The first novel, Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in Britain, was published in 1719 and next to the Bible is the most published book in history. It was inspired by the life of a Scottish man, Alexander Selkirk, an officer in the British navy who was shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific by his captain and survived there for about a year and a half before being rescued by pirates. (You can find a statue of him in Fife, Scotland.) He was incorrigible and probably did not have the redemptive experience which the fictional Robinson Crusoe has.
The novel is composed in the form of a journal wherein Crusoe recounts in detail how he survives and is converted to a holy Christian life through his reading of the copy of the Bible he has found in the shipwreck, and eventually meets his friend Friday. It seems to me that this revelatory tale of one man’s conversion to faith may be the template for the religious tradition which blossomed forth later on of the personal “testimony,” where church members (usually Protestant) stand up and confess the details of how they came to faith. As far as I know, this tradition is peculiarly British and American, which is why I ponder this possibility. The novel is also rife with allusions to biblical stories and topics, keeping continuity with the trajectory of previous English language works.
Robinson Crusoe shifted the trajectory for how a myriad of great authors would write. It affected the future of our cultural understanding of what it means to be an individual, and stands in line with the great Western works which have taken us from classical times when individuals and their stories were viewed primarily as a part of the group, a cog in the wheel of their culture, to a time when each person as seen as “a world in himself” to be investigated, understood, and affirmed.
While it is true that the story is rather long-winded, given the fact that Defoe was inventing an entirely “novel” genre of literature the book is astounding. The first person narrative by Robinson himself gives a personal tone to the story which works well in concert with the major theme of the work, which is that of Crusoe’s slow repentance from a corrupt life to that of a holy and prayerful Christian. The tale imagines what it would be like to be stranded with no distractions and nothing except a few items, completely alone with only oneself and God.
The highly personal nature of this first novel and its deep dive into the state of the protagonist’s soul set the stage for novels to follow: they would be stories about individuals, but these would reach beyond the particular characters, expanding the meaning of their experiences to exemplify instances of the universal themes of life and morality as worked out in the lives of people and the society surrounding them. Defoe’s choice of the “journal” as his vehicle for telling the tale also set the stage for what became known as the epistolary novel, which would consist of a series of either letters or journal entries, commonly interspersed with narration by the letter writer, or possibly, by another narrator who is telling that person’s story.
The possibilities are endless: a narrator might “discover” the letters of a person from another era in an old attic, or might by chance find the diary of a person whose story otherwise would not have been known, or known as it truly happened. A recent renaissance of the epistolary novel has included elements such as time travel, parallel worlds, and other innovative tropes. Thanks to the ingenious mind of Daniel Defoe the novel lives on, always new, rebirthed and reimagined by countless writers who entertain and inspire us with their innovative characters and stories.