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 nothing but boredom in the comforts of the middle class. He longs to go to sea, to follow a way of life that represents the antithesis of his father’s. He seeks the extremes of sensation and danger, preferring to live on the periphery rather than in the middle, where all is secure. Crusoe’s decision to become a sailor is an act of adolescent rebellion, yet it is also very much in the tradition of Puritan individualism. Not content with the wisdom of his class, the young man feels it is necessary to test himself and to discover himself and his own ethic.
Even after the first stage in his adventures, which culminates in Crusoe’s gaining a modest fortune in South America, he refuses to settle down. Intent on his own “inclination,” as he says, he leaves his plantation and once again takes up the uncertain life of sea trade. It is at this point in the narrative that Crusoe is shipwrecked and abandoned on a tropical island without any hope of rescue.
Crusoe’s first response to his isolation and the prospect of living the rest of his life alone is one of despair. He has, however, a strong survival instinct, and courageously he sets about the task of staying alive and eventually of creating a humane, comfortable society. One of the first things he does is to mark time, to make a calendar. Despite all of his efforts to continue his own life and environment, he falls ill, and it is at this point that he realizes his complete vulnerability, his absolute aloneness in the universe. Stripped of all his illusions, limited by necessity to one small place, Crusoe is thrown back upon himself and confronted by an immense emptiness. He asks desperately: “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?”
All of these questions predate Crusoe’s religious conversion, the central and most significant event of the novel. His answer to the questions is that all creation comes from God and that the state of all creation, including his own, is an expression of the will of God. Upon this act of faith he rebuilds not only his own life but also his own miniature society, which reflects in its simplicity, moderation, and comfort the philosophy his father had taught. Furthermore, his faith brings him to an acceptance of his own life and station, an acceptance that he was never able to make before: “I acquiesced in the dispositions of Providence, which I began now to own and to believe ordered everything for the best.” Later, after two years on the island, he says, It is now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming.
Once he is able to answer the overwhelming question of the novel—“Whence are we?”—the rest of the narrative and Crusoe’s adventures justify, to his aristocrat readers, his religious faith and the middle-class Puritan ethic. Apart from this justification, there also remains the glorification of the self-reliant and self-directing man. This was a man unfamiliar to Defoe’s readers, a new man beginning to appear on the fringes of the power structure and about to demand his place in a society that was evolving toward a new political structure that became recognized as middle-class democracy.