The original title used the long, descriptive style common at the time: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates. Written by Himself.
It went on to become one of the most famous and most widely-read books in history.
You may not have read Robinson Crusoe, as famous as it is.
“Classics” don’t seem to be “required” reading anymore, especially if they’re politically incorrect. And, Robinson Crusoe is not PC by today’s standards.
However, it’s almost certain that you know the two enduring fictional and linguistic tropes that come from Robinson Crusoe.
The name of the central character became and still is shorthand for a person who is stranded alone on an island or some other desolate place and uses his ingenuity to survive.
If someone says “like Robinson Crusoe,” most people will know what that means.
A common dictionary definition of “Man Friday” is “a man who helps someone with their work and is loyal and can be trusted.”
A popular English idiom dictionary for people learning to speak English says “Man Friday” means “an assistant or companion, usually a capable one. The common feminine equivalent is ‘’Girl Friday’.” It also says a similar expression is “right-hand man.”
Those definitions of “Man Friday” are, so to speak, white-washed versions of the role of the character Friday in the book.
In Robinson Crusoe, Friday is a slave-like servant to Crusoe. Not exactly a slave, but close to it.
And, Crusoe is an excruciatingly-ethnocentric guy who has nothing against slavery and believes, like most white Englishmen in the 1700s, that non-white races were intended by God to serve them.
As you probably know, Crusoe gets marooned alone on a desert island after a huge storm wrecks his ship and drowns his shipmates.
If you haven’t read the book, you may not know the island was located off the coast of South America or that the ship he was on was bound for Africa “to fetch negroes” to serve as slaves on a plantation Crusoe had established in Brazil.
Crusoe is totally blasé about slavery, especially when it comes to Africans, who he views as ignorant, inferior, naked savages.
He has a slightly higher opinion of the Indians of the “New World,” and thinks the Spanish killed too many of them and mistreat them a bit too much. But he’s not fundamentally opposed to enslaving Indians either.
That — and the fact that Crusoe treats Friday like a slave — may be why Friday has been portrayed as being black in some film and TV adaptations.
In the novel, he’s a Carib Indian, a tribe that Crusoe describes as cannibals who regularly slaughter and dine on humans. Whether they actually were true cannibals, or practiced an occasional ritualized form of cannibalism, is a subject of historical dispute.
At any rate, during the more than two decades Crusoe spent alone on the island, he sees signs that Caribs had visited there, including footprints and remains of their cannibalized victims.
Then, in Chapter XIV, Crusoe sees a group of Caribs dragging some others along the shore, presumably to be slaughtered and eaten.
One runs away. Crusoe shoots his pursuers, frightens off the rest and saves the intended victim’s life.
Crusoe can’t communicate with the man he saved, since neither speaks the other’s language. But instead of using the simple “Me Tarzan, you Jane” approach to finding out the man’s name, Crusoe names him Friday, because that’s the day their chance meeting occurred.
Over time, Crusoe teaches Friday to speak English and asks him a few things about customs of the Carib people. But he doesn’t ask his real name, and clearly doesn’t much care.
Crusoe first uses the term “man Friday” in Chapter XIV. Shortly after he saves the Indian’s life, Crusoe says:
“I took my man Friday with me, giving him the sword in his hand, with the bow and arrows at his back, which I found he could use very dexterously, making him carry one gun for me.”
From then on, throughout the book, Crusoe calls him “my man Friday.”
By “my man Friday,” he really means “my man,” in the controlling sense. And, in the book, Friday is fine with that. He’s a grateful, obsequious and obedient servant to Crusoe.
Below is what you might find to be a gagworthy passage from Chapter XIV in which Crusoe describes Friday’s looks and subservient demeanor. In it, Crusoe also explains that he taught the Carib his new name and the word Master (with a capital M):
“He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled. His hair was long and black, not curled like wool…The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not an ugly, yellow, nauseous tawny, as the Brazilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are, but of a bright kind of a dun olive-colour, that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe. His face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat, like the negroes; a very good mouth, thin lips, and his fine teeth well set, and as white as ivory.
After he had slumbered, rather than slept, about half-an-hour, he awoke again, and came out of the cave to me, for I had been milking my goats which I had in the enclosure just by: when he espied me he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a great many antic gestures to show it. At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived. I understood him in many things, and let him know I was very well pleased with him. In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to me; and first, I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name.”
When an English ship finally comes to the island and Crusoe is rescued, he takes Friday along. The Carib remains his loyal servant when Crusoe goes back to Brazil, where his plantation is still thriving, thanks to slave labor.
He also takes Friday along with him in Daniel Defoe’s sequel to Robinson Crusoe, which few people are familiar with, titled: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, And of the Strange Surprising Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe. (Now usually just called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.)
In that second novel, Crusoe decides to sail with Friday and a small crew to the island where he’d been stranded. On the way, they are attacked by Caribs.
Friday is hit with three of their arrows and dies. Crusoe says with an underwhelming lack of emotion he was quite “annoyed at the loss of my old trusty servant and companion.”
It’s hard to view the term “Man Friday” as a positive thing if you think too much about how racist and pompous Robinson Crusoe is as a character. But he and Daniel Defoe were of their time.
The novel is still a classic adventure worth reading, though Crusoe is not really a “good guy” in the modern sense and Friday’s role doesn’t quite fit nice-sounding definitions like “a man who helps someone with their work and is loyal and can be trusted” or “an assistant or companion, usually a capable one.”
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