In Robinson Crusoe, the title character recounts his life and adventures, starting from his youth in York, a city in the north of England. There, young Crusoe grows up in a comfortable middle-class family. His father cautions him against aspiring for more, declaring the "middle state" of life to be the best state, a situation that is "the most suited to human happiness." However, motivated by sheer restlessness, Crusoe disregards his father's advice and joins a sea voyage to London, from whence he hopes to travel farther. Throughout the novel, Crusoe seems to be running from something rather than being actively drawn toward something new.
After Crusoe survives seasickness and one storm, the ship encounters a second storm and founders. The captain and crew, including Crusoe, barely escape with their lives. Undeterred, Crusoe proceeds to London where he signs up for another voyage, this time to Africa. After a successful voyage, Crusoe makes enough money in trade to set himself up as a merchant. He might have continued on this path in London, but he opts to take another voyage to Africa. This time, pirates capture the ship and enslave Crusoe.
Enlisting the help of a fellow slave, a boy named Xury, Crusoe escapes when his master sends them out on a fishing trip. Crusoe and Xury steal the boat and sail south along the west African coast where they encounter wild animals and native tribes that both frighten and fascinate them. Near Cape Verde, a Portuguese ship rescues them, and the captain agrees to take them with him to Brazil.
Once in Brazil, the Portuguese captain buys Crusoe's boat and offers to buy Xury as well. After consulting with Xury, Crusoe agrees to the captain's offer on the condition that the captain will free Xury in 10 years if he becomes a Christian. Crusoe uses his money to buy a small plantation and spends the next four years there before sailing back to Africa to buy slaves to expand his own plantation and those of his neighbors.
During the voyage, a storm overwhelms Crusoe's ship, and it founders near an island in the southern Caribbean. Only Robinson Crusoe, a dog, and two cats survive; Crusoe finds himself on an island where he will live for the next 28 years. During his years on the island, Crusoe lives out the progress of human history. He begins by sleeping in a tree, and then moves into a cave that he enlarges, fortifies, and expands. He makes his own tools, builds furniture, makes his own clothes, plants corn and rice, and domesticates wild goats. During his explorations, he discovers a valley with fruit trees and builds a second settlement there. For the bulk of his time on the island, Crusoe's only companions are his pets: the dog, cats, and later, goats and a few domesticated parrots.
Early in his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes terribly sick and almost dies. During his fever he dreams that God intends to kill him, a frightening vision that spurs him to a religious conversion that guides his thoughts and actions for the rest of his life. He believes he did wrong by disobeying his father's wishes and that the sufferings of his past and his confinement on the island are God's punishment. At the same time, he feels grateful for being saved and for the bounties the island provides.
For more than half his time on the island, Crusoe encounters no other humans, but this changes when he spots a human footprint in the sand. The mystery of the footprint and the fear of being discovered by natives whom he believes are cannibals occupy his thoughts. He does not see the natives until his 23rd year when he spots them around a fire. His worst fears are confirmed when he finds human remains among the ashes they leave behind.
A year later, Crusoe encounters more natives with prisoners they plan to kill and eat. Crusoe helps one of the prisoners escape. He names him Friday and teaches him English and Christianity. The next year, Crusoe and Friday rescue two more prisoners, a Spanish sailor and Friday's father. The sailor is part of a Spanish crew whose ship was wrecked and who reside alongside Friday's tribe on a larger island nearby. Together, the Spaniard and Crusoe devise a plan to bring the rest of the Spaniards to the island and, from there, escape back to civilization.
After Crusoe sends the Spaniard and Friday's father back to the mainland for the others, an English ship appears. The crew brings three prisoners to the island whom Crusoe and Friday rescue. One is the ship's captain who explains he has been the victim of a mutiny. Crusoe and Friday help overthrow the mutiny, and the captain agrees to take them back to England. Some of the English mutineers are left behind on the island.
Back in England, Crusoe learns that his father has died and that his own fortunes are diminished. A visit to Lisbon reunites him with the Portuguese captain, who informs him that his plantation in Brazil has been very prosperous. Crusoe sells the plantation and becomes a wealthy man. He settles in England for several years, long enough to marry and have children, but he eventually returns to his island where he finds that the Spanish sailors, English mutineers, and some of the natives have established a colony. He hints at further adventures during this voyage back to the East Indies and promises to detail them in another story.