In his lifetime, Defoe published more than 500 books, pamphlets, articles, and poems. Unfortunately, none of his literary endeavors ever brought him much financial success or stability. His occupations ranged from spying and embezzling to soldiering and pamphleteering. He had started out as a merchant, but he soon found himself bankrupt, which led him to choose other occupations. His political passions, his flare for libel, and his inability to stay out of debt also caused him to be imprisoned seven times.
Even if he wasn't financially successful, Defoe managed to make a significant mark on literature. He influenced the development of the English novel, with his journalistic detail and characterization. Some claim that Defoe wrote the first true English novel; and he's often considered to be the father of British journalism.
Robinson Crusoe--The Story
It's no wonder the story was such a success... The story is about a man who is stranded on a desert island for 28 years. With the supplies he's able to salvage from the wrecked ship, Robinson Crusoe eventually builds a fort and then creates for himself a kingdom by taming animals, gathering fruit, growing crops, and hunting.
The book contains adventure of all sorts: pirates, shipwrecks, cannibals, mutiny, and so much more... Robinson Crusoe's story is also Biblical in many of it's themes and discussions. It's the story of the prodigal son, who runs away from home only to find calamity. Elements of the story of Job also appear in the story, when in his illness, Robinson cries out for deliverance: "Lord, be my help, for I am in great distress." Robinson questions God, asking, "Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus used?" But he makes peace, and goes on with his solitary existence.
Robinson finally makes his escape when a ship of mutineers sail to the island. He and his companions help the British captain to take back control of he ship. He sets sail for England on December 19, 1686--after spending 28 years, 2 months, and 19 days on the island. He arrives back in England, after being gone for 35 years, and finds that he is a wealthy man.
Robinson Crusoe is the tale of a lonely human being who manages to survive for years without any human companionship. It's a story about the different ways that men cope with reality when hardship comes, but it's also the tale of a man creating his own reality, rescuing a savage and fashioning his own world out of the untamed wilderness of a desert island.
The tale has influenced many other tales, including The Swiss Family Robinson, Philip Quarll, and Peter Wilkins. Defoe followed up the tale with his own sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, but that tale was not met with a much success as the first novel. In any case, the figure of Robinson Crusoe has become an important archetypal figure in literature--Robinson Crusoe was described by Samuel T. Coleridge as "the universal man."