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Barnish, M. (2014). Factors underlying the success and continuing influence of the Robinson Crusoe story. PHILICA.COM Article number 416.

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Factors underlying the success and continuing influence of the Robinson Crusoe story

Maxwell Scott Barnishunconfirmed user (University of Aberdeen)

Published in humani.philica.com

This article surveys a range of intrinsic and extrinsic factors behind the remarkable success and enduring influence of the Robinson Crusoe story. Matters discussed include the multiplicity of possible interpretations, genre, race, gender and changes in the book markets.

Article body


Robinson Crusoe[1] by the English merchant, journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe, first published on 25 April 1719,[2] is amongst the pervasive, successful and influential stories in literature. Indeed, it has been called ‘the first English novel’.[3] Robinson Crusoe found immediate commercial success.[4] Within one hundred years of its initial publication, there were numerous British and European editions and adaptations of the Robinson Crusoe story, including in the order of 150 abridged versions specifically intended for children.[5] ‘No single book in the history of Western literature has spawned more editions, translations, imitations, continuations, and sequels than Crusoe’.[6] However, it should be noted that it did not achieve such immediate critical success, since ‘one of the severest laws of the literary system [at the time was]…that writers must not yield to the seductions of the larger culture’.[7] Robinson Crusoe has implicitly entered our societal consciousness and is ‘almost universally known’.[8] ‘That the Crusoe myth extends beyond literature is obvious from numerous nonliterary materials, ranging from pottery and paper dolls to cartoons and stamps’.[9] Indeed, in France, ‘un Robinson’ has come to signify a large umbrella, as carried by an adventurer.[10] Robinson Crusoe has also been the inspiration for a plethora of cinematic and television productions,[11] which have helped cement its status in the enduring implicit public consciousness. This essay will survey some of the reasons behind this enduring success and influence, covering both factors intrinsic to the Robinson Crusoe story and factors relating to wider society and book history.

Intrinsic factors

Robinson Crusoe is a story that has appealed to a wide range of people of different ages and backgrounds in a vast array of social and historical contexts. One key factor underpinning this wide appeal is the multiplicity of potential interpretations of the plot of Defoe’s novel.[12]Robinson Crusoe “reeks” with meaning in the transnational world. He and his island are laden with multiple and conflicting meanings on the problem of being at home in the world’.[13] Although the story of Robinson Crusoe may seem remote from our everyday experiences, it contains many motifs of great relevance to everyday life, both in Defoe’s day and in the modern era. These include adventure, solitude and loneliness, the question of reality, gender and sexuality, economics and work, and race relations. Indeed, Virginia Woolf remarks that Defoe’s work is ‘founded upon a knowledge of what is most persistent…in human nature’.[14] ‘Critics have developed diverse, even conflicting and contradictory, readings of Defoe’s novel. It has been interpreted as a redemption narrative, as economic parable, as survival story…[and] as a piece of pre-colonialist propaganda’ amongst other possibilities.[15] Moreover, Thomas Keymer adds that ‘the novel rewards analysis as many things- an exotic adventure; a study of solitary consciousness; a parable of sin, atonement, and redemption; a myth of economic individualism; a displaced or encoded autobiography; an allegory of political defeat; a prophecy of imperial expansion- yet none of these explanations exhausts it’.[16] Adaptors have seized on these multiple possibilities to offer a version of the Robinson Crusoe story from their own social, historical and ideological perspectives. Indeed, some of the most successful adaptations, such as Luis Buñuel’s film Adventures of Robinson Crusoe[17] and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies[18] have arisen through a rejection of the Robinson Crusoe motifs, demonstrating that a book need not be universally popular to be successful.

 Theoretical perspectives

From a theoretical perspective, a range of theories could be employed to account for this multiplicity of interpretations of the Robinson Crusoe story, which has been a major contributing factor to its enduring success and influence through the provision of versions and adaptations suited to different audiences and socio-historical contexts. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas came to be particularly influential in existentialism, postmodernism and post-structuralism, argues that ‘it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations’.[19] The Deconstructionist analysis of Jacques Derrida ‘amounts to destroying the concept of ‘sign’ and its entire logos… [so that] the “rationality”…which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from  a logos. Further, it inaugurates the…de-construction, of all of signification that have their source in that of the logos. Particularly the signification of truth’.[20] Reader response theorists emphasise the key role of the reader in shaping the meaning of texts.  ‘The conspiracy of silence surrounding the supposed impersonality of critical reading is now gradually being unmasked’.[21] Jane Tompkins questions ‘What makes one set of perceptual strategies or literary conventions win out over another? If the world is the product of interpretation, then who or what determines which interpretative system will prevail?’.[22] Stanley Fish adds that ‘what the sentence does is give the reader something and then take it away, drawing him on with the unredeemed promise of its return’.[23] While differing in many ways, these theories all share the rejection of absolute, universal truth and can provide helpful frameworks for our understanding of the diverse success and influence of the Robinson Crusoe story.


In relation to genre, Robinson Crusoe can, for example, be seen as a spiritual biography or an adventure story, securing a wider appeal among devotees of these differing literary genres. Indeed, Defoe appears to realise this dual appeal as reflected in the marked difference in emphasis between the title page and preface of Robinson Crusoe. Whereas the title page emphasises the adventure story aspects of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York Mariner, typesetting the words ‘Life’ and ‘Adventures’ in the most prominent font in order to stand out from the rest of the original lengthy title of Defoe’s novel, [24] the preface has a more serious religious tone, setting Defoe out as the ‘Editor’ of Crusoe’s ‘just History of Fact’, a story told ‘with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example’,[25] in order to determine ‘God’s plot’ for their lives.[26] In the preface, Defoe portrays his work in the context of the tradition of Puritan spiritual biography and asserts that ‘neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it’.[27]


The spiritual dimension of Robinson Crusoe has been a matter of considerable critical debate. Whereas Nigel Dennis says that ‘there never was a book in which God’s hand was busier’,[28] Virginia Woolf sees Robinson Crusoe as a novel in which ‘God does not exist’.[29] It could be argued that Robinson Crusoe is a story in which the protagonist initially does not recognise God’s providence in his predicament, saying ‘All this while I had not the least serious religious Thought, nothing but the common, Lord ha’ Mercy upon me’,[30] he comes to realise that God was with him in this time of trial, offering providence and forgiveness and Crusoe ‘began to construe the Words mentioned above, Call on me and I will deliver you, in a different  Sense from what I had ever done before’.[31] Many adaptors have downplayed the religious aspect of the Robinson Crusoe story in order to appeal to more secularly oriented audiences. On the other hand, in Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Luis Buñuel subverts Defoe’s religious message. ‘Although religion figures importantly in this film, it provides Buñuel’s Crusoe no real solace’.[32] Indeed, a voiceover in the film proclaims ‘the scriptures came meaningless to my eyes’.[33]

Robinson Crusoe for children

The potential of Robinson Crusoe as an adventure story has been key to its widespread appeal to audiences across reception contexts. A key aspect of this has been its appeal as a good children’s story. Although it was not originally written especially for children, ‘it has frequently been seen as a children's book, designed to teach young readers ethical ideals such as hard work, thrift, fortitude, prudence, and independence’.[34] Chapbook editions began to appear shortly after the publication of Defoe’s original novel and the first specific abridged children’s edition of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1768.[35]

Adventure story

The adventure story appeal of Robinson Crusoe has been a major component of its cinematic and television appeal. ‘Films like Swiss Family Robinson by Disney Studios and 1960s TV series Gilligan's Island ignore Crusoe's soul-searching, and make a fun-filled, adventurous journey out of the Crusoe myth’.[36] A large number of reality TV series have been produced worldwide that are based to varying extents on the story of Robinson Crusoe.[37] This is a demonstration of the extent of the implicit impact of the Robinson Crusoe story on societal consciousness. These TV series combine the adventure story appeal of Robinson Crusoe, the fight or flight response,[38] the licentiousness now associated with exotic islands[39] and the opportunity for participants to win a life-changing prize. The latter could be said to parallel the notion of the ‘economic Robinson’, as presented by Ian Watt.[40] According to a 2001 survey, 45% of Americans watch reality TV and 27% consider themselves ‘die-hard’ fans.[41] According to this survey, 37% of Americans prefer to watch ‘real’ people on TV rather than scripted characters.[42] A major part of the appeal of reality TV is its ‘unmeditated, voyeuristic, yet often playful look into what might be called the ‘entertaining real.’ This fixation with ‘authentic’ personalities, situations, and narratives is considered to be reality TV’s primary distinction from fictional television and also its primary selling point’.[43] Viewers interpret Survivor,[44] which is one of the series more closed based on the Robinson Crusoe story, as real,[45] although ‘the reality the audience sees is highly scripted and carefully edited’.[46] The plethora of reality TV shows based on the Robinson Crusoe story is evidence of its continued success and influence and demonstrates how its motifs are both highly relevant across time and culture and amenable to alteration. For example, the licentiousness associated with many reality TV shows would be anathema to the Puritan context of Defoe’s original work.

Economic Individualism

Work and resourcefulness play an important part in Defoe’s narrative of Crusoe on the island. For example, Crusoe recounts that ‘having found two or three broken Oars belonging to the Boat, and besides the Tools which were in the Chest, I found two Saws, an Axe, and a Hammer’.[47] According to Ian Watt, ‘the story shows how an ordinary man, quite alone, is able to subdue nature to his own material purposes, and eventually to triumph over his physical environment. In the context of Crusoe’s life on the island, rational ecological and economic labor can be seen as the moral premise which underlies his character’.[48] This can be called the ‘economic individualist’ reading of Robinson Crusoe, which may be another factor underlying its enduring appeal in a modern economically focused world. This resourceful Crusoe is critiqued in Foe by the Nobel prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee.[49] Susan Barton contributes to the portrayal of Crusoe as a relatively weak figure, saying ‘I was more and more driven to conclude that age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy’.[50] Moreover, the Marxist director Stanislav Govorukhin produced a 1973 film Жизнь И Удивительные Приключения Робинзона Крузо (The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe), in which ‘the problematic of economic individualism, and issues of personal economic power, and emphasis on individual self-interest are completely ignored’ and ‘almost all the basic capitalistic elements of the novel- the importance of contractual relationships, the economic motive, the drive to accumulate, venturing in search of economic opportunity, utilitarianism, and the limited relationship with others, including the family members - are rejected in the film’.[51] These are further examples how the success and influence of the Robinson Crusoe story has arisen partly through critique and rejection of its original motifs and values.


The depiction of race relations in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe also ensures its topical relevance to audiences across a range of reception contexts. Again, the success and influence of the story is partly achieved through the critique and rejection of its portrayal of race relations. ‘Defoe’s Man Friday is imprisoned in his master’s discourse, named by him, taught to speak by him’.[52] Meeting Friday for the first time, Crusoe says ‘he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every Ten or Twelve steps in token of acknowledgement for my saving his Life: I smil’d at him, and look’d pleasantly, and beckon’d to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me, and then he kneel’d down again, kiss’d the Ground, and laid his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head; this it seems was in token of swearing to be my Slave for ever’.[53] This colonial portrayal of race relations has been critiqued by many adaptors of Robinson Crusoe, which has yielded portrayals that are more palatable to modern audiences. For example, Jackson Philip, in Derek Walcott’s Pantomime,[54]speaks eloquently for himself, overwhelming his master with the inventive art of an ex-calypsonian’.[55] In addition, ‘the films by Buñuel,[56] Gold,[57] and Deschanel[58]…focus on the Crusoe-Friday relationship by transforming it and, in that process, critiquing Defoe’s version of that mythic encounter’.[59] For example, Deschanel portrays two ‘Friday’ figures and the second half of the film focuses on the interaction between these black characters and Crusoe. ‘At the end of film,… it is Crusoe, clearly transformed by his interaction with the black man, who saves the Warrior’.[60] On the other hand, Foe by J.M Coetzee, written in the context of apartheid in South Africa, offers a far more pessimistic critique of race relations in Robinson Crusoe. In his work, Friday cannot speak because ‘he has no tongue [because] the slavers cut out his tongue and sold him into slavery’.[61]

Gender and sexuality

Another way in which the success and influence of the Robinson Crusoe story has been maintained has been through critique of Defoe’s portrayal of gender and sexuality. As eloquently expressed by Arnold Saxton, ‘Crusoe remains silent about one great area of human experience and activity- the erotic urge’.[62] Indeed, women barely featured at all in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This could have been an influence of the Puritan biographical tradition and the avoidance of temptation to sin on Defoe’s novel. Evidently, it is not true that Defoe never wrote about women or sexuality, as seen, for example, in Moll Flanders.[63] Adaptations of Robinson Crusoe have often added a love interest to the storyline, in order to appeal to audiences who are used to a romantic context in literary and cinematic works. For example, Foe introduces Susan Barton a female castaway as narrator and subsequent love interest of Cruso, while the 2000 film CastAway[64] portrays the loss of Chuck Noland’s long-term relationship with Kelly Frears after being stranded on an island. Whereas in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the protagonist is free from ‘the Lust of the Flesh’,[65] Luis Buñuel[66] renders Crusoe tormented by sexual desire and irate when Friday wears a dress.

Extrinsic factors

As discussed earlier, Robinson Crusoe has been called the ‘first English novel’.[67] The period following its initial publication was a period of key developments in the British, European and international book markets. This rapid expansion facilitated the rise of Robinson Crusoe to canonical status:

During the two hundred years between the reigns of Elizabeth I and George III, the political, social, intellectual, and cultural life of the British underwent great change. In 1800, even greater changes were becoming apparent; in the England of George III, new industries and new skills were remaking social and economic relationships and were causing the development of a different kind of society. It is against that background of profound and continuing change that we have to see the little world of the book.[68]


There was a significant increase in the market for books in Britain during the eighteenth century, as a result of increased population, wealth and literacy.[69] Moreover, there was an emergent demand for new genres of literature, including the growth of the chapbook as a means of presenting the key contents of a story in a form designed for children.[70] During the period between 1800 and 1890, there was a move away from books being few and expensive to mass-produced and relatively cheap.[71] Books were increasingly sold in single volumes rather than in the traditional triple-decker form, reducing costs to the consumer.[72] In addition, the development of the railway system led to greater ease of supply, lower costs and increased non-local distribution.[73] Moreover, there was increasing internationalisation of the book trade from the late eighteenth century onwards.[74] Robinson Crusoe capitalised upon these factors relating to the book industry to achieve increased readership, contributing to its widespread and enduring success and influence.


In conclusion, the enduring success and influence of Robinson Crusoe can be attributed to a wide range of literary, socio-cultural and book industry factors. Its motifs facilitate a wide range of interpretations and emphases, increasing its appeal to diverse audiences and the range of adaptations produced. Moreover, these motifs capture the essence of human nature and are therefore relevant across a wide range of reception contexts. At times, critique and rejection of some of the original motifs and values of Robinson Crusoe has helped maintain and sustain its enduring success and influence, specifically its implicit impact on wider non-literary societal consciousness, as embodied, for example, in reality TV shows based on the Robinson Crusoe story. Finally, a rapidly expanding and internationalising book market during the centuries following its initial 1719 publication contributed to the breadth of appeal that Robinson Crusoe has achieved.


At the time of submission of this article, Dr Barnish is employed by the University of Aberdeen. The scholarship presented in this article was conducted outwith this context. References in this article are given using numbered endnotes following MHRA guidelines for articles in this field.



[1] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. by Thomas Keymer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), passim. All further references are to this edition unless otherwise stated.

[2] Defoe, Crusoe, p.i.

[3] Ann Marie Fallon, Global Crusoe: Comparative Literature, Postcolonial Theory and Transnational Aesthetics (Ashgate: Farnham, 2011), p.1.

[4] Martin Green, The Robinson Crusoe Story (London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), p.20.

[5] Dennis Butts, ‘The Birth of the Boys’ Story and the Transition from the Robinsonades to the Adventure Story’, Revue de Literature Compareé, 4 (2002), pp.445-454 (p.446).

[6] Michael Seidel, Robinson Crusoe: Island Myths and the Novel (Boston: Twayne, 1991), p.8.

[7] Green, p.4.

[8] Ian Watt, ‘Robinson Crusoe as a Myth’, Essays in Criticism, 1.2 (1951), pp.95-119 (p.313).

[9] Sophia Nikoleishvili, The Many Faces of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: Examining the Crusoe Myth in Film and on Television (PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2007), p.3.

[10] Watt, ‘Myth’, p.312.

[11] Nikoleishvili, passim.

[12] E.M.W.Tillyard, The Epic Strain in the English Novel (London: Chatto and Windus,1963),  p.33.

[13] Fallon, p.22.

[14] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, first series (London: Hogarth, 1924), pp.121-131.

[15] Nikoleishvili, p.5.

[16] Defoe, Crusoe, p.vii.

[17] Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, dir. by Luis Buñuel (Mexico City: Producciones Tepeyac, 1954)

[18] William Golding, Lord of the Flies (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), passim.

[19] Walker Kaufmann (Ed. and trans.), The Portable Nietzsche (London: Penguin, 1954), p.458.

[20] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp.7,10.

[21] Elizabeth Freund, The Return of the Reader: Reader-response Criticism (London: Routledge, 2003), p.5.

[22] Jane P. Tompkins, ‘Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism’, in Jane P. Tompkins (Ed.), The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp.201-232 (p.226).

[23] Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, in Jane P. Tompkins (Ed.), The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp.70-100 (p.72).

[24] Defoe, Crusoe, p.3.

[25] Defoe, Crusoe, p.5.

[26] Leopold Damrosch,  Jnr., God’s Plot Plot and Man’s Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p.4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Frank Ellis (Ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p.16

[29] Virginia Woolf, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, in Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. by Michael Shinagel (London: WW Norton & Co, 1975), pp.283-288 (p.285).

[30] Defoe, Crusoe, p.70.

[31] Defoe, Crusoe, p.83.

[32] Robert Mayer, ‘Three Cinematic Robinsonades’, in Robert Mayer (Ed.), Eighteenth-century Fiction on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.35-51 (p.39).

[33] Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

[34] Nikoleishvili, p.105.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Nikoleishvili, p.7.

[37] Nikoleishvili, p.205.

[38] Arthur S.P. Jansen, Xay van Nguyen, Vladimir Karpitskiy, , Thomas C. Mettenleiter and Arthur D. Loewy, ‘Central Command Neurons of the Sympathetic Nervous System: Basis of the Fight-or-Flight Response’, Science, 27 (1995), pp. 644-646.

[39] Gavan Daws, A Dream of Islands (London: Norton, 1980), passim.

[40] Ian Watt, Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.151.

[41] Nikoleishvili, p.207.

[42] Elizabeth Johnston, ‘How Women Really Are: Disturbing Parallels between Reality Television and 18th Century Fiction’, in David Escoffrey (Ed.), How Real Is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), p.115.

[43] Laurie Oullette and Susan Murray, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2004), p.4.

[44] Survivor, (ABC. 2004-2010)

[45] Richard E. Crew, ‘Viewer Intepretations of Reality Television: How Real is Survivor for its Viewers?’, in David Escoffrey (Ed.), How Real Is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), p.72.

[46] Patkin, Terri T., ‘Individual and Cultural Identity in the World of Reality Television’, in Matthew J. Smith and Andrew F. Wood, Survivor Lessons. Essays on Communication and Reality Television (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), p.20.

[47] Defoe, Crusoe, p.45.

[48] Watt, Myths, p.151.

[49] J.M. Coetzee, Foe (London: Penguin, 1987), passim.

[50] Foe, pp.11-12.

[51] Nikoleishvili, p.71.

[52] Bridget Jones, ‘With Crusoe the slave and Friday the boss: Derek Walcott’s Pantomime’, in Lieve Spaas and Brian Stimpson  (Eds.),  Robinson Crusoe- Myths and Metamorphoses (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996),  pp.225-238 (p.225).

[53] Defoe, Crusoe,pp.171-172.

[54] Derek Walcott, Pantomime (Cambridge: Proquest, 2005), passim.

[55] Jones, p.226.

[56] Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

[57] Man Friday, dir.by Jack Gold (New York: Avco Embassy Pictures, 1975)

[58] Crusoe, dir. by Caleb Deschanel (Rome: Eagle Pictures, 1989)

[59] Mayer, pp.36-37.

[60] Mayer, p.47.

[61] Foe, pp.22-23.

[62] Arnold Saxton, ‘Female Castaways’, in Lieve Spaas and Brian Stimpson  (Eds.)  Robinson Crusoe- Myths and Metamorphoses (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), pp.141-147 (p.141).

[63] Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, ed. by G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), passim.

[64] CastAway, dir. by Robert Zemeckis (Universal City, CA: DreamWorks, 2000)

[65] Defoe, Crusoe, p.38.

[66] Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

[67] Fallon, p.1.

[68] John Feather, ‘The British Book Market 1600-1800’,  in Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp.232-246 (p.232).

[69] Feather, pp.232-237.

[70] Feather, p.237.

[71] Simon Eliot, ‘From Few and Expensive to Many and Cheap: The British Book Market 1800-1890’, in Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp.291-302 (passim.).

[72] Eliot, p.291.

[73] Eliot, p.292.

[74] David Finkelstein, ‘The Globalization of the Book 1800-1970’, in Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp.329-340 (p.329).

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Barnish, M. (2014). Factors underlying the success and continuing influence of the Robinson Crusoe story. PHILICA.COM Article number 416.

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