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Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe (1659 – 1731[1]), born Daniel Foe, was an English writer, journalist, and pamphleteer, who gained fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest proponents of the novel, as he helped to popularize the form in Britain and is among the founders of the English novel[2].

Daniel Foe (his original name) was probably born in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate London. (Defoe later added the aristocratic-sounding “De” to his name and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux.) The Great Fire of London (1666) hit Defoe’s neighborhood hard, leaving only his and two other homes standing in the area[3]. In 1667, when Defoe was probably about seven years old, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway via the River Thames and attacked Chatham.

By the time he was about thirteen years old, Defoe’s mother had died[4]. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters; he was educated in a Dissenting Academy at Newington Green run by Charles Morton and is believed to have attended the church there[5]. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for payments of £700 (and his civets were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. Following his release, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland and it may have been at this time that he traded wine to Cadiz, Porto and Lisbon.

By 1695 he was back in England, using the name “Defoe”, and serving as a “commissioner of the glass duty”, responsible for collecting the tax on bottles. In 1696 he was operating a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury, Essex and living in the parish of Chadwell St Mary[6]..

Defoe’s first notable publication was An Essay upon Projects, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement, published in 1697. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703 which raged from 26 to 27 November, the only hurricane ever to have made it over the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles at full strength. It caused severe damage to London and Bristol and uprooted millions of trees and killed over 8,000 people, mostly at sea.

The event became the subject of Defoe’s The Storm (1704), a collection of witness accounts of the tempest[7]. From 1719 to 1724, Defoe published the novels for which he is famous. In the final decade of his life, he also wrote conduct manuals, published a number of books decrying the breakdown of the social order, and works on the supernatural. Perhaps his greatest achievement with the novels is the magisterial A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Daniel Defoe died on April 24, 1731, probably while in hiding from his creditors. He was interred in Bunhill Fields, London, where his grave can still be visited. Defoe is known to have used at least 198 pen names[8].

“Robinson Crusoe” is a story of a man’s shipwreck on a deserted island and his adventures. There are some indications that the author may have based his novel, or at least a part of it, on the life of Alexander Selkirk. This novel is an allegory, but various critics still disagree on the true meaning of the message Defoe sent us. In this paper, I’ll try to analyze Daniel Defoe’s most famous novel from a bit different point of view: how can it be used in teaching/learning English language? Its fine and not so understandable allegories, style and vocabulary are, in my opinion, an excellent base for understanding both 18th century British literature and the whole genre of stories similar to Robinson Crusoe, later called Robinsonade[9]. Thus, in this paper, we would like to highlight the implications of teaching literature in general and in English teaching class in particular. We will consider first what it means to teach literature; and secondly, taking the context as an illustration of teaching English as a foreign language, we would like to shed light on the different exercises involved in the study of literature in an English class

Defoe in classroom

Teaching literature in the mother tongue is far from being an easy task, let alone in the context of teaching a foreign language. Indeed, current observations about the teaching of Anglophone literatures in Serbia show that most students find difficulties to cope with the demands of literary studies. As an illustration, most of their recurrent views about the study of literature are “it is difficult; inaccessible; boring” or simply “what is the interest…”

What they expect, in reality, from their studies is mainly to learn an appropriate use and usage of language as a linguistic tool for communication. Besides, these negative feelings seem to be much bred by the current observations about the place given to literary studies. Indeed, a less privileged place is left to the latter since the modern society gives greater importance to scientific and technological advances, for what it expects from education is to provide jobs to its learners, namely to make them autonomous persons.

Teaching versus Reading Literature

On the report of Johnson[10], “Teaching literature is teaching how to read … how to read what the language is doing, not guess what the author was thinking.” In like manner, Zwzedling, quoted by Showalter[11], states: “close reading is my introduction and readerly competence is the goal”. On this account, the primary concern of teaching literature is, then, to make learners acquire a certain competence in the field of reading, namely reading interpretively and critically. Johnson adds that what is ‘inside’ the text is not necessarily understood unless reference to ‘outside’ discourses such as philology, history, biography, etc. is made. She also stresses that the relevance and authority of these external and internal resources should be evaluated or tested for this is what training in reading must be as well[12].

On the other hand, reading literature should not be seen solely as reading for information or for the isolation of facts that reveal content or the author’s message as provided by the teacher. This is, unfortunately, what most learners think the study of literature is about. Consequently, they do not attempt to make their own interpretations by looking at the way language is used by writers to carry the different imbedded meanings. This means that there is a distinction between private reading or reading for pleasure and reading for academic purposes in the study of literature.

For the former, a sufficient knowledge of language is needed. This close attention to the use of language in literature in order to derive meaning is due to the fact that literature is about form above all since it is the “linguistic properties that would make a given text a piece of literature”[13]. Actually, it is the form that determines the structure of the fictional texts as well as the types of response they evoke; that is why it plays a central role in such texts[14].

As a matter of fact, teachers of literature should be, then, primarily concerned with supplying learners with ways of considering the use of language in literature so as to make them autonomous learners. At that point they would be capable of providing their own interpretations, and of revealing the content by themselves instead of waiting for the teacher’s own interpretation of the work which is to be regurgitated during an examination. This is because teaching, as Widdowson[15] claims, is a means of promoting learning, namely to develop proficiency as a pedagogic objective. In the context of teaching literature, the pedagogic objective is, therefore, to make learners know how to do something, or to develop in them the capacity of interpreting literature as a use of language, which is a precondition of studying it[16].

In short, to study literature presupposes particular processes of reading so as to be able to interpret the texts via a close scrutiny of the language. A close or critical reading is an activity that involves the decoding of the linguistic units, and the complexities of the text as a whole, so as to reach what is conveyed beyond the surface message. H However, to attain the deep surface message does not seem to be easy when studying literary works written in a foreign language.

Teaching Anglophone Literatures in an EFL Context

When Serbian students enter the university, they are between eighteen and twenty years of age, and hold a secondary school degree: the baccalaureate in human sciences, foreign languages, or natural sciences. Although these students have different mother tongues (Serbian forms of ekavica and ijekavica), Serbian which is the national language, is their first language of instruction followed by English, the first foreign language taught in primary school at about the age of eight or nine.

This is then followed by some other language, usually French or Russia, which is the second foreign language but taught at about the age of twelve or thirteen. This means that these students have been learning English over a period of fifteen years before entering the university.

Though reading excerpts of fiction in both Serbian and English starts at primary school, the teaching of literature is not introduced until learners are in the fifth grade of primary schools, and this is carried out at high school, particularly in literary and foreign languages streams, until they get the baccalaureate degree. Indeed, for six years, and in this diglossic context, passages from both Serbian and English Classics[17] are presented for study.

The points which are tackled in the modules that are called English Literature and Reading Comprehension are, broadly speaking, general questions about the comprehension of the text that relate to its theme(s), setting, characters,…etc. as well as the study of some basic stylistic features of the text such as metaphor, personification,…and so forth. In sum, the goal from such study is to make learners have a broad approach to the study of literary texts; but such an exercise is regarded by most learners as mainly a way to prepare them for examinations.

On the other hand, our students have not been accustomed to study Anglo-Saxon literatures in middle and high school. In truth, in the current syllabi of teaching English as a foreign language, through which various types of texts are presented to learners, one can notice that the types of texts studied are essentially journalistic or scientific, or they describe English daily life.

The literary text is rare or almost non-existent in the syllabi. If it comes to be used in the classroom, it is not for the sake of studying it for its own right; rather, it is treated as a simple object for global comprehension, and as a means to infer grammatical rules and exercises at the levels of writing and speaking. The features of the literary text are, in fact, not taken into account, perhaps because of their complexities; but this is mainly due to the goal of teaching English as a foreign language, which is to favor communication of daily life as well as that of specialized disciplines such as economy and commerce. This is done, of course, at the expense of acquiring knowledge about culture at large.

Thus, it is not until they start reading their obligatory literature at University that the students are initiated to Anglophone literatures. Indeed, starting from the first year at university, and for the three (or in some cases one) upcoming years, our students are introduced, for the first time, to a panorama of world literatures (English, Irish, American, and African), written in English.

The Study of Anglophone Literatures – Defoe as a great example

When they enter the university, students have already had some background about how to tackle a literary text in Serbian and English. Nevertheless, because at this level literature is studied for its own sake as it makes an appeal to literary theory and literary criticism; most students fail to make their own interpretations, and to produce successful literary dissertations. One reason for such a failure appears to relate to students’ expectations about their studies of English, namely to acquire a communicative competence.

But the acquisition of a communicative competence is not the sole end of teaching English at university; appropriate methods exist for the purpose of this goal. In addition, the communicative competence goes hand in hand with the cultural competence and so the literary as well. Students find it hard to translate the text of “Robinson Crusoe” into Serbian, and since it written in a unique style and vocabulary; most of them do not understand it and find it difficult and useless.

Being the third Son of the Family, and not bred to any Trade, my Head began to be fill’d very early with rambling Thoughts: My Father, who was very ancient, had given me competent Share of Learning, as far as House-Education, and a Country Free-School generally goes, and design’d for the Law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but go to Sea, and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the Will, nay the Commands of my Father, and against all the Entreaties and Perswasions of my Mother and other Friends, that there seem’d to be something fatal in Propension of Nature tending directly to the Life of Misery which was to befall me[18].”

Passive voice, combined with a few not so modern words (Perswasions, seem’d, Life of Misery), and suddenly, this magnificent tale is “boring, useless and not understandable”, as some of the students commented.

Provided that literary studies are part and parcel of the programmed, the aim is, therefore, to make students acquire a literary competence, too. As highlighted earlier, the aim of teaching literature is to make learners reach a ‘readerly competence’. Still, in the case of teaching literature in an EFL classroom, one cannot deny that having a certain linguistic competence has a pivotal role to play since it can enhance the learners’ comprehension of a work of literature while engaging with its linguistic units. This is because the way writers use their primary material which is language to create a world of fiction is what makes it an artistic work in contrast to the ordinary use of language[19].

The other and main reason for students’ inability to cope with the demands of literary studies relates to the fact that they were not accustomed, before entering university, to have resort to literary theory and literary criticism. These go hand in hand, for the basis of practical criticism is literary theory, and the absence of a work of art implies the non-existence of the activity of criticism. In this activity, basic questions concerning the philosophical, psychological, functional, and descriptive nature of a text are asked[20]. Furthermore, it is only a clear, well-defined, and logical theory that enables readers to develop a method through which “they can establish principles that enable them to justify, order, and clarify their own appraisals of a text in a consistent manner”[21].

Last but not least, the other reason of students’ difficulties is due to the intertextual nature of literary writing. Indeed, a major characteristic of most, if not all, written artistic productions is their references to other literary works. The process of deciphering the meaning is, as a result, most of the time hindered since, while reading, one’s comprehension is largely conditioned by his/her past reading experiences.

When I wak’d it was broad Day, the Weather clear, and the Storm abated, so that the Sea did not rage and swell as before: But that which surpris’d me most, was, that the Ship was lifted off in the Night from the Sand where she lay, by the Swelling of the Tyde, and was driven up almost as far as the Rock which I first mention’d, where I had been so bruis’d by the dashing me against it; this being within about a Mile from the Shore where I was, and the Ship seeming to stand upright still, I wish’d my self on board, that, at least, I might save some necessary things for my use. When I came down from my Appartment in the Tree, I look’d about me again, and the first thing I found was the Boat, which lay as the Wind and the Sea had toss’d her up upon the Land, about two Miles on my right Hand. I walk’d as far as I could upon the Shore to have got to her, but found a Neck or Inlet of Water between me and the Boat, which was about half a Mile broad, so I came back for the present, being more intent upon getting at the Ship, where I hop’d to find something for my present Subsistence[22].”

Such past reading experiences do not only have the advantage of filling the gaps found in the text in order to reach a better if not a fuller understanding of the literary work3. They also help readers in responding to and making meaning from the text out of the developed possible frameworks or “worldviews” concerning the nature of the representation(s) of reality in foreign contexts; that is, in contexts not familiar to them because of the discrepant cultural values found in the foreign literary productions compared to the students’ local cultural values.


To develop in learners a capacity of reading interpretively by moving beyond the initial meaning or understanding, and an ability of taking a critical stance is the goal of teaching literature given the host possibilities of interpretations a literary work can offer. The exercise seems at the beginning arduous, but it is all a matter of habit and practice with the aid of the different available literary theories. Therefore, students should take the advantage of the way they had been used to study literary texts.

The outcome of studying literature, either in the native or foreign language, is that it teaches learners a literary methodology, viz. to read, to think, to analyze, and to write critically about works of fiction. In foreign language teaching (FLT), teaching literature has the educational value of promoting an under3

To illustrate, we can cite:

“During the long Time that Friday has now been with me, and that he began to speak to me, and understand me, I was not wanting to lay a Foundation of religious Knowledge in his Mind; particularly I ask’d him one Time who made him? The poor Creature did not understand me at all, but thought I had ask’d who was his Father; but I took it by another handle, and ask’d him who made the Sea, the Ground we walk’d on, and the Hills, and Woods; he told me it was one old Benamuckee, that liv’d beyond all: He could describe nothing of this great Person, but that he was very old; much older he said than the Sea, or the Land; than the Moon, or the Stars: I ask’d him then, if this old Person had made all Things, why did not all Things worship him; he look’d very grave, and with a perfect Look of Innocence, said, All Things do say O to him: I ask’d him if the People who die in his Country went away any where; he said, yes, they all went to Benamuckee; then I ask’d him whether these they eat up went thither too, he said yes[23].”


Or, F.S. Fitzgerald’s mention of “The Hollow Men” from T.S.Eliot’s poem (1922) “The Waste Land” in his “The Great Gatsby” (1925); or S. Crane’s reference to C.Norton’s poem “Bingen on the Rhine” in his short story “The Open Boat” (1897), or even M. Twain’s reference to Moses at the beginning of his novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884) to foreshadow the theme of liberation or freedom in the story.

A standing of the nature and the use of the foreign written language in other instances, not necessarily academic, as in an advertisement or in newspaper pages. The competence acquired in the field of literature can also be beneficial while listening to a political discourse where students would have to delve underneath the actual message in order to extract the hidden ideology. I strongly believe, that some parts of “Robinson Crusoe” should be introduced in the beginning of primary school, and, as the time goes on, they should be broadened, until students are ready to read the whole story in English, and, even more important, understand and appreciate style, allegory and message Defoe sent us from 18th century.


  1. Bressler, C.E. 1994. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, P Prentice H all Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
  2. Defoe, Daniel, “Robinson Crusoe”, available at: http://wyeth.artpassions.net/
  3. Di G Girolamo, C. 1981. A Critical Theory of Literature. The University of Wisconsin Press.
  4. Hasan, R. 1989. Linguistics, Language and Verbal Art, Oxford: O.U.P.
  5. Johnson, B. 1985. “Teaching Deconstructively” in Atkins, G.D. & Johnson, M.L. (Eds.). Writing and Reading Differently: Deconstruction and the Teaching of Composition and Literature. University Press of Kansas. p. 140-148.
  6. Showalter, E. 2003. Teaching Literature, B Blackwell publishing.
  7. Steirle, K. 1980. “The Reading of Fictional Texts” in Suleiman, S.R. & Crosman, I. (Eds.). The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Princeton University press. p. 83-105.
  8. Widdowson, H H.G. “The Teaching, Learning and Study of Literature” in Quirk & Widdowson (Eds.). 1985. English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures. C.U.P. / British Council. p. 180-194.
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[1]  According to Paul Duguid in “Limits of self organization”, First Monday (September 11, 2006): “Most reliable sources hold that the date Defoe’s his birth was uncertain and may have fallen in 1659 or 1661. The day of his death is also uncertain.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[2] Schwanitz: “Bildung: alles, was man wissen muss”, edited by Eichborn, Frankfurt 1999. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[3]  West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. 1998. ISBN 978-0786705573 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[4] Richetti, John J. The Life of Daniel Defoe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[5] “Defoe in Stoke Newington”. Arthur Secord, P.M.L.A. Vol. 66, p. 211, 1951. Cited in Thorncroft, p. 9, who identifies him as “an American scholar”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[6]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[7] The Storm: or, a collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land. London: 1704. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[8]  “he appendixes offer even more: a listing of Voltaire’s and Daniel Defoe’s numerous pseudonyms (178 and 198, respectively)…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

[9]                 Robinsonade is a literary genre that takes its name from the 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The success of this novel spawned enough imitations that its name was used to define a genre, which is sometimes described simply as a “desert island story”; Steampunk anthology, 2008, ed. Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, ISBN 978-1892391759; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robinsonade

[10]  Johnson, B. 1985. “Teaching Deconstructively” in Atkins, G G.D. & Johnson, M.L. (eds.). Writing and Reading Differently: Deconstruction and the Teaching of Composition and Literature. University P ress of Kansas. p. 140

[11] Showalter, E. 2003. Teaching Literature, B lackwell P ublishing. p. 93

[12] Johnson, B. 1985. “Teaching Deconstructively” in Atkins, G.D. & Johnson, M.L. (eds.). Writing and Reading Differently: Deconstruction and the Teaching of Composition and Literature. University P ress of Kansas. p 148

[13] Di G Girolamo, C. 1981. A Critical Theory of Literature. The University of Wisconsin Press. p 13

[14]  Steirle, K. 1980. “The Reading of Fictional Texts” in Suleiman, S.R. & Crosman, I. (eds.). The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. P Princeton University P ress. p. 103

[15] Widdowson, H H.G. “The Teaching, Learning and Study of Literature” in Quirk & Widdowson (eds.). 1985. English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures. C.U.P./ B ritish Council. p.  184

[16] Ibid.: 194

[17]  Edgar Alan Poe, Shakespeare, Choser….

[18] Defoe, Daniel, “Robinson Crusoe”, chapter I

[19] Here, the reference is made to the formalists’ opposition between the practical and the aesthetic function of language, which reflects the opposition between the standard and the literary language (Di Girolamo, 1981: 21).

[20] Bressler, C.E. 1994. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, P Prentice H all Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. p3

[21]  Ibidem: 4

[22]  Defoe: chapter V

[23] Defoe : chapter XXIII

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