At first glance, Robinson Crusoe appears to be what we know is true: it is an adventure story, plain and simple. Like Swiss Family Robinson. Like Kidnapped. Like all of those late nineteenth-century adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson. Even like Gulliver’s Travels, another eighteenth-century novel. But Gulliver’s Travels is about more than a guy being tied up by little people. There’s a floating island and a lot of philosophers to make fun of, too. And we can’t forget the intelligent horses and the stupid human Yahoos.

Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have all of the crazy episodic stuff like Gulliver’s Travels, but Daniel Defoe wrote about more than a guy stranded on an island. And it’s not all internal stuff like Tom Hanks in Castaway. This book is about politics, too. And we’re talking 1719 politics here.

Ann Van Sant’s essay “Crusoe’s Hands” from the scholarly journal Eighteenth-Century Life presents an intriguing way to read Robinson Crusoe that is both profound and relatively simple to grasp. First, Van Sant sets the novel in the history of ideas about work by looking at the difference between the head and hands. The head represents intellectual activity, while hands represent manual activity or manual work, what we would generally call labor:

The hierarchy of head and hand is part of a long tradition supported by authority from both Greek and Latin antiquity. The tradition extends and reworks Aristotle’s view that theoretical knowledge is superior to productive knowledge and that the manual laborer works without knowing why he works. Such labor is servile…The bias against manual labor was never either simple or monolithic, but despite various kinds of modifications, it can be seen as a recurring cultural prejudice. (121)

This distinction between the head and the hand, between intellectual and manual labor was mirrored in the distinction between classes, as gentlemen were prized over the lower classes: “the separation of the gentleman from the non-gentleman was said to rest on the distinction between those who did, and those who did not, have to work with their hands” (121). The one place where this hierarchy fell apart was in science, especially in the Royal Society, which was a gentleman’s club that met to discuss science and also published proceedings about science. Like all good science, the Royal Society valued experiment and observation, but such experiments involved the work of hands, were, in fact, very similar to manual labor. Dissections, notations, tabulations, contraptions for experiments all required the type of manual labor done by hands. So the Royal Society was a gentleman’s club that did some work of the lower classes and did welcome some lower class members.

Now that the eighteenth-century stage is set, we can talk about Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe himself has to do a lot of work with his hands. He is stranded on a deserted island for much of the book and has to build everything he has: that’s manual labor if there ever was such. His descriptions of weather, his surveying of the island, his records of everything he does are similar to the publications of the Royal Society, as well: “Defoe’s uses of the hand are a remarkable example of what early novel fictions seldom included: detailed attention to work” (129). For Van Sant, the author of this essay, Defoe was writing differently, combining many elements or modes that make Robinson Crusoe stand out:

In Defoe’s novels, especially Robinson Crusoe, in the equally new genre of the scientific report, and in the georgic materials of the period, we can see an emerging interest in process and method. That interest brings the work of hands into view in a new way, despite the countertendencies of the cultural tradition that places such work below the work of the head…As a remnant persisting over a long period, the hierarchy of head and hand perhaps served the interests of change both by continuing to stress social rank, and by being a sign of an old stability. What Defoe is able to imagine in Robinson Crusoe, by separating the character from social structures, is a world in which this traditional concept temporarily has no application. The work of hands is both necessary and interesting in itself. (132)

So Defoe creates a place, the deserted island, where is no distinction between hand and head, between intellectual and manual labor. And that’s a novel way to read.

If you need our handy cheat sheet study guide on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, you can find it here. Cram for the exam. All you need to know in two pages.

Van Sant, Ann. “Crusoe’s Hands.” Eighteenth-Century Life. 32.2(Spring 2008): 120-137.