The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself, as Daniel Defoe entitled his novel, is read as eagerly today as it was when it was first published. An exotic novel of travel and adventure, Robinson Crusoe functions primarily as Defoe’s defense of his bourgeois Protestantism. Crusoe’s adventures—the shipwrecks, his life as a planter in South America, and his years of isolation on the island—provide an apt context for his polemic. A political dissenter and pamphleteer, Defoe saw as his enemies the Tory aristocrats whose royalism in government and religion blocked the aspirations of the middle class. Like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Defoe in this novel presents a religiously and politically corrupt England. Both authors were intent on bringing about a moral revolution, and each uses his hero as an exemplum. Gulliver, however, represents a moral failure, whereas Crusoe’s adventures reveal his spiritual conversion, a return to the ethics and religion of his father. As one critic has said of Robinson Crusoe: We read it . . . to follow with meticulous interest and constant self-identification the hero’s success in building up, step by step, out of whatever material came to hand, a physical and moral replica of the world he had left behind him. If Robinson Crusoe is an adventure story, it is also a moral tale, a commercial accounting and a Puritan fable.
Significantly, Crusoe’s origins are in northern England, in York, where he was born in the early part of the seventeenth century and where his father had made a fortune in trade. He belongs to the solid middle class, the class that was gaining political power during the early eighteenth century, when Defoe published his book. Crusoe’s father is an apologist for the mercantile, Puritan ethic, which he tries without success to instill in his son. As Crusoe says, “Mine was the middle state,” which his father had found by long experience was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanick part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind.
Its virtues and blessings were those of “temperance, moderation, quietness, health [and] society.”
His father’s philosophy, which is designed to buy a man happiness and pleasure in both this life and the next, nevertheless fails to persuade the young Crusoe, who finds...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)
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