Updated: Feb 17
One can scarcely think about the 18th century without Daniel Defoe’s popular novel Robinson Crusoe coming to mind. The variables which contributed to this novel’s popularity are largely dependent on the culture of that age, and the sociopolitical circumstance in which it was printed. By looking at Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe popularity in 1719, it could be argued that its popularity can be explained by the rise of the literate middle class in England, and the scientific revolution’s effect on the 18th-century reader.
The rise of the literate middle class, in England, contributed to how well Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was received. Previously, printed materials were accessible to only aristocrats, who could afford to purchase texts for reading in their homes, since printing was an expensive endeavor. However, with improvements in the printing press, the cost of printing was reduced. This resulted in an explosion in the printing business in England during the 18th centuries, which meant printed material was more accessible to the middle class as they could now afford to purchase low-cost printed texts for reading. As such, the middle class of 18th century England had become more literate than in previous centuries. Thus, Defoe in Robinson Crusoe uses many references to his position in the middle class of England, to increase interest in his novel and to win favor with readers.
The scientific revolution of the earlier centuries led to the popularity of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in the 18th century. This revolution was characterized by a growing interest in scientific methodology and in how science could solve everyday problems. This is seen in Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe uses scientific methodology to solve the weather pattern of the island. He makes notes that reflect this when he says, “I found now, That the seasons of the Year might generally be divided, not into Summer and Winter, as in Europe; but into Rainy Seasons and the Dry Seasons”(Defoe 78). This journal entry is followed by a large table showing the months and what to expect from it. Crusoe then uses this knowledge to forecast when rain would most likely appear so as to protect himself from the weather, “After I found out by Experience, the ill Consequence of being abroad in the Rain, I took care to furnish my self with Provisions beforehand, ….and I sat within doors as much as possible during the wet Months”(Defoe 78). This illustrates Crusoe’s use of the scientific methodology to analyse the weather of the island. In the book The British Novel, Defoe to Austin, it states that “Crusoe’s labor here[on the island] is presented to us under the flag of empiricism”(Stevenson 10). This is supported by the fact that after finding food, navigating the island, tailoring his own clothes and protecting his residence, Crusoe writes detail journal entries on how he did it using scientific reasoning. Accordingly, Defoe synchronizes Crusoe’s journal entries with the increasing interest in science at the time, thereby increasing interest in his novel.
This is an excellent book to read for those who love adventure. Some say its historical fiction aimed at turning people away from the imperialistic monarchy of the time, to more democratic self-reliance.