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An impressive aspect of DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe is the change Crusoe undergoes. He is first a young man of the comfortable middle class; then a slave; a wealthy man of commerce (and slave owner); next he lives fearfully and alone on a desert island; and finally, he is a man who experiences a true awakening on several levels.
The catalysts for change are his isolation, his survival, and his eventual relationship with a man he saves from death—who he names Friday—a native from a nearby island. This "autobiographical fiction" was written when slavery dominated Europe. We cannot assume that DeFoe's story is meant to challenge the practice of slavery. However, it is difficult to miss Crusoe's changing regard for human beings—as people, not chattel.
Crusoe is a member of the middle class—the son of a retired merchant. The young man's parents plan to send him to school to be a lawyer, but Crusoe runs away to be a sailor.
At the start, Crusoe sees nothing wrong with slavery—but then he is pressed into slavery. Freed, he is deeply saddened by the eventual sale of Xury, the young black man that helped him.
He offer'd me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my Boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor Boy's Liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own.
However, his concern over personal freedom is obviously not challenged enough—Crusoe eventually purchases land and a slave, becoming a successful plantation owner in Brazil. Planters and merchants ask him to sail a ship to Guinea and take on a cargo of slaves for their plantations. Though Crusoe worried over Xury's loss of freedom, he is not concerned about taking the freedom of others at this point.
After Crusoe is stranded on a deserted island for many years, he saves a native about to be sacrificed by others indigenous to the area. Crusoe has been very lonely—wishing another sailor had survived:
O that there had been but one or two; nay, or but one Soul sav'd out of this Ship, to have escap'd to me, that I might but have had one Companion...
Rather than making Friday his slave, Crusoe is satisfied when their relationship is like that of father and son.
...for never Man had a more faithful, loving, sincere Servant, than Friday was to me; without Passions, Sullenness or Designs, perfectly oblig'd and engag'd; his very Affections were ty'd to me, like those of a Child to a Father.
Crusoe sees Friday in a way reminiscent of his fondness for Xury. Crusoe also finds a closer connection with God, an appreciation for the power and plenty of the natural world, and he conquers his fears. He cares about Friday as a person.
When the natives return with another sacrificial victim, Friday and Crusoe save the man. Friday looks into the victim's face and realizes it is his father. Crusoe responds in a deeply caring way...a new Crusoe:
...when Friday came to hear him speak, and look in his Face, it would have mov'd any one to Tears, to have seen how Friday kiss'd him, embrac'd him, hugg'd him, cry'd, laugh'd...
Crusoe finds the value in things that never before mattered. He is a man much more aware of, and compassionate for, others in the world around him—having suffered and been delivered himself. We cannot say with certainty that this was DeFoe's intent—the plot development increased sales of his stories! But it is hard to miss the serious changes in Crusoe.
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