Was Robinson Crusoe…….ehm, gay????” “Eh?” was my astonished reply, as the question had been seriuosly posed by one of my brightest and most diligent, sensitive students; it didn’t actually look like a kind of joke. She was also so confident about her intuition that she wanted to know whether the Puritan reading public of the age had favourably accepted the character of Robinson Crusoe. This serious statement made me giggle a little, as I found unlikely and somewhat daring that Daniel Defoe, the Dissenter, the author who is commonly regarded as the father of the English novel , would have openly exposed his very first fictional hero to a discussion on his sexuality or sex in general without a moral implication. A certain prudery, in fact, pervades the novel. I remember an episode in particular that struck me. As soon as Robinson recovers from the shock of the shipwreck and understands to be all alone on the desert island, his very first concern, before thinking about food, water or even a safe shelter, is actually his own nakedness, as his clothes are ragged and has no change. He had not realized that there were no pleasures of society to be enjoyed on a desert island yet, and clothes were, actually, quite unnecessary.
However, there must have been something that had nourished the suspects of my student and the passage indicted was Robinson’s description of Friday. Friday is a twenty-six-year-old native Caribbean and cannibal, Crusoe had saved from the hands of other cannibals. Very likely Defoe wanted his readers to favourably accept him, therefore when it came the time to introduce him, he made a very accurate but implausible portrait of a native savage, who was not so like the other savages. Crusoe tells us that Friday was “comely” and “handsome“, words that, I am pretty sure, were the origin of my student’s confusion, and soon invites the reader not to listen to his prejudices, because the man is NOT what everybody would believe. He does NOT have ” a fierce and surly aspect” , but “a very good countenance” and when he smiles he has “all the sweetness and softness of a European“. His hair is NOT “curled like wool“, but long and black; his nose is NOT “flat like the negroes“, but small ; his lips are strangely thin and he can admire his beautiful set of teeth as white as ivory; his skin is NOT “quite black“, but “very tawny“, NOT “the ugly, nauseous tawny as the Brazilians the Virginians, and other native Americans are”, but something “very agreeable“. A very tanned Italian in short. Defoe crashes even the last prejudice, telling us that Friday must be also a clever, young man, because Robinson notices a certain sparkle in his black eyes and his forehead is very large and high, the distinctive trait of an intelligent man.
Robinson, is not attracted by Friday the man, but rather, Friday the potential slave. Robinson used to trade slaves and looks at him with the eyes of somebody who could have made a good profit from that young man standing in front of him, as he is “ perfectly well made, with straight long limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped”, therefore strong and those beautiful set of white teeth are a sign of his good health. Therefore, the only relationship possible between Robinson and Friday, and that we are allowed to know, is that of master and slave. It is really interesting to remark that Robinson does nothing to subjugate Friday, but rather the latter instinctively understands that the white man is naturally superior. Robinson teaches him good manners and gives him the name of Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life and as soon as he can understand him, teaches him to call “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.