An anonymous editor introduces the account of a man's incredible adventures, which he says is true, entertaining, and useful for the reader. The story begins with Robinson Crusoe describing his early life in York, England. Robinson eagerly wanted to venture out to sea, although both his parents urged him not to and tried to persuade him to stay home and lead a comfortable life. Despite his parents' warnings, Robinson left home and joined a ship to London without telling his parents.
On the way to London, the ship encountered a horrible storm and sank. Fortunately, Robinson and the other crewmembers were rescued by another boat. Once on shore, the shipmaster told Robinson to go back home, but he felt compelled to continue his journey and so went to London by land. There, he joined a ship bound for the coast of Africa. Robinson says that this was his only successful voyage: he returned to London safely with a small fortune from trading. The captain of this vessel died, but Robinson joined the ship to go on the same voyage again with a new captain, leaving his money in the care of the old captain's widow.
On this trip, Robinson's ship was taken by pirates and he was taken as a slave to the Moorish port of Sallee. After two years, he finally was able to escape when he went out in a fishing boat with a Moor named Ismael and a young boy named Xury. Out at sea, Robinson pushed Ismael overboard and sailed away with Xury. The two of them went south along the coast of Africa, hoping to encounter a European trading vessel. Along the way, they meet some African natives on the shore, who give them food and water. At last, Robinson and Xury are found by a Portuguese ship, whose captain offers to take Robinson to Brazil for free. The generous captain bought Robinson's small boat from him and brought him safely to Brazil, where he ended up buying some land and starting a sugar plantation. Robinson sold Xury into the service of the captain. As his plantation began to do well, Robinson became overly ambitious and joined some other plantation owners on a voyage to Africa to bring back slaves. The ship encountered a hurricane and the captain wanted to turn back, but Robinson encouraged him to continue the voyage. After this, the ship encountered another strong storm and was wrecked. Robinson tried to escape on a small boat, but was thrown into the sea and washed up onto the shore of an unknown island, the sole survivor of the shipwreck.
The next day, Robinson saw that the wrecked ship was fortunately stranded not far from shore. He was able to swim over to it, climb aboard, and salvage food, drink, and supplies. He built a makeshift raft and brought these things back to shore. After a number of trips to the ship, a storm came and blew away the remains of the ship. Robinson set up a tent on a plateau near a rock cliff and built a fence around it. He continually expanded and improved this dwelling, and built a large wooden cross to mark days on in order to keep track of time. As he got better at making and using tools, Robinson continued to improve his dwelling, surrounding it with a huge turf wall. He began keeping a journal and listed all of the good and bad things about his life on the island. One day, Robinson dumped out some husks of grain and was surprised when, soon after, stalks of rice and barley started to grow from them. He believed this to be a miracle from God, though Robinson's cave dwelling was also severely damaged one day when an earthquake struck the island.
Soon after this, Robinson became seriously ill. He had a fever-dream in which a man came down from the sky and told him, "Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die." Robinson suddenly realized how unreligious he had been. He prayed to God and started to read the Bible, some copies of which he had saved from his ship. Robinson recovered from his illness with a newfound sense of the importance of Christianity. Thinking that he was stuck on the island for good, he explored around the island more, discovering a forested area with various fruit trees, where he built a smaller dwelling in addition to his main one. On the one-year anniversary of his arrival on the island, Robinson fasted and prayed to God. He later sowed some barley and rice and gathered grapes in the forest, which he dried into raisins.
One day, Robinson walked to the opposite side of the island and could see land far off in the distance, across the sea. After much hard work, Robinson figured out how to harvest his grains and make bread and also taught himself to make pottery. With these improvements, Robinson's life on the island became more comfortable. He began to appreciate that his life on the island was free from the wickedness of society, as he had no cause for lust, pride, greed, or covetousness in his new life. He even thought that this new life was better than life in society, and thanked God for how his life had turned out.
Robinson built a canoe in order to sail around the perimeter of his island. However, he was almost pushed dangerously far out to sea by a strong current. After returning to shore, he decided not to venture out onto the water again. In order not to have to waste ammunition on hunting goats, Robinson captured some goats and tamed them, building a fenced-in pen for them.
Robinson was shocked and terrified one day when he saw a man's footprint in the sand on his island's shore. He immediately ran and hid in his home, which he called his castle, thinking the footprint must have been from a savage. However, Robinson didn't see anyone else on the island, so he ventured outside his home again and resumed his usual life, expanding his home's fortifications. While searching for a place to build a new goat-pen, Robinson saw piles of human remains scattered on the shore around a fire pit, the remnants of a cannibalistic gathering. Disgusted, Robinson thought he should ambush the cannibals when they came to the island next and rescue their victims. But then he questioned whether he should let them live their own lives according to their own cultural norms, concluding that he had no right to kill savages who had done nothing to him. Hoping not to run into any savages, Robinson began to lead a much more cautious, careful life around the island.
By his twenty-third year on the island, Robinson felt content to live out the rest of his life on his island. Not long after, there was a great storm and Robinson heard gunshots from a ship in distress. The next day, he saw a ship wrecked on some rocks not far offshore. He hoped one or two sailors had made it safely to his island, but none had. He took his boat out to the ship and went aboard, where he found some supplies, as well as two drowned sailors. This episode made Robinson think more and more about trying to escape from his island. One night, he dreamed that a captive of some cannibal savages escaped and took refuge with him, becoming his servant. Robinson was excited to have someone possibly able to guide him to land, only to wake up and realize he had only been dreaming. But about a year and a half later, Robinson saw a gathering of cannibals, one of whose prisoners escaped and ran toward Robinson's home. Robinson killed the cannibals chasing after the prisoner, thus rescuing him. The prisoner was so grateful that he vowed to serve Robinson for life. Robinson named him Friday and began to teach him English and explain Christianity to him. Robinson learned from Friday that Friday's native land was reachable from the island by boat and that beyond it was a land inhabited by Spaniards. Friday informed Robinson that a boat of Europeans had arrived in his native land and some of them now dwelled among his people. Robinson guessed that these were survivors from the ship that had been wrecked near his island. Robinson suggested that he and Friday make a boat so that Friday could go back to his land, but Friday refused to go without Robinson.
Robinson at last agreed to go with Friday, but these plans were put on hold when a band of cannibals arrived on the island. Robinson saw that they had a European prisoner, and so he and Friday ambushed them, killing the savages and rescuing the prisoner. In one of the savages' boats, they discovered another prisoner, who turned out to be Friday's father. The other prisoner, who was Spanish, told Robinson about how his ship had been wrecked in a storm and he and some other sailors were stranded in Friday's native land. After some time expanding his crops, Robinson sent Friday's father and the Spanish prisoner on a boat back to get the rest of the Spanish sailors, so that they could escape with Robinson on a ship. But before they returned, an English ship came to the island, and some of its sailors came ashore with three prisoners.
Robinson rescued the prisoners, one of whom was the captain of the English ship. The captain told Robinson that he had been the victim of a mutiny and the mutineers planned to leave him on this island to die. Robinson, the captain, and the other rescued prisoners killed two of the mutineers and forced the others to pledge allegiance to the captain again. Later, more of the mutineers came ashore and Robinson and his comrades captured them and demanded their surrender. The captain and his men then went back to the ship and recaptured it on behalf of Robinson. Leaving some mutineers behind on the island, Robinson at last left his island on the English ship. After a long voyage, he finally returned to England (with Friday) after having been away for 35 years.
Robinson felt like a stranger back in society. Both his parents were deceased now and his only family members left were two sisters and two nephews. Robinson traveled to Lisbon to find news of his plantation in Brazil. In Lisbon, the old Portuguese captain who had rescued him told him that his plantation was doing well and helped him send word to Brazil to have his fortune sent back to England (although Robinson originally wanted to voyage to Brazil himself). Robinson received shipments of money, sugar, gold, and tobacco and now found himself immensely wealthy. Robinson was happy to have this fortune, but also felt that he now had more "care upon my head" than when he was on his island. He decided to journey back to England, but didn't want to go by sea and so joined a group of people on a land-journey to Paris (from where he would take a short boat trip to England). Before leaving, he arranged for a large amount of his money to be given to the loyal widow of the Portuguese captain who had looked after his money in England during his absence.
Robinson's group of travelers found a guide to take them across the Pyrenees (the mountains between Spain and France), but the guide ended up taking them along a perilous route where there were many wolves. The group was surrounded by hundreds of wolves and barely escaped, fending the wild creatures off with their guns. Robinson safely got to France and had an uneventful journey from there to England. Once back in England, he settled down, taking care of his two nephews, one of who became a sailor. Robinson had a desire to go back to sea, but stayed in England and got married. After his wife died, though, he joined his nephew on a trading ship to the East Indies.
On this voyage, Robinson revisited his island, where the Spaniards had established a colony and fended off various attacks from Caribbean natives, and then went to Brazil. He tells the reader that he will tell all the details of these adventures more fully in a future account.