Damrosch on Crusoe

The function of Crusoe’s diary, it seems, is not to anatomize the self, but rather to keep track of it in the modern fashion that Riesman [David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd] describes: “The diary-keeping that is so significant a symptom of the new type of character may be viewed as an inner time-and-motion study by which the individual records and judges his output day by day. It is evidence of the separation between the behaving and observing self.”

–Leopold Damrosch, Jr., “Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe”

These quotes from Damrosch and Riesman (in this context) are a reading of Robinson Crusoe’s diary, and the fact that he keeps it. The notion of its being “evidence of the separation between the behaving and observing self” is a compelling one, as it helps elucidate the curious nature of many passages in the later parts of the novel by tying them back to Crusoe’s diary-keeping. In fact, it is strange that soon after arriving on an uninhabited island from which Crusoe knows he should expect no rescue, he takes to keeping a detailed, meticulous diary of his time and activity on the island. No one, he must suppose, will ever read it but himself; and he is perfectly aware that his ink will not last forever, and that he will soon enough have to stop the diarykeeping anyhow. Yet he goes on with it – and one way to make sense of this is quoted above, that is, it is early evidence in the novel of Crusoe’s tendency to separate his two selves, that which acts and that which narrates.

I will follow with what I believe to be are two quite telling and corroborating examples. The first is the way Crusoe tells of his fury with the cannibals. Consider this passage from page 167: “This, with the Abhorrence of the inhumane Errand these Wretches came about, fill’d me with such Indignation, that I came down again to Friday, and told him, I was resolv’d to go down to them, and kill them all; and ask’d him, if he would stand by me?” In the next paragraph Crusoe describes his emotions as a “Fit of Fury.” This is a scene that reoccurs. Whenever Crusoe is reminded directly, usually by seeing human bones or watching the natives in the act of cooking humans, he becomes furious and loses his sense of reason; yet the prose, Crusoe’s narrative voice, does not reflect this in the slightest. Crusoe the narrator keeps the calm tone and atomistic perspective of the rest of the book, and though what is being described is extraordinary, we feel as if we were reading another passage about the measurements of a boat he was building. Here, too, as in all the instances in which this happens (of which there are at least three or four), we see the “separation between the behaving and observing self,” and cannot help but wonder – where, then, is the true Crusoe? To what extent does he acknowledge or disregard this part of his character, in this future telling of his story?

Equally confounding is the apparent equanimity with which Crusoe describes his exit from the island. To be sure, there is that moving passage in which, after the ship is recovered and its Captain comes to tell Crusoe of this, the latter is completely overwhelmed. But from there on in, there is hardly any mention of Crusoe’s thoughts about the change of circumstances, and the sure emotions that were associated with it. Instead of an account of what he felt during the voyage, or returning to England, we simply have more adventure storytelling and extensive description of the way Crusoe reacquires a fortune. There is even the bizarre slapstick passage about Friday’s encounter with the bear. This is all exceedingly strange, and brings to the forefront even more the fact that there must be an immense gap between Crusoe the character and Crusoe the narrator, one that forces us to rethink the man’s character – and as Damrosch points out, the fascinating thing is that there has been evidence of this identity-separation all along, starting with Crusoe’s diarykeeping. We have discussed the differences between the fracturing of reality and identity in Ubik and the postmodern times with which it is concerned, and the stability of the same in Defoe’s novel. Yet the line of thought laid out above complicates the issue, for when one gets down to it, the great gulf separating character and narrator (though the first-person account implies they should be one and the same) cannot simply be overlooked or ignored.

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