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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 457 Volume 18, New Series, October 2, 1852   By:

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No. 457. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 2, 1852. PRICE 1 1/2 d.


It is wonderfully exciting to read the adventures of a shipwrecked mariner; to find him cast away on a desert island, destitute of everything that before seemed necessary to his very existence; to see him settling himself down in a strange and untried form of life, substituting one thing for another, doing altogether without some other thing, turning constantly from expedient to expedient, bending to his will the circumstances that seemed his fate, and at length naturalising himself to the place, and living bravely on, truly and literally the Monarch of all he surveys. The avidity with which we drink in such details, seems to depend upon some principle in our nature; for a feeling of the same kind is excited by all other narrations of vicissitude. The picture of calamity would be merely tiresome, were it not for the rebound we expect: we want to see what the unfortunate whose story we follow will do ; by what steps he will try to reascend, or by what expedients he will make for himself a new world in the depths to which he has fallen. This principle is known to the skilful novelist, and he is the most successful who knows it best. It is to the complete gratification afforded to the mystical sympathy referred to the sympathy, not with calamity, but with struggle that Robinson Crusoe owes its distinction as the most universally popular of all works of fiction; for although the facts of the narrative had probably never any actual existence, they are so rendered as to be instinctively received as the component parts of a thing eternally true in nature.

But in actual life the Robinson Crusoes are few, and the shipwrecked mariners many. The mass of castaways, when they find themselves separated from their kind, their comforts, their necessaries, yield, after a few feeble efforts, or without effort at all, to what is called their fate, and die of cold, or hunger, or despair. These multitudes we take no note of. They pass away from the earth like shadows; or, if our eye follows them for a moment till the view is lost in the crowding incidents of life, we look upon them as the victims of unavoidable and irresistible circumstances, and so turn calmly away. But it would be well to examine this notion; to contrast the victims with the vanquishers; to inquire whether the train of circumstances really differed in their several cases; and so to ascertain the share individual character may have had in the result. Let us, by all means, continue to pity the victims, whether we find their bones bleaching in the desert, or stirred on the shore by the tide; but it may be suspected that we ought to pity them less for the hardness of their fate than for the weakness which could not withstand it. A French writer has finely said, that history is the struggle of the human race with destiny. Even so, we think, is the history of individuals.

Look abroad into ordinary life, and examine the condition of its castaways. One finds himself alone in the crowd of mankind, with wind and tide against him, surrounded by influences like evil spirits, the earth dry and famished under his foot, and the heavens black with thunder above his head. He has no experience, little physical strength, only ordinary talent; but he has nerve and will: he can plod when necessary; he can stoop or climb as the time demands; he can cut a new path when he loses the old one; and so, step by step, he goes on this gallant Crusoe till he has conquered circumstances and reached a secure shelter. Another man: but here we must speak of crowds and classes, for imbecility affects whole regions of society at once. A certain branch of industry, we shall say agriculture, handloom weaving, anything is struck with decay, and its followers thrown out of employment... Continue reading book >>

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