Robinson Crusoe: Shipwreck nightmare or individualist’s paradise?

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make…before I started reading Robinson Crusoe, I may or may not have thought that that was the book that inspired the Tom Hanks film, Castaway. Oh, how wrong I was.

Robinson Crusoe is the story of a man who, in short, ends up on a deserted island for about 30 years and talks about goats a lot. Like a lot. Oh also throw a few cannibals in there and man with the same name as a Rebecca Black song, and you’re pretty much done. Or at least that’s what a quick skim read of the novel, and it’s relatively straightforward, matter-of-fact tone tells you.

Daniel Defoe, just like this novel, was also a lot more interesting than one would expect. In fact, his novels (Roxana or Colonel Jack  to name a couple) are far outnumbered by his radical political writings, which in turn are overshadowed by his prison sentences, trading occupation and his flamboyance – Ian Watt, in his famous work The Rise of the Novel, magnificently called him ‘an egregious spiv and a slave to bling’.

‘The hurry of my Thoughts being over, my Fears and Apprehensions of being swallow’d up by the Sea forgotten, the Current of my former Desires return’d….’

For a long time, Defoe had been on the peripheries of literary criticism and it is only in the last 100 years or so that a greater focus has been placed upon his writing, in part down to Watt’s influential The Rise of the Novel.  Paraphrased to a mere plot summary, Robinson Crusoe appears to fall into the typical Puritan narrative arc for prose writing in the eighteenth century, where the central character would, having had a sinful past, be expected to endure a trial of some sort in which he or she would realise the error of their ways, repent and be forgiven as the resolution of the plot. To an  extent, the character of Robinson Crusoe does indeed experience these stages of progression; he sins by defying the wishes of his family and travelling, ‘drown[ing] all my Repentance’, and is consequently put to trial by being washed up on the island, where he finds comfort from his desolate situation in the Bible.  Yet, despite this seemingly overt religious message, Crusoe’s religious fervour appears only in brief glimpses in the novel in contrast to its otherwise plain and secular style – indeed, a closer reading into Defoe’s style rewards an insight into the narrative’s complexity that separates Robinson Crusoe apart from the prose writings of the era. For underlying this adventure tale is a developed understanding of the period’s obsession with improvement, its growing inclination towards a more individualised culture and its anxiety over the nation’s cultural values.

Alone on the island, Crusoe is completely liberated from any form of cultural, economic or religious obligations that he may once have felt in England, but these seem inextricable from his identity; for example, when he returns to the boat to salvage some cargo, he spots some money and proudly declares: ‘”Oh drug!” said I aloud, “what art thou good for? I have no manner of use for thee: even remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saving. However, upon second thoughts, I took it away’. Here, Defoe’s dual narrative is exemplified – the reader can see for themselves Crusoe’s bold declarations which are undercut by his actions, the irony plainly but effectively pointed out by the nonchalant ‘However’.

“Give me Repentance!”

There is often a discrepancy between what Crusoe says and what he does at points in the novel which provide an opportunity for a discerning reader to understand the inability to rely on any one of Crusoe’s principles or beliefs. Once he is washed up he ‘walk’d about on Shore, lifting up my Hands, and my whole Being,…wrapt up in contemplation of my Deliverance’ but at another point, his ‘religious Thankfulness to God began to abate’ as he realises that the corn growing later on in the novel, what he perceived to be a miracle, was simply a result of one of his own actions earlier on. As Watt argues, Crusoe seems to personalise his belief in religion according to what is most convenient for him at the time, creating a very individualist creed that ultimately undermines the argument that Crusoe’s experience on the island can be seen as a religious conversion. Even at Crusoe’s most fervently religious moment, when he shouts ‘”Give me Repentance!”…now I prayed with a sense of my condition and a true scripture view of hope…and from this time, may I say, I began to hope that God would hear me’. Whilst he states that he now has a ‘true scripture view of hope’, his actions do little to prove this – all he does is demand repentance and that God will listen to him, rather than fully understanding and listening to what God has to say to him in the Bible.

“the whole country was my own mere property; so that I had undoubted right of dominion….”

Towards the end of the novel, Crusoe summaries, ‘And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure…beginning foolishly, but closing much more happily than any part of it ever gave me leave so much as to hope for’. In a religious context, this quotation appears to exemplify the Puritan narrative arc that was so popular at the time – having sinned, ‘beginning foolishly’, the main character repents and is forgiven so that the book can close ‘much more happily’. In fact, however, this sentence comes just after Crusoe states how much money he has earned from the properties he has been away from for the past thirty years! The way that his religious journey is glossed over very lightly at the end, and his financial gains are emphasised far more makes it difficult to argue that a religious experience is what this novel is about.

Instead, it seems that even on this remote island, economics is key.Whilst Crusoe does find (arguably superficial) solace by reading the Bible in his times of trouble, that’s not what helps him last thirty years on the island. I would argue that it is his assertion of power, over the island, Friday and the other inhabitants he encounters, that allows him to survive and, to an extent, thrive. Crusoe is no evangelist; the way he sells Xury, the contracts he makes the other inhabitants on the island sign giving him complete power, the pleasure of his financial gains at the end of the novel all highlight Crusoe’s inherent capitalist individualism – even his belief in Christianity is adapted for his convenience. Rather than a criticism on his character, the novel highlights the major anxieties and tensions of the period, and its capitalist and individualist undertones resound in our ever increasing consumerist society today.

Not Robinson Crusoe, but still a babe.
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