Robinson Crusoe, the narrator of the story, tells us that he was born in 1632 in the city of York, England. His father, a German immigrant, married a woman whose name was Robinson, and his real name was Robinson Kreutznaer, but due to the natural corruption of languages, the family now writes their name "Crusoe." He was the third son; his oldest brother was killed in a war, and the next son simply disappeared.
When Robinson Crusoe first had an urge to go to sea, his father lectured him upon the importance of staying home and being content with his "middle station" in life. His father maintained that the "middle station had the fewest disasters and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind." After his father expressly forbade him to go to sea, and, furthermore, promised to do good things for him if he stayed home, for another whole year, Robinson Crusoe stayed at home, but he constantly thought of adventures upon the high sea. He tried to enlist the aid of his mother, pointing out that he was now eighteen years old and if he did not like the sea, he could work diligently and make up for the time he might lose while at sea. She refused to help him, even though she did report his strong feelings to her husband.
When Robinson was nineteen, on the first of September, in 1651, he joined a friend on a ship bound for London, without consulting either his father or mother. Almost immediately, "the wind began to blow, and the sea to rise in a most frightful manner." Robinson Crusoe, who had never been to sea before, saw this as a sign that he was justly "overtaken by the judgement of Heaven" for his wicked leaving of his father's house without letting anyone know. He was so frightened that he made the promise: "If it would please God here to spare my life in this one voyage, if ever I got once my foot upon dry land again, I would go directly home to my father, and never set it into a ship again while I lived." The wind soon abated, and the next morning the sea was so calm and so beautiful that he entirely forgot the vows and promises that he had made in his distress, and joined the other sailors in a drinking bout.
As they neared a place called Yarmouth Roads, the winds ceased to blow and thus they were stilled for eight days, and when the winds did begin to blow, the ship immediately encountered a storm much more violent than the earlier one. Even the most experienced sailors were down on their knees praying. The storm continued with such fury that the seamen acknowledged that they had never known a worse one.
When the boat sprung a leak, Robinson was ordered below to help pump the water. It soon became apparent that they would not be able to save the ship and the captain fired several volleys of distress signals. A lighter ship in the vicinity made it up to their ship and was able to take the crew away from the sinking ship, which foundered soon after they left.
The crew finally got to shore, where Robinson Crusoe met his friend's father, who owned the ship. When the captain heard Robinson Crusoe's story, he felt strongly that it was the "hand of Providence" instructing Robinson Crusoe never to go to sea any more. He told the young man: "You ought to take this for a plain and visible token that you are not to be a seafaring man." He even wondered if he had done something wrong that such a person as Robinson Crusoe should "come onto his ship," and he warned Crusoe again that "you will meet with nothing but disasters and disappointments" if he did not go back to his father's house.
The impetus for the idea for Robinson Crusoe came to Defoe from his reading of the account of a man named Alexander Selkirk who, in a fit of anger, had himself put ashore on a deserted island. Earlier, Selkirk had gotten into a fight with a fellow crewman and had himself and his effects put ashore on an island outside of Chili. When he realized the effect of his actions, he pleaded with his shipmates to come back for him, but it was too late. He was marooned on the island for four and a half years. When he was later rescued, the report states that he could hardly speak any more, but he did apparently quickly regain his speech.
The account of Alexander Selkirk was published widely throughout England; he was the subject of an article by Richard Steele in the Englishman, and an account of his adventures appeared in many other papers. Consequently, Defoe was quite familiar with Selkirk's adventures, and some biographers maintain that Defoe interviewed Selkirk personally, but this is debatable.
Many of Selkirk's activities on his island are paralleled by Robinson Crusoe on his island; for example, Selkirk fed on turnips, fish, and goat's meat; he became overrun with cats, and he had to use his ingenuity to survive, all reflected in Defoe's novel. In addition, Alexander Selkirk's original name had been Alexander Selcraig, just as Robinson Crusoe's real name had been Robinson Kreutznaer.
A clue to one of the basic ideas of the novel is given in the first chapter, when Crusoe's father admonished his son to stay "in the middle station" of life — this station being the one which "had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind." Crusoe's pride would not allow him to remain in this "middle station." So Crusoe, like the protagonists in many Greek myths and dramas, suffers from the sin of hubris and is accordingly punished. Often during his confinement on the island, Crusoe is reminded of his father's advice and rues his own impulsiveness. Furthermore, the father's pronouncement that his "boy might be happy if he would stay at home, but if he goes abroad, he will be the most miserable wretch that was ever born" becomes a prophetic statement which foreshadows Crusoe's later predicament.
The father's prediction comes true sooner than even Crusoe could expect. His first boat founders and Crusoe makes solemn vows in a time of trouble, but as soon as the trouble is over, he forgets his vows. Thus, we have his first reneging on his word to God. Throughout the rest of the novel, he will constantly contemplate his relationship with God and how much God is punishing him for his "wicked ways."