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How is the tension between individual and society treated in Daniel Defoe's Robinson...

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flothenerd | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:48 PM via web

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How is the tension between individual and society treated in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe?

I read that Pride and Prejudice is more typical of neoclassicism as its protagonist is rather a whole society instead of a self-reliant individual. That's why I'd like to know how this tension between individual and society is treated (or what role society plays) in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted May 4, 2011 at 5:21 AM (Answer #1)

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I don't know that I can agree with the idea that society is the protagonist in Pride and Prejudice and not the "self-reliant" individual. I think that Elizabeth is the protagonist, and she is, in many ways an extremely self-reliant woman, much to the chagrin and annoyance of other characters in the story.

Regardless of this, however, is the concept of man (or woman) vs society, a common conflict in both Pride and Prejudice and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

When Robinson Crusoe begins, Crusoe wants to leave his life in England and travel the world because of a need for adventure. His parents will not give their blessing, first because they have lost another son to this desire when he was killed in battle; second, because there is no need. Crusoe's father assures his son that he has the best possible life because he is not hampered by poverty or riches. He exists in the "middle state," one that kings envy because of the lack of hardships in that kind of life.

Crusoe refuses to abide by the wishes of his parents, and departs for a life of adventure anyway. One source states that Crusoe has committed a sin in leaving the place where God and nature had put him (in England) to pursue a life he was not born to. His "original sin" lies in his refusal to adopt a "conventional" life:

...refuse[ing] to be 'satisfied with the station wherein God and Nature hath placed' him.

Although Crusoe is ultimately stranded alone on an island, his need for society is what keeps him sane. By living his life as closely to the manner in which he would in England, Crusoe manages to bring "civilization" to the island.

Crusoe struggles to maintain reason, order, and civilization.

Seemingly, English society expected that a man should face his fears, and do what he must to conquer nature and make it his realm. When Crusoe finally does this, order is in place and Crusoe's quality of life is improved.

Once Crusoe is able to overcome his fear and subdue nature, he is rewarded handsomely.

As noted previously, Crusoe's society expects that he should have followed the plan based upon the place in life allocated for him by God and Nature. In light of this, we find that Crusoe also experiences a religious conversion when he becomes extremely ill: he is alone on the island and believes that he comes close to dying. His faith in God is awakened and he begins to acknowledge God's power in his own survival. This is also his choice to adhere to societal expectations of the time.

This was the first time I could say, in the true sense of the words, that I prayed in all my life; for now I prayed with a sense of my condition, and a true Scripture view of hope, founded on the encouragement of the Word of God; and from this time, I may say, I began to hope that God would hear me.

It would seem that the character of Crusoe is rewarded when he acts in accordance with the expectations of society, God and nature. When he defies any of these, he is "punished." Even Crusoe's behavior with—and treatment of—Friday ("saving his soul"), shows his faithful dedication to the expectations of English society: conforming to the expectations of society, even on a deserted island, allow Crusoe to survive his thirty-five year ordeal, returning home eventually to resume his life in England, even marrying and having children.

The message in this novel seems clear: he who conforms with society is rewarded. He who does not, is punished—only to be saved if he changes the way he lives.

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