

Crusoe's enterprising self-reliance is implicitly contrasted with the exploitative imperialism of the conquistadors. In many ways, it is an anti-imperialist story. But, as Green points out, the Crusoe myth also bears the seeds of a morally justified imperialism. With the rise of the British empire, the original ``Robinson Crusoe'' and later versions of the tale were the favorite reading of the 19th-century ``men of action'' and others who shared the values of the expanding white, European, P rotestant, industrialized, capitalist, male-dominated civilization. Such adventure stories were also required (and desired) reading for boys preparing to take their place in the emerging world order. The proliferation of ``masculinist'' writings in the 19th century, Green suggests, can be compared to the burgeoning of ``feminist'' works in our time. Especially interesting is his discussion of the ``heartiness'' exuded by books like ``The Swiss Family Robinson.'' The opposite of the ironic, self-critical att itudes of literary novels, the heartiness of these distinctly unliterary novels is related to their affirmation of the dominant, usually nonliterary, values of their society.

Green uses the terms ``pharisees and aesthetes'' and ``pharisees and Galileans'' in contrasting these sets of values. (He lumps the aesthetes with the Galileans because both defy convention in the name of higher spiritual values.) Just as the aesthete is an outsider in the pharisaical world of politics, commerce, exploration, and empire, so in the aesthetic realm of letters, writers who champion ``pharisaical'' values or who write the kinds of books ``pharisees'' enjoy reading are relegated to a place o utside - or in margins of - the canon. Green's categories enable him to describe Robert Louis Stevenson as a ``Galilean'' who couched his antipharisaical views in the popular, pharisaical form of the adventure tale.

By the time J.M. Barrie got hold of the theme in 1904, whimsy had replaced adventure: Long John Silver became Captain Hook. A story that had originally been famous for its air of factuality now entered the realm of fantasy. Other 20th-century developments noted by Green include the preference for Friday's ``natural,'' hedonistic values expressed by Michel Tournier in ``Vendredi'' and Jean Giraudoux in ``Suzanne et le Pacifique'' and the deep pessimism about human nature expressed in Golding's ``Lord of the Flies.'' Green wittily notes that a New Zealander's real-life account of living alone on a South Seas island published in 1966 contradicts Golding's dark parable, but that the pessimistic fable carries more authority than the happily ending, true story in the current cultural climate. He also observes that Tournier's hedonism, far from being daringly ``deviant'' as claimed, is ``in harmony with the whole cosmetic, film, and holiday industries. We are told, and it is appropriate, that the author conceived the idea of his book while on a Club M'editerran'ee holiday.''

Green does not engage in sustained analysis of any of the Crusoe stories. Some, like J.M. Coetzee's ``Foe'' and Marianne Wiggins's ``John Dollar,'' are dispatched in a paragraph or two. And there are many themes in the Crusoe story that he simply does not examine. But if Green often seems to be skimming the surface of his subject, it's because he is covering a great deal of ground rapidly, not because he is blind to the depths. ``The Robinson Crusoe Story'' offers many provocative insights into the comp licated, twisting strands of values and beliefs that make up the fabric of culture at any given point in history.

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