To keep track of time, Robinson constructed a large wooden cross that he mounted on the shore and cut notches into it to mark each day. Along with his more practical supplies, Robinson had taken some pens, paper, books, and Bibles from the ship. In addition, he had brought the ship's dog and two cats back to shore with him.
While completely cut off from society, Robinson still keeps track of the months and days of the year—he brings society with him to the island in this way. His only companions on the island are the cats and dog from the ship.
Robinson says that it was nearly a year before he finished building his dwelling, because he lacked all the proper tools. Seeking to ease his mind, Robinson wrote down in two separate columns all the bad and good things about his current condition.
Robinson has to build all the things he needs himself. He must become truly self-sufficient on his island.
In the "evil" column, he listed the facts that he was alone with no one to speak to, was stranded on a desolate island, had no clothes, and had no method of defense against men or beasts. In the "good" column, Robinson listed that he was alive, not drowned, not starved, with provisions, and not in danger from any wild animals as far as he could tell.
Robinson set about enlarging the cave behind his tent and making his fence into more of a wall. He says that he had never used tools before in his life, but quickly learned by doing and was able to make a table and chair. Robinson also began keeping a journal, which he was too busy and distraught to do earlier.
While inexperienced with tools, Robinson learns by doing, and eventually teaches himself how to use them, rather than relying on another person's instructions.
Robinson then gives the reader the text of his journal, which chronicles his time on the island up to the time he ran out of ink. The first entry of the journal describes his shipwreck and being stranded upon what he has chosen to call the "Island of Despair." The journal narrates how Robinson went to the ship and took provisions from it until the storm blew away the ship's remains.
Robinson's journal allows him to reflect on his past with some of the benefit of hindsight (as his role as the novel's narrator also does). Writing in the journal can also be seen as a kind of substitute for a companion: since Robinson has no one to tell his story to, he writes it down—he tells it to himself.
The journal continues to narrate the events Robinson has just told the reader about: how he moved his things to the plateau under the rock wall and built his dwelling, how he hunted, and how he built things he needed like a chair.
The journal narrates Robinson's resourceful, self-sufficient life on the island by himself.
Robinson made a makeshift pickaxe from some iron he salvaged from his ship and used the wood from a particularly strong tree he found to make a kind of shovel, but he was in need of a wheelbarrow. He then got to work deepening the cave he was carving out behind his tent, which he had connected to the tent.
Robinson makes his own tools in order to improve his dwelling. Living alone has made him into a more skilled, capable person.
Just as Robinson felt that his cave was complete, part of it collapsed and the earth above it fell in. Robinson was fortunately not in this part of the cave when it collapsed and he set about clearing the fallen earth and propping up his cave's roof with posts. He continued hunting for food and organizing his things on shelves in the cave.
Like the sea with its storms, the island is an unpredictable, mostly unknown feature of nature. The coincidence of the cave collapsing just as Robinson was finished with his work can be seen as divinely willed.
While hunting goats, Robinson crippled one and took it back to his dwelling, where he put the animal's leg in a splint. The goat healed but was now tamed and would not leave Robinson's home. By now it was January, and Robinson worked to enlarge the wall surrounding his dwelling. He built a huge turf wall around this wall, so that if anyone came upon the island he wouldn't see Robinson's tent.
The goat is another animal companion for the lonely Robinson. While he laments the fact that he is separated from society, he continues to construct more and more elaborate fortifications around his dwelling, isolating himself more and more even on the island.
Digressing from his journal entries, Robinson describes how he looking in a bag of grain and found that it had been eaten by rats and all that was left was husks. He dumped the husks out on the ground outside his dwelling and was shocked soon after to see stalks of rice and barley growing there. Robinson was convinced that this was a miracle from God.
Returning to the journal, in April Robinson finished making a ladder to climb over his wall (which he would take with him inside when he went into his dwelling. But the very next day, a huge amount of earth fell down the rock cliff, caving in Robinson's cave-dwelling. Robinson fled his dwelling and climbed over his wall when he realized that the landslide was being caused by an earthquake.
Like the earlier collapse of Robinson's cave, the earthquake is both an unpredictable natural disaster in the face of which Robinson has to survive by himself and perhaps an instrument of God's will.
Robinson was terrified but notes that he "had not the least serious religious thought," during the whole earthquake. After the earthquake, a violent storm forced Robinson to go back into the cave, though he feared it would collapse. He realized then that he would need to build a new dwelling, since the cave was unsafe in the event of an earthquake.
While Robinson was quick to thank God for the miracle of his crops, he still does not pray to God in distress at this point. This will change when he more fully devotes himself to Christianity.
Robinson planned to construct a wall similar to the one he already had elsewhere, in an open area safer from earthquakes, but not to move his tent until this new area was ready. As April ended, Robinson fashioned and readied his tools for this new construction project.
Robinson prepares to construct another dwelling all by himself, relying only on his own tools and labor.
However, Robinson put this project on hold because he noticed on May 1 that the wreckage of his old shipped had been washed ashore in the earthquake and subsequent storm. He set to work salvaging wood and other parts from the wreck during all of May and until June 15.
Just as his ship had been providentially stranded close to shore, now its remains fortunately wash ashore, giving Robinson more supplies.
Robinson found a turtle on the shore, cooked it, and ate it. Soon after, he became very sick with a fever and was ill for about a week. He began to feel better and ate some goat, but then felt horribly sick and prayed to God to get better.
Robinson prays to God, but at this point—before his repentance—has not thought deeply about his own sin or his duty to God.
Dehydrated and feverous, Robinson had a dream that he was sitting outside his walled dwelling during an earthquake. A storm grew and a man came down from a black cloud "in a bright flame of fire," and stepped on the earth. The man came toward Robinson with a weapon and said, "Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die."
Robinson's terrifying dream causes him to reflect on his religious thoughts. The mysterious figure refers to all of Robinson's sufferings ("all these things,") as brought about to bring Robinson to repentance.
Robinson admits that he had not had religious thoughts for some time and it had never even crossed his mind that his predicament was a divine punishment for his sins. Even when he made it safely to land after his shipwreck and thanked God, he did not reflect at all "upon the goodness of the hand which had preserved me."
Robinson realizes the shallowness of his former beliefs. While he thanked God occasionally, he did not think deeply about God or see his life as dictated by God's will.
Robinson cried and prayed, remembering his father's warning that God would not bless him if he went to sea. He lamented that he had neglected God and "rejected the voice of Providence," which has given him a comfortable life.
The next day, Robinson felt slightly better but assumed that he would be sick again that night. Walking around, he began thinking about God and concluded that God must have willed for him to end up here, as punishment for his "dreadful misspent life." In a chest salvaged from the ship, Robinson found some tobacco and a Bible. He boiled some tobacco and read the Bible, stumbling upon the phrase, "Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me."
As Robinson turns fully to Christianity, he comes to perceive his being shipwrecked as divinely ordained punishment for his previous behavior. Nonetheless, the biblical verse he finds also introduces the possibility of divinely willed deliverance from his suffering, foreshadowing that while his mistakes have brought him to the island the island will be the means of his redemption.
Robinson drank some of the tobacco-water (mixed with rum) and fell asleep. For the first time, he prayed to God before going to sleep. He slept for an entire day and when he woke up he was amazed to feel healthy and refreshed. He gradually recovered from his illness and thanked God.
This marks a turning point in Robinson's religious thinking. He truly prays for the first time, recovers, and is now completely devoted to Christianity.
Starting July 4, Robinson began to read the Bible seriously. He reflected on his earlier wicked life, repented, and prayed earnestly to God. Robinson notes that his idea of "deliverance" changed, as he now prayed to be delivered from his former sin and guilt, not necessarily from his situation on the island.
Having been on the island for ten months, Robinson was sure that he would never be rescued from it, and also sure that he was completely alone on the island. He decided to explore the island more fully, finding tobacco and sugar plants, as well as a forested area with various fruit trees.
Beginning to accept his new solitary life, Robinson sets out to explore the wilderness of his largely unknown island.
Robinson tried to bring some fruit back to his home, but most of it spoiled or got bruised on the way back. He considered moving his dwelling to the forested, fruitful part of the island. However, he decided it was better to stay at his current dwelling, in view of the ocean. Nonetheless, he built a smaller dwelling in the forest, where he would occasionally stay.
While Robinson is becoming more comfortable with his solitary life, he still does not want to move his main dwelling from within view of the ocean, so he can see if any ships come to the island.
Robinson dried a great quantity of grapes he found, so that he had a large supply of raisins that would keep during the upcoming season. Robinson mentions that at this point, one of the cats he had brought from the ship, which had run away, returned to him with three kittens. Before long, Robinson was "so pestered with cats," that he had to kill them and drive them away from his home.
The wilderness of the island, which Robinson at first feared, again supplies him with food. Robinson's only companions are his animals, including the cats who pester him. The cats appear to be "civilizing" the island themselves.
After a period of incessant rain, Robinson realized that it was the one year anniversary of his arrival on the island. He spent the day fasting and praying to God. After this, he decided to keep track of weeks as well as days and to observe the Sabbath. He learned to expect the rainy and dry seasons, though he notes, "I bought all my experience before I had it."
Robinson's day of fasting shows his newfound devotion to Christianity. He notes that all of the knowledge he has gained has been earned ("bought") by making mistakes and learning along the way. Note how he now tracks the days in order to observe the Sabbath.
Robinson tried sowing some barley and rice, but after planting a great quantity of it, there was a dry spell and nothing grew. He tried again later, in a different spot, and with the help of some rainy weather his crops grew. From this, he learned when and how to sow his grains.
Again, Robinson learns by doing. Only after making the mistake of sowing some barley and rice in the wrong location does he realize how to grow his crops effectively.
Returning after some time to his small dwelling in the forest, Robinson found that some of the stakes that he had cut from trees to use in a fence had sprouted and grown into small trees. He cut more of these stakes and planted them around his first dwelling on the plateau, in order to grow a hedge that would cover and protect his home.
Robinson continues to cover and fortify his dwellings on the island, in a sense isolating himself even further isolating, walling himself off from the world. He continues to fear the unknown.