Robinson Crusoe Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Robinson Crusoe: A Guidebook for English Colonialism

Today, the typical reading of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe assumes that the novel is central to the bourgeois myth. However, as Diana Spearman and others have pointed out, the story of a man in isolation for twenty-four years is a strange myth for a class of people dependent on an economic system that requires people to interact with one another through an economic medium.

Instead, Defoe's novel meditates on the redeeming qualities offered by the labor of colonialism for the Englishman. Work was the way to civilize the wilderness of the New World and achieve peace with God. The project of colonialism, as the Puritans were proving at the start of the eighteenth century, provided a profitable way of realizing God's directive in Genesis: "be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it."

Although too old to follow God's directive, Defoe hoped to persuade the English people to engage in the good work. He even shows them how—the Englishman must be ruthless yet reasonable in order to conquer nature and receive God's reward. Defoe's novel encourages England to emulate the Puritans in their success.

He believed that Englishmen were destined to succeed at colonialism if they overcame their fear through the use of their psychological tools: their reason, their work ethic, and their Protestant faith. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe imagines a true-born Englishman fulfilling his fantasy. Throughout the novel, Defoe makes clear that a man's power over himself and nature depends upon ceaseless labor—this is the secret to the colonial project.

Before the colonialist can begin to work, security precautions must be taken. This is Crusoe's first concern. The next phase of conquest is the act of possession.

Both concerns are demonstrated dunng his escape from slavery and his dealings with Xury, who embodies the barbarities of both slavery and Africa. Crusoe has two advantages over the boy, in that he is bigger and he has a gun. In other words, Crusoe's first providential trial is a small contest. He passes and is amply rewarded.

In this first trial, his planning and stealth (both are forms of work) have already provided him with possessions, but Xury's subordination secures his claim to the ownership of the commandeered vessel, the stolen goods, and even Xury himself. This pattern of getting and secunng by force is repeated throughout the novel. The power of the patriarch, however, comes only by the grace of God, and only after vast expenditures of labor.

On the island, Crusoe cannot immediately carry out this model as well as he wishes. He must first master himself The process of mastering himself and his environment takes twenty years, finally culminating when he faces what he believes to be a devil, which turns out to be a dying goat.

During those twenty years, Crusoe illustrates the small steps towards self-sufficiency and self-mastery. His entire scheme of labor and conquest serializes the lesson of patience. Part of this lesson involves a day-to-day manufacture of an organized civilization.

He wants to construct a castle, but he must first "make me some tools." Thus, he recovers as many items of civilization as possible from the wrecked ship. Next, he sets about remaking civilization with those salvaged objects. He constructs a shovel, a table, and a chair. These things prevent him from existing "like a mere savage."

As a civilized man, he makes peace with God and institutes daily readings from the New Testament. From this point on, there are few skills he cannot master with the use of logic and reason, although issues of security and ownership remain unsettled.

The island contains no singular embodiment of nature to be conquered, so instead every element of the island presents a threat. Crusoe vacillates on how to deal with these threats. The first method involves visualization of mastery:

I came to an opening…the country appeared so fresh…it looked like a planted garden…surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure…to...

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The Creation of an Ordered World in Robinson Crusoe

A favourite scene of the illustrators of Robinson Crusoe is Crusoe's discovery of the footprint on the sand. Crusoe can be seen peering downwards in surprise and shock at an oversize and remarkably distinct single footprint, which, when we check the story, oddly enough is still visible several days later. The image remains in the mind, a crystallization of what the book has come to mean to us, the hero in his shaggy goatskins, his isolation, his ever-present danger from unknown cannibals. The footprint scene comes well on in the novel, and its effect belongs as much to what popularity, posterity and Disneyland have done to Crusoe, as to the text itself. For the reader, an image as strong appears earlier: that of Crusoe driven by the earthquake from his refuge in the rock, sitting alone in the storm, outside his palisade. He is, he tells us, "greatly cast down and disconsolate," "very much terrify'd and dejected," and remains in his solitary, defenceless position for upwards of two hours. His wits quite leave him at first, he has no notion of what to do, and it is not until he all of a sudden decides that the wind and the rain which follow the earthquake are the consequence of the earthquake, and it would be safe for him to retreat once more into his cave, that he can make any motion at all. Defoe does not tell us so, but we imagine Crusoe as sitting and shivering, clasping his knees, his head bowed in despair.

Between them the two scenes might serve to epitomize two views of the novel: if the first is our dominant image, we see Robinson Crusoe as the resilient hero of adventure, the man who survived, the man alone, triumphant over not only nature but all outside danger. Giving the second image precedence in our imagination leaves us with a different Crusoe, a solitary, pathetic figure, an outcast, rejected by man and deserted by God. Chronologically, of course, these images need not be contradictory, and we can read the novel as the history of the outcast's triumph, his finding of God, and with God, strength. With this in mind, our memory of Crusoe as an orphan of the storm fades, and the scene of his isolation becomes but a prelude to his inevitable victory. Yet such a reconciliation seems unsatisfactory; the image of isolation is too strong to be forgotten.

The criticism of recent years has forced us to look at Robinson Crusoe with more respect, and has gone a long way to explain the novel's extraordinary force and strength. We know that the book is full of faults, that it is repetitious and often boring, that it is sloppily written by a forgetful author. We are aware that the time scheme is improbable and the end of the novel is tacked on. We are told that Crusoe's life is unrealistic, that he does not seem to suffer from the lack of company, or women, or an adequate diet. We know too that all these things matter very little, since the book has a mythic simplicity, an appeal that owes little to realism and nothing to chronology.

Yet what is the central myth of Robinson Crusoe, what is the one theme that gives the novel its organizing structure and its rationale? Ian Watt, in his familiar thesis of Crusoe as Homo economicus, argued for the novel as a myth of man alone, independent and free, while E.M.W. Tillyard placed the book in the tradition of epic. More recently, J. Paul Hunter has substantially reminded us of the background or religious allegory in the story, with Crusoe as a type of Adam, his sufferings and trials patterned upon the wanderings of the children of Israel. These views are well known, and each is necessary to an understanding of the novel: Crusoe is economic man, the hero of epic, and a reluctant pilgrim; he is all of these and more. Yet in thinking of him as a type we neglect his humanity, we forget how close he stands to ourselves. An article by Eric Berne on the psychology of the novel suggests a way of adjusting our perspective, in drawing attention to the man himself. Berne argues that Crusoe's behaviour on the island is motivated by his need to explore and secure the space around him, and in this Crusoe is at least partially successful. What is important about Berne's argument is not its conclusion—as a Freudian he sees Crusoe as something of a neurotic, the victim of an oral fixation—but his realization that the hero's conquest of the outer space of the island parallels the exploration of the inner space of the self.

I propose to look at this dual exploration from an archetypal viewpoint. Crusoe's quest is to find himself, a quest, both extraordinary and commonplace, heroic and human. He is the exceptional man, yet one of us, no neurotic, but a man undergoing the archetypal crises of life. Our response to him is one of sympathy, understanding and immediate recognition of his situation. Robinson Crusoe, I will argue, is a novel about order, both physical and psychic, and the establishment of this order is its dominant myth.

The island is Crusoe's microcosm; it contains the extreme conditions he must learn to cope with, the dangers and the delights, both around him and within his own self. On the island he learns to progress from spiritual ignorance to psychic integration. In the middle of the storm after the earthquake, we see him at perhaps his lowest point. He has survived his shipwreck, he has overcome his first fears of savages and wild animals, and he has laboriously salvaged innumerable articles from the hulk on the rocks. He has begun his system of fortification, erecting a semi-circular palisade of stakes around the face of a wall of rock, and he has tunnelled out his cave from this rock. Just before this point in the story, he seems to be well on his way to establishing himself in safety and some measure of repose, since he has seen his first miracle, the first sign of God's hand, in the discovery of the stalks of barley. Then comes the earthquake, which finds him inside his cave. His first action is to escape into the open, and he does this instinctively, being afterwards "like one dead or stupi-fy'd." His first fear is of being buried himself, his next, that his tent and all his goods will be buried even if he is not. When the storm is over and he has had time to consider, he finds himself subject to two equal fears: one, of being swallowed up alive, the other, of being in the open, of "lying abroad without any fence."

Seeing the novel as a record of the hero's establishment of some kind of psychic order within his personality, this scene takes on a powerful meaning. We remember that Crusoe has been buried before: when he is shipwrecked we are told that the wave swallowed him up, and "buried me
at once 20 or 30 Foot deep in its own Body." Now, he again lives in fear of "being swallow'd up alive." His battle with Nature is cosmic; she seems a most terrifying and powerful force, ready to devour her unfortunate child. We remember that Crusoe is a Jonah, and that Leviathan lurks in the waves, even that he is a type of Christ, and must needs descend into the dark jaws of Hell before he can be reborn. With these mythic and allegorical parallels in our minds, we can see this earthquake scene as a second beginning, a thrusting out from the womb-like cave into the open world. Until Crusoe has become aware of his defencelessness he cannot (like Jonah) begin the ordering of his life.

One of the peculiarities of the beginning of the novel is the nature of Crusoe's sin. He tells us repeatedly that he is a sinner, and that his sin is filial disobedience. He is guilty not only for his refusal to obey his father, but also because he has resisted the will of God, who gives him clear signs that he should never go to sea. Yet in spite of these explanations, we sense that Crusoe's actual sin is only important as a rationalization, and that he is a victim of an unrelenting fate. His father's constant advice is that he should seek the "middle state," for the golden mean brings man's only chance of earthly happiness. This is "the just Standard of true Felicity," and it can only be Crusoe's "meer Fate or Fault" that stirs him to wander, for he is by no means content with this middle state, either in England or later on his plantation in Brazil, but must explore the extreme. This indeed is the eternal fate of the hero. Crusoe has been singled out, chosen for testing by Providence, and we can have no reluctance to accepting his claim to be the Wanderer; being someone very special, he becomes a surrogate for ourselves. As a story of crime and punishment, Robinson Crusoe is incomprehensible; as a record of an individual's struggle to accept the responsibilities of the heroic role, to go to limit of self and return sane, the novel is in the mythic tradition. Crusoe cannot reach an equilibrium until he has both discovered and come to an accommodation with the world of extremes. This world is both around him and within him, both in his conscious and his unconscious self.

What emerges from the first part of the story is the inevitability of Crusoe's role as wanderer, a man driven by Providence towards some critical moment. That this moment is not just retribution, nor yet another adventure, but a meeting with God and Self, is central to any thematic reading of the novel. Crusoe's God is of course an external power, controlling the elemental forces, showing Himself to Crusoe through the sea, the storm, the earthquake and nature, but He is at the same time within Crusoe, manifesting Himself in his thoughts and his dreams, directing his soul through secret stirrings. It does no historical injustice to the novel to see in this communication with God Crusoe's exploration of his psyche, and in particular, to recognize, in the gradual freeing of Crusoe's soul, his acceptance of his unconscious.

It is when he becomes sick with an ague that Crusoe has his first real experience of God and makes his first prayer In the middle of his sickness he has a dream, in which "I thought, that I was sitting on the Ground on the Outside of my Wall, where I sat when the Storm blew after the Earthquake" when he sees a man descend from "a great black Cloud, in a bright Flame of Fire." This apparition seems unspeakable to Crusoe as it moves forward towards him with a "long Spear or Weapon" in its hand to kill him, and he is terrified when the figure speaks:

I heard a Voice so terrible, that it is impossible to express the Terror of it; all that I can say, I understood, was this, Seeing all these Things have not brought thee to Repent, now thou shalt die. At which Words, I thought he lifted up the Spear that was in his Hand, to kill me.

Crusoe wakes filled with the horrors of this terrible vision.

This is clearly intended to be a symbolic conversation, the moment when Crusoe's Saul becomes Paul. The image of Crusoe's absolute isolation after the earthquake is repeated at the beginning of the dream: the two events in a sense are but one episode, when Crusoe is forced to reach down into his inner depths and find accommodation with his worst fears. In his half-conscious reflections upon his moral depravity immediately after his dream he casts his eye over his whole sinful life and comes to a true realization of his utter helplessness:

now I have Difficulties to struggle with, too great even for Nature itself to support, and no Assistance, no Help, no Comfort, no Advice; then I cry'd out, Lord be my Help, for I am in great Distress.

From this point on his spiritual cure is hardly in doubt. Looking for tobacco as medicine for his sickness, he finds a Bible; looking in the Bible he finds guidance from the word of God. He is led to reconsider his past life, and given hope for the future. He comes to understand that from being...

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Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe

Although Defoe claimed in the Serious Reflections that Robinson Crusoe was in part an allegory of his own life, attempts to connect details in the book with specific experiences in the life of Defoe have not been found convincing. Complicated as the connection is between Defoe's life and his works, I believe that the claim may yet be found valid if we look at the book as a symbolic account of a spiritual experience rather than a kind of cipher of its author's life. It is quite possible that the symbolism is by no means a part of Defoe's intention; as his imagination warmed to its task, the story began to take on its symbolic overtones, and his later comment is merely an attempt to defend himself against the charges...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)