Critical Essays Three Mariners: Crusoe, Gulliver, and Gunn


It is nearly always useful and rewarding to consider a work of fiction in its own historical and social setting, and one may compare and contrast the characters of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Lemuel Gulliver (1726), and Ben Gunn (1883) from that perspective, inasmuch as each character is reflective of his own peculiar milieu.

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is an original amalgam of the traditional Puritan spiritual autobiography (not unlike John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress), plus Defoe's constant portrayal of Crusoe as a typical middle-class Briton, one who is orderly and industrious, temperate, moderate, quiet and sober, always God-fearing, a man who is almost an exemplar of the Boy Scout motto: be prepared. Defoe's advice to readers seems to be, go to work and do something productive. Crusoe, for example, immediately upon perceiving his situation takes inventory of all the goods he has rescued from his wrecked ship; he stores his gunpowder at several dry locations on his island in order that, should something unfortuitous occur, at least all of the powder will not become wet and useless. This aspect of Crusoe's character may have been what led Napoleon Bonaparte to dismiss the whole of England as a nation of shopkeepers. Keep in mind, however, that it was this same nation of shopkeepers who defeated the Emperor (twice) and imprisoned him until his death on the island of St. Helena, hastening his death (rumor has it) with arsenic. Clearly, such a nation of shopkeepers is not to be trifled with. Several twentieth-century readers have criticized Crusoe for shooting in the dark, and for shooting people when he feels like it, such critics maintaining that violence is not the answer. Defoe's reply probably would be that a gun is sometimes a handy item to have and that violence is the answer to violent people. Defoe's book is a take-off on a true history of a Briton named Alexander Selkirk; it exemplifies "desert island" narratives that were popular in Defoe's day and remain popular today.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a parody of the travelogues popular during Swift's time; the book is a satire, attempting bitterly to "laugh men out of their folly if they cannot be flogged out of it." As opposed to Defoe's straightforward narrative, Swift employs irony (reversals of the reader's expectations) in order to accomplish his satirical intent. For example, Swift tirelessly ridicules Gulliver when, in the land of the little people, Gulliver is inordinately proud of his comparatively gigantic stature, his ability to consume vast quantities of food and drink, and his knack for excreting said nutrients. At one point, when the royal palace is on fire, Gulliver takes great pride in urinating on the fire and extinguishing it. Swift's monarch, Queen Anne, was not amused. When proud Gulliver (whom American students invariably dub "Gullible") goes to the land of the giants, he ironically reverses his character and becomes a self-centered little clown, dancing and capering, defeating gigantic rats with his little saber, besmearing himself with cow dung when he tries to demonstrate his capacities as a broad-jumper, and taking pride in being the favorite of giantesses at the court, who seem to regard little Gulliver as something of a sex toy. Later, when Gulliver travels to the Academy at Lagado, Swift pokes fun at the various academic staff for their pseudo-intellectual posing, their vacuous theories, and their general arrogance. Academics in Swift's day were not amused; many academics today are equally unamused. As he takes Gulliver through the book, Swift's vision of Gulliver and mankind grows darker and darker. The Yahoos, humanoids whom Gulliver resembles, make war on one another and on Gulliver by pelting fistfuls of fecal matter, not unlike monkeys in a zoo. At the book's end, Gulliver's masters (the horses that he so abjectly admires) deduce that he is himself a Yahoo and get rid of him. When Gulliver returns home, he is so cynical about mankind that he cannot abide his own wife, and he retires to live with the horses in a stable.

Perhaps by the time Treasure Island saw print, most of its cast of characters had assumed stock proportions, not unlike the white-hat good guys and the black-hat bad guys in Hollywood cowboy movies or the heroes and villains of melodrama. Regardless, the novel lacks the religiosity and high seriousness of purpose of Crusoe; it is equally plain that Treasure nowhere exhibits the brilliant ironies and devastating satires so successfully accomplished in Gulliver. And yet Treasure Island, great adventure story that it is, endures as a favorite novel for readers of all ages, and its first Hollywood version has become a classic film, several of its silver screen personages having endured through the memories of whole generations: the one-legged good-hearted pirate, the parrot ("pieces of eight!"), blind Pew, Black Dog, villainous Israel Hands, mad Ben Gunn.

Ben Gunn, cast away among goats and parrots, would do flip-flops for a piece of cheese and says that the birds drove him crazy; Robinson Crusoe, in the same situation, milks the goats, makes some cheese, and teaches parrots to talk. Swift, through Gulliver, mocks nautical terminology as a species of jolly gob whistle-talk, whereas in Treasure Island, that same salty talk is the very stuff of adventure.

Crusoe, Gulliver, Ben Gunn — each character is given, by his author, a mission of sorts. Crusoe's is to instruct the reader in how to live; Gulliver's is to make the reader laugh at human foibles. Ben Gunn's mission, like that of the novel he appears in, is simply to entertain. But what grand entertainment Treasure Island is.

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