Robinson Crusoe and the Novel

In a recent article in the New Yorker, novelist Jonathan Franzen (who made the cover of Time last August) describes his retreat to a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Chile to test his resourcefulness and to rediscover himself.  What caught my attention was that he took along a small portion of David Foster Wallace’s ashes to scatter there (see 9/24/2008 posting).

But this is not about his existential search nor even about David Foster Wallace.  It is about the development of the literary form of the novel, another subject of which I was not even aware of my ignorance.

The Chilean island Franzen visited was the same island that held an English explorer on whom Defoe based his novel Robinson Crusoe. Surprisingly to me, some consider Robinson Crusoe to be the first real novel, but Franzen explains his book was only the result of a long development of the genre, and earlier fiction, such as Don Quixote were certainly novels. But Defoe did set the pattern for the modern novel.

The important feature of Robinson Crusoe was Defoe’s use of detail to describe Crusoe’s survival, the problems that arose and the solutions he found.  In earlier, more adventuresome stories, such detail would only be a filler between the points of action.  Defoe raised the details, which he got from accounts of the English explorer, to the main mover of the story, details that themselves were true, but in an imaginary setting. (Defoe originally published the book as having been written by Crusoe himself.  Many thought it to be nonfiction, which was sort of true. The hint was that both their names ended in the unusual “oe.”)  As Franzen puts it, “We now understand a novel to be a mapping of a writer’s experience onto a waking dream.”

Inherent in the modern novel is the property of verisimilitude (a word I had to look up), which is the quality of reality. Details give the protagonist a reality that you can experience as a possible version of yourself, yet specific enough to remain safely not you.  Pleasure in reading a novel comes from the vicarious experiencing of new situations risk-free.  In Robinson Crusoe, we can imagine ourselves coping with survival without the stress of actually doing so. In our high school days, I loved reading about Mickey Spillane’s characters, but I never wanted to be one.

At one time, fiction for enjoyment was only a thing for children.  Adults expected more substantial fare. It was Defoe’s use of details to engage the reader that opened the form of the novel as something to be read just for pleasure.  Now, TV and movies so saturate us with such stories, we no longer recognize any other reason.

You can download Robinson Crusoe for free at http://www.gutenberg.org.

>> An obituary in our paper this morning described a deceased woman’s favorite pastimes as “teaching Sunday school nursery class, watching Days of Our Lives, and eating cashews.”  Too much verisimilitude.

RWalck@Verizon.net

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