Young and old follow with intense interest every movement of the shipwrecked mariner when he first swims to the stranded ship, constructs a raft, and places on it “bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh, a little remainder of European corn, and the carpenter’s chest.” Readers do not accompany him passively as he lands the raft and returns. They work with him; they are not only made a part of all Crusoe’s experience, but they react on it imaginatively; they suggest changes; they hold their breath or try to assist him when he is in danger. Defoe’s genius in making the reader a partner in Robinson Crusoe’s adventures has not yet received sufficient appreciation. The author could never have secured such a triumph if he had not compelled readers to take an active part in the story.
It was for a long time thought that Defoe was ignorant, that he accidentally happened to write Robinson Crusoe because he had been told of the recent experience of Alexander Selkirk on a solitary island in the Pacific. It is now known that Defoe was well educated, versed in several languages, and the most versatile writer of his time. Robinson Crusoe was no more of an accident than any other creation of genius.
Defoe’s other principal works of fiction are: Memoirs of a Cavalier, the story of a soldier’s adventures in the seventeenth century; The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, a graphic account of adventures in a journey across Africa; Moll Flanders, a story of a well-known criminal; and A Journal of the Plague Year, a vivid, imaginative presentation, in the most realistic way, of the horrors of the London plague in 1665. These works are almost completely overshadowed by Robinson Crusoe; but they also show Defoe’s narrative power and his ability to make fiction seem an absolute reality. In writing Gulliver’s Travels, Swift received valuable hints from Defoe. Stevenson’s Treasure Island is the most successful of the almost numberless stories of adventure suggested by Robinson Crusoe.
[Illustration: JONATHAN SWIFT. From the painting by C. Jervas, National Portrait Gallery.]
Life.—Swift, one of the greatest prose writers of the eighteenth century, was born of English parents in Dublin in 1667. It is absolutely necessary to know something of his life in order to pass proper judgment on his writings. A cursory examination of his life will show that heredity and environment were responsible for many of his peculiarities. Swift’s father died a few months before the birth of his son, and the boy saw but little of his mother.
Swift’s school and college life were passed at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin. For his education he was indebted to an uncle, who made the boy feel the bitterness of his dependence. In after times he said that his uncle treated him like a dog. Swift’s early experience seems to have made him misanthropic and hardened to consequences, for he neglected certain studies, and it was only by special concession that he was allowed to take his A.B. degree in 1686.