Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1983
One of the greatest narrative ‘finesses’ in literature, if you ask my opinion, is that footprint in the sand on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Just one. No need for more. Daniel Defoe stretched his credibility a bit, leaving only one print there on the beach like that. What had happened to the rest of the tracks? But no! The author specifically wanted only one!
Later his man would see even more disturbing things but, right now, this was enough to completely eradicate the peace, contentment and sense of well-being that he had been enjoying for eleven years already. Isn’t it incredible?
The print of a beast would be disturbing as well; but never to this degree!
Several days after his initial flight from the scene, Crusoe races back to it with an afterthought: perhaps the print is his own! Of course! What was he thinking? Why hadn’t he thought of that before?
Oh, but he already knows that that’s not the case! He had already noticed that the footprint was larger; and yet–wouldn’t you know?–he places his foot into the print anyway! Wouldn’t you? Just…out of sheer desperation? Hoping somehow to find some assurance!
What a marvelous touch! The presence of Another, and the fear it engenders! How fraught with the Fall of Man is this passage!
And how typical of this marvelous classic!
It happens some 200 pages into the narrative and, immediately, everything has changed! The tone of the narrative is now frantic with dread and suspicion. For the rest of the book, we will never be far from a constant, repetitive rehearsing of perils, uncertainties and dangerous contingencies. At one point, Robinson actually considers destroying everything he has built; everything he has enjoyed all these years: his two homes, his crops, his flocks and their pens, his boat—every vestige of his existence must now be removed from the possibility of detection. And all because of a single footprint!
It is precisely at this point that our castaway gives us yet another of his priceless reflections:
“O what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear…Thus fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself…and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…”Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1983, p. 210
Spoken like Winston Churchill himself! In fact, I’m sure Churchill grew up with this treasure! And loved every page!
What makes this such a marvelous work is how, over and over again, on almost every page, we keep sensing that this is more than the tale of just… one…castaway!