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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Robinsonade

Don't worry--you're not the only one to have wondered how you would survive on a desert island; Dwight's given it some thought too: 

People are fascinated with this idea of being stranded on an island ever since (and probably before) Daniel Defoe wrote his bestselling Robinson Crusoe

Defoe’s tale of a young man becoming stranded and isolated on an island, learning to live off the land and surviving against all odds, not only was a best seller of its time, but has been a popular for many years because his story has lived on in many different forms: books, movies, plays, and, now, The Office.

In the middle of the nineteenth century a term was coined for these testaments to Crusoe's popularity: The Robinsonade.

Defoe’s story was widely popular when he wrote it in 1719 and only became more popular as time went on. Children and adults alike were familiar with the adventures and survival story of Robinson Crusoe. By the nineteenth century it became so popular, and so many spin offs were written that a genre was created to identify anything written about this theme of island survival. The official Encyclopedia Britannica definition of "Robinsonade" is any novel written in imitation of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719–22) that deals with the problem of the castaway’s survival on a desert island.” Today, though, the proliferation of Crusoe adaptations and tributes has made this old definition obsolete; Robinsonades can today be found in any number of genres and medias.

In order to be classified as Robinsonade Proper, meaning a story that is close to the original, it has to contain the following elements:
  • Progress through technology;
  • Triumph and the rebuilding of civilization;
  • Economic achievement; and
  • Solitary survival in a hostile environment.

Here are just a few modern cultural artifacts inspired by Robinson Crusoe:

The Robinsonade also goes beyond the obvious isolated island stories, and also carries over to stories that deal with a different kind of isolation. One example is Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, the semi-autobiographical story of a boy from the Philippines, and his journey to America, and the isolation and hardships he faces as an immigrant. Bulosan mentions Crusoe and his novel. The young boy reads the book with his brother he was “fascinated by the bearded man, and a strong desire grew in me to see his island” (32). Although Bulosan’s character is never stranded on an island he does go through many trials, many of them on his own, He also struggles to fit into a society that doesn’t want him, leaving him feeling isolated. Bulosan takes to the story of Robinson Crusoe and because he feels a connection to it, can relate it to his life. It is because modern readers, like Bulosan, relate to the story of Robinson Crusoe and its emphasis on human isolation, that the novel has lived on for so long and in so many different forms.


  1. It is quite honorable to create something which becomes so well known and popular that the english language develops a term in result of it. English, a language well known for being difficult to learn, has many 'coinages'. The verb 'coinage' is the act of inventing a word or phrase. Some examples of english coinages, other than 'robinsonade', are 'face-booking', 'texting', 'ginormouse' (The Christmas movie, Elf), and 'zubie' (early 80s term for the BYU proud- derivative of 'BYZoo').

  2. You mentioned that Defoe wasn't the first to write about being stranded on an island, what came before? or even immediately after?

    What I think is interesting to contemplate is the lone man on the island compared with a society on an island. For example, Gilligans Island isn't just one man alone, it is a community. How does living on as island alone differ from with other people?

  3. One of the subgenres that was popular immediately afterward was the "Female Robinsonade"--a genre that placed women on desert islands and that includes _The Female American_, among others.

  4. I think getting your own word is the highest award in literature, I'd take that over being on New York Times bestseller any day.