illustration of a man standing on an island and looking out at the ocean with the title Robison Crusoe written in the sky

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe
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What are the impacts of nature on Robinson Crusoe?

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Nature is important in the novel because it controls Robinson Crusoe despite his best efforts but also inspires as well as challenges him. Crusoe’s journey of self-discovery occurs entirely through his association with nature, until the point when the man he calls Friday arrives. The fundamental conflict in the novel is thus both external, of human versus nature, and internal, of a person versus himself. It is only when Crusoe realizes that he cannot control nature that he can begin to accept the conditions of his existence on the island and thereby come to terms with the true meaning of survival. He learns to be grateful for the bounty of nature—or the gifts that God has bestowed—that accrue to him. Crusoe’s pride in his own skill must give way to humility and acceptance of his limitations.

When Crusoe is cast ashore alone, he expends considerable energy removing everything useful. He proudly explains how this hard work pays off but also notes the “abundance of fowl” that may sustain him. Nature’s power is shown not only in the initial storm that blows the ship onto the rocks, but in the second gale that leaves him truly alone.

[T]he wind rose very hastily, and before it was quite high water it blew a storm…. It blew very hard all night, and in the morning, when I looked out, behold, no more ship was to be seen!

Crusoe continues industriously applying himself to making a viable shelter and camp, not knowing if he will ever be rescued. As he writes, it was only after he fell ill that he began to realize that his own efforts were of limited benefit in this difficult situation. He has an epiphany, as the fever wears off, that he is but another element of the earth, sea, and all the other creatures; he must be thankful to God for everything around him. This change of perspective is indicated by the “calm and smooth” sea he contemplates.

As I sat here some such thoughts as these occurred to me: What is this earth and sea, of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced? And what am I, and all the other creatures wild and tame, human and brutal? Whence are we? Sure we are all made by some secret Power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky. And who is that? Then it followed most naturally, it is God that has made all.

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Robinson Crusoe takes nature largely for granted. His island home provides everything he could possibly need—the materials for constructing shelter, fresh water, and an abundant food supply. Nature is an object for Crusoe; it has no existence in its own right; it is something to be controlled and exploited for man's benefit. In this sense, Crusoe is very much a man of the Enlightenment. Under the Enlightenment's prevailing philosophy, the natural world has been robbed of its sacredness: it is no longer a space in which divine revelation occurs, and it is a resource which man uses to satisfy his own worldly ends.

Crusoe's attitude changes dramatically after a terrifying dream in which he is about to be attacked by what appears to be an angel of death. The nightmare shakes him out of his complacency and arrogance, making him realize that the bounties of nature of which he makes such prodigal use have been provided for him by a benevolent, loving God and must never be taken for granted.

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Nature in Robinson Crusoe does not have an adverse physical impact on Crusoe: he quickly realizes after being stranded on the deserted island that he will need goods from the damaged ship, and  he manages to obtain these. He retrieves tools, builds a shelter, and plants crops. He has a goat, and also has taken bullets and gunpowder from the ship so that he can hunt. Crusoe makes a prudent conquest of the island's resources, in particular, exploiting a favorable climate and ample, arable land. The island is a veritable Eden. Crusoe records:

I found different fruits, and particularly I found melons upon the ground, in great abundance, and grapes upon the trees. The vines had spread, indeed, over the trees, and the clusters of grapes were just now in their prime, very ripe and rich. This was a surprising discovery, and I was exceeding glad of them.

Crusoe dines on turtle's eggs, builds a bower, encloses nature by building fences, dries his grapes into raisins, and overall, lives very well. 

Animals are a part of nature, and at the 2017 College English Association conference scholar Alan Chalmers discussed how animal studies in English literature have recently led to a reexamination of Crusoe's relationship with animals. 

According to Chalmers, Defoe offers complex and sympathetic reactions to animals. In Crusoe, animal and human relationships are crucial, Chalmers says. Crusoe himself enters into relationship with animals, needing them for companionship in his isolated situation, but he also establishes an animal hierarchy based on utility.

     For Crusoe, compassion and empathy come into conflict with his desire to exploit the animals. For Crusoe, exploitation wins. 

In the end, Crusoe sees the natural world, both plants and animals, as existing for his use and benefit. Nevertheless, Crusoe's moral development benefits from his years of solitude in nature. 

 

 

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Nature, as personified by the deserted island, is not seen as a separate character in the novel but instead as a pure setting. As a setting, nature does not present much of an obstacles to Crusoe, as the island is fertile, populated by many animals, and contains several stands of edible plants such as wheat and corn. In this fashion, Crusoe is not so much carving his place in the wild out as he is simply taking advantage of the existing benefits.

The main impact of nature is the solitude and its effects on Crusoe. While he spends most of his time working on survival, he does wish for a companion, and barely mentions his animals, which obviously do not provide much companionship. His appreciation of nature comes more from his eventual realization that he has been immensely lucky; without the animal and plant life on the island, his survival would have been far harder.

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