Paratext and Genre in the First Edition of Robinson Crusoe [Archival 1]

Why do eighteenth century novels often come with extra-narrative components such as lengthy title pages, table of contents, editor’s introductions, author’s introductions, prefaces, forewords, afterwords, dedications, advertisements, etc.? How does such an intricate textual apparatus shape the genre of the novel? In what ways does the arrangement of a book’s contents affect the reader’s experience of it? I found myself asking these questions after many visits to the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books room to look at its collection of eighteenth century novels, and constantly being baffled by the diverse array of extra-narrative features they contain. Gerard Genette uses the term “paratext” to refer to such features, a concept that Christopher Looby explains by writing,

[Paratext] would include, in Genette’s inventory, titles, subtitles, and intertitles; epigraphs and dedications; forewords and afterwords; jacket copy and promotional blurbs; footnotes and headnotes; and every other sort of supplemental or framing device or text that attaches itself to what we customarily think of as the text proper. Genette’s overriding claim is that these paratexts impinge influentially upon our reading experience, hailing us as bookstore browsers, soliciting our attention to particular texts (or portions or details of texts), preforming our horizon of expectations, guiding our reading as it transpires, and otherwise governing our understanding of the text in remarkably powerful, if often unnoticed, ways. (182)

When considering the specific case of eighteenth century novels, if paratext is construed as “supplemental or framing” materials, then it performs a number of significant roles that not only influences the reader’s interpretation of the text as Looby and Genette note, but also intervenes in the construction of the genre of the fictional realist novel. As a wide range of scholars contend, the eighteenth century is also considered to be the period where the modern realist novel, building on preexisting prose genres such as the romance, the criminal biography, and the periodical, among others, assumes concrete shape.i I believe that in assisting the reader’s interpretation of the text by articulating the conventions through which the author(s) structured the narrative it contains, the paratext also participates in the negotiation of an emergent genre. In this essay, I look at the paratext in the first edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to see how it informs readerly expectations and constructs the generic conventions of fictional realism.

The first edition of Robinson Crusoe’s preface begins: “If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Publick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so.” From the very first sentence, the preface asks the reader to interpret the subsequent narrative as a private experience being made available for public consumption after being mediated by an editor as well as the process of publication. Stressing this mediation is necessary because the title-page proclaims Robinson Crusoe was “written by himself,” building the reader’s expectation that this novel comes straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Given this disclosure of mediation, the veracity of the story being presented is brought under severe skepticism. How can the reader be sure that the editor and the publisher have not altered the protagonist’s private experiences to make them more salacious than they actually were, especially when the very next sentence in the preface recognizes that “The Wonders of this Man’s Life exceed all that (he thinks) is to be found extant”? Thus, the preface immediately sets up Robinson Crusoe as operating within the dichotomies of fact and fiction, as well plausibility and improbability. Negotiating what aspects of the narrative are “real” and what is “made-up” thus becomes the crucial interpretive task that the reader needs to perform. However, the preface ends by diffusing this tension and stressing, “The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” While the preface begins by raising the suspicion of the narrative being fabricated, it ends by claiming to be a true relation of facts. Rather than putting the onus of making a decision through interpretation on the reader, the suspiciously anonymous “Editor” takes it upon himself to advocate for the truthfulness of the narrative. By acknowledging the extraordinary nature of the events being presented, and then emphasizing its purported truthfulness, the preface enacts the very tension that sustains fictional realism. The preface leaves the reader with guidelines for interpreting the text, but also gives reason to be skeptical of the editor’s intervention in the creation of this text.

In Robinson Crusoe, the preface thus identifies the novel as operating on an interstitial space between truth and concoction, where character and setting are drawn from everyday life but placed in extraordinary circumstances. That this novel is loosely based on the widely circulated experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a minor contemporary celebrity famous for being stranded on a Caribbean island, only further blurs the lines between what “really happened” and what was fictitiously added after the fact. In her book Nobody’s Story, Catherine Gallagher argues that the tension between factual truth and imaginary creation is a distinguishing generic marker of the eighteenth century realist novel. This tension marks the novel’s departure from the contemporary status quo, where stories for sale at the booksellers’ were either overtly engaged in referential truth-telling or in lying outright (xvi). Consequently, we can see how Robinson Crusoe’s preface identifies itself as a distinct genre that discloses realist fiction as an alternative category that sits between the referential truth and the imaginary construction.

The preface’s position in the layout of the text is also extremely significant because its sequential positioning impacts the reader’s interpretation of the text. In the first edition of Robinson Crusoe, the preface follows a frontispiece and the title page. The frontispiece consists of a woodcut illustration of Crusoe alone wearing ragged clothes and carrying an assortment of weapons on a tropical island, with a sinking ship in the background. This snapshot gives the reader a sense of what to expect in Crusoe’s story: a realist account of shipwreck and tropical adventure via a secular focus on the tribulations of an individual man. The title-page compliments this illustration by literally announcing this text as the “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner” and giving a summary of the major events in the story. The title-page and the frontispiece are the first pages to catch a prospective buyer’s eye and thus, in addition to giving an overview of the work’s contents, they also function as marketing devices designed to pique the reader’s interest. Hence, the frontispiece uses mimetic illustration and the title-page mentions identifiable locations and plausible events to purport the truth of the account being narrated. Consequently, the interested reader arrives at the preface under the impression that he or she will get a true account of Crusoe’s life, a notion that the preface subsequently imbues with doubt. While the frontispiece and the title page “hook” the prospective buyer by identifying Robinson Crusoe as an extraordinary but true narrative, the preface complicates these truth claims and opens the space for the individual reader to arrive at his or her own understanding of the narrative.

In this regard, Robinson Crusoe’s preface, frontispiece, and title page follow Robert Darnton’s observation that paratext “works on the perceptions of readers,” inviting them to “penetrate into secrets hidden between the lines or beneath the text” (506). While the mimetic form of the frontispiece illustration and the referential language in the title page emphasize a correspondence to real people, places, and events, the preface’s disclosure of editorial mediation undercuts these claims to truth. The paratext thus shapes readerly perception by forcing them to adopt a suspicious mode of reading that prompts readers to discern the plausible parts of the story from its more unbelievable moments. Centering our attention on the paratext of Robinson Crusoe, as opposed to the story that comprises the bulk of the book, underscores how it frames the reader’s interpretation of the story in the liminal space straddling fact and fantasy.

In this essay, I have only focused on the printed paratext that accompanied the initial publication of Robinson Crusoe to see the specific ways in which it staged the interpretation of this specific text and participated in the negotiation of an emergent genre. As a result, I have not been able to pay attention to the paratext that accompanied the many other editions of Robinson Crusoe, which was widely reprinted, translated, pirated, and reissued in a variety of contexts over the next three hundred years. By studying how the paratext of these different editions changed over time, we might be able to construct a history of the different contexts in which Robinson Crusoe has been read. Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner confirm this line of analysis in their paper “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The Shape of the Discipline,” by noting that tracking paratextual variance across different editions helps us understand circulation and reception histories. Here, they cite the work of Alan Galey and his Visualizing Variation Project, whose exploration of the paratextual changes in different versions of Thomas More’s Utopia points towards More’s Humanist interlocutors, as evidence speaking to the importance of linking digital methodologies with the study of paratextual variation (8-10). Given that hundreds of versions of Robinson Crusoe were in circulation over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries,ii I believe that doing justice to the incredible variation in their paratextual contents calls for a similar approach that capitalizes on the ability of computational methodologies to process large packets of information with speed and accuracy. Robinson Crusoe’s longstanding presence in print culture and its canonical position in literary history as one of the first realist novels makes it an ideal candidate to track changing contexts of readership and circulation through an attendance to paratextual variation. Just as I began to resign myself to the thought that there is nothing new to be said about Robinson Crusoe, I realized that I was only being held back by not adequately looking at how the book itself and the organization of its contents have changed over time.


i For accounts of the emergence of the novel as an eighteenth century genre see Ian Watt, Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957); Lennard J. Davis Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983); Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace 1670-1820 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).

ii According to its catalog of the Trent Defoe Collection, the Boston Public Library alone holds 236 different versions of Robinson Crusoe.

Works Cited

Darnton, Robert. “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited.” Modern Intellectual History 4.03 (2007): n. pag. CrossRef. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Defoe, Daniel. The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner: who lived eight and twenty years, all alone in an un-inhabited 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 Pyrates. Written by himself. London: W. Taylor, 1719.

Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew, and Sarah Werner. “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline.” Book History 17.1 (2014): 406–458. CrossRef.

Looby, Christopher. “Southworth and Seriality.” Nineteenth Century Literature 59.2 (2004): 179–211.


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