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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Ian Watt (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7286

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe, Individualism and the Novel," in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 60–92.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1957 and reprinted in 1962, Watt discusses the influences of capitalism and Protestantism on the rise of the individual and explores how Robinson Crusoe embodies economic individualism in his quest to better himself through seeking profit.]

The novel's serious concern with the daily lives of ordinary people seems to depend upon two important general conditions: the society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature; and there must be enough variety of belief and action among ordinary people for a detailed account of them to be of interest to other ordinary people, the readers of novels. It is probable that neither of these conditions for the existence of the novel obtained very widely until fairly recently, because they both depend on the rise of a society characterised by that vast complex of interdependent factors denoted by the term 'individualism'.

Even the word is recent, dating only from the middle of the nineteenth century. In all ages, no doubt, and in all societies, some people have been 'individualists' in the sense that they were egocentric, unique or conspicuously independent of current opinions and habits; but the concept of individualism involves much more than this. It posits a whole society mainly governed by the idea of every individual's intrinsic independence both from other individuals and from that multifarious allegiance to past modes of thought and action denoted by the word 'tradition'—a force that is always social, not individual. The existence of such a society, in turn, obviously depends on a special type of economic and political organisation and on an appropriate ideology; more specifically, on an economic and political organisation which allows its members a very wide range of choices in their actions, and on an ideology primarily based, not on the tradition of the past, but on the autonomy of the individual, irrespective of his particular social status or personal capacity. It is generally agreed that modern society is uniquely individualist in these respects, and that of the many historical causes for its emergence two are of supreme importance—the rise of modern industrial capitalism and the spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms.


Capitalism brought a great increase of economic specialisation; and this, combined with a less rigid and homogeneous social structure, and a less absolutist and more democratic political system, enormously increased the individual's freedom of choice. For those fully exposed to the new economic order, the effective entity on which social arrangements were now based was no longer the family, nor the church, nor the guild, nor the township, nor any other collective unit, but the individual: he alone was primarily responsible for determining his own economic, social, political and religious roles.

It is very difficult to say when this change of orientation began to affect society as a whole—probably not until the nineteenth century. But the movement certainly began much earlier. In the sixteenth century the Reformation and the rise of national states decisively challenged the substantial social homogeneity of mediaeval Christendom, and, in the famous words of Mait-land, 'for the first time, the Absolute State faced the Absolute Individual'. Outside the political and religious sphere, however, change was slow, and it is likely that it was not until the further development of industrial capitalism, especially in England and in the Low Countries, that a mainly individualist social and...

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economic structure came into being and started to affect a considerable part, although by no means a majority, of the total population.

It is, at least, generally agreed that the foundations of the new order were laid in the period immediately following the Glorious Revolution of 1689. The commercial and industrial classes, who were the prime agents in bringing about the individualist social order, had achieved greater political and economic power; and this power was already being reflected in the do-main of literature. The middle classes of the towns, we have seen, were becoming much more important in the reading public; and at the same time literature began to view trade, commerce and industry with favour. This was a rather new development. Earlier writers, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson and Dryden, for example, had tended to support the traditional economic and social order and had attacked many of the symptoms of emergent individualism. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, Addison, Steele and Defoe were somewhat ostentatiously setting the seal of literary approval on the heroes of economic individualism.

The new orientation was equally evident in the philosophical domain. The great English empiricists of the seventeenth century were as vigorously individualist in their political and ethical thought as in their epistemology. Bacon hoped to make a really new start in social theory by applying his inductive method to an accumulation of factual data about a great number of particular individuals;1 Hobbes, also feeling that he was dealing with a subject that had not been properly approached before, based his political and ethical theory on the fundamentally egocentric psychological constitution of the individual;2 while in his Two Treatises of Government (1690) Locke constructed the class system of political thought based on the indefeasibility of individual rights, as against the more traditional ones of Church, Family or King. That these thinkers should have been the political and psychological vanguard of nascent individualism, as well as the pioneers of its theory of knowledge, suggests how closely linked their reorientations were both in themselves and in relation to the innovations of the novel. For, just as there is a basic congruity between the non-realist nature of the literary forms of the Greeks, their intensely social, or civic, moral outlook, and their philosophical preference for the universal, so the modern novel is closely allied on the one hand to the realist epistemology of the modern period, and on the other to the individualism of its social structure. In the literary, the philosophical and the social spheres alike the classical focus on the ideal, the universal and the corporate has shifted completely, and the modern field of vision is mainly occupied by the discrete particular, the directly apprehended sensum, and the autonomous individual.

Defoe, whose philosophical outlook has much in common with that of the English empiricists of the seventeenth century, expressed the diverse elements of individualism more completely than any previous writer, and his work offers a unique demonstration of the connection between individualism in its many forms and the rise of the novel. This connection is shown particularly clearly and comprehensively in his first novel, Robinson Crusoe.



Robinson Crusoe has been very appropriately used by many economic theorists as their illustration of homo economicus. Just as 'the body politic' was the symbol of the communal way of thought typical of previous societies, so 'economic man' symbolised the new outlook of individualism in its economic aspect. Adam Smith has been charged with the invention; actually, the concept is much older, but it is natural that it should have come to the fore as an abstraction expressing the individualism of the economic system as a whole only when the individualism of that system itself had reached an advanced stage of development.

That Robinson Crusoe, like Defoe's other main characters, Moll Flanders, Roxana, Colonel Jacque and Captain Singleton, is an embodiment of economic individualism hardly needs demonstration. All Defoe's heroes pursue money, which he characteristically called 'the general denominating article in the world';3 and they pursue it very methodically according to the profit and loss book-keeping which Max Weber considered to be the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism.4 Defoe's heroes, we observe, have no need to learn this technique; whatever the circumstances of their birth and education, they have it in their blood, and keep us more fully informed of their present stocks of money and commodities than any other characters in fiction. Crusoe's book-keeping conscience, indeed, has established an effective priority over his other thoughts and emotions; when his Lisbon steward offers him 160 moidores to alleviate his momentary difficulties on return, Crusoe relates: 'I could hardly refrain from tears while he spoke; in short, I took 100 of the moidores, and called for a pen and ink to give him a receipt for them'.5

Book-keeping is but one aspect of a central theme in the modern social order. Our civilisation as a whole is based on individual contractual relationships, as opposed to the unwritten, traditional and collective relationships of previous societies; and the idea of contract played an important part in the theoretical development of political individualism. It had featured prominently in the fight against the Stuarts, and it was enshrined in Locke's political system. Locke, indeed, thought that contractual relationships were binding even in the state of nature;6 Crusoe, we notice, acts like a good Lockean—when others arrive on the island he forces them to accept his dominion with written contracts acknowledging his absolute power (even though we have previously been told that he has run out of ink).7

But the primacy of the economic motive, and an innate reverence for book-keeping and the law of contract are by no means the only matters in which Robinson Crusoe is a symbol of the processes associated with the rise of economic individualism. The hypostasis of the economic motive logically entails a devaluation of other modes of thought, feeling and action: the various forms of traditional group relationship, the family, the guild, the village, the sense of nationality—all are weakened, and so, too, are the competing claims of non-economic individual achievement and enjoyment, ranging from spiritual salvation to the pleasures of recreation.8

This inclusive reordering of the components of human society tends to occur wherever industrial capitalism becomes the dominant force in the economic structure,9 and it naturally became evident particularly early in England. By the middle of the eighteenth century, indeed, it had already become something of a commonplace. Goldsmith, for instance, thus described the concomitants of England's vaunted freedom in The Traveller (1764):

Unlike Goldsmith, Defoe was not a professed enemy of the new order—quite the reverse; nevertheless there is much in Robinson Crusoe that bears out Goldsmith's picture, as can be seen in Defoe's treatment of such group relationships as the family or the nation.

For the most part, Defoe's heroes either have no family, like Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque and Captain Singleton, or leave it at an early age never to return, like Roxana and Robinson Crusoe. Not too much importance can be attached to this fact, since adventure stories demand the absence of conventional social ties. Still, in Robinson Crusoe at least, the hero has a home and family, and leaves them for the classic reason of homo economicus—that it is necessary to better his economic condition. 'Something fatal in that propension of nature' calls him to the sea and adventure, and against 'settling to business' in the station to which he is born—'the upper station of low life'; and this despite the panegyric which his father makes of that condition. Later he sees this lack of 'confined desires', this dissatisfaction with 'the state wherein God and Nature has placed' him, as his 'original sin'.11 At the time, however, the argument between his parents and himself is a debate, not about filial duty or religion, but about whether going or staying is likely to be the most advantageous course materially: both sides accept the economic argument as primary. And, of course, Crusoe actually gains by his 'original sin', and becomes richer than his father was.

Crusoe's 'original sin' is really the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself, whose aim is never merely to maintain the status quo, but to transform it incessantly. Leaving home, improving on the lot one was born to, is a vital feature of the individualist pattern of life. It may be regarded as the economic and social embodiment of the 'uneasiness' which Locke had made the centre of his system of motivation,12 an uneasiness whose existence was, in the very opposite outlook of Pascal, the index of the enduring misery of mortal man. 'All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room' Pascal had written.13 Defoe's hero is far from agreeing. Even when he is old, Crusoe tells us how: '… nothing else offering, and finding that really stirring about and trading, the profit being so great, and, as I may say, certain, had more pleasure in it, and more satisfaction to the mind, than sitting still, which, to me especially, was the unhappiest part of life'.14 So, in the Farther Adventures, Crusoe sets out on yet another lucrative Odyssey.

The fundamental tendency of economic individualism, then, prevents Crusoe from paying much heed to the ties of family, whether as a son or a husband. This is in direct contradiction to the great stress which Defoe lays on the social and religious importance of the family in his didactic works such as the Family Instructor; but his novels reflect not theory but practice, and they accord these ties a very minor, and on the whole obstructive, role.

Rational scrutiny of one's own economic interest may lead one to be as little bound by national as by family ties. Defoe certainly valued individuals and countries alike primarily on their economic merits. Thus one of his most patriotic utterances takes the characteristic form of claiming that his compatriots have a greater productive output per hour than the workmen of any other country.15 Crusoe, we notice, whom Walter de la Mare has justly called Defoe's Elective Affinity,16 shows xenophobia mainly where the economic virtues are absent. When they are present—as in the Spanish Governor, a French papist priest, a faithful Portuguese factor—his praise is unstinted. On the other hand, he condemns many Englishmen, such as his English settlers on the island, for their lack of industry. Crusoe, one feels, is not bound to his country by sentimental ties, any more than to his family; he is satisfied by people, whatever their nationality, who are good to do business with; and he feels, like Moll Flanders, that 'with money in the pocket one is at home anywhere'.17

What might at first appear to place Robinson Crusoe in the somewhat special category of 'Travel and Adventure' does not, then, altogether do so. The plot's reliance on travel does tend to allot Robinson Crusoe a somewhat peripheral position in the novel's line of development, since it removes the hero from his usual setting in a stable and cohesive pattern of social relations. But Crusoe is not a mere footloose adventurer, and his travels, like his freedom from social ties, are merely somewhat extreme cases of tendencies that are normal in modern society as a whole, since, by making the pursuit of gain a primary motive, economic individualism has much increased the mobility of the individual. More specifically, Robinson Crusoe's career is based, as modern scholarship has shown,18 on some of the innumerable volumes which recounted the exploits of those voyagers who had done so much in the sixteenth century to assist the development of capitalism by providing the gold, slaves and tropical products on which trade expansion depended; and who had continued the process in the seventeenth century by developing the colonies and world markets on which the future progress of capitalism depended.

Defoe's plot, then, expresses some of the most important tendencies of the life of his time, and it is this which sets his hero apart from most of the travellers in literature. Robinson Crusoe is not, like Autolycus, a commercial traveller rooted in an extended but still familiar locality; nor is he, like Ulysses, an unwilling voyager trying to get back to his family and his native land: profit is Crusoe's only vocation, and the whole world is his territory.

The primacy of individual economic advantage has tended to diminish the importance of personal as well as group relationships, and especially of those based on sex; for sex, as Weber pointed out,19 being one of the strongest non-rational factors in human life, is one of the strongest potential menaces to the individual's rational pursuit of economic ends, and it has therefore, as we shall see, been placed under particularly strong controls in the ideology of industrial capitalism.

Romantic love has certainly had no greater antagonist among the novelists than Defoe. Even sexual satisfaction—where he speaks of it—tends to be minimised; he protested in The Review, for example, that 'the Trifle called Pleasure in it' was 'not worth the Repentance'.20 As to marriage, his attitude is compli cated by the fact that economic and moral virtue in the male is no guarantee of a profitable matrimonial investment: on his colony 'as it often happens in the world (what the wise ends of God's Providence are in such a disposition of things I cannot say), the two honest fellows had the two worst wives, and the three reprobates, that were scarce worth hanging … had three clever, diligent, careful and ingenious wives'21 His puzzled parenthesis bears eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which he views this flaw in the rationality of Providence.

It is not surprising, therefore, that love plays little part in Crusoe's own life, and that even the temptations of sex are excluded from the scene of his greatest triumphs, the island. When Crusoe does notice the lack of 'society' there, he prays for the solace of company, but we observe that what he desires is a male slave.22 Then, with Friday, he enjoys an idyll without benefit of woman—a revolutionary departure from the traditional expectations aroused by desert islands from the Odyssey to the New Yorker.

When eventually Crusoe returns to civilisation, sex is still strictly subordinated to business. Only when his financial position has been fully secured by a further voyage does he marry; and all he tells us of this supreme human adventure is that it was 'not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction'. This, the birth of three children, and his wife's death, however, comprise only the early part of a sentence, which ends with plans for a further voyage.23

Women have only one important role to play, and that is economic. When Crusoe's colonists draw lots for five women, we are gleefully informed that:

He that drew to choose first … took her that was reckoned the homeliest and eldest of the five, which made mirth enough among the rest … but the fellow considered better than any of them, that it was application and business that they were to expect assistance in as much as anything else; and she proved the best wife of all the parcel.24

'The best wife of all the parcel.' The language of commerce here reminds us that Dickens once decided on the basis of Defoe's treatment of women that he must have been 'a precious dry and disagreeable article himself.25

The same devaluation of non-economic factors can be seen in Crusoe's other personal relationships. He treats them all in terms of their commodity value. The clearest case is that of Xury, the Moorish boy who helped him to escape from slavery and on another occasion offered to prove his devotion by sacrificing his own life. Crusoe very properly resolves 'to love him ever after' and promises 'to make him a great man'. But when chance leads them to the Portuguese Captain, who offers Crusoe sixty pieces of eight—twice Judas's figure—he cannot resist the bargain, and sells Xury into slavery. He has momentary scruples, it is true, but they are cheaply satisfied by securing a promise from the new owner to 'set him free in ten years if he turn Christian'. Remorse later supervenes, but only when the tasks of his island life make manpower more valuable to him than money.26

Crusoe's relations with Man Friday are similarly egocentric. He does not ask him his name, but gives him one. Even in language—the medium whereby human beings may achieve something more than animal relationships with each other, as Crusoe himself wrote in his Serious Reflections27—Crusoe is a strict utilitarian. 'I likewise taught him to say Yes and No',28 he tells us; but Friday still speaks pidgin English at the end of their long association, as Defoe's contemporary critic Charles Gildon pointed out.29

Yet Crusoe regards the relationship as ideal. He is 'as perfectly and completely happy if any such thing as complete happiness can be found in a sublunary state'.30 A functional silence, broken only by an occasional 'No, Friday', or an abject 'Yes, Master', is the golden music of Crusoe's île joyeuse. It seems that man's social nature, his need for friendship and understanding, is wholly satisfied by the righteous bestowal or grateful receipt, of benevolent but not undemanding patronage. It is true that later, as with Xury, Crusoe promises himself 'to do something considerable' for his servant, 'if he outlive me'. Fortunately, no such sacrifice is called for, as Friday dies at sea, to be rewarded only by a brief word of obituary compassion.31

Emotional ties, then, and personal relationships generally, play a very minor part in Robinson Crusoe, except when they are focussed on economic matters. For instance, after Crusoe has left, it is only when his faithful old agent in Lisbon reveals that he is now a very rich man that we get any emotional climax: 'I turned pale and grew sick; and had not the old man run and fetched me a cordial, I believe the sudden surprise of joy had overset nature, and I had died upon the spot'.32 Only money—fortune in its modern sense—is a proper cause of deep feeling; and friendship is accorded only to those who can safely be entrusted with Crusoe's economic interests.

Sitting still, we saw, was 'the unhappiest part of life' to Robinson Crusoe; leisure pursuits are almost as bad. In this he resembles his author, who seems to have made as few concessions to such distractions as anyone. The fewness of Defoe's literary friendships has been commented on, and he is perhaps a unique example of a great writer who was very little interested in literature, and says nothing of interest about it as literature.33

In his blindness to aesthetic experience Crusoe is Defoe's peer. We can say of him as Marx said of his archetypal capitalist: 'enjoyment is subordinated to capital, and the individual who enjoys to the individual who capitalises'.34 Some of the French versions of Robinson Crusoe make him address hymns of praise to nature, beginning 'Oh Nature!'35 Defoe did not. The natural scene on the island appeals not for adoration, but for exploitation; wherever Crusoe looks his acres cry out so loud for improvement that he has no leisure to observe that they also compose a landscape.

Of course, in a wintry way, Crusoe has his pleasures. If he does not, like Selkirk,36 dance with his goats, he at least plays with them, and with his parrot and his cats; but his deepest satisfactions come from surveying his stock of goods: º had everything so ready at my hand,' he says, 'that it was a great pleasure to me to see all my goods in such order, and especially to find my stock of all necessaries so great.'37


If Robinson Crusoe's character depends very largely on the psychological and social orientations of economic individualism, the appeal of his adventures to the reader seems mainly to derive from the effects of another important concomitant of modern capitalism, economic specialisation.

The division of labour has done much to make the novel possible: partly because the more specialised the social and economic structure, the greater the number of significant differences of character, attitude and experience in contemporary life which the novelist can portray, and which are of interest to his readers; partly because, by increasing the amount of leisure, economic specialisation provides the kind of mass audience with which the novel is associated; and partly because this specialisation creates particular needs in that audience which the novel satisfies. Such, at least, was the general view of T. H. Green: 'In the progressive division of labour, while we become more useful as citizens, we seem to lose our completeness as men … the perfect organisation of modern society removes the excitement of adventure and the occasion for independent effort. There is less of human interest to touch us within our calling….' 'The alleviation' of this situ ation, Green concluded, 'is to be found in the newspaper and the novel.'38

It is very likely that the lack of variety and stimulation in the daily task as a result of economic specialisation is largely responsible for the unique dependence of the individual in our culture upon the substitute experiences provided by the printing press, particularly in the forms of journalism and the novel. Robinson Crusoe, however, is a much more direct illustration of Green's thesis, since much of its appeal obviously depends on the quality of the 'occasions for independent effort' in the economic realm which it offers Defoe's hero, efforts which the reader can share vicariously. The appeal of these efforts is surely a measure of the depth of the deprivations involved by economic specialisation, deprivations whose far-reaching nature is suggested by the way our civilisation has reintroduced some of the basic economic processes as therapeutic recreations: in gardening, home-weaving, pottery, camping, woodwork and keeping pets, we can all participate in the character-forming satisfactions which circumstances force on Defoe's hero; and like him, demonstrate what we would not otherwise know, that 'by making the most rational judgement of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art'.39

Defoe was certainly aware of how the increasing economic specialisation which was a feature of the life of his time had made most of the 'mechanic arts' alien to the experience of his readers. When Crusoe makes bread, for instance, he reflects that "Tis a little wonderful and what I believe few people have thought much upon, viz., the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, procuring, curing, dressing, making and finishing this one article of bread'.40 Defoe's description goes on for seven pages, pages that would have been of little interest to people in mediaeval or Tudor society, who saw this and other basic economic processes going on daily in their own households. But by the early eighteenth century, as Kalm reported, most women did not 'bake, because there is a baker in every parish or village',41 and Defoe could therefore expect his readers to be interested in the very detailed descriptions of the economic life which comprise such an important and memorable part of his narrative.

Robinson Crusoe, of course, does not deal with the actual economic life of Defoe's own time and place. It would be somewhat contrary to the facts of economic life under the division of labour to show the average individual's manual labour as interesting or inspiring; to take Adam Smith's famous example of the division of labour in The Wealth of Nations,42 the man who performs one of the many separate operations in the manufacture of a pin is unlikely to find his task as absorbing and interesting as Crusoe does. So Defoe sets back the economic clock, and takes his hero to a primitive environment, where labour can be presented as varied and inspiring, and where it has the further significant difference from the pin-maker's at home that there is an absolute equivalence between individual effort and individual reward. This was the final change from contemporary economic conditions which was necessary to enable Defoe to give narrative expression to the ideological counterpart of the Division of Labour, the Dignity of Labour.

The creed of the dignity of labour is not wholly modern: in classical times the Cynics and Stoics had opposed the denigration of manual labour which is a necessary part of a slaveowning society's scale of values; and later, Christianity, originally associated mainly with slaves and the poor, had done much to remove the odium on manual labour. The idea, however, was only fully developed in the modern period, presumably because its compensatory affirmation became the more necessary as the development of economic specialisation made manual labour more stultifying; and the creed itself is closely associated with the advent of Protestantism. Calvinism in particular tended to make its adherents forget the idea that labour was God's punishment for Adam's disobedience, by emphasising the very different idea that untiring stewardship of the material gifts of God was a paramount religious and ethical obligation.43

The quality of Crusoe's stewardship cannot be doubted; he allows himself little time for rest, and even the advent of new manpower—Friday's—is a signal, not for relaxation, but for expanded production. Defoe clearly belongs to the tradition of Ascetic Protestantism. He had written much that sounds like the formulations of Weber, Troeltsch and Tawney; in Dickory Cronke's aphorism, for example: 'When you find yourself sleepy in a morning, rouse yourself, and consider that you are born to business, and that in doing good in your generation, you answer your character and act like a man'.44 He had even—with a certain sophistic obtuseness—propounded the view that the pursuit of economic utility was quite literally an imitation of Christ: 'Usefulness being the great pleasure, and justly deem'd by all good men the truest and noblest end of life, in which men come nearest to the character of our B. Saviour, who went about doing good'.45

Defoe's attitude here exhibits a confusion of religious and material values to which the Puritan gospel of the dignity of labour was peculiarly liable: once the highest spiritual values had been attached to the performance of the daily task, the next step was for the autonomous individual to regard his achievements as a quasi-divine mastering of the environment. It is likely that this secularisation of the Calvinist conception of stewardship was of considerable importance for the rise of the novel.Robinson Crusoe is certainly the first novel in the sense that it is the first fictional narrative in which an ordinary person's daily activities are the centre of continuous literary attention. These activities, it is true, are not seen in a wholly secular light; but later novelists could continue Defoe's serious concern with man's worldly doings without placing them in a religious framework. It is therefore likely that the Puritan conception of the dignity of labour helped to bring into being the novel's general premise that the individual's daily life is of sufficient importance and interest to be the proper subject of literature.


Economic individualism explains much of Crusoe's character; economic specialisation and its associated ideology help to account for the appeal of his adventures; but it is Puritan individualism which controls his spiritual being.

Troeltsch has claimed that 'the really permanent attainment of individualism was due to a religious, and not a secular movement, to the Reformation and not the Renaissance'.46 It is neither feasible nor profitable to attempt to establish priorities in such matters, but it is certainly true that if there is one element which all forms of Protestantism have in common it is the replacement of the rule of the Church as the mediator between man and God by another view of religion in which it is the individual who is entrusted with the primary responsibility for his own spiritual direction. Two aspects of this new Protestant emphasis—the tendency to increase consciousness of the self as a spiritual entity, and the tendency to a kind of democratisation of the moral and social outlook—are particularly important both to Robinson Crusoe and to the development of the presuppositions on which the formal realism of the novel is based.

The idea of religious self-scrutiny as an important duty for each individual is, of course, much older than Protestantism; it derives from the individualist and subjective emphasis of primitive Christianity, and finds its supreme expression in St. Augustine's Confessions. But it is generally agreed that it was Calvin, in the sixteenth century, who re-established and systematised this earlier pattern of purposive spiritual introspection, and made it the supreme religious ritual for the layman as well as for the priest: every good Puritan conducted a continual scrutiny of his inner man for evidence of his own place in the divine plot of election and reprobation.

This 'internalisation of conscience' is everywhere manifested in Calvinism. In New England, it has been said, 'almost every literate Puritan kept some sort of journal';47 and, in England, Grace Abounding is the great monument of a way of life which Bunyan shared with the other members of his sect,48 the Baptists, who were, with one or two minor additions and subtractions, orthodox Calvinists. In later generations the introspective habit remained even where religious conviction weakened, and there resulted the three greatest autobiographical confessions of the modern period, those of Pepys, Rousseau and Boswell, all of whom were brought up under the Calvinist discipline; their fascination with self-analysis, and indeed their extreme egocentricity, are character traits which they shared both with later Calvinism in general49 and with De foe's heroes.


The importance of this subjective and individualist spiritual pattern to Defoe's work, and to the rise of the novel, is very evident. Robinson Crusoe initiates that aspect of the novel's treatment of experience which rivals the confessional autobiography and outdoes other literary forms in bringing us close to the inward moral being of the individual; and it achieves this closeness to the inner life of the protagonist by using as formal basis the autobiographical memoir which was the most immediate and widespread literary expression of the introspective tendency of Puritanism in general.

Defoe himself, of course, was born and bred a Puritan. His father was a Dissenter, perhaps a Baptist, more probably a Presbyterian, in any case a Calvinist; and he sent his son to a dissenting academy, probably intending him for the ministry. Defoe's own religious beliefs changed a good deal, and he expressed in his writings the whole gamut of doctrines, from intransigent predestinarianism to rational deism, which Puritanism held during its varied course of development; nevertheless, there is no doubt that Defoe remained and was generally considered to be a Dissenter, and that much of the outlook revealed in his novels is distinctively Puritan.

There is nothing to suggest that Robinson Crusoe was intended to be a Dissenter. On the other hand, the note of his religious reflections is often Puritan in character—their tenor has been seen by one theologian as very close to the Presbyterian Shorter Catechism of the 1648 Westminster Assembly.50 Crusoe certainly exhibits frequent signs of Bibliolatry: he quotes some twenty verses of the Bible in the first part of Robinson Crusoe alone, besides making many briefer references; and he sometimes seeks divine guidance by opening the Bible at random. But the most significant aspect of his spiritual life is his tendency to rigorous moral and religious self-examination. Each of his actions is followed by a passage of reflection in which Crusoe ponders over the problem of how it reveals the intentions of divine providence. If the corn sprouts, it is surely a divine miracle 'so directed for my sustenance'; if he has a bout of fever 'a leisurely review of the miseries of death'51 eventually convinces him that he deserves reprobation for neglecting to show his gratitude for God's mercies to him. The modern reader no doubt tends to pay little attention to these parts of the narrative; but Crusoe and his author showed their point of view very clearly by allotting the spiritual realm as much importance as the practical, both in space and emphasis. It would therefore appear that what are probably the vestigial remnants of the Calvinist introspective discipline helped to provide us for the first time in the history of fiction with a hero whose day-by-day mental and moral life is fully shared by the reader.

This crucial literary advance was not, of course, brought about by the introspective tendency of Puritanism alone. As we have seen, the gospel of work had a similar effect in giving the individual's daily economic task almost as much importance as his daily spiritual selfexamination; and the parallel effects of both these tendencies were supplemented by another closely related tendency in Puritanism.

If God had given the individual prime responsibility for his own spiritual destiny, it followed that he must have made this possible by signifying his intentions to the individual in the events of his daily life. The Puritan therefore tended to see every item in his personal experience as potentially rich in moral and spiritual meaning; and Defoe's hero is acting according to this tradition when he tries to interpret so many of the mundane events of the narrative as divine pointers which may help him to find his own place in the eternal scheme of redemption and reprobation.

In that scheme, of course, all souls had equal chances, and it therefore followed that the individual had as full an opportunity of showing his spiritual qualities in the ordinary conduct of life as in its rarer and more dramatic exigencies. This was one reason for the general Puritan tendency towards the democratisation of the moral and social scale, and it was assisted by several other factors. There were, for instance, many social, moral and political reasons why the Puritans should be hostile to the aristocratic scale of values; nor could they fail to disapprove of its literary expression in the traditional heroes of romance, extrovert conquerors whose victories are won, not in the spirit or in the counting-house but on the battlefield and in the boudoir. It is at all events clear that Puritanism brought about a fundamental and in a sense democratic orientation in the social and literary outlook of its adherents, an orientation which was described by Milton's lines in Paradise Lost: 'To know / That which before us lies in daily life / Is the prime wisdom',52 and which evoked one of Defoe's most eloquent pieces of writing, an essay in Applebee 's Journal (1722) on the funeral of Marlborough. The essay's peroration begins:

What then is the work of life? What the business of great men, that pass the stage of the world in seeming triumph as these men, we call heroes, have done? Is it to grow great in the mouth of fame, and take up many pages in history? Alas! that is no more than making a tale for the reading of posterity, till it turns into fable and romance. Is it to furnish subject to the poets, and live in their immortal rhymes, as they call them? That is, in short, no more than to be hereafter turned into ballad and song, and be sung by old women to quiet children; or, at the corner of a street, to gather crowds in aid of the pickpocket and the whore. Or is their business rather to add virtue and piety to their glory, which alone will pass them into Eternity, and make them truly immortal? What is glory without virtue? A great man without religion is no more than a great beast without a soul.

Then Defoe modulates into something more like the narrowly ethical evaluation of merit which was to be one of the legacies of Puritanism to the middle-class code: 'What is honour without merit? And what can be called true merit, but that which makes a person a good man, as well as a great man'.53

Neither Crusoe, nor indeed any of Defoe's heroes, it must be admitted, are conspicuous by these standards of virtue, religion, merit and goodness; and, of course, Defoe did not intend them to be so. But these standards xdo represent the moral plane on which Defoe's novels exist, and by which his heroes must be judged: the ethical scale has been so internalised and democratised that, unlike the scale of achievement common in epic or romance, it is relevant to the lives and actions of ordinary people. In this Defoe's heroes are typical of the later characters of the novel: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and even Colonel Jacque never think of glory or honour; they have their being on the moral plane of day-to-day living more completely than those of previous narratives, and their thoughts and actions only exhibit an ordinary, a democratic goodness and badness. Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is Defoe's most heroic character, but there is nothing unusual about his personality or the way he faces his strange experiences; as Coleridge pointed out, he is essentially 'the universal representative, the person, for whom every reader could substitute himself … nothing is done, thought, suffered, or desired, but what every man can imagine himself doing, thinking, feeling, or wishing for'.54

Defoe's presentation of Robinson Crusoe as the 'universal representative' is intimately connected with the egalitarian tendency of Puritanism in yet another way. For not only did this tendency make the way the individual faced every problem of everyday life a matter of deep and continuing spiritual concern; it also encouraged a literary outlook which was suited to describing such problems with the most detailed fidelity….


1Advancement of Learning, Bk. II, especially ch. 22, sect. xvi and ch. 23, sect. xiv.

2Elements of Law, Pt. I, ch. 13, sect. iii.

3Review, III (1706), No. 3.

4The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation, trans. Henderson and Parsons (New York, 1947), pp. 186–202.

5The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Aitken (London, 1902), p. 316.

6 Second treatise, 'Essay concerning … Civil Government,' sect. 14.

7Life, pp. 277, 147.

8 See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons (London, 1930), pp. 59–76; Social and Economic Organisation, pp. 341–354.

9 See, for example, Robert Redfield, Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1941), pp. 338–369.

10 11. 339–352.

11Life, pp. 2–6, 216.

12Human Understanding, Bk. II, ch. 21, sects. xxxi–lx.

13Pensées, No. 139.

14Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Aitken (London, 1902), p. 214.

15A Plan of the English Commerce (Oxford, 1928), pp. 28, 31–32.

16Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe (London, 1930), p. 7.

17Moll Flanders, ed. Aitken (London, 1902), I, 186.

18 See especially A. W. Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe (Urbana, 1924).

19 Weber, Essays in Sociology, trans. Gerth and Mills (New York, 1946), p. 350.

20 I (1705), No. 92.

21Farther Adventures, p. 78.

22Life, pp. 208–210, 225.

23Life, p. 341.

24Farther Adventures, p. 77.

25 John Forster, Life of Charles Dickens, revised Ley (London, 1928), p. 611 n.

26Life, pp. 27, 34–36, 164.

27Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Aitken (London, 1902), p. 66.

28Life, p. 229.

29Robinson Crusoe Examin'd and Criticis'd, ed. Dottin (London and Paris, 1923), pp. 70, 78, 118.

30Life, pp. 245–246.

31Farther Adventures, pp. 133, 177–180.

32Life, p. 318.

33 See James R. Sutherland, Defoe (London, 1937), p. 25; W. Gückel and E. Günther, 'D. Defoes und J. Swifts Belesenheit und literarische Kritik', Palaestra, CIL (1925).

34 My translation from Notes on Philosophy and Political Economy, in Oeuvres Philosophiqes, ed. Molitor (Paris, 1937), VI, 69.

35 See William-Edward Mann, Robinson Crusoë en France (Paris, 1916), p. 102.

36 See Appendix, Serious Reflections, ed. Aitken, p. 322.

37Life, p. 75.

38 'Estimate of the Value and Influence of Works of Fiction in Modern Times', Works, ed. Nettleship, III, 40.

39Life, p. 74.

40Life, p. 130.

41Account of His Visit to England, p. 326.

42 Bk. I, ch. 1.

43 See Ernst Troeltsch, Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Wyon (London, 1931), I, 119; II, 589; Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London, 1948), pp. 197–270.

44The Dumb Philosopher (1719), ed. Scott (London, 1841), p. 21.

45The Case of Protestant Dissenters in Carolina, 1706, p. 5.

46Social Teaching, I, 328.

47 Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York, 1938), p. 461.

48 See William York Trindall, John Bunyan: Mechanick Preacher (New York, 1934), pp. 23–41.

49 Troeltsch, Social Teaching, II, 590.

50 James Moffat, 'The Religion of Robinson Crusoe', Contemporary Review, CXV (1919), 669.

51Life, I, 85, 99.

52 VIII, 192–194.

53Cit. W. Lee, Daniel Defoe (London, 1869), III, 29–30.

54Works, ed. Potter, p. 419….


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Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe

(Also DeFoe and De Foe; born Daniel Foe) English novelist, essayist, poet, journalist, historian, and satirist. See also Moll Flanders Criticism.

Often credited with the creation of the first English novel, Defoe was one of the most prolific authors in world literature. While the exact number is impossible to determine, scholars attribute as many as 545 works to Defoe, including scores of essays and political pamphlets. Defoe is most famous for his The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years All Alone, in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque, and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life; and the Strange Surprising Accounts of His Travels Round Three Parts of the Globe, both from 1719, and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World, from 1720. Robinson Crusoe gained immediate success which continues to the present. In addition to having been published in hundreds of editions and translations, adapted in many stage and movie versions, and the source for many imitations, including Gulliver’s Travels and The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe has pervaded the culture to such an extent it has been called a modern myth.

Biographical Information

Defoe was born in London to Nonconformist, middle-class parents. The Nonconformists, or Dissenters, were Protestant sects that opposed the official state religion of Anglicism and consequently suffered persecution. Despite the oppression of Nonconformists during his youth, Defoe enjoyed a relatively secure and religious upbringing. At the age of fourteen his parents sent him to the famous academy at Stoke Newington kept by Charles Morton, where most of the students were Dissenters. At this time Defoe was intended for the ministry, but after three years of study he forfeited this ambition and turned to business. Around 1863, he established himself as a hosiery merchant and traveled throughout England and the continent, acquiring an expert knowledge of trade and economics. Defoe speculated in a number of financial ventures, one of which was so ruinous that he had to file for bankruptcy, with debts mounting to over 17,000 pounds. Though he paid off all but 5,000 pounds to his creditors, Defoe was haunted throughout his life by unsatisfied debt collectors. Many critics argue that this fact should always be kept in mind when judging his later political conduct, for he was consistently manipulated by shrewd politicians able to turn him over to his creditors if and when he failed to carry out their programs. After his bankruptcy, Defoe took a position as secretary at a brick factory and gradually improved his position until he became the chief owner of the brickworks. During this time Defoe published his first essays, the most significant being An Essay upon Projects (1697). In the 1700s, his spirited defense of the Dissenters and staunch support of King William of Orange made Defoe the subject of attack. Arrested and charged with seditious libel, Defoe was found guilty and sentenced to a term in prison, to be served after spending three consecutive days in the pillory. Critics generally believe that the pillory had a lasting effect on Defoe, making him a bitter man and an outcast in his own society. His prison term cut short, Defoe became an instrument of the government, working as a political propagandist and secret agent for the Tories. Defoe began The Review in 1704 and continued as its sole writer for ten years. The Review served as a vehicle for Tory beliefs, which promoted Anglicanism and resisted religious toleration and foreign entanglements. Upon Queen Anne’s death in 1714 and the fall of the Tory government, Defoe was able to devote more time to his imaginative writing. Partly inspired by the true adventures of an ill-disciplined sailor named Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe was extremely popular, particularly with the middle and lower classes, for whom Crusoe was an appealing model. After enjoying success with novels and in journalism, Defoe concentrated on travel essays and history. Scholars are uncertain about Defoe’s final years. It is known that he left his home at Stoke Newington and disappeared from the public, but the reason has never been determined. Defoe spent his final years alone and died in London near the place of his birth.

Major Works

An Essay upon Projects, which includes Defoe’s suggestions for radical reforms, many of them enacted over the next two centuries, show that Defoe was an acute social observer and progressive thinker. The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (1702) enraged both Dissenters and high churchmen alike, who mistook the satire for an honest proposal, and led to Defoe’s conviction and sentencing for seditious libel. In 1706 Defoe worked behind the scenes during the secret negotiations for the union of Scotland and England, and knowledge gained during this period found its outlet in The History of the Union of Great Britain (1709), a work still valued by historians for its accuracy and scope. Robinson Crusoe stands apart and above Defoe’s other novels, mainly because its subject and setting lent themselves so well to the author’s descriptive talents. The novel has been interpreted as an allegorical presentation of the growth of the British empire, as an attack on economic individualism, as an adaptation of the traditional spiritual autobiography, as an allegory of the author’s own life, and—to Defoe’s contemporaries—as simply the true story of one man’s unusual life. No matter how critics interpret the novel, most agree that it is one of the world’s most endearing stories. The story concerns Crusoe, who, after abandoning his comfortable middle-class home in England, survives a shipwreck and lives on an island for twenty-eight years, alone for twenty-four of them. Defoe wrote a series of novels in the same mold as Robinson Crusoe, including The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720); Memoirs of a Cavalier; or, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England, from the Year 1632 to the Year 1648 (1720); The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1721); The History of the Most Remarkable Life and Extraordinary Adventures of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jacque, Vulgarly Called Colonel Jack (1722); A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurences, as Well as Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665 (1722); and The Fortunate Mistress; or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Belau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintelsheim, in Germany: Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II (1724). As with Robinson Crusoe, many of Defoe’s novels were published as actual biographies with certain well-defined moral messages attached.

Critical Reception

Though always popular with the reading public, Defoe has received ambivalent reactions from many critics and scholars. It was nearly a hundred years after his death before Walter Scott presented the first favorable account of Defoe’s merits as a novelist. Robinson Crusoe was an instant success with the public but by certain critics was considered un-Christian and attacked for its improbabilities and misconceptions concerning life at sea. Criticism of Defoe’s work during the eighteenth century focused on its authenticity and moral implications—two standards poorly suited for an appreciation of Defoe. Twentieth-century critics generally agree that Defoe has been seriously undervalued as an artist. They debate how best to interpret Robinson Crusoe, on whether or not—or to what degree—it is allegorical, whether its chief focus should be on its adventure or Puritan themes, and what Defoe’s exact message is on moral values, economics, and security. There is also disagreement on whether or not to accept Defoe’s own explanation of Robinson Crusoe offered in Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World, in which Defoe explains the book as an allegory of his own life.

J. Paul Hunter (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "The 'Occasion' of Robinson Crusoe" in The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in "Robinson Crusoe," The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 1–22.

[Below, Hunter discredits certain assumptions about what inspired Robinson Crusoe as well as the notion that the book falls into the tradition of travel literature; he asserts that Crusoe is a Christian work in which geographical facts are introduced primarily for their narrative function.]

Interpretive problems in eighteenth-century fiction result not so much from a lack of historical interest and knowledge as from a disguised antihistoricism in applying known facts, for it is often tempting to use history rather than surrender to it. Defoe study has, I think, more often settled for the illusion of history than for a full, rigorous, and sensitive examination of the assumed contexts of a particular work. Old generalizations have often seemed more valid than they really are because a façade of fact has obscured a flawed foundation of logic. Such methodology has determined the greater part of Robinson Crusoe scholarship, and I wish to examine some of the assumptions of this methodology before arguing another series of contexts which, it seems to me, are more relevant to Robinson Crusoe and to the emergence of the novel as a form.

Knowledge of Defoe's political journalism has opened some important windows to his art, but misuse of this knowledge has also led to some serious misconceptions. One such set of misconceptions involves the "occasion" of Robinson Crusoe, for Defoe students (working upon assumptions about Defoe's journalistic methods) have reconstructed on the basis of conjecture the events which inspired Robinson Crusoe and also those which effected its ultimate form. Alexander Selkirk's four-year sojourn on the desolate island of Juan Fernandez is thus usually considered to be the direct inspiration for Robinson Crusoe;1 and travel books (such as those by Edward Cooke and Woodes Rogers, which give accounts of Selkirk's story) are regarded as formative influences on Defoe's art. This account of Defoe's procedure dates from a generation ago, but because neither its conclusions nor assumptions have been seriously questioned the received opinion is still that articulated by Ernest A. Baker in 1929: "The original incentive to write Robinson Crusoe and the central idea of a man left by himself on a desert island … came to Defoe from the actual experiences of Alexander Selkirk." The novel must "be considered as [a] fictitious narrative of travel."2 This account of Defoe's design and procedure is, I think, inadequate and inaccurate; and it seriously misleads us as to the rich and complex traditions which nourish Robinson Crusoe—and which influence the form of an emerging genre.

The Selkirk conjecture dates from the middle of the eighteenth century and probably originated from rumors during Defoe's own lifetime.3 Selkirk's adventure was, of course, well known to Defoe's contemporaries,4 but Selkirk was only the most recent of several persons who had endured long isolation in remote places. Many other "miraculous preservations" were recorded during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and Defoe probably knew as much about some of them as he did about Selkirk. For example, two other men before Selkirk had been stranded at separate times on Juan Fernandez, one of them for five years.5 Another castaway, Ephraim How, for nearly a year was supposed dead before he was found alone upon a "rocky desolate Island," where he and two companions had been cast in a storm. After his companions died, he had survived by using materials washed ashore from the shipwreck.6 A fourth castaway, stranded near Scotland in 1616, had become so notable an exemplum that eighteenth-century writers still repeated his story.7 A fifth spent two years alone on an island near the Isle of Providence after nine of his companions perished either on the island or in trying to swim to civilization.8 A sixth, Anthony Thatcher, stranded with his wife in 1635 after a shipwreck had killed their fellow voyagers, survived by using clothing and debris from the wreck, much as Crusoe does.9 Many castaways, in fact, underwent hardships much like Crusoe's, reacted to them much as he does, and recounted their experiences in a similarly detailed way.10

Any of these castaways might have provided some inspiration for Defoe, but, laying aside for a moment the issue of Defoe's possible indebtedness for facts or incidents, one may question whether any castaway event provided the major impulse for the creation of Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk's adventure is closer in time to the publication of Robinson Crusoe than are the other adventures I have cited, but almost seven years separate the publication of Robinson Crusoe from the publication of accounts of Selkirk. Because the Selkirk conjecture rests primarily on the assumption that Defoe usually "capitalized" on current news events, this seven-year delay would seem crucial. Pope and Horace may have thought a seven-year waiting period advisable, but no journalist would agree.11

The assumption that Defoe's writings all stem from current happenings ignores an important distinction about artistic aim. An event often stimulated Defoe to produce a political tract, for his function as a news analyst for the Whigs and/or Tories often demanded that he interpret the current scene so as to influence the English public. But in other kinds of writing Defoe may well have worked differently. In The Family Instructor, for example, and in his other clearly moralistic works, he seems to begin with an ideological aim and to accumulate events (factual or fictional) as examples to support his ideology. The antithetical procedures of the journalist and moralist are only two of many authorial procedures in which Defoe may have engaged, for living by his pen cast him in a variety of roles. And to see what sort of role he assumed in writing Robinson Crusoe, one needs to determine what kind of book it is, for his procedures are much more likely to have been dictated by his aim in an individual work than by a standard scheme or method applied indiscriminately to his more than five hundred publications.12

The assumptions which, when pursued in one direction, lead to the Selkirk conjecture, when pursued in another, lead to more serious misconceptions about Robinson Crusoe. Because it is assumed that Defoe began with factual information (largely from travel literature), wove various facts together, embroidered his by now fictional fabric with a semblance of truth, and, finally, tried to pass off the result as a true account, the conclusion is that Defoe desired to imitate his sources and that he wrote in the tradition of fictionalized travel literature. In "placing" Robinson Crusoe on the basis of assumptions about Defoe's method rather than on the basis of the book's text, Defoe students have diverted critical attention from relevant materials in other subliterary traditions and have instead defined a context which does a serious injustice to Robinson Crusoe, for while Defoe's novel bears some resemblances to travel literature, it differs from that literature in crucial ways.13

Source studies of half a century ago are largely responsible for this definition of context. The search for sources turned rather naturally to travel books, for source hunters were first looking for sources of information, and travel books were the atlases and geographical encyclopedias of Defoe's day. But the search never really got beyond travel books, for the searchers never really looked beyond factual information, even though they implied that Defoe's dependence on travel books was almost total and influenced even the structure of books like Robinson Crusoe. Then too, they were greatly encouraged in their efforts by a strange and surprising bibliographical discovery of 1895.

Defoe's library had been sold a few months after his death in 1731, and although the Daily Advertiser for November 13, 1731, mentioned a sale catalogue, no copy of it had been found before 1895, when George A. Aitken located one in the British Museum.14 The value of the find was considerably diminished, however, by the fact that Defoe's books were grouped with those of an Anglican clergyman, Philip Farewell, and the catalogue failed to distinguish individual ownership.15 Announcing his find in the Athenaeum, Aitken admitted that because of the catalogue's grouping he was "in some cases … unable to say positively that a certain book was Defoe's," but he thought that "we shall not be far wrong if we set on one side certain classes of works as Dr. Farewell's and attribute the remainder to [Defoe]." On this assumption, Aitken proposed a partial list of Defoe's books, setting aside as Dr. Farewell's "the large array of theological and classical literature." He admitted that "in adopting this course we shall, no doubt, pass over not a few works of Defoe's, but this is unavoidable."16

Aitken listed more than three dozen travel books and maps as probably belonging to Defoe, and later source students seem to have trusted Aitken's list completely.17 Although one cannot be certain, it is likely that Defoe did own most of the books on Aitken's list, but his background and interests make it equally probable that he owned many of the theological and devotional books passed over by Aitken. The authority of Aitken's list has never been seriously challenged, however, and its publication lent considerable support to the growing tendency to pass over Defoe's ideas and his intellectual background in favor of a quest for the sources of his facts in travel literature. During the next thirty years source students found enough "parallels" to "establish" the debt that they had anticipated, and since 1924 (when Arthur W. Second's Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe was published) their conclusions about Defoe's sources, his method of composition, and his aims have been accepted almost without dissent.18

The placing of Robinson Crusoe itself in the tradition of travel literature is ultimately the most misleading implication of such source studies, but an examination of the premises and procedures of such studies warns us to be wary of accepting even their general conclusions. Secord quotes approvingly the belief of Ernest Bembaum that "originals will ultimately be found for all of [Defoe's] longer narratives,"19 and although they do not say so openly, most Defoe source students seem to operate from such a premise. Often a subtle suggestion of Defoe's dishonesty hovers just beneath the surface of their analyses, and they seem anxious to attribute a very different role to Defoe's imagination than to the imagination of most writers. As a result, they often attach far too much importance to parallels which are either coincidental or indicate nothing more than the common knowledge of an age—errors which raise serious questions about generalizations we have come to accept.

Secord emphasizes Defoe's debt to Robert Knox's An Historical Relation of … Ceylon and William Dampier's A New Voyage Round the World; among the sources of Robinson Crusoe, he lists these as two of six "certain" ones.20 Yet his conception of what their contribution was and his method of arguing Defoe's debt to them are most revealing. Knox's Ceylon, according to Secord, provided Defoe with a number of details about resourcefulness in the face of loneliness and hardship, for although Selkirk's adventure provided the inspiration for Defoe, it did not provide sufficient detail for a long story; Defoe therefore turned to Knox, for his Ceylon was "less known but more detailed, and more satisfactory to Defoe for both reasons."21 Secord admits that Knox's external circumstances differ from Crusoe's—"It is true that Knox was a captive on a large and populous island, that he had a dozen or more fellow Englishmen with him so that occasionally they might converse, and that part of their time they were allowed to live together"—but he thinks these "external differences" may have "blinded investigators to the significance of Knox as a prototype of Crusoe. Both were on islands, both were lonely, and both had their existence to maintain under similar handicaps." Secord then notes the stylistic similarities of the two works ("It was now about the year 1673" [Knox]; "It was now the month of December" [Crusoe]), and he next illustrates Defoe's "borrowing" of events. He notes that "the island experiences of each, for instance, begin at about the same time": Knox's ship is disabled on November 19, 1659, and Crusoe is shipwrecked on September 30, 1659. Both have the ague, both wear out their clothes and try to replace them, Knox uses cocoanut oil in his acquired lamp while Crusoe makes a lamp and uses goat's tallow. After several pages of similar "parallels," Secord admits that "many of these similarities are not in themselves very convincing," but because he is sure that Defoe had read Knox he believes the similarities "become of more than superficial importance." "These matters," he concludes, "were known to Defoe and could not fail to find some place in Crusoe's endeavors to work out the problem of existence on his island."22 Even if writers are a part of all that they have met, one may doubt the value of such source study when no specific debt can be discovered.

As he begins to consider Dampier's Voyages, Secord indicates his conception of Defoe's imaginative act: "If we think of Selkirk as having suggested to Defoe the idea of writing a story of desert island life, and of Knox as having provided him with a concrete embodiment of that idea, we shall not go far astray. Defoe's next need would be a large storehouse of details of life under unusual circumstances from which he could clothe the skeleton furnished by Selkirk and Knox. Exactly such a storehouse of details is Dampier's 'Voyages.'"23 One may doubt the accuracy of this description of creation, but Secord's suggestions about how Defoe used Dampier are even more startling. He does not distinguish clearly between facts and suggestions for episodes, and (as in the Knox argument) his case rests primarily on a long list of inexact parallels and a statement that Defoe must surely have read the book. Defoe might indeed have gotten information about South American geography, climate, and customs from Dampier, but he might just as well have gotten this information from a number of other sources, for to find such facts in both books hardly proves borrowing. As a political journalist aware of his expanding world, as a man of trade, and as a key figure in the formulation of the South Sea Company, Defoe might well have stored facts like these in his head; if not, the men with whom he conversed daily could have supplied him from memory with the kind of information found in Dampier. If one considers this sort of information as a literary source, there is no end of source study, for the encyclopedia and the dictionary (and how would one decide which encyclopedia, which dictionary?) would be only the first sources studied in attempts to uncover an author's "materials."24

The rage for parallel passages as evidence of borrowing has blurred the one real contribution of source students: evidence that Defoe grounded his story on the geographical and cultural facts and beliefs of his contemporaries, just as he grounded the psychology and religion of his characters on contemporary belief.25 But by overstating Defoe's debt to contemporary knowledge and by localizing it too exclusively, they have seriously misled us about Defoe's imagination. Once we are aware of the amount and variety of information available to Defoe about shipwrecks, castaways, and primitive life, we are more likely to be impressed by his ability to distinguish the norm in the experiences of island castaways than to be convinced that he wrote with a specific incident in mind. And by generalizing about Defoe's method on the basis of inexact circumstantial evidence and specious logic, source hunters have successfully (but not accurately) promulgated an image of Defoe as a compiler whose art consists in the crafty fusion of unrelated anecdotes.26 Lately Defoe's imagination and accomplishment have sometimes been viewed differently, but still too typical is the judgment of the Oxford literary historian of Defoe's time: Robinson Crusoe, he says, "is not so much invented as compiled from a number of reports."27

The artistry of Robinson Crusoe is most seriously maligned, however, not by viewing the novel's parts as somehow dependent upon travel books, but by considering its total form to be patterned on the travel tradition. Source hunters did not set out specifically to "place" Robinson Crusoe within any literary tradition, but, because they failed to distinguish between what Defoe worked from (sources) and what he worked toward (artistic aims), their conclusions have had the effect of defining Robinson Crusoe itself as a fictionalized travel book.28 Such a definition has serious implications for the structure and meaning of Robinson Crusoe, as today's critical commonplaces about the novel clearly demonstrate, for, like the Selkirk conjecture, it suggests that Defoe's art is fact-centered rather than idea-centered. Because questionable assumptions and procedures have led to such a definition, the validity of the conclusion is at least doubtful, but ultimately such a definition has to rest (as Shakespearean studies ought to have taught us) not upon the matter of source materials at all, but upon questions of Defoe's aims and those of the travel writers. Examined on this basis, the categorizing of Robinson Crusoe as travel literature is even less valid than other conclusions of Defoe source studies, for (aside from a few surface similarities) Robinson Crusoe makes no attempt to follow the conventional pattern of the travel tradition.

Despite their subliterary status, travel books early in the seventeenth century developed a set of distinguishing characteristics almost as rigid as the conventions of a poetic genre: each book tried to answer the same kinds of questions and each was organized in much the same way. Travel books depended for their success on the continued interest of a buying public with specific expectations, and even when their stated purpose was to offer other benefits, travel writers usually fulfilled those expectations.29 "I know 'tis generally expected," writes Woodes Rogers in his introduction to A Cruising Voyage Round the World, "that when far distant Voyages are printed, they should contain new and wonderful Discovries with surprizing Accounts of People and Animals,"30 and like other voyagers, Rogers condemns this popular taste. But, also like others, he satisfies the very expectations which he rails against.

The expectations satisfied by the travel writers are of various kinds. For the reader interested in adventure and strange occurrence, a story like Selkirk's is often included, and though the story is advertised blatantly, usually on the title page, very sparing and professedly grudging attention is given to it in the book itself.31 Other general readers, like those referred to by Rogers, sought encyclopedic information about exotic places and peoples. The writers, however, seem (or pretend) to be concerned with readers who expect more technical information, and they usually profess that their only desire is to disseminate knowledge which will benefit country and commerce. In practice, all these expectations are ministered to according to a procedural formula with little variation.

Basically, the formula may be described as chronological in movement from place to place, topical in describing the particulars of each place. Much geographical detail is given about the places and about the natives and their customs, but there is relatively little emphasis on event. When an unusual happening (like the finding of Selkirk) is described, the tone retains the same clam, dispassionate quality that characterizes the rest of the book, for "objectivity" of tone and style characterizes the tradition as a whole.32 An important aspect of this objectivity is the absence of any informing idea or theme: chronology, replaced by topicality when the narrative is interrupted to describe a particular place, is the only organizing force in the books, thematic considerations being inappropriate to the "pose" or conventions of the form.33

Secord notes that Defoe has Crusoe "do a series of things well known in the literature of travel; suffer storm and shipwreck, endure slavery …, duplicate the experiences of desert island life, and participate in both commerce and travel," but the resemblances, as Secord's comparison would suggest, are broad ones.34 Crusoe describes events in chronological order (after a rationale for the first voyage is established) until the "narrator" returns home from his longest, most arduous voyage. The style is matter-of-fact, and the book contains some of the same kinds of "fact" as do the travel books. When Crusoe is at sea, he frequently gives his position, speed, and direction; on land, he describe the animals and the weapons, food, and customs of the natives. About his island he gives full information, detailing its geography, climatic patterns, animal and plant life, and the sailing conditions around it.

But these superficial similarities lose their significance when one notes Defoe's very different emphasis and his considerably different use of similar materials. In Robinson Crusoe the facts about various places are never presented as information for its own sake; each fact is introduced because of its function in the narrative situation. Lions and leopards are described in Africa because they represent, in one case, danger to Crusoe and Xury, and, in another, their means of reciprocating the kindness of the natives. The description of the island accumulates gradually as the narrative unfolds; there is no tabular itemizing of descriptive facts. And the island is the only land area which receives anything like a full description. About Brazil the reader learns only a few things pertinent to Crusoe; during the voyage from Sallee, he is given only facts necessary to the narrative. Here, the description serves the narrative; in the travel books, the narrative often merely connects the various descriptions, which are avowedly the most important parts.

Failure to define the rationale and mode of the travel books has led to a general lack of discrimination between various kinds of books concerned with discovery.35Robinson Crusoe clearly is more like contemporary adventure stories than like the travel books; information is subordinated to event, and the movement is dramatic. Chronology, simple a convenience in the travel books, becomes for Defoe (as for adventure stories) a conscious device to dramatize development.36 But even more important, Robinson Crusoe has a larger coherence than that produced by the narrative sequence—a coherence which ultimately separates Robinson Crusoe from both travel literature and adventure stories, for books in both the latter traditions lack an informing idea which gives a meaning to individual events or to the sequence as a whole. These books seem to lack ideological content, and no thematic meaning can be abstracted from them. Some critics have insisted that Robinson Crusoe resembles them in this respect, that it is episodic and lacks fundamental unity. Secord states as a truism that Robinson Crusoe "imitates life in its very shapelessness."37 This view, however, ignores the thematic structure of the novel, a structure set up by the artistic (and ultimately philosophical) rationale for all of Crusoe's wanderings.

Crusoe is never merely an adventurer who goes from place to place, participating in isolated events. Each of his experiences takes on meaning in relation to a pattern set in motion by his "fatal … Propension of Nature" (A2)—an irrational inclination to roam. His "rambling Thoughts" (A1) cause him to rebel against parental authority and against his divinely appointed "station"—a rebellion which he interprets as his "Original Sin" (A225). Crusoe views each subsequent tragic event as punishment for his rebellion, and at last concludes that real deliverance from his plight (both physical and spiritual) is only possible when he resigns himself completely to the will of God.

Robinson Crusoe is structured on the basis of a familiar Christian pattern of disobedience-punishment-repentance-deliverance, a pattern set up in the first few pages of the book, Crusoe sees each event of his life in terms of the conflict between man's sinful natural propensity, which leads him into one difficulty after another, and a watchful providence, which ultimately delivers man from himself. Crusoe's continual appraisal of his situation keeps the conflict at the forefront of the action throughout, for his appraisal is not the superficial, unrelated commentary some critics have described, but rather is an integral part of the thematic pattern set up by Crusoe's rebellion and the prophecy of his father that Crusoe "will be the miserablest Wretch that was ever born" (A6). On the first page Crusoe plunges himself, through disobedience by reason of pride, into the universal predicament of fallen man; the remainder of the narrative describes that predicament in detail and dramatizes Crusoe's attempts to confront his world—and his God.

Despite its bias, Charles Gildon's criticism of Robinson Crusoe is historically valuable because it suggests how Defoe's contemporaries viewed his aim and accomplishment. Gildon cites several improbabilities and historical inaccuracies, but his main objection is not to Defoe's passing off fiction as fact, but to the book's moral and religious point of view:

I am far from being an enemy to the Writers of Fables, since I know very well that this Manner of Writing is not only very Ancient, but very useful, I might say sacred, since it has been made use of by the inspired Writers themselves; but then to render any Fable worthy of being received into the Number of those which are truly valuable, it must naturally produce some useful Moral … but this of Robinson Crusoe … is design'd against … publick good.38

A Roman Catholic turned deist turned Anglican, Gildon was eager to defend what he now considered the orthodox faith, and his charges are directed primarily against a theological point of view which seems to him unsound and ultimately dangerous.39 He attacks Defoe's use of the supernatural, and (because he holds a very different, much less orthodox view of God's role in human affairs) he takes issue with almost every religious attitude in the novel. Gildon's motives may have been those of personal jealousy and party animus, but the charges themselves are still revealing, for they suggest that Gildon viewed the book in religious terms and felt that he must attack it ideologically rather than simply expose its fictional nature.

In his statement about Robinson Crusoe's popularity, Gildon suggests that other contemporary readers also saw the book in religious terms. People who buy the book, says Gildon, leave it "as a legacy with the Pilgrim's Progress, the Practice of Piety and God's Revenge against Murther."40 The juxtaposition and implied comparison is a sneer at the level of Defoe's readership and suggests (from Gildon's point of view) condemnation by association, for the books he mentions all share a Puritan view of morality and theology. Each of them was well known to Gildon's contemporaries. By 1719, Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety (1613) had reached its fiftieth edition and was probably the best-known Puritan manual of piety and conduct. John Reynolds' The Triumphs of God's Revenge against Murther (1621–24) had gone through fewer editions, but it was well known for assigning to providence a particularly active role in human affairs. Bunyan's book, then as now, seemed to epitomize the Puritan view of life.

Ultimately, Robinson Crusoe is much closer to The Pilgrim's Progress than to the other two books, but it bears a significant relationship to the traditions in which all three of the books belong. In his Author's Preface, Defoe gives two aims of Robinson Crusoe: (1) to present "a religious Application of Events … [for] the Instruction of others by this Example," and (2) "to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances …" (Avii). These moral and ideological aims have often been regarded as Defoe's afterthoughts or rationalizations; modern scholars have seemed reluctant to take seriously a man who can "lie like truth." But Defoe's Preface, like Gildon's scornful comparison, suggests the connection with Puritan religious traditions; once examined, these traditions illuminate both the theme and structure of Robinson Crusoe and, ultimately, the development of the novel as a literary form.


1 Arthur W. Secord's assumption is typical: "Selkirk undoubtedly furnished Defoe with the central theme of the story,—a fact upon which too much emphasis cannot be laid and which I shall assume as fundamental" (Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe ["University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature," IX; Urbana, 1924], p. 31).

2The History of the English Novel (10 vols.; London, 1929–39), III, 147–48, 150.

3 Late in the eighteenth century, James Beattie relates, as "the account commonly given," an anecdote about Defoe's taking advantage of Selkirk after hearing Selkirk tell his story personally (Dissertations Moral and Critical [London, 1783], p. 565). Another rumor during Defoe's lifetime insisted that Robinson Crusoe was really written by the Earl of Oxford.

4 Accounts of it were published not only in standard travel books but in a periodical (The Englishman, December 1–3, 1713) and a separately issued tract (Providence Displayed [London, 1712]). But Baker probably exaggerates in calling the incident "the great sensation of 1712–1713" (History, III, 148; italics mine).

5 See Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World (London, 1712), pp. 129–30.

6 See Increase Mather, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (Boston, 1684), pp. 58–64; and William Turner, A Compleat History of the Most Remarkable Providences, Both of Judgment and Mercy, Which Have Hapned in This Present Age (London, 1697), p. 110.

7 See James Janeway, Token for Mariners, Containing Many Famous and Wonderful Instances of God's Providence in Sea Dangers and Deliverances, in Mercifully Preserving the Lives of His Poor Creatures, When in Humane Probability, at the Point of Perishing by Shipwreck, Famine, or Other Accidents (London, 1708), pp. 31–33. Janeway retells the story from Adam Olearius, The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors, trans. John Davies (London, 1662). For a discussion of Janeway, Mather, Turner, and similar books, see Chapter III below.

8 See Increase Mather, Essay, p. 71, and Turner, Remarkable Providences, p. 110.

9 See Mather, Essay, p. 13.

10 See, for example, Janeway, Token for Mariners, Mather, Essay, or Turner, Remarkable Providences.

11 John Robert Moore's doubts about the Selkirk conjecture on first glance seem to represent an advance over received opinion, but although his conclusion differs from the usual one, his assumptions have the same weakness. Moore does not think that Selkirk's return to England in 1712 weighed heavily on Defoe's mind in 1719, but he does regard as significant the contemporary economic situation in South America. He points out that England's war with Spain had severed trade relations between South America and England's South Sea Company, and he argues that Defoe's interest in stimulating colonization near the Orinoco led him somehow to write Robinson Crusoe, though he is not explicit about how Robinson Crusoe delivers Defoe's economic message. Moore argues that "if [Defoe] wrote a novel in 1719, it would likely have something to say of the slave trade, of the jealousy between England and Spain, of pirates and mutineers…, and of an island near the mouth of the Orinoco River." He adds that "no one could have foreseen how Defoe would develop his hero's solitary life on the island," and concludes that the development was a "'strange surprise' to Defoe himself" (Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World [Chicago, 1958], pp. 223–24). Another recent critic, Francis Watson, has also been troubled by standard explanations of Defoe's delay in writing the novel; his reading of Robinson Crusoe is salutary, but he offers no new insights about the Selkirk conjecture ("Robinson Crusoe: Fact and Fiction," Listener, LXII [October 15, 1959], 617–19).

Earlier scholars suggested that a new 1718 edition of Rogers (which contained the Selkirk story) somehow prompted Defoe, but this suggestion does not seem very helpful unless it is meant to indicate that somehow Defoe's memory was jogged. Only briefly has it been suggested that the inspiration is tied to thematic concerns, and these suggestions have been related to biographical conjectures. Moore thinks that Defoe may have felt some concern for having left the calling (the ministry) for which he prepared at Morton's Academy, or that he may have been concerned with the rebellion of his own son, who showed little inclination to obey his father's wishes.

12 Maximillian Novak has recently suggested that thematic concerns are primary in several of Defoe's works (see EF). Received opinion about Defoe is indicated by the response which Professor Novak's suggestion received. See, for example, the review by Michael Shugrue (JEGP, LXII [1963], 403–5), in which "Novak's conviction that 'Defoe created his fiction from ideas rather than from incidents'" is regarded as "perhaps the only disturbing note in an otherwise excellent discussion of Robinson Crusoe" (p. 404).

13 At one time, Defoe students recognized that a wider context of traditions nourished Robinson Crusoe; they usually mentioned biography, picaresque romance, and moral treatise. But events of the late nineteenth century obscured this contextual richness. The eclipse of Defoe's moral reputation, based on discoveries about his political duplicity, was accompanied by decreasing attention to his ideas, especially moral and religious ones, and emphasis shifted quickly to the adventure-story aspects of his work. At the same time, a new consciousness of the novel as an art form stimulated the desire to evaluate Defoe's contributions to the history of fiction; this desire, combined with the shift of emphasis from ideas to events in Defoe, focused attention on materials from which Defoe could have obtained factual information.

For early discussions of the relationship of Defoe's fiction to other traditions in which he wrote, see George A. Aitken, General Introduction, Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe (16 vols.; London, 1895), I, xxix ff; and W. P. Trent, Daniel Defoe: How To Know Him (Indianapolis, Ind., 1916), pp. 128, 135, 175. For the rationale behind Defoe source study, see Secord, Studies, p. 19.

14 William Lee had noted the sale and lamented the apparent loss of the catalogue. See his Daniel Defoe: His Life and Recently Discovered Writings 1716–1729 (3 vols.; London, 1869), I, 470–71.

15 Besides, some of Defoe's books were apparently not sold through the catalogue. The fact that the Farewell-Defoe sale catalogue contains only a few of Defoe's own writings suggests that part of the library had been dispersed before the catalogue was printed. This possibility casts even further doubt on the reliability of the catalogue as a guide to Defoe's reading habits.

16 "Defoe's Library," Athenaeum, I (1895), 706–7.

17 Not all scholars who have used Aitken's list have been careful to note the conjecture involved and Aitken's own reservations about the limitations of his list, and their footnotes often cite Aitken's list, not the catalogue itself. Secord and Baker assume the authority of Aitken's judgment. See, for example, Secord, Studies, pp. 25, 93, and 104 n.

18 Since the late nineteen fifties there have been signs of a growing dissatisfaction with received opinion about Defoe (see the Preface to this volume), and, although the conclusions of students of the sources have not been attacked explicitly, the growing awareness of Defoe's artistic complexity has cast some doubt on the generally accepted account of Defoe's imaginative act. But for a recent example of the continuing prominence of source students' procedures, see Gary J. Scrimgeour, "The Problem of Realism in Defoe's Captain Singleton" (HLQ, XXVII [1963], 21–37).

19 P. 18. Secord says that Bernbaum offers this conjecture to explain Defoe's large number of publications.

20 Knox's book was first published in 1681, Dampier's (in two volumes) in 1697 and 1699.

21 P. 32. Assumptions about Defoe's deviousness seem clear here, as in Secord's statement elsewhere that "Defoe is compelled in the island story to go to … [great] lengths to disguise his materials borrowed from published sources so that those borrowings may not appear" (p. 26).

22 Pp. 32–39. Italics mine.

23 Pp. 49–50. Secord seems to assume the primacy of printed materials as "sources," apparently believing that an author only makes use of oral information if there is no published word on the subject. Secord also assumes the primacy of English over non-English books, apparently on a similar theory, even though Defoe was conversant with several languages.

24 The immoderate judgment of source students is suggested by Secord's discussion of two episodes—Crusoe's making of planks and his discovery of a footprint. He finds Crusoe's plank-making to be based either upon Dampier or upon information in the private unpublished journal of Knox, even though both Knox and Dampier describe how two planks are made from a tree and Crusoe is able to make but one. Such a derivation might still be possible if we assume Crusoe's more primitive method to be a part of Defoe's artistic strategy, but to regard these two accounts as the exclusive possibilities seems excessive, especially since the methods are rather obvious and would probably occur to anyone needing a plank.

Secord notes three narratives which contain footprint episodes and attaches much importance to one of them (in Dampier's Voyages) because the print evokes fear. Here is his description and interpretation of the incident:

Dampier and some others, being ashore to kill cattle on the isle of Pines (near Cuba), Ianded on a sandy bay where they saw "much footing of men and boys; the impressions seemed to be about 8 or 10 days old." "This troubled us a little," said Dampier, who strongly suspected them of being the tracks of Spaniards; "but it being now their Christmas, we concluded that they were gone over to Cuba to keep it there, so we went after our game…." The element of fear is, of course, mild in comparison to that in "Robinson Crusoe," but it is there.

One might, I think, more profitably consider the symbolic overtones of the footprint in The Pilgrim's Progress, though not as a "source" in Secord's sense.

25 I have discussed this subject in my essay, "Friday as a Convert: Defoe and the Accounts of Indian Missionaries" (RES, n.s., XIV [1963], 243–48).

26 The illustrations I have drawn from Secord are, I am afraid, too typical of the evidence and logic of Defoe source study; I choose my examples from Secord not because he is most vulnerable, but because he is the most articulate and detailed of Defoe source students. It now seems almost incredible that Secord's book has been the most influential study of Defoe in the twentieth century; my concern is that these conjectural conclusions have remained unchallenged for so long, have guided a majority of Defoe studies in our time, and have obscured aspects of Defoe's background which bear important implications for the novel as a form.

27 Bonamy Dobrée, "The Matter-of-Fact Novelist," Listener, XLV (1951), 468.

28 Even Professor Secord fails to make this important distinction, and slips into a "placing" of Robinson Crusoe based on sources: "'Robinson Crusoe,' finally, is not so much a fictitious autobiography … as it is a fictitious book of travel …" (p. 111).

29 Reader expectation was, of course, largely determined by familiarity with Hakluyt, Purchas, and their seventeenth-century successors. For a good recent account of travel literature, see Percy G. Adams, Travelers and Travel Liars (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962).

30 P. xiv.

31 See the title page of Edward Cooke, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World (2 vols.; London, 1712). It is always difficult to tell whether the travel writers are sincere in their protestations or whether they are simply repeating a conventional attitude toward reader expectations.

32 See, for example, the Hakluyt Society edition of Lionel Wafer's A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America (ed. L. E. Elliott Joyce [Oxford, 1934]), in which the contrast between Wafer's "Secret Report" and the published version of his travels suggests the tone and manner expected of a narrator in travel literature.

33 The typical narrative first states the author's credentials (previous sea experience) and explains the nature and purpose of the current voyage. The ship is described (size, number and type of sails), and often the more important members of the crew are introduced. The log of days at sea is detailed enough for a curious reader to trace the journey; masses of information are given about daily locations, winds, currents, and factors affecting the speed and direction of the voyage. Unusual events (storms, sighting of other ships, dietary problems, pirate encounters, crew changes) sometimes are given extended treatment, but such anecdotes seldom extend beyond two or three pages. On the other hand, topical descriptions of places and peoples visited are usually lengthy. The amount of detail for each place varies, of course, with the knowledge of the voyager and with the general importance of the particular place, but ordinarily such matters as the kinds of fish inhabiting the coastal waters or native methods of building huts get far more attention than any event. Such information may or may not have sold the books, but travel writers at least pretend to think it did.

34 Secord, Studies, p. 109. The superficiality of the similarities suggests that instead of attempting to imitate the style and format of travel books (which the author of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters could surely do, if he tried) Defoe used features like the title page simply to attract a particular kind of reader, one who was perhaps unlikely to be reached by The Family Instructor.

35 Throughout this study, I use the term "travel literature" to refer only to published reports of such explorers as Dampier, Rogers, and Cooke. This kind of literature was the chief type used by source students in their work; Secord, for example, lists ten such books as "certain" or "probable" sources of Robinson Crusoe and its two sequels. However, he also includes Defoe's The Storm and the anonymous Providence Displayed as sources of the same type. Their essentially different aims and forms are discussed in Chapter III below.

The term travel literature is sometimes used in a broader, less precise sense; a recent English Institute program on travel literature contained, for example, a paper on science fiction (as voyages of the mind). Under a broad enough definition of the term, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Odyssey, and almost every eighteenth-century novel could fit the category. But it is important to distinguish between different types of publications dealing with travel, and because source students have usually used the term "travel literature" to refer to reports like Dampier's, I have retained their term here. I use it, however, only to describe writings like Dampier's, not those with different aims and methods.

36 Adventure stories often involve travel to far-off places, but travel books seldom involve much adventure. When writers like Dampier or Cooke do describe exciting events, they de-emphasize the action in accordance with their avowal that their only concern is information. Events only explain delays in the voyage or difficulties of exploration: they do not structure a sequential relation. Chronology is less a conscious structure than a convenience. Adventure stories—factual or fictional, episodic or unified—use chronology to suggest movement; they depend upon a world of time, for they are concerned with event, not fact. Even when based on actual happenings, they obviously filter and formulate experience, organizing it in a more or less dramatic manner; travel books, by contrast, pretend to be almost photographic. The difference is that between a story and a report.

37 P. 232.

38The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D——DeF——of London, Hosier … (London, 1719), p. 2; reprinted in Robinson Crusoe Examin'd and Criticis'd, ed. Paul Dottin (London and Paris, 1923), p. 82. Gildon does not accuse Defoe of failing to inculcate a moral, but of not pointing a useful moral.

39 For an account of Gildon's life and a discussion of his various religious positions, see Dottin's "Life of Gildon" in Crusoe Examin'd and Criticis'd. Dottin says that Gildon was resolved "to reap the utmost benefit from his conversion" (p. 22).

40 P. x; in Dottin, p. 72. Because these words are placed in the mouth of "Defoe" in a dialogue, one might suspect that Gildon was simply being facetious—if he did not later attack the book for its theological position on various matters.

In Tom Jones, Fielding suggests a similar contemporary classification, even though (like Gildon) he holds very different religious and philosophical positions. Note the kind of books Fielding lists alongside Robinson Crusoe in Bk. VIII, chap. v. For a brief discussion of Fielding's different artistic assumptions, see below, Afterword.

Principal Works

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An Essay upon Projects (essay) 1697

The True-Born Englishman (poetry) 1701

The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (satire) 1702

A Hymn to the Pillory (poetry) 1703

An Essay on the Regulation of the Press (essay) 1704

The Storm; or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which Happened in the LateDreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (history) 1704

A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day After Her Death, to One Mrs. Bar-grave, at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705 (essay) 1705

Jure Divino (poetry) 1706

The History of the Union of Great Britain (history) 1709

The Family Instructor (handbook) 1715

A Vindication of the Press; or, An Essay on the Usefulness of Writing, On Criticism, and the Qualification of Authors (essay) 1718

*The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years All Alone, in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque (novel) 1719

*The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life; and the Strange Surprising Accounts of His Travels Round Three Parts of the Globe (novel) 1719

The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, a Gentleman (novel) 1720

The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (novel) 1720

Memoirs of a Cavalier; or, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England, from the Year 1632 to the Year 1648 (novel) 1720

*Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World (novel) 1720

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (novel) 1721

The History of the Most Remarkable Life and Extraordinary Adventures of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jacque, Vulgarly Called Colonel Jack (novel) 1722

A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurences, as Well as Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665 (fictional history) 1722

A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. 3 vols. (travel essays and history) 1724–27

The Fortunate Mistress; or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Belau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintelsheim, in Germany: Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II (novel) 1724

The Political History of the Devil, as Well Antient as Modern (fictional history) 1726

The Compleat English Tradesman. 2 vols. (handbook) 1727

An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (essay) 1727

The Military Memoirs of Captain George Carleton, from the Dutch War, 1672, in which He Served, to the Conclusion of the Peace at Utrecht, 1713 (novel) 1728

A Plan of the English Commerce, Being a Compleat Prospect of the Trade of This Nation, as well as the Home Trade as the Foreign (essay) 1730

Novels and Miscellaneous Works of Daniel Defoe. 7 vols. (novels, history, essays, fictional history, fictional journal, and poetry) 1856–84

**The Compleat English Gentleman: Containing Useful Observations on the General Neglect of the Education of English Gentlemen, with the Reason and Remedies (handbook) 1890

The Works of Daniel Defoe 16 vols. (novels, history, essays, fictional history, fictional journal, fictional memoirs, and poetry) 1903–04

Defoe’s Review: 1704–13. 22 vols, (essays and journalism) 1938

The Letters of Daniel Defoe (letters) 1955

*These two works are collectively referred to as Robinson Crusoe.

**This work was written in 1729.

Everett Zimmerman (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe: Author and Narrator," in Defoe and the Novel, University of California Press, 1975, pp. 20–47.

[In the following excerpt, Zimmerman explores problems in narrative consistency in Robinson Crusoe and contends that The Farther Adventures adds psychological aspects to the theological ideas found in the first novel.]

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. According to the title page, it was "written by Himself"; the "preface" mentions, in addition, an editor. The work purports to be autobiography, and was lent at least a limited plausibility by the contemporary interest in Alexander Selkirk, a sailor who spent five years alone on an uninhabited island. Defoe's relationship to his book is difficult to define because of his narrative method: he tries to authenticate the account as being entirely Crusoe's. Questions arise: Does Defoe have any discernible attitude toward his character? Or is Defoe perhaps quite literally writing the book that Crusoe would have written? These questions are impelled by the narrative inefficiency of Robinson Crusoe: the book is filled with events, but it does not move along easily. It contains many seeming irrelevancies, contradictions, and under-developed suggestions. Are these to be dismissed or interpreted? The manner in which the story is written suggests characteristics of its writer. Are these to be referred to Crusoe or to Defoe? Often the meaning of the narrative seems not to be presented but to be escaping.

Charles Gildon raised the relevant issues in 1719. He imagined a meeting between Defoe and Crusoe:

D[anie]l. Why, ye airy Fantoms, are you not my Creatures? mayn't I make of you what I please?

Cru[soe]. Why, yes, you may make of us what you please; but when you raise Beings contradictory to common Sense, and destructive of Religion and Morality; they will rise up against you….'

Is this "strange whimsical, inconsistent Being,"2 who writes the book and expounds its morality, Defoe's creature or only his pseudonym? Unfortunately Gildon was interested only in using Crusoe as an example of Defoe's muddles and pretensions—his pamphlet becomes a dreary, though often accurate, catalog of the deficiencies of "Mr. D[aniel] De F[oe], of London, Hosier,"3 as revealed in his book Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe defended himself against Gildon in a collection of moral essays, which he published as Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. His responses to Gildon in this work only complicate the question of his relation to Crusoe. Defoe has Crusoe insist on his own autonomy with an obstinacy that is, at least in retrospect, comic. One may of course dismiss this oddity by citing economic motives: Crusoe's name will help to sell Defoe's old moral essays. But explaining a motive does not necessarily define a performance. Defoe, well known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote "Robinson Crusoe's Preface" to a collection of religious essays: "I, Robinson Crusoe, being at this time in perfect and sound mind and memory, thanks be to God therefore, do hereby declare their objection ['that it is all formed and embellished by invention to impose upon the world'] is an invention scandalous in design, and false in fact…."4 But Crusoe then goes on to hint that the truth about himself is somehow related to the truth about Daniel Defoe: "… there is not a circumstance in the imaginary story but has its just allusion to a real story" (pp. xi–xii). The introduction to this volume of serious reflections is an entirely transparent equivocation: Crusoe is alive because he is independent of an author, but he is true because he is Defoe.

An author whose actions so bristle with contradictions cannot easily be brought proximate to his creature. One can begin with what author and putative author indubitably share: the language of their common book. "I cannot explain by any possible Energy of Words" is the introduction to a passage about Crusoe's loneliness.5 In the subsequent account there is no illusion of emotion. We are given this sample of Crusoe's "breaking out": "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, one Fellow-Creature to have spoken to me, and to have convers'd with" (p. 188)! This highly rhetorical passage is addressed to no one except the hypothetical reader. It is followed by an analysis of Crusoe's emotions, which are without fictional reality.

The inadequacies of elevated language are especially apparent in the conversion episodes. Crusoe's undescribed "broken and imperfect Prayer" (p. 94) does not lead to his later ecstatic shout by any progression that we can easily regard as spiritually authentic: "Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted, Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance" (p. 96)! Fever and his loathsome concoctions of tobacco explain Crusoe's rhetoric more plausibly than does repentance. Later Crusoe decides that he cannot recommend his remedies: "… I had frequent Convulsions in my Nerves and Limbs for some Time" (p. 97).

The issue is not one of morals: we do not have to decide either that Defoe is being ironic or that he is a hypocrite. He attempts to create, as well as to explain, the emotions that he assumes are Crusoe's. Defoe's attempts to capture emotions are apparent not only in the elevated diction but also in various quantitative increases in the language, such as lists and repetitions. The priest in The Farther Adventures speaks in several languages to express his spiritual ecstasy (XIII, 39). But the grandiose speeches that are intended to create emotion only signify its absence.

As words inexorably slide away from their intended signification, Defoe and Crusoe attempt to fix the emotion in gesture:

I believe it is impossible to express to the Life what the Extasies and Transports of the Soul are, when it is so sav'd…. I walk'd about on the Shore, lifting up my Hands, and my whole Being, as I may say, wrapt up in the Contemplation of my Deliverance, making a Thousand Gestures and Motions which I cannot describe (p. 46).

In this book, actions are assumed to have an undeniable reality even if they cannot be definitely described: the more direct and authentic the emotion, the more likely that discursive speech will be suppressed. Recognizing his father, "Friday kiss'd him, embrac'd him, hugg'd him, cry'd, laugh'd, hollow'd, jump'd about, danc'd, sung, then cry'd again, wrung his Hands, beat his own Face, and Head, and then sung, and jump'd about again, like a distracted Creature" (p. 238).

Both author and narrator are suspicious of language: it is at times a limitation that they wish to evade. But the psychic reality that appears beyond language is terrifying, and words are also often sought as a defense against fears. Those emotions authenticated by action often produce a state verging on madness. The similes implying a disturbed mind—Friday is "like a distracted Creature," and Crusoe runs about "like a Mad-man" (p. 47)—are literalized in the behavior of the passengers rescued at sea in The Farther Adventures: " … there were some in Tears, some raging, and tearing themselves, as if they had been in the greatest Agonies of Sorrow, some stark-raving and down-right lunatick, some ran about the Ship stamping with their Feet, others wringing their Hands … (XII, 128)…. for if an Excess of Joy can carry men out to such a Length beyond the Reach of their Reason, what will not the Extravagancies of Anger, Rage, and a provok'd Mind carry us to" (XII, 131)? Intensities of emotion are conceived of as bizarre, uncontrollable, and damaging—a chaos within.

It is not surprising then that one finds a frequent retreat from such manifestations of feeling into language—a journal, lists, elaborate ritualistic bargaining (see p. 256). As much as possible, language itself is concretized. Unnecessary lists are written; though there is nothing with which to write, Crusoe wants the agreement with the Spaniards to be "put in writing" (p. 248); extreme gratitude for the Portuguese captain's kindness inspires a call "for a Pen and Ink to give him a Receipt" (p. 282). If unsatisfying as a simulator of high emotions, words nevertheless produce an order. Language is repressive of the fearsome inner energies and only obliquely expressive.6

We have moved from what Defoe and Crusoe share—the language of Robinson Crusoe—to what they may perhaps hold opposing notions of—the meaning of the language. Crusoe surveys his life of variety and misfortune with compassion, laughter, and sometimes an exceedingly cold eye. He comments both explicity and implicitly—and sometimes not at all. But there is little sense of an author judging the narrator. Robinson Crusoe is ironic only in the limited sense that the narrator reveals his earlier moral blindness.

Traces of someone who is not a character do, nevertheless, remain; the author tries too blatantly to conceal himself. The twice-mentioned Pocket-Book (XIII, 138, 159), its "leaves rotted," is designed to vouch for the truth of the story and to excuse the omission of place names—but the verisimilitude of the travel book has already been rejected explicitly and repeatedly (XIII, 83, 109). Such declarations too are unnecessary after hundreds of pages have made clear that the narrative is an internal one about the eye "never satisfied with Seeing" (XIII, 110).

This sense of an incompletely hidden author appears frequently in the narrative machinery. The action of writing a book exists in the same way as the actions and evaluations of Crusoe—not only as the means for telling Crusoe's story but also as an adjunct to it. For example, when Crusoe flees, unjustly suspected of being a pirate, his letter of outraged innocence is summarized in the text. The letter contains no new information, and Crusoe goes on to note that "we had no Occasion ever to let the Pilot carry this Letter; for he never went back again" (XIII, 137). This is not Crusoe sorting out his life but an act of writing for its own sake, having a meaning independent of the narrative (I am not here arguing that narrative clumsiness is necessarily high art—only that it is not without meaning).

Crusoe uses the material world to obscure and control his destructive impulses. His behavior is not always entirely appropriate to the adventure that he is ostensibly recounting; nor is it always consonant with the moral scheme that he uses to shape his story. There is a blurring of outline, a sense that his actions fulfill psychic requirements neither directly expressed nor entirely moral or utilitarian. These indirections are similar to Defoe's. His writing is not always perfectly adapted to Crusoe: there are mannerisms serving a purpose not exclusively the character's.

Crusoe comments on his fortifications: "… as it appear'd afterward, there was no need of all this Caution from the Enemies that I apprehended Danger from" (p. 59). Subsequent events give us more confidence in Crusoe's hindsight than in Defoe's foresight: Defoe eliminates suspense about something to which his narrative persistently returns. Although concealment is essential to Crusoe's defense, fortifications never figure in it. Crusoe fortifies to restore his psychic equilibrium; whenever he has brought his defenses to seeming perfection, he is again disturbed. The many references to the fortified habitation culminate in a lengthy summarizing description (pp. 151–153). Immediately thereafter Crusoe sees the "Print of a Man's naked Foot" (p. 153). In his terror he first proposes to destroy all traces of his presence, but then he finds a better way to relieve his "Burthen of Anxiety" (p. 159): "… I resolv'd to draw me a second Fortification, in the same Manner of a Semicircle, at a Distance from my Wall just where I had planted a double Row of Trees about twelve years before, of which I made mention" (p. 161).

Descriptions of this habitation become a set piece in Robinson Crusoe—a result of Defoe's amplification as well as of Crusoe's elaboration. Defoe is finally obliged to assert the attractions of Crusoe's not entirely functional construction: he has the captain who rescues Crusoe express amazement at everything in Crusoe's life, "but above all the Captain admir'd my Fortification" (p. 258). In The Farther Adventures, the Spaniards explain their changes of it: Crusoe's old habitation has a dignity as a relic of a grander past. As Crusoe's dependents, the Spaniards are held to a more utilitarian standard of behavior than he was: Crusoe immediately inquires, "What put them upon all these Fortifications" (XII, 147)? By this time of course the attacks of savages have provided the justification previously missing.

Years before, the Spaniard had suggested wicker work for defense, but Crusoe "saw no Need of it" (p. 248). Defoe, however, rarely relinquishes a scrap of narrative material. Will Atkins, in many ways resembling the earlier Crusoe, lives in a wicker house that is described in an extended passage reminiscent of the descriptions of Crusoe's old habitation: Crusoe concludes, "Such a Piece of Basketwork, I believe, was never seen in the World, nor House, or Tent, so neatly contriv'd, much less, so built" (XII, 221). The author's unwillingness to give up anything is analogous to an important trait of his central figure. Crusoe attempts to salvage everything from the ship: "I had the biggest Magazin of all Kinds that ever were laid up, I believe, for one Man, but I was not Satisfy'd still; for while the Ship sat upright in that Posture, I thought I ought to get every Thing out of her that I could" (p. 55). Crusoe first attempts to select from the ship that which will be useful; he then takes indiscriminately: " … I believe verily, had the calm Weather held, I should have brought away the whole Ship Piece by Piece" (pp. 56–57).

Crusoe's interest in the material world is clearly not merely utilitarian. While escaping from the Moors, he gratuitously shoots an enormous lion and is then "very sorry to lose three Charges of Powder and Shot upon a Creature that was good for nothing" (p. 28). He takes the skin, thinking it may be of some use. It is: he lies on it for a time, and the Portuguese captain later gives him forty ducats for it. But the use that Crusoe so vaguely apprehended is the excuse for the action, not its cause. Here too, Defoe's planning is no more rational than Crusoe's. The episode is not contrived to provide money or a bed for Crusoe: these are afterthoughts. When Crusoe's Moorish adventure is ended, everything is scrupulously transformed into the money needed for the next episode—boat, Xury, lion's skin, leopard's skin, bottles, guns, and beeswax (pp. 33–34). Nothing must be abandoned; Crusoe and Defoe share their attachment to things.

Among the memorable passages of Robinson Crusoe is the apostrophe to money: "… O Drug! … what art thou good for, Thou art not worth to me, no not the taking off of the Ground, one of those Knives is worth all this Heap, I have no Manner of use for thee, e'en remain where thou art, and go to the Bottom as a Creature whose Life is not worth saving" (p. 57). These words are resoundingly false: we are accustomed by this time to see a conflict between Crusoe's abstractions and his actions. Here this conflict is brought sharply to our attention by the contrasting matter-of-fact tone of the immediately succeeding reversal: "However, upon Second thoughts, I took it away, and wrapping all this in a Piece of Canvas, I began to think of making another Raft." But one does not have to conclude that Crusoe's materialism is being derided—only that he has two thoughts, both of which are justified.7 He plausibly argues that "we enjoy just as much as we can use, and no more" (p. 129). Just as plausibly, he suggests that money might be hidden on the island and recovered if he escapes (p. 193).

Our confidence that he will not leave the money behind results in part from our faith in consistency of character. Crusoe is a collector—and not only of money. His emotions are controlled and defined by many kinds of objects. Surrounded by his booty, he is able to rest "very secure" as the storm breaks up the wreck (p. 57). With "infinite Labour" he carries things to his new habitation (p. 59): "… it was a great Pleasure to me to see all my Goods in such Order" (p. 69). He reluctantly thinks of moving when an earthquake threatens to bury him: "… but still when I look'd about and saw how every thing was put in order, how pleasantly conceal'd I was, and how safe from Danger, it made me very loath to remove" (p. 82). Having his goods again reduced to a "confus'd Heap" (p. 67) is more distressing than the danger.

Crusoe's dogged collection of the unneeded corresponds to Defoe's cataloging of the irrelevant. Crusoe "got very little … that was of any use" (p. 193) from his voyage to the Spanish wreck; nevertheless what he got is listed in several hundreds of words. The enumerating, the organizing of oneself in verbal possessions, is the comfort, perhaps cold, of writer and character: the quantity of material collected by the one has its analogue in the language compiled by the other. The impulse to barricade oneself appears even in metaphor: "I was now come to the Center of my Travels, and had in a little Time all my new discover'd Estate safe about me" (p. 303). This estate is money, his new fortress. Defoe's contradictory claims, in the Serious Reflections, for the reality of his book are perhaps relevant here. He insisted on Crusoe's autonomy, on the historical authenticity of the book, but he would not give up the opposing claim that the book reflected his own life. It was his accretion, not Crusoe's.

The most directly expressed of Crusoe's emotions are his fear of being devoured and his hatred of the wild men and beasts who devour. There is for him a fate worse than death—subsequently being eaten up: his body is his last barricade. The cannibals who visit the island produce extravagances of fear and hatred in him—intensities of emotion that are sustained for years. After he first learns of the cannibals, he can think of nothing but how he "might destroy some of these Monsters in their cruel bloody Entertainment, and if possible, save the Victim they should bring hither to destroy" (p. 168; the emphasis of the sentence is significant). He has fantasies and dreams of killing them: "… sometimes that I was just going to let fly at them in my Sleep" (p. 169). Both prudential and religious considerations restrain his murderous imagination for a time, but after another visit from the savages he dreams not only of killing them but also of how he "might justify the doing of it" (p. 185). He finally decides that Friday can be used to kill a group of cannibals from another nation because he is in a state of war with them. But seeing a white victim, Crusoe is "enrag'd to the highest Degree" (p. 233). He prepares a balance sheet at the end of the account to record the number of savages killed (p. 237).

As Frank Ellis points out, the parts of the book before and after the island adventure are filled with references to creatures who eat people—the beasts and cannibals of Africa and the bear and wolves of the Pyrenees.8 But some of these dangers of Africa (and the island) exist only in Crusoe's imagination. He sails southward to escape the Moors: "… for who would ha' suppos'd we were sail'd on to the southward to the truly Barbarian Coast, where whole Nations of Negroes were sure to surround us with their Canoes, and destroy us; where we could ne'er once go on shoar but we should be devour'd by savage Beasts, or more merciless Savages of human kind" (p. 23). Obviously Crusoe himself regards this as hyperbole, and in fact he encounters little difficulty with savages or animals. Nevertheless the "hideous Cryes and Howlings" of beasts and the fears of Crusoe and Xury are frequently mentioned (pp. 24–25). And early in his island sojourn, Crusoe's principal fear is of dangerous wild beasts, though there is never any evidence of their existence. These fears are finally externalized in the encounter with the wolves of Languedoc: "… the Howling of Wolves run much in my Head; and indeed, except the Noise I once heard on the Shore of Africa … I never heard any thing that filled me with so much Horrour" (p. 297). These are "hellish Creatures" (p. 299), "three hundred Devils … roaring and open mouth'd to devour us" (p. 302).

The ubiquitous references to being devoured point to a generalized fear: of being dematerialized—the reversal of the desire to accumulate. It is a fear shared by author and character; "being devoured" is a way of conceiving of diverse fears. Even the language of a passage not directly concerned with cannibals or beasts suggests devouring. Before the shipwreck, Crusoe and the crew expect to be, and are, "swallowed up" (pp. 41, 44); they fear being saved from the sea but devoured by the cannibals (p. 42); the sea is "wild" (p. 43; attention is called to this word, "Den Wild Zee, as the Dutch call the Sea in a Storm"); the sea pursues Crusoe "as furious as an Enemy" (p. 44); and buries him "deep in its own Body" (p. 45).

The fear represented in the book is finally of the rage within. Knowing his own rage, Crusoe fears the worst of others. When his aggressive impulses are thwarted, he improves his fortress in fear of vicious enemies. When his overimproved habitation affords diminishing opportunities for elaboration, he discovers a cave that is suitable for defense. Frightened by an old goat in the cave, he reassures himself: "… I durst to believe there was nothing in this Cave that was more frightful than my self (p. 177). Although Crusoe has been meditating "a bloody putting twenty or thirty of them to the Sword" (p. 169), he gives no sign of recognizing any ironic meaning in his statement. Crusoe's possessions and fortress, Defoe's lists and amplifications—all serve as self-protective psychic diversions.

Crusoe's expectations of violence are not, however, foundationless; much of The Farther Adventures is a documentation of ungovernable passion. The irrational violent impulses of the three mutineers left on the island are brought under control only after several battles with savages. The actions of Crusoe's men at what he calls the "massacre of Madagascar" (XIII, 102) are "Instances of a Rage altogether barbarous, and a Fury, something beyond what was human" (XIII, 96). When suspected of being a pirate, Crusoe will not surrender, even though he can prove his innocence; he agrees with his partner: "… we could have expected nothing from them, but what Rage would have dictated, and an ungoverned Passion have executed" (XIII, 122). Crusoe, finally repelled by the continual bloodshed, is pleased when the Cochin-Chinese (who howl like the wolves of Languedoc) are vanquished with the loss of only one life: "… for I was sick of killing such poor Savage Wretches, even tho' it was in my own Defence" (XIII, 129).

But his bloodlust is revived. Traveling through China, he indulges in indirect, then direct, insults to the natives. He is clearly bent on mischief even before he finds an idol to provide a focus for his rage. When he learns that a Russian who affronted the idol had been sacrificed, Crusoe "related the Story of our Men at Madagascar, and how they burnt and sack'd the Village there, and kill'd Man, Woman, and Child … I added, that I thought we ought to do so to this Village" (XIII, 184; Crusoe's previous expressions of abhorrence of this massacre had driven his men to mutiny). Restrained by the information that the sacrifice had occurred at another village, Crusoe organizes an attack on the idol. The subsequent destruction is an exhibition of wild rage exercised against a surrogate human (XIII, 188).

The moral character of this incident is ambiguous in a way that is rare in Robinson Crusoe. It is not unusual for an event to be left open to interpretation, but Crusoe usually at least ponders its possible meanings. Rarely is there even a suspicion of Defoe looking with irony on Crusoe's final perceptions. Here the reference to the Madagascar incident quite clearly puts Crusoe in the wrong, but there is no more explicit recognition of guilt. Indeed, Crusoe's behavior is in some ways exemplary: he prevents the others from doing serious harm to the villagers, and justifies his destructive actions as a demonstration of the idol's falseness (the Tartar's angry pursuit of Crusoe and his companions shows that they have not learned the lesson that Crusoe intended). And to vindicate Crusoe, one may also cite "Of the Proportion Between the Christian and Pagan World" from the Serious Reflections, where it is argued that the Christian nations ought by force to eradicate the worship of idols (p. 230).

Crusoe's action is explicitly justified and implicitly condemned. The idol's appearance links it with the earlier cannibals and devouring animals: it is a ludicrous conglomeration of the features of various animals, wearing a garment and a hat (XIII, 180). Animals and, on one occasion, a man are sacrificed to it; the priests resemble butchers. Crusoe restrains his earlier rage against the cannibals by religious arguments; here he justifies identical feelings as religious zeal. These moral ambiguities result from contradictory desires of the author: to describe the frenzied mutilation of the idol and also to bring Crusoe (and the book) to a stasis, to a condition in which he is no longer at the mercy of irrational drives.

The pattern for The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is that of a fall, repentance, and redemption—both spiritual and secular. A coincidence of dates, among other things, attests to this pattern's providential order (p. 278): Crusoe's spiritual and physical welfare have been brought about by God's interventions. Within this structure are subsidiary narrative cycles (the island episode is the major one) that are interconnected by many cross-references. The ending, however, represents only temporary salvation. Crusoe's fortune is made, but he will continue the rambling that has been symptomatic of his evil. The obvious explanation is that Defoe is touting The Farther Adventures.

However, there is an additional reason for his continuing the book. The religious structure has not resolved the psychological problem: Crusoe's story has been organized according to a traditional pattern that does not explain his behavior. The continuation is consistent with the earlier book, but it turns out to be no more conclusive. The Farther Adventures sends Crusoe back to the island to tidy up left over narrative matters: the people remaining on the island are organized in a society, and their experiences are shown to be in some ways analogous to Crusoe's. Obsessions from the earlier work are repeated—eating and being eaten, massacres and fortifications. Nevertheless, the only larger order that Defoe finally imposes on the book is a physical one: Crusoe's rambling ceases when he encircles the globe.

In a sense, The Farther Adventures reflects Defoe's recognition of disharmonies in the earlier work. It represents the same impulses, but does not so effectively present the structures used to disguise and control them; aggressive impulses build up, are sated, and build up again. Defoe seems powerless to construct any other pattern. The hostility that drives the writer away from a "design" that he himself recognizes is evident in the following laughably overblown sentence—its very prolixity a testimony both to the writer's self-knowledge and his inability to restrain himself:

… and therefore, I must confess, it seem'd strange to me, when I came home, and heard our People say such fine Things of the Power, Riches, Glory, Magnificence, and Trade of the Chinese; because I saw, and knew, that they were a contemptible Herd or Crowd of ignorant sorded Slaves, subjected to a Government qualified only to rule such a People; and in a word, for I am now launch'd quite beside my Design, I say, in a word, were not its Distance inconceivably great from Muscovy, and was not the Muscovite Empire almost as rude, impotent, and ill govern'd a Crowd of Slaves as they, the Czar of Muscovy might with much Ease drive them all out of their Country, and conquer them in one Campaign; and had the Czar, who I since hear is a growing Prince, and begins to appear formidable in the World, fallen this Way, instead of attacking the Warlike Swedes, in which Attempt none of the Powers of Europe would have envy'd or interrupted him; he might by this time have been Emperor of China, instead of being beaten by the King of Sweden at Narva, when the latter was not One to Six in Number (XIII, 153).

Providence and original sin are the central conceptions that Crusoe uses to explain his earlier life. They are organizing patterns in the book and also essentials of Defoe's faith. But this tells us little about Robinson Crusoe—or Defoe. How do these beliefs affect Defoe's imagination? How are they used in Robinson Crusoe?

"Of Listening to the Voice of Providence," from the Serious Reflections, resolves a few questions. The essay asserts clearly and repeatedly a faith in "the supervising influence and the secret direction of the Creator"; it is man's duty to attempt to understand this secret direction (p. 179). But Defoe recognized enormous difficulties in discerning the dispositions of Providence. His essay is burdened with references to the propensities of men for "tacking the awful name of Providence to every fancy of their own" (p. 196).

In Robinson Crusoe, Providence often seems to be a method of interpretation, a theory rather than a force. And on several occasions, events suggest that it may be Crusoe's "fancy." He thinks that his impulse to go to the Spanish wreck "must come from some invisible Direction" (p. 189), but on returning he not only regards his trip as fruitless but also sees that it intensifies his discontent. His subsequent dream of saving a savage, is, he thinks, providential. But it is a response to his desire to have someone to help him escape to the mainland; this desire is "the fruit of a disturb'd Mind, an impatient Temper" (p. 198). When his dream seems to come true, he notes his less than complete reliance on it: "… I did not let my Dream come to pass in that Part, viz. That he came into my Grove for shelter" (p. 205).

Providence seems to be of two minds about Crusoe's rescue: it prepares him to escape with the aid of the Spaniards, and also sends an English ship. Before rescuing the Spaniard, Crusoe had "Testimonies of the Care of Providence" and an "invincible Impression" that his "Deliverance was at hand" (p. 229). After rescuing the Spaniard, he thinks that he is to be provided with a crew to sail away, a supposition that is supported by the increases in his grain: the supply he is raising for the journey increases tenfold, an allusion to the blessings in the parable of the sower (p. 247). But "a strange and unforseen Accident" occurs—an English ship arrives (p. 249). Crusoe later thinks of this event as evidence of the "secret Hand of Providence governing the World" (p. 273). Although he is not entirely unaware of the difficulties of understanding what he calls the "Checquer-Work" (p. 304) of Providence, this awareness rarely seems to inhibit his speculations.

An inexplicable Providence is of course an aid to Defoe's next book: Crusoe is unexpectedly taken off, the Spaniards and rascally Englishmen are left behind to provide further adventures. But the separation between author and character which is implied by these manipulations is not complete: Crusoe and Defoe continue to respond to forces not explained by their conceptions of Providence or of potboilers. Crusoe's aversion to going from Portugal to England by sea is providentially inspired, as he shows by his account of subsequent shipping disasters (p. 288). Nevertheless, he forgets about Providence after encountering wolves: "… I think I would much rather go a thousand Leagues by Sea, though I were sure to meet with a Storm once a Week" (p. 302).

In The Farther Adventures, Providence becomes psychological as well as theological. Crusoe has dreams of the evils committed by the Englishmen on his island: they are "never all of them true in Fact" but in general. This, he thinks, suggests the "Converse of Spirits" (XII, 113). Clearly, he feels guilty for deserting the Spaniards, although he previously attributed his leaving the island to Providence. He later acknowledges that even at the time of his rescue he feared what the rascally English mutineers who were left behind would do (XII, 148). The difficulty of applying his conception of Providence to his experience becomes apparent, and he despairs of rational comprehension of the meaning of his life. We are "hurry'd down the Stream of our own Desires" (XIII, 82); although it is our duty to listen to the voice of Providence, it is "impossible to make Mankind wise, but at their own Expence" (XIII, 102).

Original sin too becomes a psychological as well as a theological conception. Crusoe calls his leaving home to ramble his "Original Sin" (p. 194); he has no rational object in mind, but is powerless against the compulsion: "But my ill Fate push'd me on now with an Obstinacy that nothing could resist" (p. 14). His repentance subdues this impulse—but only partially and temporarily.

The language of disease and mental illness is used to describe Crusoe's condition at the beginning of The Farther Adventures—"chronical Distemper" (XII, 112); "Extasies of Vapours" (XII, 113); he tries to control himself by working on his farm. When his nephew proposes a voyage, Crusoe attributes the suggestion to the Devil (XII, 120), but then gives Providence the blame (XII, 121). Theological language is Crusoe's device for explaining his psychological instability. This time Defoe accepts the consequences of his creature's unregenerate nature and keeps him in motion. In the final sentence, the old and exhausted Crusoe is preparing "a longer Journey than all these" (XIII, 220). The metaphor is retained even in the face of death.

The Farther Adventures embodies Defoe's increased understanding of Crusoe; much that is only implicit in the earlier work is explicit in the later one. In particular, the limitations of Crusoe's repentance are clearly shown in The Farther Adventures. But the later book is less interesting than the earlier one. The incongruities between structural device and psychological reality provide an order for the first account. Crusoe's use of religious conceptions to subdue his destructive impulses is both limiting and useful: although his theories do not explain his experience, they enable him to order his responses. In The Farther Adventures, Crusoe's disordered impulses result in a distended narrative—obsession without form.

In the earlier work, Crusoe's repentance is narrated in a traditional literary structure—a journal. The awkwardness of Defoe's use of this structure is expressive of the complications of the book. The journal begins ordinarily enough as a day-to-day account of his experiences, but soon Crusoe interprets events from a later point of view. The departure from the journal is frequently unnoted, but when it becomes apparent, variations of the formula "But to return to my Journal" (p. 79) are used to wrench the narrative back to its former structure. Vestiges of the journal remain for some time, but the form is of little narrative use after Crusoe's repentance and recovery.

The traditional use of a journal among the religious was to find and memorialize the spiritual significance of daily existence. One expects this kind of account here because Crusoe begins with events already narrated: what purpose can there be if not to reveal a spiritual dimension? But at first, the journal account is no more spiritual, or even internal, than his previous account: in its compression, it is usually a balder summary of external activity than the first account. It affords in fact the same satisfactions as his earlier frenetic activity: the process of external ordering hides the disorder within. Earlier he briefly described the state of his affairs in writing: "… not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me, for I was like to have but few Heirs, as to deliver my Thoughts from daily poring upon them, and afflicting my Mind" (p. 65). Following this exercise, he is able to bring his possessions into order: he exerts a "prodigious deal of Time and Labour" (p. 68) just to make shelving for his goods. By then he has not only attained the stability necessary for keeping a journal but has also acquired a need for this new stabilizing enterprise. The first part of his journal allows the previous ordering process to be enjoyed again.

The providential appearance of the grain is the first substantial departure from the journal form. As Crusoe expatiates on Providence, he moves away from his point of view as a castaway: his consciousness at that time is corrected and expanded until it disappears. Following this, the journal structure is violated extensively: the ill and inactive Crusoe is terror-stricken, and the spiritual significance of his repentance is explained by commentary from a later point of view.

It is not to Crusoe's diminishing supply of ink alone that we must look for an understanding of the exploded journal structure. Defoe could not plausibly have had Crusoe define his own spiritual condition. On the island, Crusoe is characterized by his obsessive actions: he finds pretexts, not explanations, for his behavior. His definitions of his condition must be supplemented by explanation from the vague and distant future. But Defoe's introduction of the journal is expressive as well as awkward. The gap between Crusoe's behavior and his explanations becomes apparent as additional commentary must be inserted to make the narrative assume the shape of a traditional repentance story.

The island experience is another structural device that is effectively exploited by Crusoe and Defoe. Traditional associations are alluded to, but the allegory is discontinuous; the island is interpreted in incompatible ways: it is "my Reign, or my Captivity, which you please" (p. 137). For Crusoe, the island is a way of defining moods; for Defoe, it is a way to shape a story. The "Island of Despair" (p. 70) is the wilderness (p. 130) where Crusoe must undergo the suffering that will take him through repentance to the promised land. But he transforms the wilderness into the garden; the island itself becomes his deliverance. The contradictions in his own thoughts are clear to Crusoe: he must subdue his anguish at being cast away, but he should also hope for his deliverance (p. 113). As he explores the island, he becomes increasingly aware that it can be made into a promised land. His habitation becomes "natural" (p. 110).

Defoe mentions many biblical parallels—the prodigal son and Jonah, for example.9 But any extended interpretation of the story in terms of a single pattern is perilous: patterns obviously alluded to are often just as obviously incongruous. When Crusoe leaves the island, he gives those who remain various seeds "and bad them be sure to sow and encrease them" (p. 277). This incident combines references to two of Christ's parables—that of the sower, often alluded to in Robinson Crusoe, and that of the talents, traditionally interpreted as an injunction to prepare for Christ's return. This analogy to divinity, though not strictly suitable to Crusoe, is pursued in The Farther Adventures. The Spaniards remain in their original habitation because they expect to "hear from their Governor again, meaning me" (XII, 172). When he returns, they accept his food "as Bread sent from Heaven; and what a reviving Cordial it was to their Spirits to taste it" (XIII, 6). Crusoe soon explains that he did not come to remove them but "to establish them there" (XIII, 7). Their response to this chilling news: "… I was a Father to them, and that having such a Correspondent as I was, in so remote a Part of the World, it would make them forget that they were left in a desolate Place" (XIII, 10).

The obvious incongruities resulting from presenting Crusoe as a type of Christ are soon apparent. Crusoe sees how far he is from "understanding the most essential Part of a Christian" (XIII, 23), And in retrospect he comments upon his unkind behavior: "… I pleased my self with being the patron of those People I placed there, and doing for them in a kind of haughty majestick Way, like an old Patriarchal Monarch" (XIII, 80). Christ is a role adopted by Crusoe but also sustained by Defoe (Defoe has things external to Crusoe also suggest that he is a savior). The role is soon abandoned, but the attitude is later revived. Speaking to a Russian prince, Crusoe boasts: "… never Tyrant, for such I acknowledged myself to be, was ever so universally beloved, and yet so horribly feared by his Subjects" (XIII, 200). Christ or tyrant—he can play one as easily as the other.

Robinson Crusoe is highly allusive; yet the references to things outside the book do not lead to expanded meanings: reverberations are quickly muffled. "I might well say, now indeed, That the latter End of Job was better than the Beginning" (p. 284), says Crusoe as he recovers his wealth. This comparison at first seems ironical; Job, unlike Crusoe, was a righteous man. Although Defoe understood well the implications of the biblical story, one can find no indications of irony within the text. The reference is used in its limited sense: only Crusoe's ending is expressed in terms of Job's. The broader meanings of both stories are ignored.

Sometimes the allusions are vague, even subliminal. Crusoe fancies himself "like one of the ancient Giants, which are said to live in Caves, and Holes, in the Rocks, where none could come at them" (p. 179). A Polyphemus who is in terror of being himself eaten? (Eric Berne states that "Crusoe's anxieties were based on the principle: 'He who eats shall be eaten.'"10) One thinks of Crusoe's often described position on top of his hill looking for cannibals with his perspective glass (monocular). And another example: Crusoe agrees with the Spaniard "about a Signal they should hang out at their Return, by which I should know them again, when they came back, at a Distance, before they came on Shore" (p. 249). The signal is in vain; Crusoe has gone. Has Theseus's father revenged himself? Crusoe has been punished for filial contempt; in this case, he makes his children suffer. Pursuit of these threads does not lead to a precise delimitation of meaning but to the labyrinth where text and author meet….


1 "A Dialogue Betwixt D[aniel] F[o]e, Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday," from Robinson Crusoe Examin 'd and Criticis'd, ed. Paul Dottin (London: J. M. Dent, 1923), p. 69.

2 Gildon, p. 70.

3 Gildon, p. 63.

4Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. George Aitken (London: J. M. Dent, 1895), p. ix.

5Robinson Crusoe, ed. J. Donald Crowley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972). References to The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe are to Volumes XII and XIII of the Shakespeare Head Edition of the Novels and Selected Writings of Daniel Defoe (Oxford, 1927). All subsequent references to Robinson Crusoe are in the text.

6 Benjamin Boyce, "The Question of Emotion in Defoe," SP 50 (1953), 50, makes this comment on Robinson Crusoe: "Augustan reticence about the horrors has not prevented Defoe's twice giving us plain hints of what 'many dull things'—that is, what shocking, private, and indecorous things—would have gone into a stream-of-consciousness narrative."

7 This passage has occasioned differences of opinion. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1957) p. 119, responds to Coleridge's admiration of the passage by wondering if "the apparent irony [is not] merely the result of the extreme insouciance with which Defoe … jerks himself back to his role as novelist, and hastens to tell us what he knows Crusoe, and indeed anyone else, would actually do in the circumstances." William H. Halewood, "Religion and Invention in Robinson Crusoe, " Essays in Criticism 14 (1964), 350, finds that this passage "concentrates in a little space the central irony of the book and the defining irony of Crusoe's inconsistent character." If "irony" means only the recognition of a discrepancy between conduct and statement, temporarily unnoticed by a character, then this passage is ironic: surely both Defoe and his narrator, Crusoe, must be assumed to be aware of the sharply presented contradictions here. But if in a broader sense, it is meant that Defoe designed a structure to expose the failings of Crusoe's whole mode of behavior—failings never fully recognized by the character himself—then it seems to me that the passage is not ironic.

8 "Introduction," Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Ellis (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), pp. 12-13.

9 Edwin B. Benjamin, "Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe," PQ 30 (1951), 206-211, shows the importance of many of the biblical allusions. J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966) provides information about the conventions of Puritan religious writings, and interprets Robinson Crusoe from this perspective. George A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) also deals with traditional religious patterns in Robinson Crusoe.

10 "The Psychological Structure of Space with Some Remarks on Robinson Crusoe," Psychoanalytic Quarterly 25 (1956), p. 563….

Pat Rogers (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8427

SOURCE: "Religion and Allegory," in Robinson Crusoe, George Allen & Unwin, 1979, pp. 51-72.

[In the following excerpt, Rogers outlines various positions that critics have taken in interpreting Robinson Crusoe and discusses Defoe's religious background and the novel's treatment of sin.]

The Puritan Inheritance

The most striking single development in our recent understanding of the novel has lain in the rediscovery of a pervasive spiritual motif. In the nineteenth century Crusoe had been treated mainly as an adventure-story, characterised by intense 'realism' of presentation. Robinson himself had been viewed as an upright and manly Englishman, whose Broad Church piety did not get in the way of his real mission—survival and ultimate prosperity. Even as lately as the 1950s it was usual to dismiss Crusoe's religious reflections as not much more than appliqué on the surface of the narrative. In the 1860s Karl Marx wrote: 'Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.'1 Almost a hundred years later Ian Watt was inclined to agree:

Both Marx and Gildon were right in drawing attention to the discontinuity between the religious aspects of the book and its action: but their explanations do Defoe some injustice. His spiritual intentions were probably quite sincere, but they have the weakness of all 'Sunday religion' and manifest themselves in somewhat unconvincing periodical tributes to the transcendental at times when a respite from real action and practical intellectual effort is allowed or enforced.

Watt went on to assert that Defoe's 'religious upbringing forced him from time to time to hand over a brilliant piece of narrative by a star-reporter to a distant colleague on the religious page who could be relied on to supply suitable spiritual commentaries quickly out of stock. Puritanism made the editorial policy unalterable; but it was usually satisfied by a purely formal adherence.'2

These sentiments now have an extraordinarily dated look, because of the rapid transformation in our reading habits. Partly this is explicable by reason of a more sympathetic attitude towards the Puritan mind. Watt's book had its intellectual genesis at a time when R. H. Tawney and Max Weber dominated the general response to religious history. They are quoted comparatively infrequently by Watt, but it would not be straining the evidence to detect in his book a subterranean current of ideas deriving from this source. A representative passage in Tawney sums up the outlook:

The distinctive note of Puritan teaching … was individual responsibility, not social obligation. Training its pupils to the mastery of others through the mastery of self, it prized as a crown of glory the qualities which arm the spiritual athlete for his solitary contest with a hostile world, and dismissed concern with the social order as the prop of weaklings and the Capua of the soul.3

Subsequent writers have criticised Tawney's general thesis, and have adopted a less jaundiced attitude towards the individualist ethic. It would not now be so readily taken for granted that 'concern with the social order' is always a more desirable or positive element in intellectual life than a concern for private spiritual values.

However, it was the appearance of two critical studies in the 1960s which dramatically reversed the position. Building on other explorations of the Puritan mind, and following up work on Milton and Bunyan in particular, these books set Crusoe in a wholly new light. George A. Starr published Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography in 1965. He argued that a well-marked cycle of sin and regeneration underlay Crusoe's experiences throughout the novel. There is, indeed, 'a conventional progression in sin' and an equally conventional pattern of redemption. Starr applied the same schemata to other novels (Moll and Roxana), but Robinson Crusoe is granted most space and proves the most amenable to this treatment. Another feature of the reading is the importance given to Crusoe's conversion of Friday, formerly regarded as marginal or even impertinent.4

Though the detailed emphases of J. Paul Hunter's The Reluctant Pilgrim (1966) are different, the main drift of the argument is remarkably similar. Hunter confines himself to Crusoe and examines a number of 'Puritan subliterary traditions' relevant to its making. (Where Starr had tended to stress general religious background, citing Anglican as well as Puritan sources, Hunter prefers to work from the dissenting models.) In his view the external narrative of travel and adventure has been allowed too prominent a place in our assessment of Crusoe. Typical of his argument are passages like this:

What Defoe distills from desert island experience is not an 'agreeable Relation' at all, but rather a rigorous multilevel moral examination of life…. Unlike its [adventure-story] analogues, Robinson Crusoe derives dramatic power from its understanding of man's struggle against nature as both physical and metaphysical…. [It] embodies the Puritan view of man on a most profound level; it … portrays, through the struggles of one man, the rebellion and punishment, repentance and deliverance, of all men, as they sojourn in a hostile world.

Or this:

Throughout Robinson Crusoe physical events reflect Crusoe's spiritual state, for Crusoe is concerned with accommodating himself to his world spiritually and physically at the same time, and his efforts to come to terms with his physical environment parallel his efforts to find a proper relationship with his God. Ultimately, his physical activities become a metaphor for his spiritual aspirations.

What is most important here is the attempt to see Crusoe as a coherent and formally sophisticated narrative. Hunter, like Starr, divides the plot into clear-cut phases: rebellion and punishment, repentance and deliverance. He, too, pays attention to the 'saving' of Friday. But he goes further than Starr in detecting overall 'emblematic' or allegorical structure, using standard metaphors, parables and symbols to create a moral pilgrimage rather than a bare escape-story. He places particular stress on the biblical and typological allusions, looking for events with a meaning consecrated by their appearance (in identical or closely related terms) in scripture.5

Both these approaches show Crusoe as dependent on widely known techniques of popular devotional or didactic literature. They make it easier to relate the work to Defoe's vein of pious conduct-books, such as The Family Instructor. Moreover, they have in common a desire to emphasise the 'thematic' content of Crusoe, as opposed to the fictional rendering of exciting events. It is possible to feel that both critics overstate their case a little, and Hunter in particular is led by his thesis to play down every aspect of the work other than those which fit his case. Nevertheless, these readings have enriched our understanding to a remarkable degree, and in suggesting a new generic context for Crusoe they have provided an artistic justification for features and episodes which previously seemed hard to explain. Seen as a Puritan fable of spiritual life, the novel appears not only different but also, in crucial ways, a better book: more deeply imagined and more cunningly wrought.

The major forms lying behind such a version would be these:

(a) Spiritual autobiography. The best-known example today is Bunyan's Grace Abounding (1666). The keeping of a diary of one's own progress towards salvation was not, as Starr emphasises, confined to dissenting sects, although its most extreme manifestations are found there. The habit inculcated in pious individuals was to scrutinise their own life for signs of advancement or backsliding. In Starr's words, 'Since every man is responsible for the well-being of his own soul, he must mark with care each event or stage in its development. As his own spiritual physician, he must duly note every symptom of progress or relapse.' Another impetus to the composition of spiritual autobiography lay in the belief that 'there are universal and recurrent elements in human affairs, particularly in vicissitudes of the soul. History repeats itself… in the spiritual life of individuals.' This in turn connects with the habit of searching the Bible for parallels and portents, to find what were called 'Scripture Similitudes'. Certain biblical images came to have special meanings accredited to them; in this area of moral exegesis Defoe would have the example of innumerable sermons but also formal handbooks such as the Tropologia (1681) by a London Baptist preacher, Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), which gathers together many 'express' allegories found in the Bible. Key metaphors included those of pilgrimage, of seafaring, and warfare. Though surrounded in his youth by spiritual autobiographers, Defoe did not attempt the form himself; it is true, however, that his tributes to his family pastor, Dr Annesley (see below, p. 59), and his life of Daniel Williams (1718) have been seen as related to the tradition.6

Starr, as indicated, discerns a standard 'rhythm' of conversion. From his 'original sin' in running away to sea, through his early wanderings to his shipwreck and gradual restoration on the island, a direct allusion to this pattern can be traced. (For example, the early travels reflect estrangement and alienation from God.) Then on the island come stock episodes such as dreams and earthquakes. God's interposition finally brings Crusoe to a recognition of his errors, and his regeneration reaches a climax in his conversion of Friday—zeal in this direction was a well-understood mark of spiritual advancement. In spiritual biography 'the purposeful pattern of the subject's life is superimposed over the chronological record of events'; Crusoe has first to discover this purpose and then shape his narrative to show its accomplishment.7

(b) The guide tradition. This is a branch of popular homiletic literature concerned with warning the reader against the perils of moral existence, and designed to offer a ready-to-hand hortatory or consolatory body of instruction. There were many general guides, but also specialised manuals directed towards a group or calling (seamen, tradesmen, farmers, etc.). A major subdivision was that of the guide to young persons, in which Timothy Cruso (see below, p. 60) was a practitioner. Perhaps the best-known of all works in this genre were Arthur Dent's Plain Mans Pathway to Heaven (1601) and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety (1613); the equally popular Whole Duty of Man (1658) has its roots in this tradition. Tracts and sermons not specifically organised as a 'guide' drew upon the same habit of advice. Even as late a work as William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) shows some impress; the penultimate chapter, for instance, is set out very much on the 'guide' formula: 'Of evening prayer. Of the nature and necessity of examination. How we are to be particular in the confession of all our sins. How we are to fill our minds with a just horror and of all sin.' Law, of course, was a High Churchman. But Defoe the dissenter would be exposed to many such manuals on practical living, conceived from a religious standpoint. Indeed, his own conduct-books, from The Family Instructor through to Compleat English Gentleman, are secularised or dramatised variants of the guide. Hunter is surely justified in saying that Crusoe deals 'with the problems which the guide tradition had previously faced'—the nature of a calling, filial obedience, resistance to temptation. As Hunter goes on to remark, 'Robinson Crusoe ultimately is much more complex than any of the traditions which nourish it, but the complexity should not obscure the ancestry'.8

(c) The 'Providence' tradition. This is Hunter's term for a widely employed technique (found in sermons, guides, biographies and elsewhere), showing the intervention of God in the affairs of man. All the forms discussed here were likely to interpret natural phenomena as marks of divine approval or disapproval, as reward for merit or punishment for evil. The specific tradition relates to explicit or extended use of this notion, especially the recital of extraordinary events which are carefully explicated in the light of their providential bearings. A prominent and still highly readable example is the work of an Anglican clergyman, William Turner (1653-1701); it is called A Compleat History of the Most Remarkable Providences, Both of Judgment and Mercy, Which have Hapned in this Present Age (1697). Bitty and uneven though it is, this book provides one of the clearest introductions we have to the mental world in which Robinson Crusoe came to birth. In a way it is literature of the 'Strange News from …' variety; but for contemporaries the overriding interest undoubtedly lay in the interpretations rather than the events themselves—Turner divides his stories into categories, each illustrating particular modes of divine judgement. It should be added that the pamphlet version of Selkirk's story, Providence Displayed (see above, p. 49), is in essentials a reworking of Woodes Rogers towards providential ends.9

Defoe's awareness of this tradition is quite unmistakable. Even if he had not used as his theme delivery from shipwreck (and, incidentally, escape from Barbary)—standard providential material—and even if he had not stated in his preface (RC1, p. 1) that his aim was 'to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances', we should still have external evidence. In RC3 a chapter is devoted to the subject of 'Listening to the Voice of Providence'. In this Defoe offers a definition of Providence ('the operation of the power, wisdom, justice, and goodness of God by which He influences, governs, and directs not only the means, but the events, of all things which concern us in this world', p. 187). He has Crusoe explain that 'by listening to the voice of Providence, I mean to study its meaning in every circumstance of life'; this should be 'our business and our interest' (p. 189). Crusoe's habit of noting dates, coincidences and significant conjunctions is illuminated by his observation here, 'The concurrence of events is a light to their causes, and the methods of Heaven, in some things, are a happy guide to us to make a judgment in others; he that is deaf to these things shuts his ears to instruction, and, like Solomon's fool, hates knowledge' (p. 195). And at the end of this section:

To listen to the voice of Providence, is to take strict notice of all the remarkable steps of Providence which relate to us in particular, to observe if there is nothing in them instructing to our conduct, no warning to us for avoiding some danger, no direction for the taking some particular steps for our safety or advantage, no hint to remind of such and such things omitted, no conviction of something committed, no vindictive step, by way of retaliation, marking out the crime in the punishment, (p. 213)

It would be exceedingly rash to assume that this is simply an importunate moral thrust on the self-sufficient narrative, an ex post facto signal by Defoe behind the back of his creation Robinson. All the signs are that Defoe, from the very beginning, meant his novel to bear these monitory functions.

A significant clue here lies in a book published fifteen years earlier. All his life Defoe was fascinated by natural disasters, whether volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fires, or epidemics. One of his most characteristic early works is The Storm (1704), assembling reports on the great 'dreadful Tempest' which had struck Britain on 26-27 November 1703. At least 8,000 people are believed to have perished in the savage wind and floods: Eddystone lighthouse was destroyed, men-of-war lost while at anchor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells killed with his wife as they lay in bed. Defoe's compilation is, following the practice of the time, a rambling affair: it moves from Ralph Bohen's theories on the causes of wind through earlier hurricanes to the present storm, with a pastoral elegy sent in by an unnamed contributor. The main part of the book is taken up with eye-witness accounts from all over southern Britain. In his preface Defoe spells out the providential implications, and challenges freethinkers to examine their position: 'I cannot believe any Man so rooted in Atheistical Opinions, as not to find some Cause whether he was not in the Wrong, and a little to apprehend the Possibility of a Supreme Being, when he felt the terrible blasts of this Tempest.' Indeed, Defoe had originally intended to supply an account of 'some unthinking Wretches, who pass'd over this dreadful Judgment with Banter, Scoffing, and Contempt'; but he decided it would be charitable to omit this.10

A sceptic might ask whether Defoe would have had one of his early books strongly present in his mind when some 330 items separate this from Crusoe in the Checklist. But there is separate evidence that The Storm had a part to play in the genesis of the novel. As Secord demonstrated at length,11 the account of the storm off Yarmouth roads (RC1, pp. 10-14) has strong affinities with various parts of The Storm, besides a connection with a passage on the Norfolk coast published in the Tour (1724).12 The most direct parallel concerns the very last report inserted in The Storm, which carries the dateline, 'From on board the John and Mary, riding in Yarmouth Roads during the great Storm, but now in the River of Thames'.13 Secord itemised a number of closely similar features in the two books, showing a correspondence both in the materials of the description and in their ordering. Some aspects of the account in Crusoe, however, find their parallels in other reports included in The Storm. In addition, Secord briefly indicated a possible link between the Yarmouth narrative of 1704 and Crusoe's final shipwreck, that is, the one in the mouth of the Orinoco which results in his island captivity. There are occasional verbal parallels: 'the Sea went too high for any Boat to live' (Storm, pp. 268-9), 'the Sea went so high, that the Boat could not live' (RC1, p. 43). In both narratives a boat 'staves' to pieces when dashed against the ship; and other expressions recur ('abate', 'drive', as well as technical terms such as 'cable'). The resemblances are certainly greater than one would expect from two accounts of a storm chosen at random; and, while it would be going too far to list the 1704 description as an immediate 'source' of the 1719 wreck, some imaginative continuity may well be present. We do not know if Defoe himself wrote the relations of 'strange Deliverances' in The Storm—he may very easily have done so. In any case, the material stayed in his head for the rest of his life. There are several allusions to this national disaster in his Tour (1724-6): it rivals the Plague and the South Sea Bubble as an emblem of catastrophe.

It is probably unnecessary to emphasise here the fact that one of Defoe's later fictions, A Journal of the Plague Year, where the narrator refers to the plague as 'a particular Season of Divine Vengeance', is centrally concerned with natural events as a sign of God's wrath. H.F. sees the plague as occurring by 'the Appointment and Direction of Providence';14 as usual Defoe makes it plain that divine will is expressed through second causes and only exceptionally through direct intervention outside the ordinary processes of nature. Robinson Crusoe is shot through with the same inclination to read providential meanings into occurrences both remarkable and humdrum. This proceeds from no eccentric or radical enthusiasm; it was a way of interpreting events and a way of telling stories thoroughly acceptable to readers of the day, whatever their particular shade of religious belief.

(d) Other contexts. Hunter describes a more generalised form, that is, the 'pilgrim' allegory present in Bunyan's masterpiece and sketched less memorably in a thousand sermons or tracts. The abstract scheme is set out by Hunter in these terms:

A man first sails away from the Home appointed for him (instead of proceeding toward it) and then becomes isolated from God as a result of discontent and selfish pride. Ultimately, however, God intervenes to deliver him from destruction, and the direction of his life is altered to a course pleasing to God and leading at last to the man's ultimate Home. The man, however, still must undergo numerous battles with evil before he can rest content at the end of the journey.

This scenario would also fit many spiritual biographies. The fact that Crusoe emerges with much more concrete life and individuality than the scheme allows for does not make the correspondences wholly irrelevant.15

In a separate article Hunter draws attention to the many seventeenth-century accounts of missions among the American Indians. The missionaries were largely supported by New England Puritans, like Defoe's early tutor, Charles Morton. In fact a major collection of such accounts, A Brief Narrative of the Success [of the] Gospel among the Indians in New-England (1694), was dedicated by its compiler, Matthew Mayhew, to Morton amongst others. Hunter's main purpose on this occasion is to show how the descriptions of native converts square with Defoe's picture of Friday; but his article indicates another kind of work, straddling devotional and 'discovery' themes, which must have lain at the back of the novelist's mind.16 So, of course, did innumerable sermons and religious tracts; their influence may not be directly felt at any given point in Crusoe, but they were abroad in the general imagination as surely as the images of popular television programmes inhabit our consciousness today. In 1719 no living Englishman (or woman) could have escaped the power of the religious word; it was the stuff of his culture.

Education in Dissent

The last comment would apply to any contemporary. But Defoe was marked off by the fact that he had been intended for the nonconformist ministry. His formative years were spent in a highly purposive environment, with a distinct aim in view. He grew up conscious of a special destiny in store and, although he relinquished the calling, he retained the sense of a personal fate. Whether or not Crusoe can be read as an allegory of his private experience, he had a vein of self-pity which commonly expressed itself in laments at the 'afflictions' he was forced to endure. In the nearest he came to an autobiography, An Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), he claimed that he alone had been 'silent under the infinite Clamours and Reproaches, causeless Curses, unusual Threatnings, and the most unjust and injurious Treatment in the World'.17 Defoe had a profound consciousness of having been cheated somewhere along the line. Whether it was his abandoned career in the ministry, his failed business ventures, his allegiance to fallen ministers, the loss of his royal patron, William III, or a combination of these things—he felt he had not had his deserts. Crusoe and his other highly successful heroes and heroines may involve a compensatory fantasy.

Young Daniel Foe was only 2 years old when the Act of Uniformity passed through Parliament.18 It meant that ministers were obliged to accept the new Book of Common Prayer, drawn up by a High Church convocation in 1661. In addition they had to submit to episcopal ordination. The vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate (the parish church, one might say, of Grub Street) was Samuel Annesley (?1620-96). He refused the new tests and was duly ejected. He took with him into the Presbyterian Church many parishioners; among these was the tallow-chandler of Fore Street, James Foe, together with his wife Alice and three children. In 1665, during the Plague, the Oxford Parliament passed the so-called Five Mile Act which strengthened the test and drove Annesley farther afield. After the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672 he was licensed to preach again, in Little St Helen's, off the lower end of Bishopsgate, opposite Gresham College. There he remained until his death in 1696, an event prompting Defoe to produce a verse elegy on his character—this stresses Annesley's loyalty to his parents, his piety from childhood on, and his qualities of calm, patience and fortitude in adversity.19 Another strong link with nonconformity to come was forged by the marriage of his daughter to Samuel Wesley, the father of Charles and John. Moore is justified in saying that, through his association with Annesley, Defoe 'grew up near the center of Presbyterian worship in London'.20

Around 1668 Daniel lost his mother, and he was sent to a boarding school for dissenters near Dorking in Surrey. The master, James Fisher, was another ejected minister, although a man of lesser stature than Annesley. He was a Congregationalist, that is, a member of a less tightly organised sect than the Presbyterians. Defoe left school about 1674, and that should have been the end of his formal education. But instead he went on to study under yet another ejected minister, Charles Morton, at the famous Newington Green academy. This indicates that he was by now a candidate for the ministry. Much has been written about Morton (1627-98) and his possible influence upon Defoe. The basic facts are, first, that he, too, was a Congregationalist; secondly, that he was a widely cultivated man, a graduate of Oxford who had been incorporated at Cambridge and who was ultimately to become Vice-President of Harvard; thirdly, that his special interests were scientific and mathematical (thus reinforcing the bias towards practical subjects which dissenting academies developed in reaction against the obscurantist pedantry—as they saw it—of the universities). Defoe was proud of his association with the man and with the school, and at the end of his life was still propagating the values he had imbibed during this period. It should be added that Morton taught through the medium of English—an act of rebellion in itself—and his own spare prose may possibly have influenced his pupil's style.

A pupil of the academy at just about the same time was a young man some four years senior to Defoe. This was Timothy Cruso (?1656-97), who went on to become a Presbyterian minister and well-known preacher. He wrote some of the popular 'guides', including God the Guide of Youth (1695); but he would probably not be associated with Defoe today but for his surname. Since the nineteenth century biographers have speculated on the possibility that this is where the curious name derives. (Other theories would relate it to a Caribbean island, Curaçao, where pirates gathered; or to a Cruso family in King's Lynn; or to German words such as kreutzen, 'to cross or cruise', and Kreutz, 'a cross'.) Recently Hunter has revived the Timothy Cruso connection, arguing that Defoe employs an allusive mode to alert readers familiar with the career of this dissenting teacher. It is not a matter on which a definitive answer is likely to emerge.21

In any case Defoe left the academy about 1679. He made transcripts of sermons delivered by a former Congregationalist, John Collins (?1632-87), who also had Harvard connections. Collins, like Timothy Cruso later, was chosen as Merchant's Lecturer at Pinner's Hall (a major centre of dissent, in Broad Street, halfway between St Giles's and Little St Helen's). Defoe composed at this time some verse meditations which were first published in 1946. They have been described as 'confessional' poetry, but they do not really explain why Defoe should, very soon afterwards, turn his back on the ministry and enter trade. We are left with a long preparation for the role of a pastor; a boyhood and youth spent under the influence of enlightened dissenters like Annesley, Fisher and Morton; and then the sudden volte-face. Many 'personal' readings of literature are unconvincing, not least the highly biographic interpretations of Crusoe itself. But if it is accepted that Robinson Crusoe is haunted throughout by an early misjudgement, then the possibility that Defoe's switch of career has some deep-level connection with the issue cannot be regarded as implausible.

Crusoe's Original Sin

In the middle of RC1, Crusoe reflects on his condition in the period between his discovery of the Spanish wreck and his meeting with Friday—he has spent some twenty-three years on the island:

I have been in all my Circumstances a Memento to those who are touch'd with the general Plague of Mankind, whence, for ought I know, one half of their Miseries flow; I mean, that of not being satisfy'd with the Station wherein God and Nature has plac'd them; for not to look back upon my primitive Condition, and the excellent Advice of my Father, the Opposition to which, was, as I may call it, my ORIGINAL SIN; my subsequent Mistakes of the same kind had been the Means of my coming into this miserable Condition; for had that Providence, which so happily had seated me at the Brasils, as a Planter, bless'd me with confin'd Desires, and I could have been contented to have gone on gradually, I might have been by this Time; I mean, in the Time of my being in this Island, one of the most considerable Planters in the Brasils….

Nor do the self-reproaches stop there:

But as this is ordinarily the Fate of young Heads, so Reflection upon the Folly of it, is as ordinarily the Exercise of more Years, or of the dear bought Experience of Time; and so it was with me now; and yet so deep had the Mistake taken root in my Temper, that I could not satisfy myself in my Station, but was continually poring upon the Means, and Possibility of my Escape from this Place…. (pp. 194-5)

What precisely was this original sin? As the passage makes clear, it refers to Crusoe's first act of disobedience in leaving home to follow a seafaring life, rather than the legal career marked out for him. But this is only to shift the question back one stage. What kind of error does the 19-year-old Robinson commit? And is the root of his disobedience to be explained in religious, moral or psychological terms? No issue has more exercised recent commentators.

One remarkably clear-cut solution was proposed by Ian Watt. In his view, 'the argument between [Crusoe's] parents and himself is a debate, not about filial duty or religion, but about whether going or staying is likely to be the most advantageous course materially…. And, of course, Crusoe actually gains by his "original sin", and becomes richer than his father was.' Consequently, on this showing, 'Crusoe's "original sin" is really the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself, whose aim is never merely to maintain the status quo, but to transform it incessantly. Leaving home, improving on the lot one was born to, is a vital feature of the individualist pattern of life'.22 Watt's verdict has been repeated by some later critics, including John J. Richetti, who locates Crusoe's urges still more precisely within the 'dangerously dynamic aspect of capitalist ideology which must in the context of the early eighteenth century be denied and suppressed'. Richetti suggests that Crusoe has to do more than merely repudiate his father: 'The destruction of the father … seems to be what lies behind Crusoe's desire to go to sea, that is, to become rich above his father's station. To surpass him economically is in a real sense to destroy him.' There is at the start 'a dance among various sorts of explanations—social, moral, and psychoreligious—for Crusoe's desire to roam'. An implied emphasis on 'mysterious internal impulse' is at odds with Crusoe's calculating nature.23

A modified and more elaborate version of the economic case was made by Maximillian E. Novak. The central proposition is announced with admirable directness: 'I suggest that Crusoe's sin is his refusal to follow the "calling" chosen for him by his father, and that the rationale for this action may be found in Crusoe's personal characteristics: his lack of economic prudence, his inability to follow a steady profession, his indifference to a calm bourgeois life, and his love of travel.' To buttress this argument Novak brings a variety of evidence. He reviews Crusoe's personal traits, observing that 'When he created the character of Crusoe, Defoe certainly had more empathy with the concept of the colonist than with that of the capitalist'. (Novak has in mind contemporaneous works like the life of Ralegh; see above, p. 27.) Defoe 'admired the merchant, but not the capitalist or even the tradesman who made excessive profits'. An 'excellent sketch' of Crusoe's own character is quoted from RC2 (p. 216), where the narrator refers to himself as 'a mad rambling Boy'. Crusoe is 'a prototype of Shaw's Bluntschli—the hero raised as a tradesman but with a romantic temperament'. Novak then investigates the concept of 'calling', as evolving from Luther and modified by subsequent Protestant theology. Weber and Tawney again come much into the argument. Perceptively Novak remarks that 'Defoe's hero is not a hermit by nature; he survives his solitude, but he does not enjoy it'—this in itself throws some light on the thesis of Watt and Richetti. The conclusion is that 'Crusoe does not disobey his parents in the name of free enterprise or economic freedom, but for a strangely adventurous, romantic, and unprofitable desire to see foreign lands. If any economic moral can be drawn from Crusoe's narrative, it is a conservative warning that Englishmen about to embark on the economic disaster of the South Sea Bubble should mind their callings and stick to the sure road of trade.'24

This reading was quickly challenged by G. A. Starr, who contended that it demanded a 'more individualized portrait than Defoe actually gives us at [the start] of the book'. Starr cites The Family Instructor amongst other works to indicate the orthodoxy of Defoe's ideas at this point: 'That man is naturally subject to rebellious impulse is a principle he frequently asserts, and it would appear to provide a sufficient "rationale" for Crusoe's behavior on this occasion. Indeed the episode seems to rest on an orthodox Calvinistic conception of man's innate waywardness and obstinacy.' What we have is simply 'a generalized portrait of the young man'. Starr's counter-suggestion is that 'implicit in Defoe's treatment of the episode is a conventional identification of family, social and divine order, all of which are flouted by Crusoe's deed'. In a sense, Crusoe's act of disobedience 'is merely the first overt expression of a more fundamental source of trouble: the natural waywardness of every unregenerate man'. Its function is to 'initiate a pattern of wrongdoing'. The parallel with the story of Jonah mentioned by Crusoe's shipmate on his first voyage from Hull (RC1, p. 15) is seen as a close one: in both episodes the narrative provides 'a kind of "objective correlative" for the hero's turbulent, unruly spirit'. (The story of Jonah, located neither by Starr nor the OEN editor, is found, of course, in the book of Jonah, 1-2; it may be added that Hunter shows it to be a common emblem in providential works.) For Starr, who emphasises the 'special fondness' shown by Providence for the middle station, Crusoe 'like the Prodigal Son before him' displays not just a lack of economic prudence but 'a radical perversity and impiety'.25

All these readings have points of interest in them. If Starr seems to me the most convincing overall, this is chiefly on two counts. First, his view of the episode fits more snugly into a general sense of the way the book works: the opening episode contributes to the total pattern without altogether controlling later developments. Secondly, he gives to the phrase 'original sin' the primary acceptation it must have had for most readers, and not only those with a Calvinist background, in Defoe's time. By metaphor the phrase could no doubt be extended to social or economic areas of life, but its prime theological cast could never be dispelled. When we find Crusoe making explicit reference to St Luke's parable of the prodigal (RC1, pp. 8, 14) as well as to the Jonah story—the standard types of rebellion and disobedience in Puritan homiletics—we are pushed closer to the underlying allegory of the Fall itself, for so long the crucial datum in man's understanding of his own spiritual condition. As Hunter suggests, Crusoe's rejection of his parents 'takes its ultimate mythic dimension' from this source.26 No interpretation of the opening of Robinson Crusoe which ignores this dimension of meaning will disclose the point of this episode in the full trajectory of Crusoe's career.

On the other hand it is possible to make the correspondences too strict and to drown the text in scriptural allusions of doubtful relevance. Robert W. Ayers's typological reading does not altogether avoid this pitfall; building upon the fundamental analogical identity of Crusoe's father as God and the hero himself as Adam, he discovers emblems of all known temptations within the text. A new etymology for the name 'Crusoe' relates it to crusader. Ayers sees a metaphysical overtone in the phrase 'middle State' (RC1, p. 4), which makes the father's speech a proleptic hint of Pope's lines in the Essay on Man:

Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great.(Epistle II, pp. 3-4)

Ayers finds sacramental symbols thickly strewn about the island (caves, grapes, etc.), and is even able to identify the boy Xury as a Christ figure 'to some degree'.27 It is not very obvious how one can be Christ to some degree.

But this is at worst an overstatement of genuine elements in the book. Whether we can discern the things detected by Watt and Richetti is a matter of taste and judgement: in general, those who dislike capitalism as a historical phenomenon are the readiest to suppose that Defoe sensed by intuition failings in its effects on the human spirit and that he chose to dramatise these through Crusoe. One of the difficulties in seeing the novel as a work which 'drew attention to the … need of building up a network of personal relationships on a new and conscious pattern' is that it neglects a key aspect of the plot: Crusoe achieves salvation, and overcomes his existential isolation, without any 'network of personal relationships'—Friday comes late on the scene and is a dependant rather than a friend. This is apart from the awkward fact that Defoe shows Crusoe's 'Island of Despair' as a Godless, not a manless, world; he is reconciled to his condition by solitary devotions (which go on while his capital is accreting), not by healthy interpersonal contacts.28 True, many modern critics dislike Crusoe even at the end, and find something suspect (if not downright disreputable) in his accumulative habits; but it is far from clear that Defoe meant us to share this disapproval. As for Richetti, he requires us to believe that Crusoe destroys his father, not just symbolically but 'in a real sense'.29 In that case Defoe badly mismanaged things, for we have no idea how and when the father died. Crusoe simply learns on his return that his parents are dead and almost 'all the Family extinct' (RC1, p. 278). I hope it is not being too literal-minded to observe that he has been away from Yorkshire for nearly thirty-six years; his father was described as 'very ancient' when Crusoe was growing up—he had retired even before marrying. In such circumstances the hero's direct responsibility for his parent's demise looks a little blurred.

The fact is that Crusoe is allotted 'something fatal in that Propension of Nature tending directly to the Life of Misery which was to befal me' (RC1, p. 3). At the heart of this stands the 'meer wandering Inclination' (p. 4) rightly emphasised by Novak; but it transcends the simple ambition to travel as it does the mere pursuit of monetary gain. He is not deflected by his experiences in the storm off Yarmouth, though the portents are clear enough to him; nor by his captivity at Sallee, though he again recalls his father's 'prophetick Discourse' (p. 19); nor by his early struggles in Brazil, where he sees himself as 'just like a Man cast away upon some desolate Island' (p. 35); nor by his later prosperity there:

Had I continued in the Station I was now in, I had room for all the happy things to have yet befallen me, for which my Father so earnestly recommended a quiet retired Life, and of which he had so sensibly describ'd the middle Station of Life to be full of; but other things attended me, and I was still to be the wilful Agent of all my own Miseries; and particularly to encrease my Fault and double the Reflections upon my self, which in my future Sorrows I should have leisure to make; all these Miscarriages were procured by my apparent obstinate adhering to my foolish inclination of wandring abroad and pursuing that Inclination, in contradiction to the clearest Views of doing my self good in a fair and plain pursuit of those Prospects and those measures of Life, which Nature and Providence concurred to present me with, and to make my Duty. (p. 38)

Crusoe does indeed have abundant leisure on his island to reflect upon his past mistakes. Filial disobedience was followed by blind obstinacy—a refusal to learn from the past which is not just imprudent but against nature, perverse and, as it were, self-renewing.

Even in RC2, after he has grown rich, Crusoe finds the same 'distemper of wandering' (p. 8) overtaking him: he persuades himself 'it would be a kind of resisting Providence' if he were to reject his nephew's offer of a new journey (p. 11). This is not the calculating language of a self-aggrandising manipulator: it has the air of someone possessed by an obscure private fantasy. At the very end of the second part, Crusoe tells us he is finally stifling the demon within:

And here resolving to harass myself no more, I am preparing for a longer journey than all these, having lived seventy-two years a life of infinite variety, and learnt sufficiently to know the value of retirement, and the blessing of ending our days in peace, (p. 323)

An unconvincing litany to go out upon, some would think; but in my view a truly organic conclusion. The restlessness which drives Crusoe is the very spirit of his being. It will be extirpated not by the end of his actual travels, or by the accomplishment of any economic goal; it is part of man's fallen nature, and will survive until he achieves salvation in death. Christian was freed of his burden of guilt at the foot of the Cross, although it was not until he crossed the River of Death that he put off his mortal garments.30 For Crusoe the act of conversion brings insight, joy and a reanimated energy born of self-acceptance; but full release from the innate contradictions of his nature will come only with the 'longer journey' out of mortal existence….


1 Quoted in CH, pp. 166-7.

2 Watt, p. 84. The argument that Defoe's secularised Puritanism produced 'the relative impotence of religion' in his novels (pp. 83-5) contains many provocative observations, but it also leaves many handles for rejoinder. For example, the statement that Crusoe must 'make his own way along a path no longer clearly illumined by God's particular providences' seems contradictory in view of Crusoe's own statements after his conversion. See for instance RC1, pp. 175-6, on the 'secret Intimations of Providence'. Similarly Crusoe speaks of 'a special Providence' that he was cast away on the side of the island (as he then supposed) where savages did not come (p. 164).

3 R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London, 1926; Harmondsworth, 1938), p. 212.

4 Starr, pp. 74-125. For another view of these matters, see Martin J. Grief, 'The conversion of Crusoe', SEL, Vol. VI (1966), pp. 551-74. Greif sees the book as 'the record of a notable spiritual pilgrimage across the sea of life, from a lawless course of living to true Christian repentance: a symbolic voyage from sin and folly to the gift of God's grace attained through sincere belief in Jesus Christ' (pp. 551-2). He sets out the 'Protestant scheme of salvation', stressing two primary motives to repentance—love of God and fear of His wrath. Like Hunter, Greif detects a number of 'Christian metaphors pervasively present in homiletic literature' (p. 555), mostly concerned with the sea and storms. He identifies caves as (typologically) the home of thieves and robbers (p. 567) and sheep as symbols of sanctification (p. 574). Less persuasive in detail than Starr or Hunter, Grief presents a sound overall case in harmony with theirs.

5 Hunter, passim (quotations from pp. 126, 189). For the conversion of Friday to Christianity, see pp. 184-6.

6 Starr, pp. 3-50; Hunter, pp. 76-92.

7 Starr, pp. 81-125; Hunter, pp. 88, 185.

8 ibid., pp 23-50.

9 ibid., pp. 51-75. The Presbyterian minister John Flavell (?1630-91) contributed both to the guide and the Providence traditions, as defined by Hunter; his Seaman 's Companion is a good example of the guide aimed specifically at mariners.

10The Storm (London, 1704), sig. A6r, p. 271.

11 Secord, pp. 78-85.

12Tour, Vol. I, pp. 69-72.

13The Storm, pp. 266-70.

14 See the comments of Louis A. Landa in the OEN edn (London, 1969), p. xxiii.

15 Hunter, pp. 105-24 (quotation from p. 123).

16 J. Paul Hunter, 'Friday as a convert', RES, Vol. XIV (1963), pp. 243-8.

17Daniel Defoe, ed. J. T. Boulton (London, 1965), p. 166.

18 This and the following paragraphs draw on Sutherland, pp. 1-25; Citizen, pp. 1-43; and Shinagel, pp. 1-22. See also Lew Girdler, 'Defoe's education at Newington Green', SP, Vol. L (1953), pp. 573-91; and J. R. Moore, 'Defoe's religious sect', RES, Vol. XVII (1941), pp. 461-7.

19A True Collection of the Writings of the Author of the True Born English-man (2nd edn, London, 1705), pp. 110-18.

20Citizen, p. 19.

21 ibid., pp. 224-5; Hunter, pp. 47-9, 204-7.

22 Watt, pp. 67-8.

23 J. J. Richetti, Defoe's Narratives (Oxford, 1975), pp. 26-7.

24 Novak, Economics, pp. 32-48. Defoe was certainly deeply affected by the Bubble, as his later works show (it may even be a concealed metaphor in A Journal of the Plague Year); but to speak of the nation 'embarking' on the Bubble makes it a strangely purposeful brand of catastrophe.

25 Starr, pp. 74-81. For the Jonah emblem, see Hunter, p. 68; for a brief consideration of the 'original sin', ibid., pp. 128-33.

26 See ibid., pp. 133-43.

27 R. W. Ayers, "Robinson Crusoe: 'allusive allegorick history'", PMLA, Vol. LXXXII (1967), pp. 399-407.

28 Watt, p. 96. Watt's reading of Crusoe's experience as one of spiritual alienation, mirroring the isolated state of capitalist man, would ideally require the hero's misery and loneliness to be coterminous with his sojourn by himself on the island. But, as the narrator repeatedly makes clear, his sense of desolation belonged to his Godless rather than his unaccompanied condition.

29 Richetti, Defoe's Narratives, p. 26.

30 Hunter supplies no direct parallel between Crusoe and The Pilgrim 's Progress, though their comparability lies at the heart of his case. Quite particular links can be discerned, e.g. the pilgrim's imperfect sight of the Celestial City through the shepherd's perspective glass as against Crusoe's vague sight of land to the west of his island (RC1 p. 108). Both perhaps are variants of the typological Pisgah vision….

A Note on the Texts

There is no complete collected edition of Defoe's works; as yet no volumes have appeared in the series to be published by the Southern Illinois University Press. I have therefore adopted this set of priorities in textual matters:

(1) Where a good modern edition exists, such as the Oxford English Novels volumes, I have used this. The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is quoted from J. Donald Crowley's edition in that series (1972), which is based on the text of the first edition.

(2) Failing this, I have had recourse to an accessible reprint where the text is not hopelessly corrupt. For the second and third parts of Robinson Crusoe, I use The Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. G. H. Maynadier (Boston, Mass., 1903-4), Vols II and III. This is a modernised but reasonably accurate text.

(3) If there is no other available source, I quote from the original edition, or in certain cases from a collected edition published in Defoe's lifetime.

This procedure has one unfortunate consequence, in that my quotations present a mosaic of modern- and old-spelling texts. The alternative was to confine myself to largely inaccessible editions, many of them available only in the great libraries of the Englishspeaking world. I have chosen what seems to me the lesser of two evils.


The following cue-titles are used for works which are frequently mentioned:

Byrd Max Byrd (ed.), Daniel Defoe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976).

CHP. Rogers (ed.), Defoe: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston, Mass., 1972).

Checklist J. R. Moore, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (Bloomington, Ind., 1960; rev. edn. 1971).

Citizen J. R. Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (Chicago, III., 1958).

Earle P. Earle, The World of Defoe (London, 1976).

Ellis F. H. Ellis (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969).

Gildon Charles Gildon, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr D——De F—— (London, 1719).

History of Pyrates A General History of the Pyrates, ed. M. Schonhom (London, 1972).

Hunter J. P. Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in Robinson Crusoe (Baltimore, Md., 1966).

Hutchins H. C. Hutchins, Robinson Crusoe and Its Printing 1719-1731 (New York, 1925).

Lee W. Lee, Daniel Defoe: His Life, and Recently Discovered Writings, 3 vols. (London, 1869; reprinted Hildesheim, 1968).

Letters The Letters of Daniel Defoe, ed. G. H. Healey (Oxford, 1955).

Library Librorum ex Bibliothecis Philippi Farewell, D.D. et Danielis Defoe, Gen. Catalogus (1731).

Little B. Little, Crusoe's Captain (London, 1960).

Novak, Economics M. E. Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif., 1962; reprinted New York, 1976).

Novak, Nature M. E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford, 1963).

RC1 The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Text and page references follow the edition by J. Donald Crowley (Oxford English Novels, London, 1972).

RC2 The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). See p. xiii.

RC3 Serious Reflections … of Robinson Crusoe (1720). See p. xiii.

Review Daniel Defoe, The Review, ed. A. W. Secord, 22 vols. (New York, 1938).

Secord A. W. Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe (Urbana, III., 1924; reprinted New York, 1963).

Shinagel M. Shinagel, Daniel Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).

Starr G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, NJ, 1965).

Sutherland J. Sutherland, Defoe, 2nd edn. (London, 1950).

Tour Daniel Defoe, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, ed. G. D. H. Cole (London, 1927; reprinted 1968).

Watt I. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (London, 1957; paperback, Harmondsworth, 1963).

Other Abbreviations

Eighteenth Century Studies
Essays in Criticism
A Journal of English Literary History
Huntington Library Quarterly
Journal of English and Germanic Philology
Modern Language Notes
Modern Language Quarterly
Modern Philology
N & Q
Notes and Queries
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Novels
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America
Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
Philological Quarterly
Review of English Studies
Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Studies in Philology
Times Literary Supplement

Further Reading

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Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel, Vol. III: The Later Romances and the Establishment of Realism, 1929. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1950, 278 p.

Volume in acclaimed series examines Defoe's contribution to the establishment of realism in literature.

Bell, Ian A. "Robinson Crusoe and Adventure." In Defoe's Fiction, pp. 73–114. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Argues that Robinson Crusoe wavers back and forth between adventure and prudence.

Benjamin, Edwin B. "Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe." Philological Quarterly 30, No. 2 (April 1951): 206–11.

Argues that details in Robinson Crusoe should be interpreted symbolically rather than as literally based on specifics in Defoe's life.

Byrd, Max, editor. Daniel Defoe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976, 177 p.

Essays by authors including Virginia Woolf, Ian Watt, George A. Starr and others.

Downey, Alan. "Robinson Crusoe's Eighteenth-Century Contexts." In Robinson Crusoe: Myths and Metamorphoses, edited by Lieve Spaas and Brian Stimpson, pp. 13–27. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996.

Attempts to look at Robinson Crusoe from an eighteenth-century perspective, emphasizing its adventure aspects and its Puritanism.

Grief, Martin J. "The Conversion of Robinson Crusoe." Studies in English Literature 6, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 551–74.

Contends that Robinson Crusoe is primarily an allegory describing a man's spiritual experiences.

Halewood, William H. "Religion and Invention in Robinson Crusoe." Essays in Criticism XIV, No. 4 (October 1964): 339–51.

Focuses on the spiritual development of Robinson Crusoe and the religious elements in the novel.

James, E. Anthony. Daniel Defoe's Many Voices: A Rhetorical Study of Prose Style and Literary Method. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1972, 269 p.

Constructs a brief review of Defoe's literary values and their sources, followed by an examination of those values as seen in a selection of his work.

Maddox, James H., Jr. "Interpreter Crusoe." ELH, 51, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 33–52.

Argues that Crusoe changes dramatically from Robinson Crusoe to The Farther Adventures reflecting the difference between interpreting his own world and having others attempting to impose their views of the world on him.

McKillop, Alan Dugald. "Daniel Defoe." In The Early Masters of English Fiction, pp. 1–46. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1967.

Outlines the development of Defoe's skills as a novelist, beginning with his early conduct-books and political satire and ending with his novels. The development is then related to the growth of the English novel following Defoe, especially the work of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

Morrissey, Lee. "Robinson Crusoe and South Sea Trade, 1710–1720." In Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature, edited by John Louis DiGaetani, pp. 209–15. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Examines Defoe's arguments for trade in the South Seas.

Novak, Maximillian E. "Imaginary Islands and Real Beasts: The Imaginative Genesis of Robinson Crusoe." In Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction, pp. 23–46. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Traces Defoe's journalism and life experiences as inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

Richetti, John J. Defoe's Narratives: Situations and Structures. London: Clarendon Press, 1975, 244 p.

Examines Defoe's major novels, paying particular attention to character and fictional technique.

Sill, George M. Defoe and the Idea of Fiction, 1713-1719. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983, 190 P.

Studies Defoe's activities of this period, his political pamphlets, and his attempts to ground his ideology in history.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "The Soul's Imaginings: Daniel Defoe, William Cowper." In Imagining a Self: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 28-56. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Argues that Crusoe's use of imagination is crucial to his empowerment.

Suerbaum, Ulrich. "'I Repeat and Repeat.' Repetition as Structure in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe." In Telling Stories: Studies in Honour of Ulrich Broich on the Occasion of His 60thBirthday, edited by Elmar Lehmann and Bernd Lenz, pp. 69-83. Amsterdam: B. R. Griiner, 1992.

Contends that Robinson Crusoe's unusual structure of duplication was created because Defoe wanted the common reader to understand his messages.

Watt, Ian. "Robinson Crusoe as a Myth." Essays in Criticism I, No. 2 (April 1951): 95-119.

Argues that society has turned Robinson Crusoe into a myth that does not necessarily reflect Defoe's original intentions.

Michael Seidel (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "Crusoe in Exile," in PMLA, Vol. 96, No. 3, May, 1981, pp. 363-74.

[In the excerpt below, Seidel discusses the depiction of the exile in literature and the use and function of allegorical history in Robinson Crusoe.]

In Ulysses Leopold Bloom poses an exile's question to another exile, a figure whom James Joyce calls the English Ulysses: "O, poor Robinson Crusoe, / How could you possibly do so?"1 Bloom's phrasing comes from a popular song that recalls a haunting moment in Robinson Crusoe when Defoe's hero, alone at that time for six years, hears the disembodied voice of his previously trained wild parrot, Poll, ask, "Robin, Robin, Robin Crusoe, poor Robin Crusoe, where are you Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?"2 Bloom's "how" and the parrot's "where" are crucial questions for any exile, and the purpose of this essay is to suggest some potential answers to them.

When Crusoe first hears the parrot's words, he has just returned from a reconnaissance mission, or periplous, skirting part of his island by foot before returning home to what he by then calls his "perfect Settlement" (p. 111). Poll, having bided its time, chooses the occasion of this insular homecoming to repeat, by imprint, the sounds it has recorded during the early, more trying years of Crusoe's exile. So in the same sense that a loner's experience is rather like talking to other versions of himself, the questions the parrot asks of Crusoe are the same as those asked earlier by Crusoe. The questions themselves possess a double structure, hinting at two times and two places, at the Crusoe who hears them (where are you?) and the Crusoe who asked them (where have you been?).3 The exile faces the dilemma that he is, indeed, of two places. Or, to put it another way, where he is displaced becomes his home place. Paradoxically, then, the answers to both the parrot's questions are in a generic sense the same: home. Home is where Crusoe is, and home is where he has been.

It is precisely the doubleness of Crusoe's situation or placement that accounts, in a narrative sense, for the generative and allegorical texture of the narrative. Crusoe refers to his island exile as "my Reign, or my Captivity, which you please" (p. 137). By whatever principle of abundant or redundant locution we do please, that place from which the exile is blocked becomes the model for the place in which he resettles his imagination. Crusoe's habit of mind is verbally and metaphorically binary. The very names for his places on the island, for example, key the doubleness implicit in Crusoe's repositioning. In his initial despair, his shelter is but a hovel. With gradual familiarity, his hovel becomes his home. In his full pride of place, his home becomes an estate; his estate, a kingdom. When, and for whatever reasons, his insecurities return, his kingdom shrinks to his cave. When he feels fearfully hostile, his cave becomes his fortification. Experience for the displaced hero is a constant invitation to conversion, not simply a turning or movement from place to place but a transformation—actual, imaginative, and psychological—of one place into another.

The notion of the resituated body and mind in boundary narratives carries with it the figuration of the place of exile as a multifold substitute for, hence an allegory of, home. Exiles suffer from domestic withdrawal, and the trials of separation are, in part, an allegorical reconstruction of the familiar from the strange. Nowhere is this figuration more pronounced than in Crusoe's double entry "Accompt" where he records on the side of exile that "I am divided from Mankind, a Solitaire, one banish 'd from humane Society," and on the side of resettling (in every sense) potential, "But I am not starv 'd and perishing on a barren Place, affording no Sustenance" (p. 66). Crusoe's accounting conforms to his condition as exile: displacement and replacement are something of the same phenomenon.

The archetypal exile in literature, although often by nature a wanderer like Crusoe, is also by habit a home-body.4 And the memory of home becomes paramount in narratives where home itself is but a memory. In the strongest narrative examples of exile—the biblical Exodus, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and even Dante's Commedia, where the pilgrim re-creates the substantial spirit of his home city despite the agony, as the poet puts it, of having to climb another man's staircase—"home" is both a previously located territory and a dynamic recollection or promise.5 The fable of exile derives its power from serving as a commentary not only on the place to which one is exiled but also on the place from which one is exiled. Such fables render the home place unapproachable or illegitimate, destroyed or taken over by conquerors or false claimants. Without a kingdom (or government) recognized as secure, home itself becomes usurped territory for those still forced to inhabit it. Exiled heroes tend to remain apart from their tainted home until both they and the powers they represent are ready to retake it. In the interim, exiles removed from their land spend their time both trying to replace it and trying, paradoxically, to forget as best they can the trauma that necessitated their original displacement.

The displaced condition or "state" of mind of the exile often results in a decidedly ambiguous relation with the place or places of exile. The murmuring Jews of Exodus, for example, who know little of their promised land before reaching it and who have begun to forget the miseries of their Egyptian past, seem as agonized at the prospect of leaving a temporary home, an oasis like Elim in the Sinai, as Moses, who knows much more, seems agonized at the prospect of staying. At different times in the Odyssey, the separate lands of the Lotus Eaters, the Aeolists, and Circe are offered to Odysseus' crew as replacements for the home island, Ithaca; and even after all the crew but Odysseus have perished, the lands of Calypso and the Phaeacians are still proffered to the lone king as new island kingdoms. Most of these landfalls also include substitute queens for a displaced king. The theme of uncertain substitution in exile is even more pronounced in the Aeneid, where Aeneas, praying to have done with his trials, attempts to found a new version of Troy on each of the Trojans' marginal landings in the Mediterranean. He acts on the chance that the gods have destined wherever he happens to be as the place where he is supposed to be. The imaginatively conceived boundaries of Rome itself are for Aeneas only another future building site for a dimly remembered Troy.


Both new and seasoned readers of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe approach Defoe's "moving book," as James Joyce called it, as a narrative of adaptation and endurance, as a study of isolation and fear, and as a fable of the mobile fantasy and transforming imagination. But when Defoe gets around to commenting, seriously or otherwise, on his fictional strategies in Crusoe, he inevitably turns toward a wider conception of narrative placement and duplication. However great his urge to substantiate a particular story, Defoe recognizes that any one sequence of action carries with it the pattern for narrative interchangeability or repositioning. Such a pattern even finds its way into the text of Robinson Crusoe, and Crusoe himself articulates it on his Brazilian plantation before he has any way of knowing about his subsequent island exile: "I used to say, I liv'd just like a Man cast away upon some desolate Island, that had no body there but himself (p. 35). Crusoe then points out that those who utter such words may have heaven "oblige them to make the Exchange" (p. 35); and, indeed, heaven and Defoe will do so.

Defoe writes at greater length of narrative interchangeability in his extended commentary on the story of the exiled Crusoe, Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720). His voice is nominally that of Crusoe as a fictional being and actually that of himself as an authorial being: "In a word, there is not a Circumstance in the imaginary story but has its just allusion to a real story, and chimes part for part and step for step with the inimitable Life of Robinson Crusoe."6 The next paragraph offers an example of what Defoe means, an example chosen not from the original narrative but from a later section of Serious Reflections:

For example, in the latter part of this work called the Vision, I begin thus: "When I was in my island-kingdom I had abundance of strange notions of my seeing apparitions, &c. All these reflections are just history of a state of forced confinement, which in my real history is represented by a confined retreat in an island; and it is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent any thing that really exists by that which exists not."

(III, xii)

Defoe resists the notion of fiction as a unique imaginative sequence of lies because he sees invention as a way to extend ideas about probable circumstance and imbue fable with entire sets of applicable meaning.7 In Serious Reflections, Defoe makes a claim for what he calls the allegorical historical method of narration while defending himself (in the guise of Crusoe) from those who have charged him with lying:

I Robinson Crusoe, being at this Time in perfect and sound mind and memory, thanks be to God therefor, do hereby declare their objection is an invention scandalous in design, and false in fact; and do affirm that the story, though allegorical, is also historical; and that it is the beautiful representation of a life of unexampled misfortune, and of a variety not to be met with in the world, sincerely adapted to and intended for the common good of mankind, and designed first, as it is now farther applied, to the most serious uses possible.

(III, ix)

Like most everything else in human experience, fiction gains in value for Defoe when its configurations stimulate, enliven, and expand its uses: "Things seem to appear more lively to the Understanding, and to make a stronger Impression upon the Mind, when they are insinuated under the cover of some Symbol or Allegory, especially when the Moral is good, and the Application easy."8 In Robinson Crusoe, narrative allegorical history in its widest, least circumscribed sense offers Defoe a design for meaningful repetition and allows the adventures to partake of multiple fictional emphases.9 Allegory always represents one thing in another, and this representation is very close to what the word allegory means: a speaking otherwise where difference itself becomes a form of duplication.

For his notion of allusive allegorical history, Defoe draws on various examples, each of which represents in fable something of a more general design: "the historical Parables in the Holy Scripture, such 'The Pilgrim's Progress', and such, in a word, the adventures of your fugitive friend, 'Robinson Crusoe'" (Serious Reflections, III, 107). Robinson Crusoe takes its position among fables of displacement and reorientation. In exiling Crusoe to an unknown island and resettling him, first as an outcast and only many years later as a returnee to his original, or native, island, Defoe fulfills a traditional narrative pattern of sustained risk, trauma, and return, a pattern of falling away, turning around, and coming home allegorically analogous to patterns in biblical history, various national histories, and spiritual and personal "lives."10

Though Crusoe, who possesses a mind of limited range and great suggestibility, comprehends only the merest bits and scraps of the allegorical history he finds himself in, Defoe, the narrative chronicler who masterfully times and double-times events, understands that even the temptation he offers his readers to read allegorically is akin to the narrative frame of extension and return. In Serious Reflections, Defoe's signee (R.C.) hedges a bit as to whether the adventures he has experienced happened where he represented them, on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco, or somewhere much closer to home. Defoe poses the possibility of allegorical duplication and wonders if his readers would lose interest "when you are supposing the scene which is placed so far off, had its original so near Home?" (III, xiii). The question comports with Defoe's notion that a unique metaphoric configuration makes a greater impression on the mind than a familiar literal one.

By home here Defoe means, of course, more than the literal home island, England—he alludes metaphorically to any and all familiar mental territory. Still, there is a significant level on which Crusoe's displacement on a remote island allegorizes actual events much nearer England. If there is an interplay in the mind of the narrative chronicler between spatially remote and familiar places, there is also an interplay between the twenty-eight years of Crusoe's island exile and the concurrent years in England: Crusoe is on his island from 1659 to 1686 (actually, he returns to England in 1687), a period virtually overlapping the twenty-eight years of restored Stuart rule before the 1688 Glorious Revolution.11 This coincidence is not an idle one for Defoe the narrative allegorist, who sees, like his own fugitive hero, "a strange Concurrence of Days, in the various Provinces" of life, a concurrence that he "might have had Reason to have look'd upon with a great deal of Curiosity" (p. 133). In a distinct temporal duplication, Crusoe, without any real political awareness of his own, sustains, like so many exiles, the values of his land during a time when his land seems incapable, at least in Defoe's view, of sustaining them itself. Crusoe begins his exile just before Charles II returns, and he returns just before James II is, in effect, exiled. The invited king, William III, Defoe's hero and later his friend, takes over the home kingdom.

The strategy of Defoe's "allegorick relation" sets the possibility for Crusoe's role as island king away from home representing values that ought to reign at home. Defoe establishes in the temporal structure of narrative a way to read historical time in fictional event. The timing of Crusoe's exile in the particular fold of years that envelops the Restoration provides an intriguing variation on the theme of Stuart historiography. Crusoe's experience allegorizes, at least in its temporal dimension, not only the general quality of the fugitive condition but the particular circumstances (historical) that give rise to necessary exodus or hiatus. What happens to Crusoe in the narrative, of course, is either accidental or providential—not of his choosing. But for Defoe, what happens to Crusoe as an embodiment of the English spirit in exile is inevitable. To put the wider temporal structure of the adventures in another way: Crusoe endures an exile that parallels what Defoe saw as a condition of the home island's regressive turn toward more and more oppressive home rule.12 Crusoe is away from what Defoe saw as an "unsettled" and unsettling nation, and he returns just as his land is about to regain a legitimate status, or return to its senses.

This view of Robinson Crusoe's timing accords with Defoe's practice as a narrative allegorist before and after Crusoe and reveals his need to interpret history as a pattern both for the course of a human soul and, more pointedly, for the soul of a nation.13 For reasons that Defoe never forgot, the Stuart Restoration seemed virtually apostolic to him. He felt that the important gap in the continuity of English history was not the dramatic parliamentary revolution from 1641 to the Protectorate but those lost years from 1660 to 1688, coincidental also with the first twenty-eight years of his own life,14 when the Stuarts returned to a land whose best interests Defoe was convinced they did not represent. Crusoe's story was, in a sense, possible because the Stuarts had two-timed the home island. On Crusoe's island kingdom, his reign becomes an allegorical version of restored lost years: the powers of fictional invention allow the Stuarts' time to be replaced or absorbed by Crusoe's time.

As a fable of reconstitution in exile and legitimacy on return, Robinson Crusoe takes its place alongside exile narratives of traditional stature. But, of course, Crusoe is in a different position from Moses, Odysseus, Aeneas, or even Dante the pilgrim. He may have a general idea about his status as one of Providence's many allegorical projections, but he is never privy to the temporal allegory or "coincidence" of his status as island king. As so many readers have intuited, Crusoe may stand for something central in the English experience; but he is ironically central in the narrative's political vision because, if he represents his nation, he does so while isolated from it and without awareness. His is a provisional or mock reign that figuratively substitutes for an already metaphorical conception, Defoe's sense of national "captivity" at home under the Stuarts.

Georg Luk s and other theorists of narrative have speculated on how irony can complicate, even cancel out, the wholeness of allegory; and Defoe's narrative strategy is not so reductive that it allows absolute reign, so to speak, to the temporal allegory of the adventures at the expense of Crusoe's deep-seated insecurities and the narrative's many other fictional dilemmas. But without inflicting too much damage on the suppleness of the narrative we can still balance out what Defoe projects for Crusoe in historical terms with what Crusoe sometimes tries, pathetically, to figure out for himself. From the beginning of the fable, the questions of separation and exile are thrown into ironic relief. No political reading, for example, can proceed without a double perspective on the initiating event of the action, Crusoe's disobedience to his father's wish that he remain in England and seek the security of the middle state at home: "In a word, that as he would do very kind things for me if I would stay and settle at Home as directed" (p. 5). If Crusoe's spirit during his years of exile is supposed to represent the antithesis of authoritarian home rule, how do we account for his almost continual and unremitting anguish at his original disobedience to his father? One way is to see Crusoe's attitude as ironically faulty, and faulty in more than an allegorical or a political sense. Whatever Crusoe says he feels about his own precipitous withdrawal from England (and he never does quite sort out sin from impulse), his character is better served in the long run by resisting his father's demands than by giving in complacently to them.15 Some courses of action or inaction cost more in anguish to follow than to resist. And whether the context be literally personal or figuratively political, Crusoe's father's advice has to be tempered by the exclusionary nature of its focus. There are times when the secure and complacent life he recommends is worse than the necessary errantry of a free soul, especially if that freedom seems to conform to a personal necessity. As exile, Crusoe is positioned so that resistance to his home is the prelude to a crisis or series of crises that are themselves steps in a psychic and actual process of self-substantiation. And it almost follows that the measure of Crusoe's hardwon settlement, like the measure of England's greater one at the 1688 Revolution, is the degree to which his impulses force him to avoid too easy a settlement too soon.16


It takes Crusoe several years of almost obsessive defensiveness to get used to the notion that what seems to be his opposition might actually be the means by which he can alter his condition as permanent exile. His conversion back to hopes of recivilization makes positive again what his father, in overstressing security at home, had so many years before envisaged as strictly negative: "I could not satisfy my self in my Station, but was continually poring upon the Means, and Possibility of my Escape from this Place" (p. 195). Once Crusoe's countertum is set in motion things move, if not as quickly as he would prefer, at least decisively. He readies himself for actual nostos by planning a preliminary beach-head on the cannibal mainland.

All my Calm of Mind in my Resignation to Providence, and waiting the Issue of the Dispositions of Heaven, seem'd to be suspended; and I had, as it were, no Power to turn my Thoughts to any thing, but to the Project of a Voyage to the Main, which came upon me with such Force, and such an Impetuosity of Desire, that it was not to be resisted.

(p. 198)

Crusoe, of course, can give up his scheme to go to the cannibal main because one very useful cannibal comes to him. Friday's companionship during the last few years of Crusoe's island reign provides Crusoe with an actual "other," who becomes a second self in initiating the strength of will toward repatriation. Friday sees his own land from a vantage point on the high side of Crusoe's island: "O joy! Says he, glad! There see my Country, there my Nation" (p. 223). These stirring words are voiced just after Crusoe anticipates the spatial collapse of the distance between the place of exile and the home island by referring to himself and Friday as "comfort'd restor'd Penitents; we had here the Word of God to read, and no farther off from his Spirit to instruct, than if we had been in England" (p. 221).

After Friday's arrival, and without precisely knowing why, Crusoe assumes his deliverance is again providentially opportune: "the great Hopes I had of being effectually, and speedily deliver'd; for I had an invincible Impression upon my Thoughts, that my Deliverance was at hand, and that I should not be another Year in this Place" (p. 229). The scathing tone of Crusoe's reference to "this Place" suggests that he is more than ready to leave, and his "Impression" that the times are ready for him to do so seems as telling in its way as the impression of the footprint years before. Crusoe loses his fear of having his island penetrated when Defoe has him lose the desire to protect that which is no longer allegorically or historically primed for his holding of it.23

In the interim between Crusoe's thoughts about redirecting his efforts toward home and his opportunity to make the break, he begins to revise his notions of what sovereignty ought to mean to him. With his intuition of deliverance he turns in his thinking from his sovereignty, his "I-land," to the law of civilized nations.24 And he does so by readjusting his view of those whose presence on his side of the island had long ago so reduced him to quivering paranoia and unaccountable bloodlust: the cannibals.25 His unlearning of violent longings in this section of the narrative starts to recivilize him. God has not called on him, Crusoe says, "to take upon me to be a Judge of their Actions, much less an Executioner of his Justice; that whenever he thought fit, he would take the Cause into his own Hands, and by national Vengeance punish them as a People, for nationalist Crimes; but that in the mean time, it was none of my Business" (p. 232). One almost sees in Crusoe's words Defoe's generalized view on political retribution, a view more in keeping with natural law than with the older, heroic code of blood revenge. Any one individual, namely Crusoe, cannot afford to be a scourge on an entire nation, and at the end of his stay, his energies are better employed against those few who have falsely usurped a power that they have no right to hold—the English mutineers who run riot in conspiracy and betrayal.26

At the original sighting of the mutineers and their unfortunate captives, matters come to a head. It is curious that when the English party first arrives Crusoe thinks there might be a Dutchman or two with it, a mistaken piece of conjecture for the plot of the actual adventure but perhaps a reminder, in the temporal parallel, of the availability of the Dutch Prince William of Orange for the restitution of Protestant hegemony in England. Crusoe approaches the captives with the mutineers out of earshot and chooses to ally himself with those who face either an exile like his own or, worse, death. That is, he allies himself with legitimacy, with the rightful captain of the English vessel. That captain looks at the bizarre figure of Crusoe coming toward him. Like Odysseus, Crusoe makes his move for legitimacy in clothes unbefitting a civilized island king, and, like Shakespeare's Prospero, he seems possessed of magical powers.27 Crusoe is a bedraggled version of the mythical stranger-savior figure of legendary tales. He says to the captain:

But can you put a Stranger in the way how to help you, for you seem to me to be in some great Distress? I saw you when you landed, and when you seem'd to make Applications to the Brutes that came with you, I saw one of them lift up his Sword to kill you.

(p. 254)

The English captain elevates Crusoe beyond or, as Crusoe's father would see it, higher than he merits: "Am I talking to God or Man! Is it a real Man, or an Angel!" (p. 254). Crusoe's self-identification is interesting: "I am a Man, an Englishman, and dispos'd to assist you" (pp. 254-55). Once an island sovereign, Crusoe now names himself citizen of his native land. The island adventure and the national allegory come together. Again, like Prospero, Crusoe is an island king willing to become a national subject.

Crusoe's actions at the end reveal a homeward turn of mind and a set of principles based on necessity rather than on impulse. His advice about firing on, and possibly killing, the mutineers justifies violence for legal, not tyrannical, ends: "Necessity legitimates my Advice" (p. 256). And Crusoe's forces advance in the name of rightful authority: "At the Noise of the Fire, I immediately advanc'd with my whole Army, which was now 8 men, viz. my self Generalissimo, Friday, my Lieutenant-General, the Captain and his two Men, and the three Prisoners of War, who we had trusted with Arms" (p. 267). Perhaps this force is not so impressive as the advance guard of William III into England, but it wins the day nonetheless.

When the battle for the island and the ship is completed, Crusoe contracts to sail by putting himself under the protection of the rightful English captain. He arrives back in England on 11 June 1687.28 He comes home truly substantiated, both in status—as returned wanderer, a man of archetypal value29—and in funds from his Brazilian plantation, which Defoe totals later at "about a thousand Pounds a Year, as sure as an Estate of Lands in England" (p. 285). Defoe's analogy exceeds even the wishes of Crusoe's father: his hero progresses metaphorically as adventurer from the merchant class to the settled landed class. Even though the analogy is comparative and not actual, Crusoe's accumulated property allows him to return, in a sense, properly islanded. Perhaps in a still broader sense, Crusoe's substantial return to his native place allows Defoe to realize the full allegorical potential of a narrative form in which the fictional subject, both abroad and at home, is always king.


1 Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random, 1961), p. 109.

2 Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. J. Donald Crowley (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 142. Subsequent citations, given parenthetically in the text by page, are to this edition.

3 In his essay "The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe," ELH, 38 (1971), 562-90, Homer O. Brown makes a similar point about temporal doubling in Crusoe's journal: "The journal is an attempt to define a situation by ordering the present as it becomes the past" (p. 585). The present "becomes" the past in the sense that it will both revert to the past in time and reflect the past's essence.

4 Crusoe's very name implies a species of wanderer, one for whom an "irresistable Reluctance continu'd to going Home" (p. 16). In his essay "Robinson Crusoe: 'Allusive Allegorick History,'" PMLA, 82 (1967), 399-407, Robert W. Ayers ponders the original name of the Crusoe family, Kreutznaer. He suggests various possibilities: Kreutz = cross 'to cross, to cruise' (a religious version would be a Kreutzzug 'crusade'); naer or naher = comparative of near; nahren 'to journey, to approach.' Crusoe's name, as befits the classical exile, seems to mean both to wander and to come home. For a recent study on the origins of a similar notion, see Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978).

5 See W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), and a recent study on the poetics of exile, Giuseppe Mazzotta's Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979).

6Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. G. H. Maynadier, 16 vols. (New York: Sproul, 1903), III, xi. Subsequent citations are given in the text by volume and page number.

7 See Maximillian E. Novak, "Defoe's Theory of Fiction," Studies in Philology, 61 (1964), 650-68. This seminal essay goes far in addressing the entire matter of fiction, romance, and lying in Defoe's conceptual sense of narrative. Novak maintains, among other things, that Defoe took a traditionally Aristotelian position in valuing invention as an informing pattern of probability (mimesis as history) in fiction. What is probable (though not necessarily actual) is what is useful in extracting the meaning from any fable. Of course Novak knows, as all Defoe's readers should know, that in representing what looks to be probable in fiction Defoe also opens veins of psychological complexity and ambiguity that sustain an interest in his work beyond the theory of usefulness Defoe none too modestly advances for it.

8 Defoe, A Collection of Miscellany Letters out of Mist's Weekly Journal (London, 1722-27), IV, 210. Novak cites and discusses this passage and its implications in "Defoe's Theory of Fiction," pp. 662-68.

9 In "Robinson Crusoe: 'Allusive Allegorick History,'" Ayers neatly defines the process as "a story whose literal meaning is augmented by a second meaning which is the construct of allusions in the literal narrative" (p. 400).

10 These patterns have received considerable attention in J. Paul Hunter's The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in Robinson Crusoe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1966) and in George Starr's Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965). Everett Zimmerman, "Defoe and Crusoe," ELH, 38 (1971), 377-410, sums up the issue: "The pattern for The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is that of a fall, repentance, and redemption—both spiritual and secular" (p. 387).

11 In many attempts to trace the allegorical import of Crusoe's history, commentators have made scant mention of the historical or national coincidence in its timing. J. Paul Hunter is one of the only critics to notice the parallel: "Crusoe's twenty-eight years of isolation and suffering, for example, parallel the Puritan alienation between the Restoration and the accession of William and Mary; the allusion intensifies the sense of Crusoe's alienation from society and suggests the thematic implications of the Puritan emblematic rendering of events" (The Reluctant Pilgrim, p. 204). Douglas Brooks acknowledges Hunter and makes the same point briefly in his Number and Pattern in the Eighteenth-Century Novel (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), p. 25.

12 In his Daniel Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), Michael Shinagel hints at the antagonism Defoe, as Dissenter, would have surely felt against the Stuarts: "The persecutions suffered by the Dissenters during the 1660's served to unite rather than disperse them. They found comfort and succor in their shared afflictions. They felt themselves being tested for their religious beliefs, if not also on trial for their souls" (p. 7).

13 When Defoe first began toying with fictional representation, in his early narrative The Consolidator (London, 1705), he called his work an "allegorick Relation" and placed himself in it as a lunar philosopher who acts out the precepts of the 1688 Glorious Revolution on the moon. The narrative is an implicit attack on the less glorious principles of the Stuart kings and on any who would restore those principles in modern times. Significantly, the ascendancy of William III in 1688 marked for Defoe the great chance for a new hero, a hero measuring the value of his nation. In Essay upon Projects (London, 1697), Defoe's first full-length work, written in the decade after the Glorious Revolution and a quarter century before Robinson Crusoe, we hear of the Crusoe type and symbol, the merchant-adventurer who, in the face of all manner of risk, is still "the most Intelligent Man in the World, and consequently the most capable, when urg'd by Necessity, to Contrive New Ways to live" (p. 8). Defoe repeats the essence of this conception much later in his career, after Crusoe, when he refers to the English merchant as a kind of cycle in and of himself, both a personal and a national cycle that conforms to the pattern of risk redemption or ruin recovery: "The English tradesman is a kind of phoenix, who rises out of his own ashes, and makes the ruin of his fortunes be a firm foundation to build his recovery" (The Compleat English Tradesman [London, 1726], II, 198-99).

14 By circumstance or by design Defoe imagined himself to "come alive" after the Restoration. He was born at its outset in 1660; his family suffered under the strict Clarendon Code against Dissenters; he fought in the abortive Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 against James II, barely managing to escape the king's forces in the rain and the subsequent Bloody Assizes of Lord Jeffreys; he rode in the advance guard that welcomed William III, a king Defoe would call his patron and friend, to London. See the early chapters of John Robert Moore's Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958). In his Life and Adventures of Mr. D—Def—(London, 1719), Charles Gildon was the first to pick up the allegorical identification of Crusoe's exile with Defoe's life: "You are the true Allegorick Image of thy tender Father D——1" (p. x). And he also sensed that there was a political message in the narrative for which Defoe needed the protection of fiction: "But, honest D——1, I am afraid, with all your Sagaciousness, you do not sufficiently distinguish between the Fear of God, and the Fear of Danger to your own dear Carcass" (p. 18). Defoe's biographer Thomas Wright took another tack and argued that the allegory of Crusoe relates to a crisis in Defoe's marital life that resolved itself after his illness in 1714, when he would have been the same age as Crusoe on his return to England (The Life of Defoe [London, 1894], pp. 12-13, 24-28). The most detailed account of the personal and public events possibly allegorized in Robinson Crusoe is offered by George Parker, "The Allegory of Robinson Crusoe," History, 10 (1925), 11-25. Parker concentrates on Defoe's entrepreneurial and political career, citing Defoe's comment in his Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715): "I have gone through a life of wonders, and am the subject of a vast variety of Providences."

15 Defoe's notion of obedience in a political context runs counter to the familial disobedience of Crusoe's presumed original sin. Like Locke, Defoe does not confuse patriarchy and monarchy. In fact, passive obedience stands at the center of Defoe's antagonism toward the Stuarts. In his Jure Divino (London, 1706), a twelve-book satirical poem on state tyranny, Defoe points out that this "Satyr had never been Publish'd, tho' some of it has been a long time in being, had not the World seem'd to be going mad a second Time with the Error of Passive Obedience and Non-Resistance" (p. i). The first time was in the latter days of an increasingly desperate James II.

16 For a different development of this notion centering on an economic reading, see Maximillian E. Novak's chapter "Robinson Crusoe's Original Sin," in Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1962), pp. 32-48….

23 The temporal comparison of Crusoe's adventures from the twenty-fifth year of his reign with events at home before and during the hectic last three years of Stuart reign suggests that in both places Providence seems to be readying for something momentous. Invasions, conspiracies, betrayals, cabals, and counter-alliances are unusual, to say the least, on Crusoe's island after his years of isolation, but if they are projected allegorically toward the scramble for power back home they make a certain sense.

24 The aptness of the sovereign pun on I-land, even if Defoe was unaware of it, was pointed out to me by Richard Braverman of Columbia University. For the wider sets of relations between Crusoe's experience and the law of nations, see Maximillian E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963).

25 What Crusoe works out in his response to the cannibals touches on the natural propensity toward tyrannical violence that Defoe saw in mankind. He observes in Jure Divino: "Nature has left this Tincture in the Blood, / That all Men would be Tyrants if they cou'd. / If they forbear their Neighbors to devour, / 'Tis not for want of Will, but want of Power" ("Introductory Verses," p. 1). Everett Zimmerman points out that, from Crusoe's early experiences off Africa to the island cannibals to the wolves in the Pyrenees, his fear of being devoured is related to the general fear "of being dematerialized—the reversal of the desire to accumulate. It is a fear shared by author and character" ("Defoe and Crusoe," p. 385).

26 Defoe may be casting a glance at the illegal cabal of James II in the last days of what Defoe saw as an increasingly illegitimate rule. Charles Gildon assumed that Defoe's hatred of the English in this scene was more general. In his pamphlet attack, Gildon has Defoe remark: "for I always hated the English, and took a Pleasure in depreciating and villifying of them" (Life and Adventures of Mr. DDef—, p. xiv). Another possibility is pursued by Defoe's biographer John Robert Moore, who argues that Defoe's representation of the English in the Crusoe volumes was repayment in kind for the Englishman's usual xenophobia. At the time, according to Moore, Defoe had an interest in a policy of good will toward Spain in order to keep open or create trade routes off the coast of South America. Most of his English countrymen did not see the matter his way.

27 If this particular island sequence seems to allude to Shakespeare's Tempest, Defoe has a Winter's Tale of sorts in mind for Crusoe when, several years later, Crusoe crosses the Pyrenees in winter on the long-way-round trip back from Brazil.

28 Not only is this date of historical importance to Defoe for personal reasons as the second anniversary of Monmouth's rebellion against James II, in which Defoe himself took part, but it was precisely at this time in England that leading national figures officially invited the Protestant Dutch prince, William, to mount an invasion and wrest the monarchy from Stuart possession. In a sense, Crusoe's salvation and rearrival home allegorize the English salvation to follow.

29 Homer is careful to make certain that when Odysseus returns to Ithaca he does so with a rich store given him by the Phaeacians. He hides the booty in a cave until he restores his land to its true worth. The exile thus brings value back to his home.

Michael M. Boardman (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5940

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe," in Defoe and the Uses of Narrative, Rutgers University Press, 1983, pp.25-65.

[In the excerpt below, Boardman considers some of the differing views of the meaning of Robinson Crusoe and argues that Defoe uses a threefold narrative strategy incorporating reportorial, personal, and interactive techniques.]

Employing a Metaphor, as was his wont, to describe narrative unity, Henry James likens The Tragic Muse to "some aromatic bag of gathered herbs of which the string has never been loosed."1 The question of the final fragrance of the bouquet garni known as Robinson Crusoe continues to puzzle at least those students of narrative for whom deconstruction has not invalidated the whole enterprise. Clearly, any theory of narrative development concerned with wholes rather than parts, or even with the possibility of making wholes from parts, must consider the question, as well as the additional complication suggested by James's insistence on employing analogy: Is the unity so many have seen in Defoe's first major narrative a critical ignis fatuus, the delusive product of our continuing struggle to reduce chaotic stories to ordered patterns? Or is the book with all its admitted but remarkable "Variety," literally unified, every part, like Aesop's belly, "in its dull quiet way … doing necesary work for the body"?

The question of coherence floats around other issues that at first perusal do not seem to have much to do with it. For example, what else is at stake in the continuing disagreement about the very subject matter of Robinson Crusoe? Is it a story about solitary adventure, or religion, or economics, to take only the three top contenders? Does one really get anywhere if one must conclude, as did the most recent critic of the book, that it really is about both religion and economics, indeed that it is two stories? Certainly, two stories could coexist uneasily or somehow become a whole. But how? Allowing the two parts to live together, as

this critic did, simply does not explain the wedding: unity is a question of the conditions of oneness, by definition.2

Not a few critics have been content to trace unity to Defoe's ideas. Aside from the almost universally held view of literature as a kind of special discourse, a view by no means originating with recent critics of narrative like Todorov,3 there is some warrant for semantic abstraction in Defoe's stated practice. He consistently promulgated, in his prefaces and elsewhere, the neoclassical ideal of uniting "Diversion" and "Instruction" to generate a kind of sweet didacticism. It has therefore been the stated task of many Defoe critics to "show in detail how Defoe unites narration and instruction," a process that entails splitting asunder what Defoe joined. Occasionally a dissenting voice is heard. McKillop argues that "much of the time, of course, we see Crusoe merely following his 'rambling designs.' He does not always live in the presence of Fate or Providence." This is a sane view, but one that creates as many problems as it solves. For one, McKillop's thesis implies a lack of unity, ideological or otherwise, and in the sixties, at least in American criticism, organic criticism was all the rage, no matter how the coherence had to be located, or created. Most of the readings of Defoe's narratives arguing for some kind of semantic coherence come from that decade and are at least in part a reaction to McKillop. The second problem is related to, and actually the cause of, the first: thematic readings, generated as they are by analogically relating literal action to ideology, are always successful, at least on their own terms. McKillop's view, then, did not rule out further extraction of meaning but virtually guaranteed that it would take place. So it is that Watt, writing about the same time as McKillop, finds that the economic and not the spiritual dominates. The truths communicated beneath the smooth surface of narrative may differ from critic to critic, but the assumptions about narrative meaning remain fairly constant.4

That schemes as diverse as Providence, economic necessity, and "the idea of man's isolation" have arisen to explain the book does not necessarily require one to see Robinson Crusoe as fragmented, although that possibility always remains. The procession of competing readings, each somehow claiming authority over the whole, may be enough to cast doubt on Frank Ellis's sanguine statement that reading "the criticism of Robinson Crusoe since 1900 is almost enough to restore one's faith in progress."5 Yet the causes of this plurality of meanings are not self-evident. Is it in the nature of texts, all texts, to mean diversely? Or is it in readers themselves? R. S. Crane, adapting Aristotle's methodological "pluralism," argued that no work of literature yields the same meaning when examined within different frameworks, a theory that seems to locate the problem not in the text but in the tools critics employ to understand it. Any critic can, therefore, select one aspect of Robinson Crusoe to subsume others, allusivity reaching, potentially, into all corners of the cosmos—a situation Tristram/Sterne would delight in, but one more than a little disturbing to a critic searching for probable knowledge about texts. This welter of competing readings, taken without logical warrant as evidence of textual treachery, then leads many critics to eschew the search for any sort of common ground in interpretation. In Frank Kermode's recent use of the terms, one must abandon plodding, "carnal" interpretation questing after shared literary experience and seek instead "spiritual" originality, the insight and even elegance of the personal vision.6 The common assumption, one that is crucial to understanding how recent critics have approached Defoe, of both the unifiers and the deconstructionists, has been that narrativity is but one thing. One can even write a "poetics of prose," as if it really were a single thing (certainly a necessary precondition for Aristotle).7 The novel, then, exhibits cohesion, or flies apart at the slightest touch, depending on one's prior constitution of what narrative is. Having made a prior commitment either to the order or, more commonly today, to the fragmentation of the world mirrored in narrative, one is prevented from even entertaining another possibility—that some narratives hold together and some do not. For better or worse, ontology once adopted limits the kinds of questions one can even entertain as significant.

Crane, whose work deserves more attention, actually set up three categories. Some works are unified but relatively barren, either of pleasure or significance (a number of eighteenth-century English tragedies come to mind). Others, also unified, are rich in local texture, abundantly satisfying Coleridge's standard of "the production of as much immediate pleasure in parts as is compatible with the largest sum of pleasure in the whole." Finally, still others "are rich in local virtues but have only a loose or tenuous overall form."8 It is hardly surprising, since the New Critics in all their guises so assiduously studied their Coleridge, that the second category frequently seemed the only one worth bothering with and that, consequently, they frequently also found unity of some conceptual kind where more literal critics like Crane did not—as for example in the attempts to discover internal coherence in the Canterbury Tales or In Our Time. The quest for oneness as sole or even primary poetic virtue can mislead, especially if the goal is matter-of-fact, like understanding the development of discrete forms. One may learn more about the generation of new subspecies, within narrative as a whole, if one assumes that early examples have not always sprung forth fully mature and coherent. Early narrative comic development, for example, may be clearer after noting that Goldsmith did not entirely succeed in binding together the two halves of The Vicar of Wakefield. One then begins to understand how difficult it must have been in the middle eighteenth century in England to write a first-person comic action, in which moral ambiguities must be clarified by a narrator himself flawed in many ways. Goldsmith's shift to a more direct representation of moral values in the second half makes sense as the uneasy compromise with innovation one might expect from a friend of the man who wrote Rasselas.9 In like manner, if one can accept as a possibility that Robinson Crusoe is pleasing because Defoe created a narrator who functions in several ways, one may begin to see how Crusoe can elicit so many responses, how each of his roles exerts its power on one's memory.10 At times Crusoe is relatively unpersonalized, an "eye," or reporter; at others, he is a developed personage but not a novelistic character; and finally, at times Crusoe seems to interact in novellike sequences with other elements: thought and action. As obvious and unexciting as these functions may be, they hold the key to the mixed form of Robinson Crusoe—if "form" is not completely inappropriate, given the context. These roles neither provide a unifying scheme—one must, in fact, resist providing one by analogy in order to see their real importance—nor are they encompassed by something larger. They are not substructures, except in the barest and most critically fruitless sense of taking up space in the same book. Each use of Crusoe provides an isolable kind of narrative experience and a distinct kind of meaning. Each has been pulled out of the fluctuating context and employed as an organizing scheme.

More important for my thesis, the three uses parallel the three lines of development Defoe's narrative career followed. Narrative strategies originate as ways of dealing with remembered or created experience, ways that can vary drastically as the mind works on subject matter and considers effects. As strategies, the reportorial, the personal, and the interactive—to give them arbitrary names—therefore not only entail a number of varying formal relationships within the text, but also betoken significant differences in authorial attitude toward the text and in possibilities for the text as experience or use. For example, the Crusoe who is little more than an observer belongs to a very old tradition of using narrators; one does not ordinarily create a fictional narrator and then deprive him of significant traits of personality unless he is to serve a function conceived of as more important than the representation of personality. This Crusoe leads, by clear steps, to the determinate, referential significance of the Memoirs of a Cavalier and A Journal of the Plague Year. The Crusoe who is a product of Defoe's "keen eye for traits of character and a very vivid idea of persons"11 becomes Moll, Colonel Jack, and the Roxana of most of her story, refinements of personality and epitomes of the pleasures possible in earlier works, such as real memoirs, that concentrated on the inner lives of diarists or autobiographers. Here is, not novelistic character, but "consciousness," following the sense of John Bayley's distinction. Finally, during brief sequences—Defoe never wrote a coherent traditional novel—Crusoe participates in what Bayley calls "a complex process of rapport between author and ourselves" by which "we know what to think" of him and his story.12 This last usage of Crusoe is not easy to locate, in part because Defoe does all he can to hide it, destructive as it is of the illusion of factuality. In brief sections, however, Defoe experiments with the kind of control that will culminate in the novelistic conclusion of Roxana, not to mention other protonovelistic sequenc es scattered throughout the other books. Once these separate impulses are discriminated and their importance for the novel articulated, McKillop's contention that Defoe did not advance by "artistic self-discovery" becomes untenable, but for the most literal understanding of "discovery" as being always intellectual and conscious.

Had Defoe written the Memoirs of a Cavalier or A Journal of the Plague Year before Robinson Crusoe, at least one line of his development would long ago have been recognized. Those two later works clearly make virtues of what in the earlier work are minor annoyances, Crusoe's "rambling." The Memoirs and the Journal are coherent and successful imitations of true stories, and therefore rest securely in a tradition much older than Defoe. With its alternating intentions intertwined and blended into effects suspended often between potentiality and realization, Crusoe's story seems to mock efforts to specify its teleology. Nor is the problem merely one of subject, the variety Defoe seems to have had in mind as he went about collecting or inventing Crusoe's early "strange surprizing adventures." The process of "communication," as Wolfgang Iser terms it, is also confused.13 Apart from the few times Crusoe acts in a context that allows the reader to infer specific information—for example, the sequence of fear-longing-action involving the cannibals-—one's responses are usually "free" to a large extent. In his reportorial and personal uses, Crusoe remains a potential vehicle for whatever idiosyncratic interpretation individual associations produce. Some degree of significant common response to Crusoe is possible only when Defoe novelistically "pins" Crusoe's developing hopes and fears causally to a situation qualitatively predictable. Crusoe yearns, after years on the island, for the sound of just one voice other than his own; but when visitors finally come, they are the ghastliest of human outcasts, cannibals. He is torn between two powerful impulses of attraction and repulsion, with his desire for contact winning out—it will later be seen how—only after a long period. Just how important this careful "justification" of Crusoe's actions, necessarily involving the taking of life, was to the overall aims of the episode can be seen by the effect it had on many viewers of a public-television version of the book a few years ago. What had required a careful juxtaposition of narrative reasons in order not to seem gratuitous violence now became exactly that: Crusoe attacks because his little kingdom has been threatened by the black savages, and his slaughter of them seemed to be a vicious manifestation of imperialist racism. Crusoe, if not Defoe, may be a racist, but the point is that in the midst of this sequence such a judgment has been precluded. Most of the time, however, when Crusoe is just an observer or is vividly but not causally involved in the action sequence, it is impossible to speak of any reader's "appropriate" much less "necessary" reaction to him. And if the text asserts no tyranny, benevolent or otherwise, as the traditional novel does, with all its loose ends, how can the reader determine its meaning? The text itself turns treacherous, as some recent criticism would have it for all narrative.

The problem with Crusoe, however, is not that his story partakes of some special liability to indeterminacy peculiar to narrative in general, but that sometimes Defoe controls with a certain degree of success all the eclectic diversity of the sequence and sometimes he simply refuses to subordinate his materials to a probabilistic pattern. The "Editor" of Crusoe's words tells the reader that this is the "Story" of a "private Man's Adventures," involving "Wonders" that are "scarce capable of greater Variety." Yet "story" is not quite right, since there is no "Appearance of Fiction" in it; it is rather a "just History of Fact,"14 an emphatic formulation in light of how much weight "just" carried with all neoclassical critics, including Johnson. Clearly, one is faced here with two orders of probability. The first and least common in Robinson Crusoe demands that the reader experience Crusoe, at least tacitly, as an artificial construct in a fabricated structure. This view receives confirmation as well as an indeterminate measure of complication from the external knowledge that the whole is in fact a fabrication. The second order, introduced and bolstered by title page and preface, requires unambiguously that Crusoe be regarded as a natural person. The distinction is obvious, although it is usually ignored as unimportant, especially since the reader knows the book is a fiction. Yet books do not usually require readers, in effect, to alternate between knowing fully the psyche of a character in order that they may participate in the progression of which he is a subordinated element and, at other times, allowing him the natural opacity, the secrecy, of real people. Indeed, few readers can read the book this way, requiring as it does almost a somatic contradiction, and fewer probably would want to if they could.

The result has been that, appetites honed by expectation of full fictional revelation of character, and the "true story" actually hiding more than it reveals, readers have been forced to construe for themselves, to manufacture, a consistent inner life and ethical being for a Crusoe who does not literally reveal such consistency. This makes Robinson Crusoe sound very "modern" in its indeterminacy and capacity for duplicity. The problem is that, with the model of novelistic development I have sketched, this is the opposite direction Defoe should have taken had he wanted to reach the much more determinate significance of the traditional novel. While the formulation may seem both solipsistic and egregiously self-confirming, it is based on literary history. One may, of course, interpret even strong systems such as Pamela and Tom Jones as freely as one chooses. But to the extent that they are systems, the traditional novel after Richardson was not in the business of mystification but revelation. When readers are confused, about Lovelace or Stephen Dedalus, disclosure is inadequate. Indeed, one definition of the action novel, and one indication of how much its birth owes to the importation of semiological strategies from the drama, would be that it is a system strong enough to mold shared belief, if only for the story's time being. Other works that are recognized as fictions exert no such power, or do so feebly. True stories, or imitated ones, do not do so either, but not by choice: natural people hold close to their motivations and their private chronicles often hide more than they reveal. Still other works, like Robinson Crusoe, embody an impossible formal "request," that the reader experience them as both true and fabricated.

This phenomenological problem has its moral side, since Defoe goes on in his preface to suggest that, while this is a true story, with a principle of "Diversion," yet overall rules a didactic intention, "a religious Application of Events to the Uses which wise Men always apply them." Then follows another bifurcation, since the moral consists of Crusoe's negative example, his disobedience, as well as his fate, his final deliverance, intended "to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence" (p. I). Just as readers' merest instrumental judgments of Crusoe lack moorings at times, their involvement in his moral plight fails of direction and coherence as well when Defoe places his character on the page virtually deprived of a signifying context. Didacticism, certainly of Defoe's plain sort, cannot emerge from such a silence, and events decidedly do not speak for themselves. Yet it would be inaccurate to conclude from this formal and moral liability that Defoe himself has lost touch with the ethical implications of Crusoe's plight. Not only do stories have expectations for readers, they have them for their creators as well, as Sartre reminded us in What Is Literature? If the intention to replicate a true story does not require a coherent configuration of subordinated belief, if, in fact, such belief could destroy the illusion, can an author be blamed for not behaving novelistically? The answer is, of course, that he can, but should not, be blamed, if only because it is more interesting to see what sorts of semantic blind alleys Defoe leads his reader into than it is to impose some analogical scheme that makes "sense" of the confusion. Crusoe, for example, swears one moment that his companion in escape from slavery, Xury, showed him "so much Affection" that Crusoe had to "love him ever after" (p. 25); ten pages later Crusoe has sold him for sixty pieces of eight, with the eleemosynary stipulation that the boy will gain his freedom in ten years if he turns Christian. The juxtaposition seems inadvertent, even unsavory—until one realizes that it literally has no purpose. This is not the same as saying it is inadvertent, which would imply a standard of proceeding that would make of such a contradiction an excrescense. When Defoe's mind is on using Crusoe, or any of his narrators, as reporter—as witness of "wonders"—he thinks only of traits of personality as plausible means of transition. He is not "distanced" from Crusoe, as Joyce is from Stephen; he simply does not think of him as a consistent character. How different such a moment is from the cannibal sequence, in its demands on both Defoe and the reader, should be obvious if somewhat unsettling. Defoe's imagination is no more with Crusoe the "reporter" than it was to be with the Cavalier.

The reportorial strategy even requires that the personality Defoe might routinely endow with vividness be muted in order to maintain the illusion of truth. Regardless, whether Crusoe's aimlessness results from Defoe's adherence to an older tradition, from a fixation on the integrity of "the event," or from a desire to replicate quotidian randomness, in the absence of a pervasive and recognizable teleology, Defoe's values remain unknowable unless they are sought outside the fiction—a practice entailing its own hazards. The novel-to-come would utilize value in a radically different way, subordinating it to a strong sequence of action and character having determinate significance. Such, at least, is the novel's intention, even if no novel perfectly achieves it. Having rejected satire—Defoe was not very good at it, although he handled other kinds of irony and invective skillfully15—as well as more direct narrative means for conveying beliefs, such as Bunyanesque allegory and the sort of parable or apologue form Johnson used so effectively, Defoe leaves himself little direction to go except toward the novel. Replicating the forms and effects of true stories means relinquishing the possibilities for conveying a moral vision, although one can always simply "insert" beliefs, if care is taken not to appear too systematic. When one merely endows a narrator with a personality, frequently pays it only fitful attention, and avoids the creation of significant interaction with the "and then, and then" of the story, the Horatian ideal falters in practice. Drama, with its commitment to public fictionality and formal structure, proffers its patterned fable unabashedly. But Defoe distrusted drama, although he seems to have liked it well enough.16 His clinging to the pseudofactual mode seems indeed to be a kind of reaction against the "untruths" of drama so many critics had railed at during Defoe's lifetime. Yet his doing so is ironic in that his seeking a more moral, because truer, genre leads not only to duplicity but to moral ambiguity. True stories often leave meaning to the reader. Interpretation of fictional narrative may be difficult, especially in regard to values. But what standard of meaning resides in narrative propositions that purport merely to be true? "Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy"—a narrative statement, calling not for interpretation but simple verification. Once the "fact" was established, a context for the determination of meaning might be available. But Robinson Crusoe begs even this question, since Defoe was careful to distance the story from the real events it vaguely resembles—the Selkirk story.

The novel creates and insists on its own artificial context, which is why, perhaps, in all its variations it seems to some unsuited to modern value chaos. Defoe's approximation to novelistic effects can be tested by comparing most of his works to McKillop's formulation of his practice.

The simplest or minimum form of impersonation consists in providing a reporter or narrator who may appropriately give the details in his own way. This is a natural mode of journalism, and admits of considerable variety of intention…. We then proceed in the great fictions to the stage at which the impersonated reporter tells how he was forced to deal with pressing circumstances affecting his own survival or success; the interplay between the impersonated character and the circumstance gets us into a kind of circle, with each giving significance to the other.17

It is impossible to dispute at least the partial accuracy of this description of Defoe's practice, although McKillop leaves out a number of steps in the process and it is hard to predict exactly how Defoe's own beliefs would function in the "interplay." But despite my agreement with McKillop, I cannot see much resemblance between the most complex "interplay" and what ordinarily goes on in the novel. Much the commonest case in Defoe, in addition, is for the "circle" to remain firmly closed and resistant to interpretation. A created personage can interact with his or her environment for hundreds of pages through dozens of fascinating episodes, pronouncing all sorts of verdicts on questions of every kind, and one still does not have the novel. The traditional novel attempts to subordinate the interaction among character, event, and belief to something else, a pattern of represented experience that allows the reader continuing knowledge of the qualitative nature of the pattern itself: a novel of this traditional sort includes beliefs, as it includes everything else, to achieve a predictable and satisfying resolution of instability. Such "neatness" may now be distasteful, but the action novel displayed it. Pamela, for example, finally marries her Squire B. and all her troubles seem over. Except the reader knows they are not, and so did Richardson. The novel must go on, because all the issues are not resolved. The issues, of course, are not ideological but experiential. While readers recognize that marriage to the Squire is best for Pamela, given the odious alternatives, they also know that "best" does not mean "ideal" in Richardson's moral world. I can use such terms of cognitive certainty as "know" and "recognized" because the novel in Richardson's hands presents branching alternatives to the characters, each choice charged with ethical implication because of the traits Richardson has called to the forefront in each character. One knows, therefore, not necessarily what the outcome of pattern will be, even before the marriage, but that whatever it is, it will involve a shade of moral gray, the ethical ambiguity Sheldon Sacks notes is characteristic of the action-type he calls "serious," as opposed to the comic and tragic.18 Yet the ambiguity residing in the conclusion of Pamela results precisely because we have such a quantity of specifiable knowledge about the deficiencies and strengths of character Squire B. and even dear Pamela have shown us. In the serious action, then, ambiguity can result as a positive consequence of the form. While Pamela's character seemed ambiguous to Fielding, in quite different terms, that ambiguity was not a positive, intended consequence of the novel's form. Such is not the case with most parts of Robinson Crusoe. Too often the reader's simplest judgments of better or worse are confused or blocked for lack of evidence and one must, to create the meaning that is not found, yoke traits of personality to events that finally are not mutually illuminating. Causality is a chimera and will remain so until Defoe discovers a narrative structure that makes a positive virtue of represented beliefs.

It might be argued that in my single-minded pursuit of what Defoe does not do, I have forgotten that an author's refusals and renunciations are themselves positive evidence of an important sort. We shall see later on that this is the case, that Defoe's consistent refusal to utilize belief positively does imply much about his view of art and the world. But that is not the question now. Only a knowledge of what the novel was to be can allow critics to dispense with the erroneous view of Defoe as one who refused to judge his material—rather than, as I am arguing, an author who refuses to write works that require precise judgment. Nevertheless, Robinson Crusoe does contain sequences that tease with their novelistic tendencies. Only by seeing how short they stop can one understand where Defoe's real interest and talent lie, in the creation of personality. The third strategy, the reportorial, actually takes up little space, although Defoe will later isolate and use it almost exclusively in such nonnovels as the Journal and the Memoirs. Each of the three has its counterpart in later fiction. A Pamela or Pip can "step back" from the flow of events and comment in more or less neutral ways, although the aims of the traditional novel imply the elimination of anything inert. Then, too, narrators can give an impression of being intensely human without their humanity affecting the progress of the fable, at least in any causal fashion. Probably every traditional novel contains at least one character who exists only so that the reader may take pleasure in the portrayal (although one would look long and hard for such an unsubordinated element in most of Jane Austen's novels). This lucid and mutable aura, floating free, characterizes many real memoirs and some twentieth-century lyric novels, such as Virginia Woolf's, that enlist autobiography in the service of fiction. Character implies reintegration; not only the representation of traits must take place, but those traits must lead somewhere qualitatively determined. To suggest that Defoe, much less Virginia Woolf, did not create character may seem absurdly perverse. The terms are not important; I wish only to point out significant differences occurring on both ends of the development of traditional novelistic types.

If one accepts this view of traditional character as an element in a progressive action, then Defoe created few examples of character. In the novel, the "I" reveals himself, or is revealed by a narrator, so that the reader may understand and even anticipate what the "I" is to become. The world of the novel indeed implies a connection between what one has been and what one will be in the future. Whether the movement is from happiness to misery, the reverse, or some other significant transmutation of status, character, or belief, the fate of a character in an action results as no matter of chance even, in what only masquerades as a paradox, if events fall out from "Fortune." Fielding manages to attain a kind of high and serious decorum with his ludicrous tale of Tom in part because the ordered comic world of Tom Jones implies an external world of moral and social chaos.19 The novel depends on a belief in order. Even Hemingway, whose universe was populated by no gods, benevolent or malign, abided in the clean well-lighted place of art. The novel, then, demands that the people of the book not simply reside as nonpaying guests but contribute their share to the upkeep of the story. It will only be Defoe's discovery of how to reintegrate into the flow of narrative previously revealed information about Roxana that will permit him to approach the threshold of the novel. In Robinson Cruseo the three uses of the narrator remain disjoined, as if Defoe contented himself, in this his first effort, with their exemplification. He has created a structure of sorts, but one that makes no systematic use of anything but the moral commonplaces of the age….


1 Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse, p. 81.

2 See Quentin Kraft, "Robinson Crusoe and the Story of the Novel."

3 See, for example, Todorov, The Poetics of Prose.

4 Starr, Spiritual Autobiography, p. 72; McKillop, Masters, p. 21; Watt, Rise, Chapter 3.

5 Frank Ellis, Introduction to Twentieth-Century Views of Robinson Crusoe, p. 1.

6 R. S. Crane, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, esp. pp. 3-38. For the fullest treatment of the implications of critical pluralism, see Wayne C. Booth, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. For Kermode, see The Genesis of Secrecy, esp. pp. 1-21.

7 Todorov's "undertaking" is based on Valéry's remark, "Literature is, and cannot be anything but, a kind of extension and application of certain properties of language" (Poetics of Prose, p. 19). For my purposes, it will be useful to consider narrative as just another choice, among many, that authors make to solve the particular problems their own brands of creation present. Defoe, of course, does not initially "choose" narrative—the pseudofactual mode demands it, just as it does I-narration—but he and later writers discover through experimentation its inherent strengths and liabilities for portraying inner states of being.

8 Crane, Languages, pp. 182-183.

9 See David H. Richter, Fable's End, pp. 171-176.

10 Paul Alkon argues that "the final shape of memories induced by a text would have to be accepted as one of its formal attributes" (Defoe and Fictional Time, p. 11). While responses to a text cannot really be said to be a part of the text itself, it is true that one must boldly commit the affective fallacy to understand Defoe's forms.

11National Review, in Rogers, Critical Heritage, p. 129.

12 John Bayley, "Character and Consciousness," pp. 225-226.

13 See Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader.

14 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, p. 1. Subsequent references are in the text.

15 See Chapter 1, n. 2.

16 See John Robert Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World, p. 25.

17 McKillop, Masters, p. 10.

18 Sacks, Fiction and the Shape of Belief, pp. 22-24.

19 See R. S. Crane, "The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones," esp. pp. 637-638; and Sacks, Fiction and the Shape of Belief, p. 107.

Works Cited

Bayley, John. "Character and Consciousness." New Literary History 5 (1974):225-235….

Crane, R. S. "The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones." In Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

——. "Ernest Hemingway: 'The Killers.'" In The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

——. The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953….

Defoe, Daniel. Captain Singleton. Edited by Shiv K. Kumar. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

——. Colonel Jack. Edited by Samuel Holt Monk. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

——. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In Romances and Narratives. Edited by G. A. Aitken. 16 vols. 1895. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1974.

——. A Journal of the Plague Year. Edited by Louis Landa. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

——. Memoirs of a Cavalier. Edited by James T. Boulton. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

——. Moll Flanders. Edited by George Starr. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

——. The Political History of the Devil. London, 1726.

——. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by J. Donald Crowley. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

——. Roxana. Edited by Jane Jack. London: Oxford University Press, 1969….

Ellis, Frank. Introduction to Twentieth-Century Views of Robinson Crusoe. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969….

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. New York: New American Library, 1961….

Iser, Wolfgang. "The Current Situation of Literary Theory: Key Concepts and the Imaginary." New Literary History 11 (1979): 1-21.

——. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974….

James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." In Theory of Fiction: Henry James. Edited by James E. Miller, Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

——. Preface to The Tragic Muse. In The Art of the Novel. New York: Scribner's, 1934….

Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1979….

McKillop, Alan D. The Early Masters of English Fiction. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1956….

Sacks, Sheldon. "Clarissa and the Tragic Traditions." In Irrationalism in the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Harold E. Pagliaro. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1972.

——. Fiction and the Shape of Belief. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964….

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977….

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957….

Woolf, Virginia. "Defoe." In The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1925.

——. "How It Strikes a Contemporary." In The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1925.

——. "Robinson Crusoe." In The Second Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1932….

Virginia Ogden Birdsall (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6752

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe: A Miserable and Almost Hopeless Condition," in Defoe's Perpetual Seekers: A Study of Major Fiction, Bucknell University Press, 1985, pp. 24-49.

[In the following excerpt, Birdsall discusses Crusoe's realization that there can be no wholly successful defense against the human predicament of living in a hostile world.]

Robinson Crusoe is indeed a success story of the sort several recent critics have described. Crusoe becomes master of his fate, bending even God or Providence to his will. He is a victorious rebel against restriction. He controls his circumstances. But in thinking of our actual experience of the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, we must surely acknowledge something a little wrong about all this. For if we take Crusoe's early and continuing defiance of his limitations to have a symbolic suggestiveness, we come abruptly to an inescapable realization about Crusoe's pursuit of absolute power—namely, that it is destined always to remain a pursuit. Defoe repeatedly tells us, in effect, that Crusoe can no more "run away from [his] Master" before he has served his time than can any human being; he cannot escape time or make time his servant. He can neither count on Providence always to save him nor control his own fate by naming it Providence and bowing down before it.

We cannot, if we read Defoe's novel attentively, ignore the fact that neither of the homes Crusoe creates for himself—neither the one in which he serves a higher master nor the one in which he is himself the master—proves wholly satisfactory. Crusoe at times discovers one to be as uncomfortable as the other.20 In this regard, then, Crusoe is man as Hobbes and Rochester saw him: feeling powerless and futilely struggling to be or at least to feel all-powerful; experiencing almost constant fearfulness and struggling ineffectually to feel invincible.

Whatever his triumphs and conquests, Crusoe's sense of the precariousness of his existence and his own insufficiency never permanently leaves him from the time he is first thrown up, helpless and naked, on the island shore. He remains the vulnerable child, left all alone in the world without friends or protectors—always in need of father- and mother-figures on whom to rely and always feeling himself in peril of being "swallowed up," whether by the sea, by the earth, by beasts, or by cannibals. The oral fixation that Berne was the first to comment on remains characteristic of Crusoe throughout the novel and tends to undercut fatally any contention that his adventures truly involve a progressive mastery of his environment.

What they do involve are alternating periods of shelter and of exposure, and what Defoe implicitly concedes is that the choice Crusoe seems to have amounts, in reality, to no choice at all. For whether he chooses home or restless wandering, the underlying and inescapable reality is always death. He knows that he must leave the womb if he is to live, and that he is born to die—and that no power, whether human or divine, can change that deadly fact.

The dilemma receives its clearest symbolic expression at the point in Crusoe's island career when, having just constructed a "complete enclosure," he feels the earth shaking beneath him and flees from his cave "for Fear I shou'd be bury'd in it" (p. 80). Here Crusoe confronts the fact that there is no true safety to be found anywhere: "The fear of being swallow'd up alive, made me that I never slept in quiet, and yet the Apprehensions of lying abroad without any Fence was almost equal to it …" (p. 82). The scene is, in essence, a recapitulation of Crusoe's earlier experience of leaving home. Again he finds himself driven out of a secure habitation by subterranean rumblings beyond his power to understand or control, and again he discovers the state of things in the outside world to be even more threatening than that he has experienced inside. In the first crisis, he resolves that he will "like a true repenting Prodigal, go Home to my Father" (p. 8); and in the second he does, in fact, return to his cave to find shelter from the "violent Rain." On the whole, he decides, it is safer to be inside than outside: "when I look'd about and saw how every thing was put in order, how pleasantly conceal'd I was, and how safe from Danger, it made me very loath to remove" (p. 82).

Yet along with the comfort and security that Crusoe repeatedly associates with his "Father's House" in particular and with home in general, invariably goes a sense of imprisonment or confinement—of limitation—which Crusoe can never tolerate for long. "I broke loose," he says, in relating his first decision to go to sea (p. 7). It is the perversity of Crusoe—his "fate or fault"—that he is "not very easy and happy" in the "upper Station of Low Life" And indeed Crusoe's father's world, inhabited as it apparently is by models of passive acquiescence, has unmistakable suggestions of entrapment in death and decay.21 The idyllic way of life that the senior Crusoe describes involves men who go "silently and smoothly thro' the World, and comfortably out of it" (p. 5). His father, in the younger Crusoe's view, has been just such a man: "how easy, how comfortably he had liv'd all his Days," Crusoe reflects, "and never had been expos'd to Tempests at Sea or Troubles on Shore …" (p. 8).

What Crusoe already seems to sense, however, and what he is later to learn firsthand, is that any such paradise, any such self-contained existence is actually a lie. In this connection, a modern-day Hobbesian has summed up the human condition in words that might well have been written with Crusoe in mind:

There is … a true and a false way of evaluating the human situation. Of primary importance for the true way is the denudation of the spirit, the stripping away of all subterfuges, comforts, and evasions. Our true condition is one of exposure: in reality, we are defenseless, naked to the winds of chance and blind accident. There is an expressive German participle, geborgen, which translates into English as "secure" or "safe," but connotes the delightful feeling of protectedness, the comfort of being hidden away or concealed from lurking dangers. The little bird is geborgen in the nest, the infant in the womb, the beloved in the arms of a strong and tender lover. By exposure is meant just the opposite of this. Though the desire for protection and security, for Geborgenheit, is a characteristic and primary impulse of human creatures, it is also a profound illusion. Spiritually, we are all exposed to the yawning abyss, the primal night which originates all and to which we all return.22

In such terms, the action of Robinson Crusoe concerns not only the hero's search for a home, but his failure to find one. Clearly, Crusoe's "primary impulse" once he arrives on his island is "for protection and security." And so successful a homemaker does he prove to be that Pat Rogers has actually designated him homo domesticus. He points out that Crusoe calls his first night's resting place "my Apartment in the Tree," and he goes on to characterize his subsequent activities as "making a nest." Crusoe bakes bread; he "spends a fair portion of his time cooking and sewing"; he makes butter and cheese; he is the complete household manager—and "a good exemplar of that cherished Renaissance-to-Augustan ideal, the Happy Man."23

Yet as Rogers has also noted (though he does not pursue the implications of the fact), Crusoe's two homes turn out to be "easily employed as gaols" in which to incarcerate the mutineers.24 They are, in other words, as effective as places of confinement for recalcitrant men as they are as fortifications against "wild beasts and men." But the recalcitrant aspect of Crusoe himself soon defies imprisonment and urges him forth to a free-ranging exploration of the island that lies beyond his self-constructed walls. However contented the conservative aspect of his nature may be with the domestic and civilized, the contradictory principle within him—the explorer and aspirer—chafes at the restriction and leads him more than once to refer to his being kept indoors as "this Confinement."

The frequent appearance of circle imagery in association with Crusoe's various efforts at domesticating his environment and thereby protecting himself is instructive. He is constantly preoccupied during his early years on the island either with surrounding (controlling) something or with being surrounded by (protected within) something. After getting two cargoes safely conveyed from ship to shore, for example, he tells of piling "all the empty Chests and Casks up in a Circle round the Tent, to fortify it from any sudden Attempt either from Man or Beast" (p. 59); and when, during the earthquake, the overhanging cave proves too threatening, he thinks of "building me some little Hut in an open Place which I might surround with a Wall as I had done here, and so make my self secure from wild Beasts or Men"—"I would go to work with all Speed to build me a Wall with Piles and Cables, & c. in a Circle as before …" (p. 82). The country bower that he does eventually devise lies within a "Circle or double Hedge" (p. 104). And he speaks later of the kid "which I had penn'd in within my little Circle" (p. 112).

Crusoe mentions repeatedly bringing projects "to Perfection": he has "brought to Perfection" the cave behind his tent (p. 69); he spends over three months "working, finishing, and perfecting" his wall ("being a half Circle from one Place in the Rock to another Place about eight Yards from it, the Door of the Cave being in the Center behind it" [p. 76]); he achieves "an unexpected Perfection in [his] Earthen Ware," having devised a wheel with which he can make things "round and shapable" (p. 144).

Yet nothing is, apparently, quite perfect. Crusoe must extend half circles into whole circles; he must surround one half circle of trees with another; and he must, above all, make small circles into bigger circles. So persevering is he in "widening and deepening" his cave that he eventually makes it "spacious enough to accommodate me as a Warehouse or Magazin, a Kitchen, a Dining-room, and a Cellar" (p. 74).

What happens on at least three occasions, however, is that in enlarging or attempting to enlarge the area of his control, he exposes himself to those very fears and outside threats against which he has designed his walls. In speaking of one such occasion, he says, "I began now to think my Cave or Vault finished, when on a Sudden (it seems I had made it too large) a great Quantity of Earth fell down from the Top and one Side, so much, that in short it frighted me …" (p. 74). Another time, after he has "work'd daily two or three Hours at enlarging my Cave," he succeeds in fashioning what amounts to a back door to his dwelling. But if his sense of confinement is thus lessened, so also is his peace of mind. "I was not perfectly easy at lying so open," he confesses, "for as I had manag'd my self before, I was in a perfect Enclosure, whereas now I thought I lay expos'd …" (p. 103). Most terrifying of all, though, in those early years, is his attempt "to make a Tour round the Island"—"to view the Circumference of my little Kingdom" (p. 137)—an attempt that brings him "a frightful Distance" from the shore and almost proves his undoing.

The world that Crusoe inhabits seems, invariably, either too big or not big enough. Effectually, the pattern of his adventures is one of a circularity involving alternating situations of expansion and contraction, exposure and protection. When, for example, after several months on the island, he makes his first "Journey … from Home"—prompted by a desire "to see the whole Island"—he is at first "exceedingly diverted" (pp. 108, 109). But after having lost himself in a valley and having "wandered about very uncomfortably," he finds himself "very impatient to be at Home," and his relief when he is at last back in his cave is plainly heartfelt:

I cannot express what a Satisfaction it was to me to come into my old Hutch, and lye down in my Hamock-Bed: This little wandring journey, without settled Place of Abode, had been so unpleasant to me, that my own House, as I call'd it to my self, was a perfect Settlement to me, compar'd to that; and it rendred every Thing about me so comfortable, that I resolv'd I would never go a great Way from it again while it should be my Lot to stay on the Island. (P. 117)

Whenever Crusoe ventures far from any home, he encounters an alien world in which he feels at best lost and at worst utterly terrified. Crusoe, we may recall, refers to his years on the island as a "Life of Misery" and at one time names the place itself the "Island of Despaire." Still more to the point, however, the sea on which he suffers shipwreck functions archetypally as both tomb and womb. He emphasizes repeatedly his own helplessness to deliver himself from its grasp: "tho' I swam very well, yet I could not deliver my self from the Waves"; "the Sea, having hurried me along as before, landed me, or rather dash'd me, against a Piece of Rock, and that with such Force, it left me senseless, and indeed helpless, as to my own Deliverance." But at last the sea, having "buried" Crusoe "20 or 30 Foot deep in its own Body," deposits him on the shore and he is "sav'd … out of the very Grave." Yet "sav'd" though he may be, it is, as he says, "a dreadful Deliverance": "I was wet, had no Clothes to shift me, nor any thing either to eat or drink to comfort me, neither did I see any Prospect before me but that of perishing with Hunger, or being devour'd by wild Beasts …" (pp. 44-46).

There is no question that Crusoe's effort to tame the wild, to civilize the savage succeeds up to a point.25 He does seem to become increasingly effective at imposing his will on the world he inhabits. He speaks of having become, in his "twenty third Year of Residence in this Island … naturalized to the Place, and to the Manner of Living" (p. 180). In actuality, however, it would be more accurate to say that he has "de-naturalized" his world in order to adapt it to himself and to make it serve him.

He never really succeeds in conquering his own terror, since he can never hide from himself the awareness that outside of himself lies a hostile universe.26 By his twenty-third year he seems to be in control, to have a sense that he is someone to be reckoned with. He has taught three parrots to say "Robin Crusoe," has tamed several sea fowls and "cut their Wings," and keeps three household kids about him (p. 181). But while he has domesticated some of these wild creatures, some of the already domesticated animals who have come with him to the island—namely the cats—multiply so alarmingly that he is "oblig'd to shoot several of them at first, to keep them from devouring me, and all I had," and others have run "wild into the Woods" (p. 180). Moreover, he has discovered, in the process of fencing in his goats, that he "must keep the tame from the wild, or else they would always run wild when they grew up …" (p. 146). Crusoe cannot avoid knowing that in the natural world outside himself even the tamed can revert to wildness and become a danger. The awareness rather ironically calls into question his earlier characterization of himself as "Prince and Lord of the whole Island." It proves not to be altogether true that "I had the Lives of all my Subjects at my absolute Command. I could hang, draw, give Liberty, and take it away, and no Rebels among all my Subjects" (p. 148).

Furthermore, although his dog may have proved for sixteen years "a very pleasant and loving Companion" (p. 180), most of the animals he encounters on his adventures are part and parcel of the threatening outside environment in which solitary man walks fearfully and in which he must destroy or be destroyed. Whether Crusoe is confronted with "a dreadful Monster … a terrible great Lyon" (p. 27) on the Canaries shore or with "those ravenous Creatures" who, in a pursuit of "great Fury," at last "plung'd themselves into the Sea" (p. 30) near Cape Verde, his experiences never reassure him that the world in which he lives has been made for him. Strive though he may to build defenses, the threat remains. Indeed, in the last major adventure of the novel, as he pursues a seemingly safe overland route home, he faces once again some "ravenous Creatures"—this time a whole pack of them, from whom, after a night of stark terror, he barely escapes with his life. These creatures, he says, "came on like Devils." Still, wild animals play a relatively minor role in the hostile universe into which Crusoe ventures. Far more important to him—and far harder for him to defend himself against—are wind and weather. As he contrives his escape from the Sallee Rover, he notes: "The wind blew from the N.NE., which was contrary to my Desire" (p. 22). And the fact is that the winds of the world almost always blow for Crusoe "contrary to [his] Desire." The "dreadful Storm" that strands him on his island is only one of many that he experiences in the course of the novel, and he is never so aware of his own vulnerability as at such times. The rage and fury that he associates with the wild animals of shore and mountain are as nothing compared to the "raging Wave, Mountain-like" that, in the midst of the novel's major storm, "took us with such a Fury, that it overset the Boat at once" (p. 44).

For Crusoe natural forces are frequently "as furious as an Enemy" (p. 44). Even though he has, on the island, constructed his defenses so that "nothing could come at me from without, unless it could first mount my Wall" (p. 79), reasons for terror remain: an alien nature intrudes in the form of an earthquake that cracks the posts in the cave "in a frightful Manner." Crusoe does feel more "safe from Danger" within his cave than outside it, but he continues to pile fortification on fortification.27 Shelter is always, for him, an overridingly important preoccupation, as it continues to be long after he has left the island. When beset by the wolf pack, he writes, "having nothing to shelter us, or retreat to, I gave myself over for lost …" (p. 302).

"Man," Heidegger has written, "shrinks back from losing himself in … the nightmarish, demonic frenzy in which nature has unleashed billions of individual organismic appetites of all kinds—not to mention earthquakes, meteors, and hurricanes, which seem to have their own hellish appetites. Each thing, in order to deliciously expand, is forever gobbling up others. Appetites may be innocent because they are naturally given, but any organism caught in the myriad cross-purposes of this planet is a potential victim of this very innocence—and it shrinks away from life lest it lose its own."28

Crusoe's dilemma—the human dilemma—is that in shutting himself in to preserve life, he must at the same time shut life out. His responses, while he is on the island, to the sun and the rain are cases in point. Having learned that direct exposure to the rain produces fevers, he finds that he must largely confine himself within his cave during the rainy season. And the sun too is at times an antagonist from which he must retreat: "it is to be considered that the middle of the Day when the Sun was in the Zenith, the Violence of the Heat was too great to stir out …" (p. 114).

Corresponding to the "complete Shade" provided by the trees surrounding his country bower ("sufficient to lodge under all the dry Season") are the hat and umbrella (again a piling-up of fortifications) with which Crusoe supplies himself as protection from sun and rain. In enumerating his articles of clothing, Crusoe refers to his umbrella as "the most necessary Thing I had about me, next to my Gun" (p. 150).

That he never ventures abroad without both umbrella and gun strongly indicates that fear remains for him a constant companion all the while he remains on the island. At the time he discovers that deep inner cave in which he stores his weapons, he says, "I fancy'd my self now like one of the ancient Giants, which are said to live in Caves, and Holes, in the Rocks, where none could come at them; for I perswaded my self, while I was here, if five hundred Savages were to hunt me, they could never find me out; or if they did, they would not venture to attack me here." And two paragraphs later he comments about life on the island: "could I have but enjoy'd the Certainty that no Savages would come to the Place to disturb me, I could have been content to have capitulated for spending the rest of my Time there …" (p. 180). Hobbes could be describing Crusoe when he writes:

if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like danger of another.

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him.

And later in Leviathan Hobbes again anticipates Crusoe's behavior in describing a London citizen: "when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; … what opinion he has of his fellow-subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests."29

It is not, of course, human beings of flesh and blood who are usually the problem for Crusoe; rather, it is those imaginary figures his own apprehensions conjure up. Humans are, his mind tells him, all either savages or pirates or mutineers. They are attackers who kill and eat one another, prey on one another, or seize power from one another. Crusoe never registers a terror so abject as that he shows upon discovering "the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore" (p. 153). He uses words like Thunder-struck, perfectly confus'd and out of my self terrify'd to the last Degree. He speaks of his affrighted Imagination, of wild Ideas, of terror of Mind (pp. 153, 154). However successful Crusoe may be at defending himself against physical threats, he cannot escape his own mind. Immediately before relating his discovery of the footprint, he has spent two pages describing his plantations, and much of the detail has to do with order and security—keeping his land "duly cultivated and sow'd," keeping his surrounding hedges "in Repair," and so forth (pp. 152, 153). Yet not only is this description followed by the lengthy recording of his apprehensions about the footprint, but it is preceded by his recalling that fear he felt when he found his canoe being carried away from the island: "I had such a Terror upon my Spirits at the Remembrance of the Danger I had been in, that I could not think of it again with any Patience …" (p. 151). No matter how seemingly secure he is, he cannot shut out of his mind either the remembrance of dangers past or the anticipation of dangers to come.

To Crusoe's way of thinking, primitive man is as much a part of "wild" nature as any animal. At one point he remarks: "to have fallen into the Hands of any of the Savages had been as bad as to have fallen into the Hands of Lyons and Tygers" (p. 25). Even of Friday, whom he calls a "faithful, loving, sincere Servant," he feels at times a profound mistrust. He arranges matters in his hutch "so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost Wall, without making so much Noise in getting over, that it must needs waken me …" (p. 208). In a way, what he does with Friday is to tame him, as Friday himself suggests he should do for other savages: "you teach wild Mans be good sober tame Mans …" (p. 226). Yet he has spoken of being "not so easy about my new Man Friday as I was before," and although he at once admits to having "wronged the poor honest Creature," he has seriously imagined the possibility of Friday's betraying him and joining with the other members of his nation to "make a Feast upon me" (p. 224).

In fact, Crusoe proves himself in the two later volumes of his life story to be haunted by thoughts of cannibalism, and so does Defoe in his other writings. The subject comes up repeatedly not only in the Farther Adventures and the Serious Reflections, but in the Review and Applebee's Journal as well. And it is not, according to Defoe, only savages who experience cannibalistic impulses but civilized men, when the threat of starvation makes them desperate enough. Of the incident involving a mother and her son and their maid, whom Crusoe meets early in his Farther Adventures on that "unhappy Ship" where all aboard have been brought to "the last Extremity of Hunger," the maid relates: "had my Mistress been dead, as much as I lov'd her, I am certain, I should have eaten a Piece of her Flesh with as much Relish, and as unconcern'd, as ever I did the Flesh of any Creature appointed for Food; and once or twice I was going to bite my own Arm"; and she goes on to tell of drinking her own blood. And when Defoe is telling of the "terrible Famine … in Thoulon," he writes: "'Tis said that [the people] … have eaten the most loathsome and nauteous Things, such as Dogs, Cats, Rats, Mice, Leather, Starch, Soap, and, in a Word, that they are ready to prey even upon one another."30

Crusoe's concluding pages of his Surprizing Adventures are tantamount to a concession that neither human fears nor those forces in the universe that inspire such fears by threatening the survival of the self are ever quelled. In speaking of the shipwrecked Spaniards, he says, "I fear'd mostly their Treachery and ill-Usage of me, if I put my Life in their Hands" (p. 244). Moreover, though he has been victorious in his pitched battle with the cannibals, he voices apprehensions about a return engagement wherein he will have to cope with numbers that may prove overwhelming. And Crusoe's battles, as it turns out, are not over once he has defeated the savages. He must then face the mutineers, who, like his cats, are once-domesticated creatures now again given over to violence.

What is more, while Crusoe may have brought his tropical island largely under his control, he remains fearful of the sea, and in trying to avoid its perils (which, as he explains, prove again all too real), he finds himself—as he once more makes his way toward the supposed securities of home—facing the rigors of the Pyrenees, whose wintry barrenness has crazed the starving wolves. Crusoe's party have a guide to aid them in circumventing the worst of the snowy mountain terrain, but the guide's knowledge does not enable them to avoid the wolves, and Crusoe is again thrown back on his own resources, called upon again to devise a "stratagem" born of desperation in order to achieve mastery.

Crusoe does at last get home to England, but it is a "home" that represents only a stopping-off and stepping-off place. Remembering what he has told us about his early propensities:—"though I had several times loud Calls from my Reason and my more composed Judgment to go Home, yet I had no Power to do it"—we can now see that the words constitute a kind of summary of Defoe's view of the human predicament. It is beyond the power of man truly to "go home." There is no hiding place, and he is fated to remain a restless seeker.

As might be expected, moreover, the circle pattern continues into the second volume of Crusoe's adventures. He speaks several times in the opening pages of the "strong Inclination" he felt "to go Abroad again," and then well along in this continuation of his story he admits, "When I was at Home, I was restless to go abroad; and now I was abroad, I was restless to be at Home." Unlike that Utopian figure the Muscovite prince, who "has got a Victory over his own exorbitant Desires, and has the absolute Dominion over himself, whose Reason entirely governs his Will," Crusoe is unable to remain a "happy Prisoner."31 He continues to be, as it were, in thrall to the devil, who (as he has taught Friday long before) has "a secret access to our Passions, and to our Affections, to adapt his Snares so to our Inclinations, as to cause us even to be our own Tempters, and to run upon our Destruction by our own Choice" (p. 217).

In the Farther Adventures chaos comes again at every level. Crusoe tells, for example, of "a little Quarrel on board our Ship, which I was afraid once would have turned to a second Mutiny"; and on his voyage around the world he again fears mutiny. And earlier, in revisiting the island he discovers an alarming state of disorder to have existed there. Not only does he hear that there has been a new invasion of savages ("now they had, as I may say, a hundred Wolves upon the Island, which would devour every Thing they could come at, yet could very hardly be come at themselves"), but he learns that dissensions among the five Englishmen have led to repeated destruction of settled and ordered habitations.32

The destructive passions of men are everywhere in evidence. Perhaps it is no accident that the natural energy most often referred to is fire. Men are burned; a ship is burned; a house is burned; a whole settlement is burned. Again and again Crusoe encounters a world at war; and the "Peace" to whose existence he composes verses and of which he writes wistfully at the end of his Farther Adventures remains a future prospect.33 The storms and tempests of his life have continued to rage within as well as without; the savagery within and without has not been left behind.34

Crusoe may have exchanged his goatskins for more civilized garments, but the change is more apparent than real.35 His physical wanderings do finally end, but in the Serious Reflections his mind continues its restless seeking to impose some meaningful order upon the flux of things. And he is still looking over his shoulder. "It is a strange length that some people run in this madness of life," he observes in one passage; and a page later we find him calling himself "your fugitive friend, 'Robinson Crusoe.'"36

Even his confidence in an ordering Providence seems here at best a shaky one. "Providence," he affirms, "decrees that events shall attend upon causes in a direct chain, and by an evident necessity, and has doubtless left many powers of good and evil seemingly to ourselves, and as it were, in our hands, as the natural product of such causes and consequences, which we are not to limit and cannot expressly determine about, but which we are accountable for the good or evil application of; otherwise we were in vain exhorted and commanded to do any good thing, or to avoid any wicked one."37 That is to say, all this must be so if the world is to make any sense; yet Crusoe's "seemingly" and "as it were" seriously undercut his "doubtless."

Crusoe-Defoe no more finds it possible to round off his Surprizing Adventures satisfactorily than Crusoe as protagonist finds it possible to end his travels and his speculations. Imagination breaks free from the captivity of reason to the extent that the novel concludes in syntactical confusion and leaves us with a sense of incompleteness:

But all these things, with an Account how 300 Caribbees came and invaded them, and ruin'd their Plantations, and how they fought with that whole Number twice, and were at first defeated, and three of them kill'd; but at last a Storm destroying their Enemies Cannoes, they famish'd or destroy'd almost all the rest, and renew'd and recover'd the Possession of their Plantation, and still liv'd upon the Island.

All these things, with some very surprizing Incidents in some new Adventures of my own, for ten Years more, I may perhaps give a further Account of hereafter.

We put the book down feeling some bafflement as to the precise nature of the account Crusoe has given of what he tellingly calls his "unaccountable Life" (p. 181). Just what does Crusoe's experience add up to? Is it truly a spiritual autobiography? Or is the form of the spiritual autobiography merely a kind of wishful thinking—a construction within which Crusoe attempts to hide in order to avoid too much exposure?

Repeatedly, in the course of his narrative, Crusoe suggests that he is unable to capture in words the lived reality. "I cannot explain by any possible Energy of Words," he says at one point, "what a strange longing or hankering of Desires I felt in my Soul …" (p. 187). Moreover, he gives us three different accounts of his experience immediately following the shipwreck, each of which differs from the others in the details included and some of which actually contradict one another in certain particulars. Which is the true account? Can words capture reality at all, or do they create a reality, impose a meaning that does not, in the nature of things, exist? And who is Robinson Crusoe? Is he all-conquering voyager or believing Christian? Is his name really Crusoe or is that simply what he is "called"?38 Finally, we cannot as readers avoid some "Confusion of Thoughts"; and we may well end by crying, as Crusoe has taught his parrot to cry, "Poor Robin Crusoe, Where are you? Where have you been? How come you here? " (p. 143). We wait in vain for an answer.


20 E. A. James points to a number of instances of Defoe's dramatizing his hero's "fluctuating moods and mental states," among which is his referring to himself alternately as a "helpless Prisoner" and "an absolute Monarch." "We are," says James, "given insight into the mentality of a character who is psychologically committed to making the best of things, and often indeed to making things better than they are, but a character who is not always capable of doing so." And among such instances of fluctuation James cites Crusoe's referring to his island dwelling as, on the one hand, "a Room or Cave" and "a Retreat" or "Cell," and on the other, a "Fortress" or "Fortification" or "Castle." Defoe's Many Voices, pp. 169-73.

21 Curt Hartog makes much this same point in his reading of Robinson Crusoe as "Defoe's best fictional example of the conflict between individual assertion of drives and the opposed demands of authority…. At the beginning of the novel, Crusoe's father describes the middle state in terms that demand not only submission … but virtually total passivity…. The passivity … is a kind of death…. to obey his father is to die metaphorically … But to disobey is to risk literal death." Aggression, Femininity, and Irony in Moll Flanders," p. 123. On a similar note, Leo Braudy observes: "Part of Defoe's insight about the character in search of security about his identity is his discovery of the similar anxieties of confinement and freedom." "Daniel Defoe and the Anxieties of Autobiography," Genre 6 (1973): 82.

22 J. Glenn Gray, "The Problem of Death in Modern Philosophy," The Modern Vision of Death, ed. N. A. Scott (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1968), p. 52.

23 Rogers, "Crusoe's Home," pp. 380, 384, 386, 390.

24 Ibid., p. 390.

25 This is a point on which a number of recent critics have dwelt. J. Paul Hunter, for example, writes of the episode involving the wolves in the Pyrenees: "Crusoe's final victory over bestiality culminates a pattern which had begun early in his life with encounters against a lion, a leopard, and a nameless beast on the coast of Africa." And he adds in a footnote: "The episode of the wolves also climaxes the motif of savagery which runs through the novel." The Reluctant Pilgrim, p. 198. John Richetti maintains that "the taming of the goats repeats Crusoe's own story; it is a reenactment of the conversion of his own unruly nature … by God, who catches Crusoe on the island and tames him the same way that Crusoe catches goats in a pit and tames them. Crusoe's entire career on the island as a bringer of order is, by extension, a taming of his externalized self." Defoe's Narratives, p. 50.

26 As Maximillian E. Novak says of Crusoe: "he is always afraid, always cautious, and always desirous of abandoning his isolated condition…. " And Novak continues, "Fear, Defoe was clearly saying, is the dominant passion of a man in Crusoe's condition. His isolation identifies him with the state of nature which precedes society, a condition in which man could live alone, not because he was godlike, but because he was bestial…. Pufendorf described such an existence as being worse than that of a beast. Nothing can be considered secure, and within the soul the passions rule instead of reason. Lacking the aid of his fellow man and forced to meet every enemy alone, the isolated natural man passes his life in continual expectation of destruction." Novak does not, however, seem to me to be justified in going on to maintain that "Crusoe is rescued from this condition by his tools, the symbols of learning, the arts, society, and that civilization which is the reverse of man's natural state." "Robinson Crusoe's Fear and the Search for Natural Man," Modern Philogy 58 (1961): 238, 240, 244.

27 As Zimmerman says, "Although concealment is essential to Crusoe's defense, fortifications never figure in it. Crusoe fortifies to restore his psychic equilibrium; whenever he has brought his defenses to seeming perfection, he is again disturbed." Defoe and the Novel, p. 26.

28 Quoted in Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973), pp. 53-54.

29Leviathan, pp. 63, 64, 100.

30Father Adventures, 2:67; Applebee's Original Weekly Journal, Saturday, May 20, 1721. Selected Poetry and Prose of Daniel Defoe, ed. Michael F. Shugrue (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), p. 204.

31Farther Adventures, 2:112; 3:110, 202, 208.

32 Ibid., 2:215.

33Serious Reflections, p. 70:

34 David Blewett makes the connection between outer and inner storms explicit: "The storm scenes form part of an accumulating pattern of natural disasters and also dramatize Crusoe's mental state. There is an accompanying 'storm' in Crusoe's mind, a continual struggle between reason and passion, in which his good intentions are repeatedly overpowered by an irrational wilfulness." Defoe's Art of Fiction: "Robinson Crusoe," "Moll Flanders, " "ColonelJack" and "Roxana" (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1979), p. 32. And H. G. Hahn suggests the identification of Crusoe and Friday: "Through Crusoe Friday becomes the modern man, a seething savage beneath a veneer of civilization. He is both cannibal and Christian, a Caliban-Ariel on another Atlantic island. And Crusoe shapes in him what Crusoe really is." "An Approach to Character Development in Defoe's Narrative Prose," Philological Quarterly 51 (1972): 856.

35 William Bysshe Stein also emphasizes Crusoe's island appearance as a reflection of his animality. He calls "Crusoe's beard, the perfect accessory to the animalistic costume" and goes on to point out that "his reference to its Turkish model generates associations with the fabled savagery of these Asiatics." "Robinson Crusoe: The Trickster Tricked," The Centennial Review 9 (1965): 283.

36Serious Reflections, pp. 100-101.

37 Ibid., p. 182.

38 Homer O. Brown has explored this whole question of the identity of Defoe's main characters (and of Robinson Crusoe in particular) in his article "The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe," Journal of English Literary History 38 (1971): 562-90.

Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5582

SOURCE: "Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe," in God's Plots & Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 187-212.

[In the following excerpt, Damrosch considers Robinson Crusoe's "desacralizing" of the world, which in the novel becomes a workplace of men and an equivocal Providence.]

Mimesis, Allegory, and the Autonomous Self

In 1719, at the age of fifty-nine, the businessman, pamphleteer, and sometime secret agent Daniel Defoe unexpectedly wrote the first English novel. The affinities of Robinson Crusoe with the Puritan tradition are unmistakable: it draws on the genres of spiritual autobiography and allegory, and Crusoe's religious conversion is presented as the central event. But this primal novel, in the end, stands as a remarkable instance of a work that gets away from its author, and gives expression to attitudes that seem to lie far from his conscious intention. Defoe sets out to dramatize the conversion of the Puritan self, and he ends by celebrating a solitude that exalts autonomy instead of submission. He undertakes to show the dividedness of a sinner, and ends by projecting a hero so massively self-enclosed that almost nothing of his inner life is revealed. He proposes a naturalistic account of real life in a real world, and ends by creating an immortal triumph of wish-fulfillment. To some extent, of course, Defoe must have been aware of these ambiguities, which are summed up when Crusoe calls the island "my reign, or my captivity, which you please."1 But it is unlikely that he saw how deep the gulf was that divided the two poles of his story, the Augustinian theme of alienation and the romance theme of gratification….

In a Puritan view the normal course of nature is simply the sum total of an ongoing chain of special providences, for as a modern expositor of Calvin puts it, "Bread is not the natural product of the earth. In order that the earth may provide the wheat from which it is made, God must intervene, ceaselessly and ever anew, in the 'order of nature,' must send the rain and dew, must cause the sun to rise every morning."6 In the eighteenth century, however, there was an increasing tendency to define providence as the general order of things rather than as a series of specific interventions. Wesley bitterly remarked that "The doctrine of a particular providence is absolutely out of fashion in England—and any but a particular providence is no providence at all."7 One purpose of Robinson Crusoe is to vindicate God's omnipotence by showing the folly of making such a distinction. And Crusoe's isolation (like Ben Gunn's) encourages him to think the matter through. When Moll Flanders, in Defoe's next major novel, is finally arrested and thrown into Newgate, she suddenly perceives her clever career as the condign punishment of "an inevitable and unseen fate." But she admits that she is a poor moralist and unable to retain the lesson for long: "I had no sense of my condition, no thought of heaven or hell at least, that went any farther than a bare flying touch, like the stitch or pain that gives a hint and goes off."8 Moll sees only at moments of crisis what Crusoe learns to see consistently.

In keeping with this message the narrative contains many scriptural allusions, which are often left tacit for the reader to detect and ponder. The sprouting wheat, for instance, recalls a central doctrine of the Gospels: "Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal" (John 12:24-25). Crusoe's life recapitulates that of everyman, a fictional equivalent of what Samuel Clarke recommended in the study of history: "By setting before us what hath been, it premonisheth us of what will be again; sith the selfsame fable is acted over again in the world, the persons only are changed that act it."9 Like other Puritans Crusoe has to grope toward the meaning of the types embodied in his own biography. Defoe often likened himself to persecuted figures in the Bible, but wrote to his political master Harley that his life "has been and yet remains a mystery of providence unexpounded."10 Translating his experience into the quasi-allegory of Crusoe permits him to define typological connections more confidently, from the coincidence of calendar dates to the overarching theme of deliverance (typified in individuals like Jonah, and in the children of Israel released from Egypt).11 Thus the temporal world, however circumstantially described, can be seen in the Puritan manner as gathered up into eternity. Crusoe's fever is not only a direct warning from God but also, as Alkon shows, a rupture in his careful recording of chronology by which he is "wrenched outside time," an intimation that the various incidents in the story must be subsumed in a single structure.12 As in other Puritan narratives, separate moments are valued for their significance in revealing God's will, and become elements in an emblematic pattern rather than constituents of a causal sequence.

Nearly all of the essential issues cluster around the crucial theme of solitude. Defoe clearly gives it a positive valuation, and suggests more than once that Crusoe could have lived happily by himself forever if no other human beings had intruded. "I was now in my twenty-third year of residence in this island, and was so naturalized to the place and to the manner of living, that could I have but enjoyed the certainty that no savages would come to the place to disturb me, I could have been content to have capitulated for spending the rest of my time there, even to the last moment, till I had laid me down and died like the old goat in the cave" (p. 180). However obliquely Defoe's Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe (published in the following year) relates to the novel, it must be significant that it begins with an essay "Of Solitude" which moves at once to the claim that we are solitary even in the midst of society:

Everything revolves in our minds by innumerable circular motions, all centering in ourselves…. All reflection is carried home, and our dear self is, in one respect, the end of living. Hence man may be properly said to be alone in the midst of the crowds and hurry of men and business…. Our meditations are all solitude in perfection; our passions are all exercised in retirement; we love, we hate, we covet, we enjoy, all in privacy and solitude. All that we communicate of those things to any other is but for their assistance in the pursuit of our desires; the end is at home; the enjoyment, the contemplation, is all solitude and retirement; it is for ourselves we enjoy, and for ourselves we suffer.13

Critics have unfairly quoted this disturbing and memorable passage as symptomatic of a peculiar egotism in Defoe. In fact it reflects the logical consequence of Puritan inwardness, also susceptible of course to the charge of egotism—the descent into the interior self that impels Bunyan's Christian to reject his family in order to win eternal life. And it is compatible, as Defoe goes on to make clear, with the traditional view that "Man is a creature so formed for society, that it may not only be said that it is not good for him to be alone, but 'tis really impossible he should be alone" (pp. 11-12). The good man or woman ought to associate with others but seek in meditation that solitude which can be attained anywhere, symbolized in Robinson Crusoe by "the life of a man in an island" (p. 2).

In effect Defoe literalizes the metaphor that Descartes (for example) uses: "Among the crowds of a large and active people … I have been able to live as solitary and retired as in the remotest desert."14 But to literalize the metaphor creates profound complications, for it is one thing to live as if on a desert island and another to do it in earnest. Jonathan Edwards writes that in his meditations on the Song of Songs, "an inward sweetness … would carry me away in my contemplations, … and sometimes a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God."15 This rapture of selfabnegation is very far from Crusoe's experience. The difference is partly explained by the bluff common sense of Crusoe, not to mention of Defoe: Dickens comments, "I have no doubt he was a precious dry disagreeable article himself."16 But beyond that it is due to the way in which Defoe takes a topos of allegory and literalizes it in mimetic narrative. Even though he may believe that the result is still allegorical, he has transformed—to borrow a useful pair of terms from German—Jenseitigkeit into Diesseitigkeit, collapsing the "other side" of religion into the "this side" of familiar experience. In The Pilgrim 's Progress everyday images serve as visualizable emblems of an interior experience that belongs to another world. In Robinson Crusoe there is no other world.

Another way of saying this is that Crusoe reflects the progressive desacralizing of the world that was implicit in Protestantism, and that ended (in Weber's phrase) by disenchanting it altogether. Defoe's God may work through nature, but he does so by "natural" cause and effect (the seeds that sprout), and nature itself is not viewed as sacramental. Rather it is the workplace where man is expected to labor until it is time to go to a heaven too remote and hypothetical to ask questions about. "I come from the City of Destruction," Bunyan's Christian says, "but am going to Mount Sion."17 In Crusoe, as is confirmed by the feeble sequel The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe there is no goal at all, at least not in this world. But the world of The Pilgrim's Progress was not this world: after conversion the believer knew himself to be a stranger in a strange land. Defoe keeps the shape of the allegorical scheme but radically revalues its content.

Defoe is no metaphysician, and his dislocation of the religious schema may seem naive, but in practice if not in theory it subtly images the-ambiguity of man's relation to his world, at once a "natural" home and a resistant object to be manipulated. Milton's Adam and Eve fall from the world in which they had been at home, and Bunyan's characters march through the fallen world like soldiers passing through enemy territory. Defoe has it both ways, defining man over against nature and at the same time inventing a fantasy of perfect union with it. As technologist and (halting) thinker Crusoe finds himself in opposition to nature, as when he builds a "periagua" so grotesquely huge that he is unable to drag it to the water, or when he does make a successful canoe but is nearly swept out to sea by unexpected currents. And his concepts function to define his human status in contrast with nature, in keeping with the moral tradition that saw man in a "state of nature" as living in continual fear of death.18 But as a concord fiction Robinson Crusoe still more strongly suggests that man can indeed return to union with nature, so long as other men are not present to disturb him. In important respects the island is an Eden.

This equivocation between punitive doctrine and liberating romance has remarkable consequences in Defoe's treatment of psychology. In effect he carries to its logical conclusion the externalizing of unwanted impulses which we have seen in Bunyan and other Puritan writers. With God generalized into an abstract Providence, Crusoe's universe is peopled by inferior beings, angelic spirits who guide him with mysterious hints and diabolical spirits who seek his ruin. Of these the latter are the more interesting, and Crusoe is scandalized to find that Friday is unaware of any Satan, merely saying "O" to a pleasant but ineffectual deity called Benamuckee who seems not to know how to punish men. Defoe needs the Devil—and this must be his never-articulated answer to Friday's trenchant question, "Why God no kill the Devil?" (p. 218)—because man's unacknowledged impulses have to be explained. Like the older Puritans Defoe externalizes such impulses by calling them tricks of Satan, but he altogether lacks the subtle dialectic by which the Puritans acknowledged man's continued complicity with the hated enslaver….

Defoe makes it absolutely explicit that Crusoe's Eden is an escape from guilt. "I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here. I had neither the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life" (p. 128; the reference is to a favorite Puritan text, John 2:16). To be alone with God is to be alone with oneself and to find it good:

Thus I lived mighty comfortably, my mind being entirely composed by resigning to the will of God, and throwing myself wholly upon the disposal of his Providence. This made my life better than sociable, for when I began to regret the want of conversation, I would ask my self whether thus conversing mutually with my own thoughts, and, as I hope I may say, with even God himself by ejaculations, was not better than the utmost enjoyment of human society in the world. (pp. 135-36)

Crusoe has nothing to hide. Whereas Bunyan trembled in the knowledge that God sees "the most secret thoughts of the heart,"30 Crusoe often applies the word "secret" to emotions of self-satisfaction: "I descended a little on the side of that delicious vale, surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure" (p. 100). This is not the Puritan use of the term, but an ethical and aesthetic ideal that Defoe may have picked up from Addison: "A man of a polite imagination … meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows than another does in the possession."31 The solitary Crusoe has no one to keep secrets from: the word "secret" defines his privacy, individuality, possessiveness, and sole claim to pleasure.

Self-congratulation merges with the frequently mentioned "secret hints" of Providence until Crusoe learns to identify Providence with his own desires. When after a time he reflects on his role in saving Friday from paganism, "A secret joy run through every part of my soul" (p. 220). For the older Puritans determinism was a crucial issue, whether one concluded like Milton that man was free to cooperate with God's will in his own way, or like Bunyan that man must learn to make his will conform to the irresistible force of predestination. In strictly theological terms Defoe seems to have followed Baxter in stressing God's desire to welcome all of his children, rather than his power of predestination.32 But imaginatively Defoe shares with the Puritans a feeling of unfreedom, of being compelled to act by some power beyond himself. In the imaginary world of fiction he can embrace that power instead of resisting it. In its simplest terms this amounts to asserting that Crusoe is an agent of Providence as well as its beneficiary, as he himself indicates after masterminding the defeat of the mutineers:

"Gentlemen," said I, "do not be surprised at me; perhaps you may have a friend near you when you did not expect it." "He must be sent directly from heaven, then," said one of them very gravely to me, and pulling off his hat at the same time to me, "for our condition is past the help of man." "All help is from heaven, sir," said I. (p. 254)

But beyond this, Defoe's determinism becomes a defense of his own impulses, whereas for Puritans it would have been a confirmation of their sinfulness. Providence is seen as responsible not only for what happens but also for what does not, for what Crusoe is not as well as what he is. "Had Providence … blessed me with confined desires" (p. 194) none of the misfortunes—and none of the rewards—would have come about. But Providence did not. Where then does responsibility lie?

The more one ponders this question, the more equivocal the role of Providence becomes, as is vividly apparent when Crusoe reflects on his very first shipwreck.

Had I now had the sense to have gone back to Hull and have gone home, I had been happy, and my father, an emblem of our blessed Saviour's parable, had even killed the fatted calf for me; for hearing the ship I went away in was cast away in Yarmouth Road, it was a great while before he had any assurance that I was not drowned.

But my ill fate pushed me on now with an obstinacy that nothing could resist; and though I had several times loud calls from my reason and my more composed judgment to go home, yet I had no power to do it. I know not what to call this, nor will I urge that it is a secret overruling decree that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction, even though it be before us, and that we rush upon it with our eyes open. Certainly nothing but some such decreed unavoidable misery attending, and which it was impossible for me to escape, could have pushed me forward against the calm reasonings and persuasions of my most retired thoughts, and against two such visible instructions as I had met with in my first attempt, (p. 14)

The passage is filled with interesting negatives: (1) Crusoe would have been like the prodigal if he had gone home, but he did not; (2) he will not say that his fate was compelled by "a secret overruling decree"; (3) yet nothing but such a decree can account for it.

One can try to explain these complications in orthodox Christian fashion, as Coleridge does:

When once the mind, in despite of the remonstrating conscience, has abandoned its free power to a haunting impulse or idea, then whatever tends to give depth and vividness to this idea or indefinite imagination increases its despotism, and in the same proportion renders the reason and free will ineffectual…. This is the moral of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the true solution of this paragraph—not any overruling decree of divine wrath, but the tyranny of the sinner's own evil imagination, which he has voluntarily chosen as his master.33

Coleridge adds, "Rebelling against his conscience he becomes the slave of his own furious will" (p. 316). But Crusoe does not go so far as this toward accepting the orthodox solution. He shows that he is aware of it, and hence hesitates to ascribe misfortunes to fate or God, but nevertheless the sense of involuntary behavior is so strong that he can only attribute it to "some such decreed unavoidable misery."

An emphasis on God's "decrees," comforting for the elect and dreadful for the reprobate, was fundamental to Calvinism. But Crusoe uses Calvinist language here to suggest that he cannot be morally responsible for actions in which he is moved about like a chess piece. In many places Defoe discusses the kinds of necessity in ordinary life (finding food, self-defense) that may not extenuate crime but impel it so irresistibly that the criminal is simply not free to behave otherwise.34 A character in Colonel Jack says, "I believe my case was what I find is the case of most of the wicked part of the world, viz. that to be reduced to necessity is to be wicked; for necessity is not only the temptation, but is such a temptation as human nature is not empowered to resist. How good then is that God which takes from you, sir, the temptation, by taking away the necessity?"35 Surely the corollary must also hold: the sinner can hardly be blamed if God does not remove the temptation by removing the necessity.

Obeying necessity, Crusoe allows himself to ride the current of his secret destiny and is magnificently rewarded. A Puritan reading of Robinson Crusoe—such as Defoe himself might have endorsed—would hold that by seeking self-fulfillment and creating a private nomos, Crusoe is an abject sinner. But the logic of the story denies this. Starr has shown that Defoe was fascinated with the science of casuistry,36 which treats necessity as an ethical excuse for behavior instead of—as in Calvinism—a moral condemnation of it. The inverted egotism of Bunyan's "chief of sinners" is turned right-side-up again, as Crusoe's island refuses to remain a metaphor for captivity and quickly develops positive qualities. Since Crusoe is a fictional character and not a real person, what is really involved is Defoe's imaginative conception of the island. And this at bottom is a powerful fantasy of punishment that can be willingly accepted because it ceases to punish. The autonomy of solitude is the happy culmination of those mysterious impulses that first sent Crusoe to sea, and in achieving it he makes his destiny his choice.

The much-discussed economic aspects of Robinson Crusoe are suggestive of ambiguities very like the religious ones. On this topic the locus classicus is Ian Watt's chapter on Crusoe as a myth of capitalism. It is not really relevant to argue, as critics of Watt have done, that Crusoe has little of the rational calculation of the capitalist. For Watt's point is that the book is a myth and not a literal picture, reflecting the dynamic spirit of capitalism rather than its practical application. "Crusoe's Original sin' is really the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself, whose aim is never merely to maintain the status quo, but to transform it incessantly. Leaving home, improving on the lot one was born to, is a vital feature of the individualist pattern of life."37 The island permits Crusoe (and Defoe) to evade the contradictions in capitalist individualism, and to imagine a Puritan Eden in which work yields gratification instead of vexation and defeat.

The special status of the island makes possible Crusoe's reaction, in a famous passage, when he finds a quantity of coins on board the wrecked ship.

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money; "O drug!" said I aloud, "What art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no not the taking off of the ground, one of those knives is worth all this heap, I have no manner of use for thee, e'en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saving." However, upon second thoughts, I took it away…. (p. 57)

Ever since Coleridge, readers have perceived irony in those second thoughts, but the irony is at society's expense rather than Crusoe's. If ever he returns to the world whose lifeblood is money, then this money will be useful if not indispensable. With his usual good sense he therefore saves it. But on the island, as if by enchantment, money is truly valueless, and Crusoe is free of the whole remorseless system whose lubricant it is. His personification of the coins as a "creature" carries its traditional Puritan meaning: all earthly things are "creatures" which the saint is to restrain himself from loving too much. Only on Crusoe's island is it possible to despise money as a useless and indeed harmful drug….

Relating Robinson Crusoe to the myth of Mammon, Starr surveys writers who tried to reconcile Christ's injunction "Take no thought for the morrow" with the duty of labor by emphasizing that the labor must be performed in cooperation with Providence.39 On the island Crusoe need no longer attempt this difficult reconciliation, whereas capitalism, being rational, must always take thought for the morrow. Thus in sociological terms Crusoe escapes the prison of alienated labor, just as in religious terms he escapes the prison of guilt. He inhabits a little world where his tools and products fully embody his desires (or would if he could make ink) and where necessity authenticates his desires instead of punishing them. "The liberty of the individual," Freud says, "is no gift of civilization."40 It is Defoe's gift to Crusoe.

Yet even in the imagination, this dream of wholeness is at best provisional. The economic system, according to Weber, "is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live."41 On the island Crusoe breaks free from that order, but in a deeper sense he has already internalized it, along with the religious order that undergirds it. What is possible finally is only a fantasy of escape, from desire as well as from civilization, that anticipates the poor man's reward in the New Testament.

I looked now upon the world as a thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no expectation from, and indeed no desires about: in a word, I had nothing indeed to do with it, nor was ever like to have; so I thought it looked as we may perhaps look upon it hereafter, viz. as a place I had lived in, but was come out of it; and well might I say, as Father Abraham to Dives, Between me and thee is a great gulf fixed, (p. 128) …

If the Puritans believed that they had to study the clues in their lives with fierce attention, they also believed that the ultimate interpretation was reserved for God, not themselves. "In theistic religions," Frye says, "God speaks and man listens."58 But in Robinson Crusoe God himself becomes a kind of fiction, even if an indispensable one, and Crusoe has to do his own interpreting because if he does not, no one else will. Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim 's Progress were texts that depended upon a superior text, the Word of God. Robinson Crusoe contains plenty of scriptural allusions, but now they are only allusions. The narrative offers itself as autonomous and freestanding, and in a profound sense it is secular. Here is where the "realism" of Crusoe telling his own story conflicts with the impulse to interpret, and the story tends to roll onward with a momentum of its own rather than successfully embodying the pattern to which it aspires. Crusoe is moved by his father's advice "but alas! a few days wore it all off (p. 6), and this sets the tone for everything that follows. In a way Defoe participates in the state of continuous starting-over that is characteristic of modern writing, "something whose beginning condition, irreducibly, is that it must always be produced, constantly."59 So in a curious way Defoe's problems lead logically to the solutions of Sterne, who perfectly fulfills Barthes's definition, "Le texte scriptible, c'est nous en train d'écrire."60 But one must not claim too much; Robinson Crusoe resists any theoretical explanation that sees its meanderings as planned. A recent writer proposes, modestly enough, that "there is a deliberate avoidance of rhetorical or dramatic closure in Defoe's method."61 The impersonal and passive construction is all too apt: the method itself (not Defoe) does not want to end, and the avoidance of ending is somehow "in" the method.

If Crusoe watches himself writing, Defoe pretends to watch neither Crusoe nor himself, affecting an utterly unsubordinated prose whose heaped up clauses suggest the mind-numbing inconsequentiality of experience. Here is the first half of a typical sentence, with the connective words italicized for emphasis:

A little after noon I found the sea very calm, and the tide ebbed so far out, that I could come within a quarter of a mile of the ship; and here I found a fresh renewing of my grief, for I saw evidently, that if we had kept on board, we had all been safe, that is to say, we had all got safe on shore, and I had not been so miserable as to be left entirely destitute of all comfort and company, as I now was; this forced tears from my eyes again, but as there was little relief in that, I resolved, if possible, to get to the ship, so I pulled off my clothes, for the weather was hot to extremity, and took the water, but when I came to the ship, my difficulty was still greater to know how to get on board, for as she lay aground…. (p. 48)

In Bunyan the paratactic style suggested the welter of experience that God pulls together into a single shape. In Defoe it just suggests the welter of experience, and the prose keeps toppling forward of its own weight.

Christian faith is well on the way to providing a nostalgic schema rather than an informing principle, even if as Lukács says it has left permanent scars on the landscape: "The river beds, now dry beyond all hope, have marked forever the face of the earth."62 Defoe's later novels are exceptionally episodic, not only failing to make their inner logic conform to providential plan, but failing to develop an inner logic at all. And the anomie that Robinson Crusoe held at bay returns with a vengeance. The later characters live under aliases while struggling, usually as criminals, to survive in a society that offers no nomos, no status that confirms the essential order of things. And guilt is no longer managed by assimilating it to a coherent determinism generated from within. Moll Flanders's rationalizations may be partly shared by the author, but he certainly appreciates the dreadful emptiness (and Pauline urgency) in Roxana's bitter confession: "With my eyes open, and with my conscience, as I may say, awake, I sinned, knowing it to be a sin, but having no power to resist."63 We cannot know exactly what Defoe thought he was doing in this enigmatic novel, but we do know that it was his last. As one critic puts it, "Defoe stopped when he reached the end."64

Meanwhile Robinson Crusoe survives in all its richness, the starting point of a new genre and yet strangely unfruitful for imitation; it spawned no tradition of its own as Don Quixote and Pamela did. Later fictions continued to draw upon Christian ideas and to pursue the dream of confirming them, but never again in the naive and direct way that Defoe at first believed possible. Robinson Crusoe is a remarkable and unrepeatable reconciliation of myth with novel, whose fantasy of isolation without misery and labor without alienation retains all of its remarkable imaginative power. "I am away from home," Kafka wrote to his closest friend, "and must always write home, even if any home of mine has long since floated away into eternity. All this writing is nothing but Robinson Crusoe's flag hoisted at the highest point of the island."65


1The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. J. Donald Crowley (London, 1972), p. 137. Further references to Crusoe are to this edition….

6 Richard Stauffer, Dieu, la Création et la Providence dans la Prédication de Calvin (Berne, 1978), p. 268.

7 John Wesley, quoted by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York, 1971), p. 640; see Thomas's discussion of this point on pp. 639-40.

8Moll Flanders, ed. G. A. Starr (London, 1976), pp. 274, 279.

9A General Martyrologie (1677), quoted by J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in Robinson Crusoe (Baltimore, 1966), p. 76.

10The Letters of Daniel Defoe, ed. G. H. Healey (Oxford, 1969), p. 17. See Paula R. Backscheider, "Personality and Biblical Allusion in Defoe's Letters," South Atlantic Review 47 (1982), 1-20.

11 See Paul J. Korshin, Typologies in England, 1650-1820 (Princeton, 1982), pp. 218-21.

12 Paul K. Alkon, Defoe and Fictional Time (Athens, Ga., 1979), pp. 61, 146.

13Serious Reflections, pp. 2-3.

14 René Descartes, Discours de la Méthode, final sentence of Part III.

15Personal Narrative, in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson (New York, 1962), p. 60.

16 From Forster's Life of Charles Dickens, reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel (New York, 1975), p. 295.

17The Pilgrim's Progress, ed. Roger Sharrock (Harmondsworth, 1965), p. 56.

18 See Maximillian E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford, 1963), ch. 2….

30Grace Abounding, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford, 1962), p. 76.

31Spectator 411. There are two similar uses of "secret" in no. 412.

32 See Martin J. Greif, "The Conversion of Robinson Crusoe," Studies in English Literature 6 (1966), 553-55.

33 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Complete Works (New York, 1884), IV, 312.

34 See Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man, ch. 3.

35ColonelJack, ed. Samuel Holt Monk (London, 1965), p. 161.

36Defoe and Casuistry (Princeton, 1971).

37The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley, 1957), ch. 3….

39 G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, 1965), pp. 185-97.

40Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. James Strachey (New York, 1962), p. 42.

41 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1958), p. 54.

58 Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (Bloomington, Ind., 1973), p. 120.

59 Edward M. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (Baltimore, 1975), p. 197.

60 Roland Barthes, quoted by Said, p. 202 (from (S/Z.)

61 Walter R. Reed, An Exemplary History of the Novel: The Quixotic versus the Picaresque (Chicago, 1981), p. 111.

62 Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 38.

53Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress, ed. Jane Jack (London, 1964), p. 44.

64 Zimmerman, Defoe and the Novel, p. 187.

65 Letter to Max Brod, 12 July 1922, in Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York, 1977), p. 340.

Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7845

SOURCE: "Parables of the Younger Son (I): Defoe and the Naturalization of Desire," in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 315-37.

[Here, McKeon discusses Crusoe's spiritualization of events and life on the island and explores possible identifications of original sin in the novel.]


Although the second part of Robinson Crusoe followed so quickly upon the first that it successfully prevented all spurious continuations, an unauthorized "abridgement" of Part I nevertheless just managed to precede it into print. In the preface to Part II, Defoe condemns that abridgment and complains that its excision of religious and moral reflections precludes the spiritual improvement that had been a principal feature of the original. The narrative "Invention" of Part II, as well, will be legitimated by the ample opportunity that is provided there for "just Application" and "Improvement." "The Editor" of Part I "believes the thing to be a just History of Fact. " The "Editor" of Part II takes a similar stance: in the spirit of the maxim "strange, therefore true," he asserts that it "contains as strange and surprising Incidents" as its predecessor, of which he adds that "all the Endeavours of envious People to reproach it with being a Romance … have proved abortive."1

Now, amid such claims to historicity, we might expect the argument against abridgment to be based simply on the complaint that it reduced the narrative to a quantitative incompleteness. But as we know, Defoe's commitment to the claim, although real enough, was decidedly complicated in the later years of his career, and in other contexts as well he emphasizes the spiritual "application" and "improvement" of his work by way of justifying its "invention." The impetus for this reevaluation of the claim did not come entirely from within. Already before the year was over, Charles Gildon was attacking Defoe for having invented the protagonist whose biographical memoirs he was purporting to edit. Gildon is the first in a long line of critics who detect a close relation between the errancy of Robinson Crusoe and the remarkable vicissitudes and duplicities of Daniel Defoe's own career, and he has Defoe tell Crusoe that "I drew thee from the Consideration of my own Mind; I have been all my Life that Rambling, Inconsistent Creature, which I have made thee." "The Fabulous Proteus of the Ancient Mythologist," Gildon says of Defoe, "was but a very faint Type of our Hero," and although Defoe would compare his work with The Pilgrim's Progress, Gildon's Crusoe sees a much closer resemblance to the "Mob" romances of Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Southampton, and The London Prentice.2

In fact, the dilemma of quantitative completeness arises within the plot of Robinson Crusoe itself, as a function of that impulse toward materialistic quantification which is so characteristic of empirical epistemology and which is expressed by Defoe (as by other travel narrators) through a proliferation of times, dates, place names, and nautical terminology. Soon after his arrival on the island and in the spirit both of Puritan teachings and of the Royal Society's instructions to travelers, Robinson undertakes a journal that will begin at the beginning. But since at least the first few weeks of the journal therefore must be a retrospective re-creation of events, they have the ambiguous power both to confirm the historicity of those events by referring back to them, and to undermine their factuality by providing an alternative version of "what happened." Not that Robinson himself is conscious of this ambiguity, since he believes simply that "in it will be told all these Particulars over again" (69). But Defoe was aware of the problem, and in fact many details are omitted from the journal, while others we learn of for the first time there. Even more, the two versions seem occasionally to contradict each other in matters of fact, let alone interpretation. In the narrative, for example, the storm has abated and the weather cleared when Robinson awakes after the first night, whereas in the journal the rain continues for the next few days (47-48, 70-71). And there is a further problem of temporal sequence. Five weeks after the shipwreck, the journal recounts an event (the completion of a chair) we first heard of just prior to the journal's inception, and we may therefore expect all subsequent accounts to be of uncharted territory (68, 72). Yet very soon after this we are told that Robinson is excavating a cave which in the narrative clearly had been made well before the construction of the chair (60, 67, 73). We quickly find, in other words, that the dilemma of quantitative completeness is dwarfed by the apparent problem that the journal violates both the substance and the sequence of the narrative's historicity.3

On the other hand, we also begin to be aware, from periodic summarizing and foreshadowing interpolations (e.g., 75, 76), that this is not a strict journal at all, but one that has been subjected to a kind of secondary revision by a larger narrative perspective that resumes for good when Robinson's ink later runs out. Unlike the typical travel journal, which provides rough notes for a later and fuller narrative redaction, Robinson's journal stealthily becomes that redaction even as we read it. Immediately following certain moralizing passages he announces explicitly that now I "return to my Journal" (79, 97)—and at these points the experience is not unlike that of Cervantes' narrative vertigo, in which what we took to be the main thread suddenly is revealed as a digression from it. And yet in the first-person narration of Defoe, the effect is less to throw the historicity of the travels themselves into question than to sensitize us to the personalized veracity of Robinson's experience, which is all the more authentic for having this subjective volatility. Gradually the journal's effort at a temporal ordering of events is subsumed within the larger narrative, and by the time we reach the climactic moment of Robinson's conversion crisis, this formal confusion of "journal" and "narrative" has served as one important guide to the way in which things as usual have come to be suspended on the island.4

The peculiar coexistence of historicity and subjectivity in Robinson Crusoe, the early dynamic between journal and narrative and the more general one between Character and Narrator—these exemplify the obvious indebtedness of Defoe's work to the formal procedures of spiritual autobiography. The form would of course have been familiar to Defoe, who had been set apart for the nonconformist ministry until his religious crisis at the age of twenty-one. The gap between the sinful young rambler and the repentant convert from whose perspective the story is told is felt very strongly in the first half of Robinson Crusoe. "But if I can express at this Distance the Thoughts I had about me at that time," Robinson says at one point, and we are often aware, through retrospective narrative intrusions, of the great divide between this foolish, thoughtless, headstrong, prodigal, sinful youth whose fortunes we attend, and the authoritative, prophetic, but disembodied consciousness that hastens us on into the fateful future (II).5

Once on the island, the gap between the two begins to close. The sprouting seeds, the earthquake, his illness and dream, are natural events that we watch Robinson painfully and imperfectly learn to spiritualize, to read as signs of God's presence (78-79, 80-81, 87-91). In order to treat his ague he looks in his seaman's chest for a roll of tobacco, and finds there "a Cure, both for Soul and Body"—not only the roll but a bible as well. Trying "several Experiments" with the tobacco, he listlessly experiments also with bibliomancy for a cure to the spiritual disease of which he is only now, before our eyes, becoming fully conscious (93-94). "Deliverance" is the scriptural word that holds his attention, and he learns to read it in such a way as to release, for the first time, its spiritual application:

Now I began to construe the Words mentioned above, Call on me, and I will deliver you, in a different Sense from what I had ever done before; for then I had no Notion of any thing being call'd Deliverance, but my being deliver'd from the Captivity I was in; for tho' I was indeed at large in the Place, yet the Island was certainly a Prison to me, and that in the worst Sense in the World; but now I learn'd to take it in another Sense: … [to seek] Deliverance from the Load of Guilt that bore down all my Comfort … Deliverance from Sin [is] a much greater Blessing, than Deliverance from Affliction (96-97).

At this point, Robinson's "load," like Christian's, falls from his shoulders because he has learned, like Edward Coxere, to spiritualize his island prison as the prison of the world herebelow. It is the beginning of the movement of narrative "atonement," when Character and Narrator come together, and this can be seen in the ease with which Robinson will shortly distinguish between not aimless past and repentant future but anguished past and contented present: between "Before," when he felt he "was a Prisoner lock'd up with the Eternal Bars and Bolts of the Ocean," and "now," when "I began to exercise my self with new Thoughts" (113). Henceforth he will by no means be immune from backslidings, but they will be ostentatious lapses—his construction of the enormous canoe, his panic over the footprint, his rage against the cannibals—whose rapid moralization will only emphasize how far the Character has internalized the spiritualizing powers of the Narrator.6

Thus Robinson Crusoe can be seen to be in rather close proximity to the preoccupations of Protestant soteriology in general and of spiritual autobiography in particular. With the spiritualization of "deliverance" Robinson's early urge to "ramble" (3) does not disappear, but it is permanently transvalued for him, as we will see. Physical mobility is reconceived in spiritual terms, as movement both "upward" and "inward": after his dream of the avenging angel he realizes that since leaving home he has had not "one Thought that so much as tended either to looking upwards toward God, or inwards towards a Reflection upon my own Ways" (88). Moreover, the impulse toward introspective veracity that Robinson now evinces is a vital channel for the claim to historicity in spiritual autobiography. But of course the generic status of Robinson Crusoe is a good deal more uncertain than this argument would suggest. The dynamic relation between Character and Narrator is, after all, a formal feature of the picaresque as well, and even of that originating strain of picaresque in which the "spiritual" constitution of the protagonist is clearly an "autodidactic" and secular act of self-creation rather than a function of divine creativity. Thus Francis Kirkman, for example, makes more than a gesture toward the language of repentance, confession, and conversion, but we can have no doubt that the instrumental creativity in this narrative is that of the author and not of the Author—and, indeed, that Francis's physical "rambles" are to be converted to "upward mobility" not in the spiritual but in the social sense of the term. By the same token, we are obliged to recall that the interplay between "journal" and "narrative" with which we began is as central to secular travel narrative as to spiritual autobiography.7

These fairly random attempts to "place" Robinson Crusoe by associating it with one or another established subgenre recapitulate, in different terms, the most important recent controversy concerning its interpretation. The modern tendency to see Defoe's work as essentially an essay in secular materialism is fairly represented by Ian Watt's view that Robinson's religion is the result of a mechanically Puritan "editorial policy." In reaction to this tendency, the traditions of seventeenth-century Puritan allegory and spiritual autobiography have been reviewed by critics, notably George Starr and Paul Hunter, to the end of assimilating Robinson Crusoe to something like an ideal type of Protestant narrative religiosity. Both arguments are made with great skill, but both may appear extreme insofar as they seem unnecessarily obliged to imply a mutual exclusion. As the Weber thesis suggests, in the historically transitional territory of early modern Protestantism, spiritual and secular motives are not only "compatible"; they are inseparable, if ultimately contradictory, parts of a complex intellectual and behavioral system.8

If, shortly after his conversion, Robinson demonstrates (as in the preface) his ability to use the terms "application" and "improvement" in their spiritual sense (128, 132), throughout the narrative he is far more inclined to use these words as synonyms for material industry (4, 49, 68, 144, 182, 195, 280). Yet both usages are consistent with the unstable strategies of Protestant casuistry—which in any case is only one sphere of discourse in which the instability of secularization and reform is registered during this period. Defoe's pilgrim is the brother of a wide range of progressive travelers to Utopian realms: Edward Coxere, George Pine, Francis Kirkman, Capt. Misson, Sancho Panza. And if we wish to appreciate fully the status of Robinson Crusoe as a "Protestant narrative," we will need to attend to its filiations not only with Grace Abounding but also with the literal plot of The Pilgrim's Progress. Of course, Bunyan's entire plot of "romance" adventure exists in order to be spiritualized. In Defoe the balance between spiritualization and the claim to historicity has been reversed, and it is as though he has—not without the spiraling misgivings of the Serious Reflections—taken that perilous next step and, in the name of a "positive" secularization, explicitly sanctioned our resistance to allegorical translation. The result is a literal narrative filled with the mutabilities of religion (providence) and romance (pirates, shipwreck), which do not so much undergo in themselves a transformative specification to the mechanics of social mobility, as engineer the conditions under which that mobility is wonderfully enabled to transpire.


One focus of the critical controversy to which I have just referred is the question of what Robinson means when he speaks of his "ORIGINAL SIN" in opposing his father's advice that he stay at home and keep to the "middle Station," or "the upper Station of Low Life," to which he was born (194, 4-5). Obviously the term ascribes a religious significance to Robinson's physical mobility; but what sort of social significance does it attribute to it? Should we identify Robinson's "original sin" with capitalist industry; or with an anticapitalist impulse to ramble and to evade his capitalist calling; or with an anti-Puritan motive to evade his Puritan calling; or with a general unregenerate waywardness that really has no special social significance at all?9 In a certain sense, however, this is to begin at the wrong end. For Robinson's mobility gains its religious overtones only with hindsight, through the retrospective viewpoint of the Narrator. In the present tense of narrative action it is primarily a social rather than a religious meaning—even the socially charged meaning of Calvinism—that Robinson's mobility possesses when he first leaves home. His father speaks in a general way about the virtues of "Application and Industry," but this is not really the language of labor discipline and the calling (3-6). His appeal is at least as plausibly to what I have been calling "aristocratic ideology": to a very traditionalistic social stratification and to the advisability of maintaining the station of one's birth. How is it, then, that the young Robinson learns to read the social meaning of his wish to ramble through the religious spectacles of Calvinist discipline? And since the Puritan's pursuit of grace might entail either stasis or pilgrimage, either social stability or change, why should his mobility appear so definitively a sign of his sin rather than a token of his election? When does the language of the calling enter Robinson's vocabulary?

On his first sea voyage, Robinson, in mortal fear, bitterly berates himself for "the Breach of my Duty to God and my Father" (7-8). Before this the narration of his early life has been relatively free of religious injunction. Robinson's father is a merchant who became successful through the sort of travel he now forbids his son. One of the older sons is dead; the other has disappeared. Designed now for the law and a "settled" life, Robinson thinks himself at eighteen too old to be set an attorney's clerk or an apprentice, and he seems momentarily to attribute his wanderlust to the marginality of his status in the family: "Being the third Son of the Family, and not bred to any Trade, my Head began to be fill'd very early with rambling Thoughts" (3). But whatever the psychological cause of it, Robinson soon finds a more satisfactory explanation for his unsettledness—more satisfactory because empowered with the ascription of sin—in the idea of a "duty" that has been breached. And this idea he seems to hear first from his friend's father, the master of the ship on which he had made his nearly fatal first voyage. Learning that the youth had sailed with him "only for a Trial in order to go farther Abroad," the master tells Robinson "to take this for a plain and visible Token that you are not to be a Seafaring Man." "Why, Sir," says Robinson, "will you go to Sea no more?" "That is another Case, " said he, "it is my Calling, and therefore my Duty" (14-15). This is Robinson's first lesson in casuistry, at least to our knowledge, and it is an important one. Duty is dictated by calling, and to be out of one's calling is certainly to be in sin. But how do you tell your calling if you have no clear intuition of it and have not been definitively bred to one? Parental authority is one guide. Another is the tokens and signs of divine will that can be read in experience, and it does not require a very subtle interpreter to read God's judgment in this particular case.

At this early stage Robinson is quite blind to providential signs. Yet even so, the narrative voice soon lets us know that returning home is not the only way he might at this point have altered his course for the better. For now Robinson begins to ship on a succession of voyages, and because he has "Money in my Pocket, and good Cloaths upon my Back, I would always go on board in the Habit of a Gentleman" rather than that of a common sailor. Like his creator, he is fond of upwardly mobile masquerade, but the result is that he remains idle and forfeits the opportunity to establish his calling at sea: for "as a Sailor … I had learn'd the Duty and Office of a Fore-mast Man; and in time might have quallified my self for a Mate or Lieutenant, if not for a Master" (16). Despite this bad choice, Robinson is lucky enough to be befriended by an honest Guinea captain, who teaches him some of the skills of both sailor and merchant (17). But before we can begin to ask if this employment has the potential of being a redemptive discipline, Robinson is captured by pirates and metamorphosed "from a Merchant to a miserable Slave … Now the Hand of Heaven had overtaken me, and I was undone without Redemption" (19).

Nor do his spiritual prospects improve when he escapes from Sallee and gains material prosperity as a planter in Brazil. The problem is more general than the fact of his readiness to sell Xury to the Portuguese captain by whom they are "deliver'd" (in any case Defoe seems to exercise some care in formulating the case so as to make it conscientiously acceptable).10 It is not that Robinson is specifically and spectacularly sacrilegious, but that he is comprehensively devoid of moral and spiritual constraints. The Portuguese captain himself is a man of such exemplary fair dealing that he would seem to epitomize how the merchant is to pursue his calling; and he treats Robinson so "honourably" and "charitably" that the latter's coarse desire to "gr[o]w rich suddenly" can only suffer by comparison (33-34, 37, 89). Rather than follow the rule of charity or regulate his life by the satisfaction of necessities, Robinson simply pursues his self-interest in Brazil. When the captain's good advice leads to his receipt of some valuable goods, Robinson is content to exploit the market for all he can get, selling them "to a very great Advantage; so that I might say, I had more than four times the Value of my first Cargo, and was now infinitely beyond my poor Neighbour." In this way Robinson's overextension and excess are palpably registered by his rapid advancement over others. It is not the fact of being a trader, but his "abus'd Prosperity," his unrationalized exploitation of exchange value, that distinguishes him from those who might be said to pursue their callings (37). The principles of subsistence and consumption are dominated by the unlimited desire to accumulate, a triumph of excess and waste that is also expressed in the irony that now Robinson "was coming into the very Middle Station, or upper Degree of low Life, which my Father advised me to before; and which if I resolved to go on with, I might as well ha' staid at Home" (35).11

By the same token, the voice of the Narrator makes it clear that despite past sins, having wandered into this way of life, Robinson might yet have made a decent calling of it. It is not strictly required, in other words, that one remain in the station of one's birth. What Robinson fails in for a second time is the identification of "those Prospects and those measures of Life, which Nature and Providence concurred to present me with, and to make my Duty." Our duty and calling are not objective entities, but conditions in which we find ourselves and which we are able to intuit and interpret into fulfillment. "As I had once done thus in my breaking away from my Parents, so I could not be content now, but I must go and leave the happy View I had of being a rich and thriving Man in my new Plantation, only to pursue a rash and immoderate Desire of rising faster than the Nature of the Thing admitted" (38). An incapacity to limit his desires by sensing the natural and providential limits of his situation is what makes Robinson successively a prodigal son, an unethical trader, and now also an imprudent trader: "Now increasing in Business and in Wealth," says the Narrator, "my Head began to be full of Projects and Undertakings beyond my Reach" (37-38). When he is offered the chance to oversee an illegal and highly profitable shipment of African slaves, he is oblivious to the fact that it would have been "a fair Proposal" only if made to one who did not already possess a "Settlement" in need of looking after. For him to accept the offer is to do "the most preposterous Thing that ever Man in such Circumstances could be guilty of," to abandon the clear possibility of a settled calling. Nevertheless Robinson enters into an agreement with his fellow planters and goes "on Board in an evil Hour" (39-40).

So the prelude to shipwreck is a chronic incapacity to rationalize worldly activity by the sanctions of a perceived moral duty. The many years on the island overcome this incapacity by obliging Robinson, devoid of human society, to experience the society of God. This experience has two crucial dimensions. First, in a state of solitude the greatest impediments to ethical behavior—other people—suddenly disappear. But second, what then remains is the otherness of divinity itself, the absolute moral standard now so inescapable that its very voice may be heard and internalized within one's own desires. Robinson's long isolation schools him in the psychological discipline needed to transform his activity into his calling. In the following pages I will review the central stages in this schooling.


I have already suggested that Robinson's island conversion depends upon a new-found ability to spiritualize his situation, to detect and interpret the signs of God's presence in his life on the island. As he explains it, the pleasures of this presence do not only compensate for the absence of human society. They also alter his understanding of his own desires, of what it is he really wants:

Thus I liv'd mighty comfortably, my Mind being entirely composed by resigning to the Will of God, and throwing my self wholly upon the Disposal of his Providence. This made my Life better than sociable, for when I began to regret the want of Conversation, I would ask my self whether thus conversing mutually with my own Thoughts, and, as I hope I may say, with even God himself by Ejaculations, was not better than the utmost Enjoyment of humane Society in the World.

I gave humble and hearty Thanks that God had been pleas'd to discover to me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this Solitary Condition, than I should have been in a Liberty of Society, and in all the Pleasures of the World. That he could fully make up to me, the Deficiencies of my Solitary State, and the want of Humane Society by his Presence, and the Communications of his Grace to my Soul … my very Desires alter'd, my Affections chang'd their Gusts, and my Delights were perfectly new …

I look'd now upon the World as a Thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no Expectation from, and indeed no Desires about: … I had neither the Lust of the Flesh, the Lust of the Eye, or the Pride of Life. I had nothing to covet; for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying. (135-36, 112-13, 128)

At such moments of radiant contentment, Robinson speaks as though he has shed not only all acquisitive appetites but all "wordly" ambition whatsoever, so that even the language of duty, labor discipline, and the calling has become an irrelevance. Yet we know this is not true. It is not only that he tells us that now "I was very seldom idle; but [had] regularly divided my Time, according to the several daily Employments that were before me, such as, First, My Duty to God, and the Reading of Scriptures" (114). It is precisely the enterprising and furiously energetic performance of some of those other employments that dominates our permanent impression of this most industrious of narratives. Robinson does not give over vocational ambition; on the contrary, he slowly and steadily makes "all Trades in the World"—farmer, baker, potter, stone-cutter, carpenter, tailor, basketmaker—his calling (122). As he remarks, "By making the most rational Judgment of things, every Man may be in time Master of every mechanick Art … I improv'd my self in this time in all the mechanick Exercises which my Necessities put me upon applying my self to" (68, 144).

It is therefore not so much that Robinson moderates the immoderate desires that plagued him in his former life, as that their ethical quality has been altered—limited and therefore detoxified—by the alteration in his external circumstance: by the substitution, that is, of the society of God for human society. What this replacement achieves is, first of all, the transformation of exchange value into value in use. After the shipwreck but before his conversion, Robinson still believes that things acquire their value through commodification in the marketplace: although work on the island is discouragingly primitive, "my Time or Labour was little worth, and so it was as well employ'd one way as another" (68). But as we know from his celebrated, King James-version disdain for the found money—"O Drug! Said I aloud, what art thou good for, Thou art not worth to me"—Robinson is not slow to realize that there is no marketplace to be found on the island (57). And after a while he is completely captivated by the distinction between use value and exchange value, which he seizes many opportunities to rehearse. In the following passage he pointedly applies it to his former employment, in which exchange value played such a dominant role:

I might have rais'd Ship Loadings of Corn; but I had no use for it … I had Timber enough to have built a Fleet of Ships. I had Grapes enough to have made Wine, or to have cur'd into Raisins, to have loaded that Fleet, when they had been built. But all I could make use of, was, All that was valuable … In a Word, The Nature and Experience of Things dictated to me upon just Reflection, That all the good Things of this World, are no farther good to us, than they are for our Use … I possess'd infinitely more than I knew what to do with … I had, as I hinted before, a Parcel of Money … [But] As it was, I had not the least Advantage by it, or Benefit from it. (128-29)

Robinson's tone of cautionary sobriety should not obscure for us the liberation of being able to "possess infinitely," to accumulate limitless possessions that cannot entail the risk of becoming commodities in exchange. "Leaden-hall Market could not have fumish'd a Table better than I, in Proportion to the Company"; and the differences that are disclosed by this analogy are fully as important to Robinson as are the similarities (109). For here he can lay up great stocks of grain, fully indulging his "Desire of having a good Quantity for Store," without challenging the great end of personal consumption. Indeed, in combining capitalist abstinence with the just belief that "now I work'd for my Bread," Robinson implicitly tempers the danger of attributing an imaginary value to capitalist activity with a labor theory of value, so that all this industry may be confidently sanctified by the biblical conviction "that in time, it wou'd please God to supply me with Bread" (117-18, 123-24).12

If the absence of human society prohibits the exchange of goods and the dangerous creation of imaginary value, it also precludes the human register of potentially sinful social advancement and excess. Unlike his sojourn in Brazil, here "there were no Rivals. I had no Competitor, none to dispute Sovereignty or Command with me" (128). Again, this does not prevent Robinson from continuing to behave like a capitalist; it effaces the moral consequences of that behavior. We become aware of this is subtle ways. When he tells us how he first "fenc'd in, and fortify'd," and "enclos'd all my Goods," the voice of the Narrator adds that "there was no need of all this Caution from the Enemies that I apprehended Danger from" (59, 60). But later we see that this is not really so. For once Robinson has again become a farmer in earnest, he finds himself in the position not so much of a Brazilian planter as of an English enclosing landlord. In danger of losing his crop to "Enemies of several Sorts"—goats, hares, and especially birds—he describes his emergency capital improvements in language that is disturbingly evocative of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century agrarian conflicts:13

This I saw no Remedy for, but by making an Enclosure about it with a Hedge, which I did with a great deal of Toil; and the more, because it requir'd Speed. However, as my Arable Land was but small, suited to my Crop, I got it totally well fenc'd, in about three Weeks Time; and shooting some of the Creatures in the Day Time, I set my Dog to guard it in the Night … I staid by it to load my Gun, and then coming away I could easily see the Thieves sitting upon all the Trees about me, as if they only waited till I was gone away, and the Event proved it to be so … I was so provok'd … knowing that every Grain that they eat now, was, as it might besaid, a Peck-loaf to me in the Consequence; but coming up to the Hedge, I fir'd again, and kill'd three of them. This was what I wish'd for; so I took them up, and serv'd them as we serve notorious Thieves in England, (viz.) Hang'd them in Chains for a Terror to others. (116-17)

But although Robinson gives vent here to the deep and disquieting emotions of the enclosing landlord, these "enemies," with whom he is indeed in mortal competition, are not expropriated peasants but birds and beasts of the field. The equivocal appetite for elevating oneself over one's neighbors has been slaked even as the categories by which such elevation might be registered—the social "stations" so significant to Robinson's father—have been erased. And the obscure but pervasive sense of status inconsistency that has all along been expressed in Robinson's persistent desire to "ramble" is quashed under conditions that paradoxically exclude all reference groups whatsoever. There are only himself and God; and the only criteria by which to experience relative deprivation and reward are those dictated by divine justice and mercy.14

But as we have just seen in the image of the thieving wildlife, this is only literally true. All readers of Robinson Crusoe have been struck by the protagonist's propensity to populate and domesticate his island with figures from home. Unlike many authors of imaginary voyages, Defoe is disinclined to celebrate the reign of use value within the relatively exotic environs of a communist utopia. The passage on the thieving wildlife makes it clear that he is far more attracted by the private property of the landed estate, whose utopian character consists in the "magical extraction," in Raymond Williams's words, of its problematic inhabitants. When Robinson takes his first "Survey of the Island" and comes upon the Edenic valley where he will build the "Bower" that will serve as his "Country-House," he imagines "that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as compleatly as any Lord of a Manor in England" (98, 100, 101-2). Later he permits the figure to encompass the entire island: "I was Lord of the whole Mannor; or if I pleas'd, I might call my self King, or Emperor over the whole Country which I had Possession of (128).15

If this fantasy of proprietorship appeals primarily to the impulse toward private ownership and capitalist improvement, there is at least an element here also of contemplative pastoralism and the domestic themes of Horatian retirement. Another way of saying this is that Defoe's island utopia is able to incorporate notions of value that are associated not only with capitalist and laboring industry but also with aristocratic ideology and its location of value in land. Of course, this syncretism can be found in the assimilationist posture of progressive ideology itself. Despite his trenchant attacks on the corruptions of lineage and aristocratic honor, Defoe was obsessed with the illusion of his own gentility, and at various stages in his career he proudly rode in the livery of his merchant's company, outrageously inflated his ancestry, and (going Francis Kirkman one better) employed the medium of print to become armigerous and to aristocratize his name from Foe to De Foe. Marx was certainly right to argue that the utopianism of Robinson Crusoe is not nostalgically conservative but progressive, that it is not "merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life," but "rather, the anticipation of 'civil society'."16

What must be added to Marx's view of the function of Defoe's utopia is the crucial and complementary religious element. And Robinson's labor discipline is as successful as it is in confirming his sense of election because the neutralization of its social volatility has been ensured by his utter solitude. This solitude is challenged, of course, when Robinson discovers the print of a man's foot on the shore (an event whose significance I will turn to momentarily). But it is important to recognize the volatility even of Robinson's imaginative figures, which in truth is essential also to the significance of that discovery. As Maximillian Novak has remarked, "If [Robinson's] triumph over the island is mostly an economic conquest, it is an imaginative conquest as well." Like George Pine, Robinson "bestows culture" on his environment, and his creation of mere metaphors for social dominance improves on Pine's procreation of a new population, because it more thoroughly evades the dangers of social ambition and self-aggrandizement. But as we know, Defoe was deeply ambivalent about "the Power of Imagination" and imaginative creativity.17 Some of its riskiness can be felt in the self-conscious drollery with which Robinson extends the figure of his island lordship: "It would have made a Stoick smile to have seen, me and my little Family sit down to Dinner; there was my Majesty the Prince and Lord of the whole Island; I had the Lives of all my Subjects at my absolute Command. I could hang, draw, give Liberty, and take it away, and no Rebels among all my Subjects" (148). No more than a poignant fiction, of course. But shortly Robinson panics at the thought of being joined by other people, and he is moved not only to reaffirm the old language of social stratification that had been suspended by his utopian solitude but also to remind himself of the real sources of absolute sovereignty and creativity: "I consider'd that this was the Station of Life the infinitely wise and good Providence of God had determin'd for me, that … I was not to dispute his Sovereignty, who, as I was his Creature, had an undoubted Right by Creation to govern and dispose of me absolutely as he thought fit … 'Twas my unquestion'd Duty to resign my self absolutely and entirely to his Will" (157).

Robinson's image of his "little family at dinner" is distracting in part because it suggests the speciousness of a submissive resignation achieved by the brute excision of all opportunities for competitive aggression. Defoe was conscious that his fiction of a desert-island conversion entailed this vulnerability. Still in the voice of Robinson Crusoe he later observed: "It is the Soul's being entangled by outward Objects, that interrupts its Contemplation of divine Objects, which is the Excuse for these Solitudes, and makes the removing the Body from those outward Objects seemingly necessary; but what is there of Religion in all this? … a vicious Inclination remov'd from the Object, is still a vicious Inclination." Robinson's imaginative enclosures are more treacherous than his physical ones because they cannot be held accountable to a standard that is clearly distinct from their own. At least part of his island experience, he speculates, was a function of "the brain-sick Fancy, the vapourish Hypochondriack Imagination … it was not meer Imagination, but it was the Imagination rais'd up to Disease." Defoe had used similar language—"my brain-begotten faith"—to characterize the nature of his religious doubts during his early crisis over entering the Presbyterian ministry. The Puritan elevation of the private conscience, the saint's injunction to a personal and vigilant spiritualization of all experience, invited simultaneously a rapt sanctification of the world and a nagging uncertainty as to the difference between divine and human spirituality. As we have seen, Robinson's conversion depends on his capacity to look both upward and inward. The lesson of the sprouting seeds, as he tells us pointedly, is not that God works miracles but that he works through us: "For it was really the Work of Providence as to me, that should order or appoint, that 10 or 12 Grains of Corn should remain unspoil'd … As also, that I should throw it out in that particular Place" (79). But once the saint has learned to read the presence of God in his own acts and intuitions, he has also become adept at discovering his own intuitions in the world at large….


1 Daniel Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe … (1719), "Preface," in Novel and Romance, 1700-1800: A Documentary Record, ed. Ioan Williams (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970), 64-65 (hereafter cited as Farther Adventures); and idem, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe … (1719), ed. J. Donald Crowley, Oxford English Novels (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), "Preface," I (hereafter cited as Robinson Crusoe). All parenthetical citations in the text are to the Crowley edition. Part II appeared 117 days before Part I. In fact the complaint itself may have been written by Defoe's publisher, William Taylor. Not surprisingly, abridgments of Part I—a dozen or more were published between 1720 and 1830—tended to give priority to the literal events of Robinson's shipwreck and early life on the island; see Pat Rogers, "Classics and Chapbooks," in Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Isabel Rivers (New York: St. Martin's, 1982), 30-31. Defoe compares this sort of pirating of printed works to "Robbing on the Highway" (Farther Adventures, "Preface," 65). On piracies of Part I see Pat Rogers, Robinson Crusoe (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979), 7-8.

2 [Charles Gildon], The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D———De F——— … (1719), x, iii. Defoe's own Serious Reflections During the Life And Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World (1720) has played a central role in making the autobiographical interpretation of Robinson Crusoe seem plausible and attractive. On the progress of Defoe's commitment to the claim to historicity see above, chap. 3, nn. 63-69.

3 Rogers, Robinson Crusoe, 122-23, interestingly discusses a related but more general feature of Defoe's style, which he calls "approximating" and "alternative" figures (e.g., "about a mile," "two or three"). "The effect is often to suggest compulsive mensuration even where accurate counting is not possible." On the interest of Puritans and the Royal Society in keeping autobiographical journals, see above, chap. 3, sees. 1, 3.

4 On Robinson's journal and its destabilization of objective recording and chronology, see Homer O. Brown, "The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe," ELH, 38, no. 4 (Dec, 1971), 584-85; and Timothy J. Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 323-24. J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in Robinson Crusoe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), 144-45, notes that the journal has been edited. On the disruption of temporality in Robinson Crusoe see, more generally, Paul Alkon, Defoe and Fictional Time (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979); and Elizabeth D. Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), chap. 4. The ambiguous significance of the journal is well conveyed by the fact that its documentary objectivity permits Robinson, "by casting up Times past," to discover the "strange Concurrence of Days" in the typological pattern of his life crises, and its very medium of definitiveness has, through successive dilutions, become so ghostly and "pale it scarce left any Appearance of black upon the Paper" (133). Rather than tax Defoe for discrepancies between narrative and journal, Gildon, 31 (Adventures of Mr. D———De F———, prefers to criticize his lack of inventiveness: "You have been forc'd to give us the same Reflections over and over again, as well as repeat the same Fact afterwards in a Journal, which you had told us before in a plain Narration."

5 See, e.g., Robinson Crusoe, 3, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 14-15, 16, 17, 19, 35-36, 38, 40. On Defoe's religious upbringing see Michael Shinagel, Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), chap. I.

6 See Robinson Crusoe, 124-28, 153-57, 168-73. On the conventionality of postconversion lapses in spiritual autobiography, see George A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 160; Hunter, Reluctant Pilgrim, 187. On Coxere see above, chap. 6, nn. 41-42. For William Okeley's spiritualization of travel and captivity see above, chap. 3, n. 56.

7 On the picaresque see above, chap. 3, sec. 2. On Kirkman see above, chap. 6, nn. 35-36.

8 See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), 81 (but Watt's position is not as extreme as it has sometimes been taken to be; see 82-83); Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography; and Hunter, Reluctant Pilgrim. Among more recent critics, John J. Richetti has gone furthest in arguing against this mutual exclusion: see his thoughtful discussions in Popular Fiction before Richardson: Narrative Patterns, 1700-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 13-18, 92-96; and Defoe's Narratives: Situations and Structures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 23 and chap. 2 passim.

9 See Watt, Rise of the Novel, 65; Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, 74-81; Hunter, Reluctant Pilgrim, 38-39; Shinagel, Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility, 126-27 and 268-69n.5; Rogers, Robinson Crusoe, 76-77; Maximillian E. Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe, University of California English Studies, no. 24 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), chap. 2; C. N. Manlove, Literature and Reality, 1600-1800 (New York: St. Martin's, 1978), chap. 7. Cf. Gildon, Adventures of Mr. D———De F———, 5-6.

10 See, e.g., Richard Baxter's handling of the question, "Is it lawful to buy and use men as Slaves?" in The Catechizing of Families … (1683), 311.

11 On the rule of charity and the limiting standard of the satisfaction of necessities, see above, chap. 5, n. 39. On the persistence of a secularized conception of "honor" as "credit" and "trust" in business dealings, see above, chap. 5, nn. 51-53.

12 On theories of value see above, chap. 5, sec. 4. On capitalist abstinence see, e.g., Eric Roll, A History of Economic Thought, 4th ed. rev. (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 344-46. When Robinson attributes the preservation of the ship-wrecked commodities to providence, he associates them with the gift of God's grace and achieves a similar sanctification (Robinson Crusoe, 130-31). See also Ian Watt's discussion of the mystique of the dignity of labor in relation to Robinson Crusoe in "Robinson Crusoe as a Myth," in Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. James L. Clifford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 163-67. For Robinson's fascination with use and exchange value, see Robinson Crusoe, 50, 64, 189, 193, 195, 278.

13 For useful treatments of several aspects of the subject see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), chap. 10; Douglas Hay, "Poaching and the Game Laws on Cannock Chase," in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975), 189-253. For a discussion that has bearing on mine here, see Richetti, Popular Fiction before Richardson, 95-96.

14 Compare the following passages from Robinson Crusoe: "All our Discontents about what we want, appear'd to me, to spring from the Want of Thankfulness for what we have" (130); and "Thus we never see the true State of our Condition, till it is illustrated to us by its Contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it" (139).

15 Defoe was fond of comparing a landowner's absolute possession to a monarch's; see above, chap. 5, n. 4. Later, on his return to the island, Robinson "reserv'd to [him] self the Property of the whole" (Robinson Crusoe, 305). For Williams's argument see Country and City, 32; his subject is the country-house poems of Jonson and Carew.

16 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 83. On Defoe's assimilationism see Shinagel, Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility, 29-30, 47-48, 73-74, 103-4. On the retirement themes see Pat Rogers, "Crusoe's Home," Essays in Criticism, 24 (1974), 375-90.

17 See above, chap. 3, nn. 63-69; chap. 4, n. 37; chap. 5, n. 52. On Pine see above, chap. 6, n. 40. See Maximillian E. Novak, Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 45. On the utility of Robinson's imaginative figures see also Michael Seidel, "Crusoe in Exile," PMLA, 96, no. 3 (May, 1981), 363-74….

James O. Foster (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6741

SOURCE: "Robinson Crusoe and the Uses of the Imagination," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 91, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 179-202.

[In the following excerpt, Foster contends that Crusoe exhibits conflicting impulsesone toward submission, the other toward self-assertionand that Defoe himself enacts the same division throughout Robinson Crusoe.]

… In Crusoe's narrative, the allegorical organization of experience is perhaps strongest in the opening pages. Crusoe's single, obsessive trait is his mysterious compulsion to ramble, and this trait possesses him completely. Here we meet character in the root meaning of the term—as distinctive mark or graphic sign. Character in allegory is an elementary sign, a predictable and reliable manifestation of a distinctive disposition or trait. As such, a character has no internal life beyond what Angus Fletcher has termed as "obsessional anxiety": "The typical agent in an allegorical fiction has been seen as a daemon, for whom freedom of active choice hardly exists. This appears to have a major correlate in the theory of compulsive behavior, where it is observed that the mind is suddenly obsessed by an idea over which it has no control, which as it were 'possesses' the mind. The commonest experience of the compulsive neurotic is that his mind is suddenly disturbed by impulses that have no apparent rational meaning, and thence are seen as arbitrary and external 'commands.'"12

This monistic and obsessed Crusoe is at first set in opposition to his father, but as the narrative develops, the external and allegorical division between compulsion and authority is gradually internalized into an inner colloquy as Crusoe's father takes on a psychological dimension of the punitive superego manifest in Crusoe's conscience. The first storm at sea catalyzes the first internalized debate in Crusoe when his conscience upbraids him and he resolves to return home (p. 8). Such "wise and sober Thoughts" recur throughout the early part of the narrative, yet Crusoe's commanding sin—the self-assertive impulse which serves as his identity theme and his daemon—always achieves a "compleat … Victory over Conscience" (p. 10). Crusoe will eventually have to face this conscience on his island, where submission to the Father's will and resignation to Providence prove to be the only effective (though temporary) ways of channeling and controlling his self-assertive desires. But enough of Crusoe's inner life has been opened to the reader in this early part of the narrative to demonstrate that the allegorical type gives way to a more complex representation of a divided identity in a pattern that will become Defoe's basic technique, in all his prose fictions, of character presentation and development; situations and circumstances serve to specify certain traits in a serial and additive pattern. The result, in Crusoe, is the accretive growth of both dissonance and dimension in the main character as Defoe gradually and intuitively devises a series of situations and conflicts that will allow him to project a character not as an irreducible unit of meaning but as a complex interplay of competing impulses.

The initial division between compulsion and conscience in Crusoe will itself undergo a series of accretive transformations through the rest of the narrative, though the root formulation remains the same; the impulse toward order and submission will be set against the impulse toward self-assertion. This division in impulses is, as I have indicated, in part a product of an inherited theological perspective on the mental life of the individual, and what develops in Crusoe is the presentation of a conflict within the will (as controlled by the imagination) which is the most basic conflict in the Puritan automachia.13 Thus, Crusoe gradually introduces a Calvinist idiom and focus into his narrative, particularly in those passages where he tries retrospectively to account for his experience of division and instability. Early in his narrative, he writes: "But my ill Fate push'd me on now with an Obstinacy that nothing could resist; and tho' I had several times loud Calls from my Reason and my more composed Judgement to go home, yet I had no Power to do it. I know not what to call this, nor will I urge, that it is a secret over-ruling Decree that hurries us on to be the Instruments of our own Destruction, even tho' it be before us, and that we rush upon it with our Eyes open" (p. 14). Crusoe here attempts to understand his compulsion by trying to specify its source, but his diction and syntax obscure the point of origin. The phrase "ill Fate" gestures vaguely toward the Satanic springs of sinful behavior in fallen human nature, while "a secret over-ruling Decree" suggests both Providence and predestination. As the adversatives and qualifications pile up in elaborate confusion, we learn only that Crusoe both blames himself for his own errant behavior (and suggests that he can control his compulsions through "Reason" and "composed Judgment") and that this behavior results from a mysterious "Decree" which rules his life. We can only conclude that Crusoe's motivation is beyond his immediate understanding. The operative influence of personal choice remains as ambiguous as the origin of his "ill Fate."14

There are at least two reasons for the ambiguity in Crusoe's exposition. The first involves Defoe's own imaginative investment in his character. The official moral voice of the narrative condemns such compulsive behavior while at the same time an unofficial and subversive point of view develops that is fascinated with the transformative power of the unstable self. Defoe, improvising as he invents, becomes increasingly attracted to the creative and destabilizing potential that inheres in his chief character though he cannot logically, or perhaps even consciously, account for this attraction. This divided perspective creates the ambiguity of motive and character. Second, Defoe is intuitively but perhaps to some degree unknowingly exploring the contradictions implicit in his inherited Puritan view of the self. The retrospective Crusoe suggests that the mind's irrationality is a sign of innate depravity even while he reveals the predicament of a character who is both responsible and not responsible for his actions. One of Defoe's precursors in these matters, John Bunyan, presents the same predicament to his readers at the end of Grace Abounding when he paraphrases Paul: "I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves; 'When I would do good, evil is present with me'" ("The Conclusion," par. 6).

Seventeenth-century Puritan theology demanded an introspective analysis of the self in order to control the mental life through the cultivation of reason and the understanding. But introspection led to a confrontation with a jagged, discontinuous interior life full of subconscious compulsions—a threatening other that could not be organized and controlled. In Grace Abounding, Bunyan describes the "tumultuous thoughts" of this mysterious inner life as "masterless hellhounds" (par. 174) and emphasizes repeatedly that he can control his compulsions only through the most intense efforts of the will. Even then, control is sporadic. This self which Bunyan describes elsewhere as "full of wickedness and madness" threatens constantly to fragment into a chaos of warring impulses.15 Yet Bunyan must seek to possess himself rationally and to control his impulses in order to redirect his entire being toward an obliteration of selfhood and an achievement of spiritual unity. And as in Robinson Crusoe, throughout Bunyan's autobiography the impulse toward order and the irrational energy of the mind are embodied in conflicting narrative modes. On the one hand Bunyan attempts to render accurately and mimetically his conflictual inner life, while on the other hand he tries to turn his life retrospectively into an extended allegory of the soul's progress toward grace. The constant shifting between conflicting impulses represented in the mimetic mode and the progress inherent in the allegorizing mode counteract and subvert one another. Bunyan's introspective work, like Crusoe's narrative, both embodies and enacts this disjunctive experience of the self. As a result, while the narrative of his island adventures evolves into a series of moral and experiential tests designed to demonstrate the gradual mastery of self and environment, Crusoe takes on more and more of a dimension of psychological ambiguity that will eventually collapse the imposed moral and spiritual frame of the story.

During Crusoe's extended confinement on the island, Defoe attempts to mediate between a superimposed moral framework and the vital, self-assertive impulses of his main character. The mode of accommodation seems simple at first; Crusoe, imprisoned on an island as punishment for his discontent, must learn self-control and must repent and submit passively to God's design. On the most immediate level of critical analysis the island becomes Crusoe's proving ground, and this portion of the narrative presents a series of tests through which Crusoe learns to regulate the physical environment, to construct a stable ego through focusing his will and activity, and to redeem his errant human nature. A pattern of character development is thus imposed through a moralized story line which emphasizes physical, psychological, and spiritual mastery.16 And the paratactic series of survival projects—the additive "next … next … next" (pp. 121-23)—demonstrates an evolving self-mastery through an increasingly rational control of energy and will: "So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as Reason is the Substance and Original of the Mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by Reason, and by making the most rational Judgement of things, every Man may be in time Master of every mechanick Art" (p. 68). In the accretive pattern of moral and spiritual development, practical reason emerges as an acquired character trait through a series of situations that force Crusoe to overcome his initial brutish state just as faith is acquired gradually through a series of spiritual experiences—Crusoe's dreams and meditations.

Still, an ambivalent presentation and interpretation of both the island experience and Crusoe himself emerge during these early days of isolation. Some time after plundering the ship, Crusoe draws up an "Accompt" of his situation and finds a credit side to counterbalance the physical and psychological debits of complete isolation. The official moral interpretation drawn from this ledger is that a providentially run universe provides as much profit as loss: "Upon the whole, here was an undoubted Testimony, that there was scarce any Condition in the World so miserable, but there was something Negative or something Positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a Direction from the Experience of the most miserable of all Conditions in this World, that we may always find in it something to comfort our selves from, and to set in the Description of Good and Evil, on the Credit Side of the Accompt" (p. 67). The basic epistemological premise of Crusoe's story is that we learn good only through knowledge of evil, and that our experience must be correctly interpreted in order to derive from it a fundamental knowledge of our spiritual conditions. Thus, even an apparently negative or evil condition can reveal a spiritually positive meaning, if the situation is correctly interpreted. But, since the list projects both a discontented side and a pious side to Crusoe's personality, the ledger also suggests that interpretations are relative to, and controlled by, a flux of moods. It is precisely this built-in doubleness, or duplicity, in interpretation that generates much of the ambiguity of the text as a whole, especially as it informs the conflict between the mimetic and allegorical narrative modes.17

The doubleness extends into the presentation and gradual fragmentation of Crusoe's journal as well. The impetus to write a journai is the same as that for drawing up the ledger: "I now began to consider seriously my Condition, and the Circumstance I was reduc'd to, and I drew up the State of my Affairs in Writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me, for I was like to have but few Heirs, as to deliver my Thoughts from daily poring upon them, and afflicting my Mind; and as my Reason began now to master my Despondency, I began to comfort my self as well as I could" (p. 65). The traditional Puritan journal offers a projection of the self into a syntactic order that should ideally produce an orderly and typological interpretation of experience.18 Writing becomes an attempt at mental therapy for the Puritans, a way of asserting an allegorical pattern and coherence over the apparent chaos and opacity of discontinuous experiences. Crusoe's journal serves as a secular analogue to the spiritually oriented Puritan diary in that Crusoe uses his journal to search out and meditate on a pattern of causality in his experiences. The journal thus provides a means to an increased understanding and control of the self.

But the journal also reveals mimetically the other, unofficial Crusoe. He describes his despondency over his dismal condition, he refers to his island as a "horrid Place" (p. 86), he iterates his fears of being devoured by wild beasts and cannibals and of "being swallow'd up alive" in an earthquake (p. 82). He also notes on several occasions his confused thoughts and his inability, because of his mental agitation, to pray or meditate. Curiously, religion exists in the journal only in its absence; it is the thing which is not. In the journal as written by the younger Crusoe, no explicit references are made to a spiritual condition or to repentance.19 It is the retrospective narrator who inserts the longer and more meditative passages in order to edit previous experience into a story of repentance. In fact, the journal disappears entirely from the text as the narrator relives his repentance, thus suggesting that the pattern of spiritual development is, in part at least, an imposition on, and an interpretation of, the experiences of the younger Crusoe.

So, like the debit-credit sheet, the journal functions as a narrative accretion which intensifies the division in Crusoe's character. The journal displays an evolving pattern of mastery over the environment, but set against this pattern is the view it offers of a terrified, anxious, and paranoid Crusoe, the victim of a fear-haunted imagination, who builds enclosures around himself. In fact, all through the narrative fear of hostile others has possessed Crusoe. The antagonists have been external and internal: his father, nature, God, Providence, beasts, cannibals, his own conscience, his own imagination. Crusoe's basic desire is to avoid being swallowed—by the sea, the earth, cannibals, madness. There may even be a suggestion buried within the text that Providence itself seeks to devour the vital and energetic Crusoe by forcing the repression of those compulsions which also constitute a drive toward freedom from restriction.20 In the journal, then, the mimetically represented Crusoe is the Hobbesian natural man, motivated by fear and by an obsessive need for complete security. So it is that the retrospective narrator becomes an editor who must add material to past events and descriptions, or imaginatively reconstruct them, in order to coerce these passages into a spiritual and rational progress, and who tries to contain the voice of anxiety and discontent through the interpolation of moral platitudes and spiritual reflections.

What the journal suggests is that Crusoe fears the formless, vital self just as he is fascinated by it, and that the moralizing voice wants to control and contain this negative otherness but cannot. So Defoe continues to move his narrative in two directions at once. On the one hand, he overlays his mimetic account of character with a spiritualized narrative that represents an allegiance to prior allegorical and autobiographical patterns of writing. On the other hand, he continues to generate a mimetic presentation of compulsive behavior and conflict. The result is an almost constant tension between the paratactically placed paragraphs and scenes because the platitudinizing and moralizing voice of the older Crusoe never effectively controls the voice of compulsive bitterness and discontent. As a result, the text of the island adventures manifests a rudimentary design—the gradual evolution of self-mastery and spiritual knowledge—and at the same time the randomness and flux of Crusoe's moods, which can shift radically from scene to scene, paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence.

But once Defoe gets his main character onto the island, he begins to evolve as well a more metaphorically expressive pattern of characterization. The island itself becomes a kind of emblem, a means of imaginatively projecting Crusoe's divided nature into an isolated and delimited environment and thus of conferring an overall sense of unity on the text of the island adventures. On one level of narrative presentation, the island is a project of reason and religion as the retrospective narrator charts a development toward mastery and faith. Crusoe's inventive projects result in the creation of an ordered environment and allow Crusoe himself to indulge in "a secret Kind of Pleasure" and in fantasies of kingship (p. 100). The terms he uses—"Country-House" and "Sea-Coast-House" for example (p. 102)—measure his pride in his ability to project his self-assertive nature onto a landscape—in other words, to organize and control rationally his impulses and to mix his labor with the land so that, in a Lockean sense, it becomes his property.21 Imaginative energy transforms the island, and the island is inextricably linked with a need for order and stability.

On another level, then, the island is a project of the imagination, but here there is no personal change or growth. Rather, as the island is appropriated to the serial projection of character, Defoe explores a view of the self as trapped within a divided and conflictive nature—a self that in its most fundamental features cannot be changed. Here, the island serves as the measure of Crusoe's moods. Set against the descriptions indicating pride in invention, accomplishment, and ownership are passages that measure Crusoe's moments of deepest despair. Crusoe initially terms the island "this dismal unfortunate Island, which I call'd the Island of Despair" (p. 70). In "this dreadful Place," where he is "out of the Reach of humane Kind, out of all Hope of Relief, or Prospect of Redemption" (p. 89), Crusoe offers "a melancholy Relation of a Scene of silent life" (p. 63). Again, the interpretations of experience and the valuation of the island are subject to a radical alternation of mood and event, and so the process of characterization moves out of the ledger and journal and into the environment itself.

As the island becomes a measure of mood and a projection of personality, it, like Crusoe, resists reduction to a single meaning. Rather, the metaphoric transformations of the island serve as projections of the deeper pattern of conflict within the main character. As such, there is no necessary development of character, if development implies directional change; but rather, the island experience serves as a catalyst that transforms and deepens the essential conflict in Crusoe from a dialectic of conscience and compulsion into an opposition between imprisonment and desire.

Crusoe recognizes that the island represents both physical imprisonment and spiritual deliverance from an evil life. This pious Crusoe accepts his situation, rejoices in his spiritual deliverance on the island, submits to Providence, and comes almost to thank God for casting him into this prison. But the unofficial Crusoe can never accept comfortably such restrictions. The island, as Crusoe points out, is a prison, but it is a prison of the self, an extension of Crusoe's demoralization: "Before, as I walk'd about, either on my Hunting, or for viewing the Country, the Anguish of my soul at my Condition, would break out upon me on a sudden, and my very Heart would die within me, to think of the Woods, the Mountains, the Desarts I was in; and how I was a Prisoner lock'd up with the Eternal Bars and Bolts of the Ocean, in an uninhabited Wilderness, without Redemption: In the midst of the greatest Composures of my Mind, this would break out upon me like a Storm, and make me wring my Hands and weep like a Child" (p. 113).

Like a host of Puritan writers before him, Crusoe defines himself as a spiritual pilgrim, discontented with the wilderness of this world, imprisoned in the "Desarts" of his soul. But if the island is a place of punishment, purgation, and spiritual deliverance, in passages such as this it comes also to suggest the limitations imposed on the self by a religious and ethical determinism. The soul's anguish, the dying heart, the struggle against "Eternal Bars and Bolts," the passion that disrupts composure—all indicate an energetic, compulsive, desiring Crusoe emerging from beneath the religious and moral surface of the text. It is in such passages that Crusoe's narrative generates deeper resonances—a structure of subversive implications—that Defoe himself could not have been entirely aware of. Yet at the same time, this structure gives the narrative a more complex dimension beyond the simple adventure story, the economic parable, or the spiritual autobiography even as it depends upon these various discourses. What the text implies on this subversive level is that perhaps Crusoe's activities on the island may not necessarily illustrate an economic theory of labor and utility, nor may they be the result of a rational and religious development of the main character, nor may they show an absolute compatibility of secular aims to spiritual ends. Rather, both rationalized and imaginative activity can be seen as a channel for repressed drives and impulses, and as a means of compensatory escape from a debilitating awareness of physical confinement, a psychological constriction within the demands of an internalized and authoritarian conscience, and a spiritual confinement within a deterministic theology. Again, these are not Defoe's conscious formulations; the official text is intended to illustrate a cohesion of secular activity and moral aim, and it has often been so interpreted. But a deep fissure opens up between imaginative projection and moral intention in the narrative, and the island itself, in becoming a product of the transforming energy of Crusoe's imagination, embodies in its various projections different sides of this fissure.22

Crusoe's imagination assumes a parallel dialectical function in the narrative. On one side of this dialectic, the imagination is used to support the retrospective narrator's epistemological and moral premises. The narrator notes that pious reflections often quieted his mind while he was on the island so that he could acquiesce "in the Dispositions of Providence" (p. 108). Such passages reinforce the epistemological premise that knowledge comes to us through the "Contraries" of our experience (p. 139). Further, through an imaginative re-creation of his experience, Crusoe can, like the Puritan autobiographer, improve his knowledge of God's ways with the human race. This process begins when Crusoe reviews his life through imaginative recollections and thereby defines his spiritual state as a particular manifestation of God's general covenant with humanity (pp. 128-32). It is precisely in this sense that Crusoe's book becomes, in retrospect, his allegorized re-creation of himself as a "Memento," an emblem of the spiritual pilgrim found as well in the pages of Bunyan and Thomas Shepard.

But if the imagination is a source of invented order, it is also the source of Crusoe's irrational compulsions and of a desire to escape limitations—whether those limitations take the form of the middle station in life, captivity at Sallee, a Brazilian plantation, or a providentially imposed imprisonment on a desert island. In each case, Crusoe imagines himself free, desires that freedom, and plans to set himself free. As the narrative proceeds, Crusoe gradually gathers together discontent, a desire to escape confinement, obsessive mental behavior, and the active influence of the imagination. These traits are set in opposition to those qualities and ideas traditionally said in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to organize the formless energy of the imagination: reason, a sense of moral values, acquiescence to a Providence which seeks to confine desire. In Defoe's text, the serialized accretion of opposed traits occurs in situations, episodes, and actions that then become the means whereby compulsions and conflicts play themselves out. Thus, the limitations imposed on Crusoe by his situation on the island serve to intensify the conflict and to reveal the main character as the victim of the powerfully disruptive force of his imagination.

Crusoe, then, sometimes channels but never completely controls the imagination. So at times this overpowering force can threaten the established order of both island and identity. When Crusoe discovers the footprint, for example, his imagination turns on him and threatens to devour the rational man of faith he thinks he has become. Crusoe describes his immediate reaction to the discovery: "But after innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus'd and out of my self, I came Home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground I went on, but terrify'd to the last Degree, looking behind me at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying every Stump at a Distance to be a Man; nor is it possible to describe how many various Shapes affrighted Imagination represented Things to me in, how many wild Ideas were found every Moment in my Fancy, and what strange unaccountable Whimsies came into my Thoughts by the Way" (p. 154). Crusoe again loses his self-control and seeks concealment and enclosure. As he does, his imagination—here both the image-making faculty and an uncontrollable and mysterious force—increases his terror by projecting fearsome others into the landscape. As Hobbes had noted, "Without Steddinesse, and Direction to some End, a great Fancy is one kind of madnesse."23 Reason is occluded as Crusoe becomes again the Hobbesian natural man that he was during his first hours on the island….

Crusoe manages once again to reason himself into a precarious stability and decides that Providence, not obsession, should direct his activity. Yet Providence itself, from this point on in the text, becomes absorbed into the internal functions of the desiring imagination. In other words, the guiding voice of Providence becomes inseparable from what Crusoe describes as the "secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in view, or be it some Object, though not in view, yet rendred present to the Mind by the Power of the Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable" (p. 188). Crusoe here presents an analysis of the will as it is subject to "the Power of the Imagination." Earlier in the narrative, Crusoe had decided "That whenever I found those secret Hints, or pressings of my Mind, to doing, or not doing any Thing that presented; or to going this Way, or that Way, I never fail'd to obey the secret Dictate" (p. 175). He interprets these promptings as the voice of Providence directing him toward the proper course of action.

Officially, then, Crusoe's narrative demonstrates the internalization of Providence; Crusoe's acquisition of faith issues in an ability to interpret correctly his mental life for signs of providential direction. And certainly, in Defoe's time, the alignment of providential direction and internal impulse was widely accepted. But "secret Hints" seems suspiciously close in phrasing and meaning to the "secret Wishes" that arise from the desiring imagination and that have been opposed by Providence throughout Crusoe's adventures. Further, Defoe's narrative procedure, in which providential hints arise from Crusoe's deepest obsessions and desires, tends to subvert the official interpretation. The discontinuous, accretive mode of character presentation allows the desiring imagination to disrupt the telic pattern which Crusoe's autobiography is meant to enact. So, as it was impossible to discover the origin of Crusoe's compulsion to ramble, it finally becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between providential direction and the subrational compulsions of a disturbed mind.

Consider in this light what happens when a second ship runs aground near the island. Because of a "Desire after the Society of my Fellow-Creatures," Crusoe becomes obsessed with the desire to visit the wreck. Such is the strength of his desire that "my Hands would clinch together, and my Fingers press the Palms of my Hands, that if I had any soft Thing in my Hand, it wou'd have crusht it involuntarily; and my Teeth in my Head wou'd strike together, and set against one another so strong, that for some time I cou'd not part them again" (p. 188). Crusoe presents himself as a man possessed; his physical reactions are involuntary and uncontrollable. Three paragraphs later, Crusoe decides to visit the wreck: "I thought the Impression was so strong upon my Mind, that it could not be resisted, that it must come from some invisible Direction, and that I should be wanting to my self if I did not go" (p. 189). The reader is meant to respond to such strong impressions as evidence of providential direction because Crusoe has explicitly and officially charted his development as a man of faith who can interpret correctly both external and internal, or mental, events. But in this particular narrative sequence, the notion that the obsession is evidence of the internalization of Providence provides merely a convenient interpretation for what remains a mysterious mental phenomenon. The interpretation itself remains separate from the actual experience, ambiguously hovering over it as a possible explanation but not as a constitutive feature. In fact, the confident internalization of Providence is brought into question by the very nature of the obsession—that is, the uncontrollable desire to find release from a providentially imposed solitude. The conclusion of the episode bears out the spiritual emptiness of the official interpretation, for Crusoe finds the ship to be "a dismal Sight to look at" (p. 191). It contains, besides two corpses, some goods of only marginal value. The entire adventure leaves Crusoe for the next two years "miserable" and with a mind full of decidedly unprovidential designs for escape (p. 194).

If Providence is subsumed by Crusoe's imagination, then what the retrospective narrator unintentionally reveals through the final adventures and the denouement of the story is the collapse of the extended metaphor of spiritual progress. I have argued that the basic conflict in Crusoe occurs between a vital, energetic, and imaginative self and the imposed religious framework, a conflict enacted in the discontinuous parataxis of Defoe's narrative technique and in the conflicting modes of mimetic and allegorizing discourse. If Defoe intuitively and imaginatively invests himself in his main character, then he also tries through the retrospective narrator to improvise a moral and theological framework to contain this vital character. The result of these two disjunctive impulses is the eventual collapse of the framework through a merging of theological explanation and psychological compulsion. The ideal conjunction of tenor and vehicle—of religious meaning and personal experience—sought by the retrospective narrator never convincingly takes place because, in a manner of speaking, the tenor of spiritual meaning is absorbed completely by the vehicle of presentation.

The rescue of Friday, for example, officially illustrates, on the dogmatic level of religious meaning, the cohesion of rational activity, self-control, and moral aim. By waiting patiently for signs and hints from Providence, Crusoe is able to align his will with God's determinations. He becomes the instrument of Providence in rescuing Friday, then the Spaniard and Friday's father, and in retaking the English ship from the mutineers. Also, Crusoe converts Friday to Christianity, and Friday's ingenuous questions force Crusoe to examine his own faith more closely. As proof of Crusoe's continuing religious development, Defoe has him explain the designs of Providence to the English captain, and a connection is forged between spiritual knowledge and Crusoe's "natural" mastery of the situation. Throughout these final scenes on the island, then, Crusoe makes explicit connections among belief, knowledge, mastery, effort, and success.

But Crusoe's character remains much the same in its desires and compulsions. The words "escape" and "deliverance" recur constantly throughout this latter part of the narrative, and the advent of Friday and the English ship allows Crusoe to indulge again in his impulse to escape imposed limitations. Now, however, Providence aids him by appearing to realign itself with those same inclinations which resulted initially in his self-styled original sin, fall, and exile.

First, Crusoe is rewarded. He is allowed to return to society, and in keeping with the Biblical parallels he has on occasion drawn, he compares "the latter End of Job" with his almost miraculous acquisition of wealth (p. 284). Crusoe is anxious to suggest a typological pattern and to show that his reward is a result of his penance on the island, his achievement of grace, and his realization of the need for internalized rational and ethical constraints.

But there is a second conclusion to Crusoe's narrative. Though Crusoe may continue to mouth pious sentiments and moral reflections, at the end of his story he quits the middle station of life on a whim and once again sets off on his travels. Thus, he is not only rewarded with wealth and a social position, but he is also granted his complete freedom from providential interference and from the allegorizing pattern which he sought to impose on his earlier adventures. Both G. A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter have argued that Crusoe's earlier sinful independence results in his imprisonment on the island, while his virtuous dependence on God results in his mastery of both self and environment and in his eventual deliverance from his island prison. But there now seems to be another unspoken, even subversive agreement between God and Crusoe; if Crusoe acknowledges his sins, repents, and does penance, then he will be allowed complete independence from the providential system of limitations and interpretations. There may even be a further implication—that Crusoe's initially sinful impulse to ramble is finally approved by God. Nonetheless, the didactic message planted by the retrospective narrator is rooted out, finally, by the imaginative energy of the character. In Defoe's ambiguous creation, Crusoe is rewarded just as much for his conformity and submission as for his active self-assertion and alleged rebellious impulses.

At the conclusion of the first volume of Crusoe's adventures, Defoe is not suggesting that rebellion against God is the surest guarantee of worldly success and salvation. Crusoe has acquired both reason and faith and no longer perceives himself as a "Rebel" against the middle station or against God. Rather, his character has been developed through the retrospective patterning of the autobiographical narrative to reveal a Puritan mediation between the demands of the world and the demands of God. But this mediation shares the ambiguity, the conditional quality, that characterizes the relationships between experiential and spiritualized interpretation as presented in Puritan personal literature….

Defoe's text, in its historical and theological tradition, shares this same ambiguity of interpretation in relation to experience. Throughout the narrative, Defoe has used the voice of the retrospective narrator to improvise a loose series of mediations between the experiential self and a tenor of spiritual meaning. But the result of this improvised process is the collapse of the narrator's didactic intentions. The text ends in a Calvinist fantasy, an imaginative wish-fulfillment dream, in which the central character—still both compulsive and assertive—is rewarded and in which the moral lines drawn between the compulsively sinful and ideal selves are erased. As in Bunyan's autobiography, interpretation is suspended in the conditional; it is "as if the ideal self were rewarded for its pious and diligent labor in this world on the one hand, while on the other all the possibilities of mediating between the two selves have apparently been exhausted. The providentially based interpretation of Crusoe's life therefore remains just that—an interpretation which attempts to account for all the facts so that the narrator's life makes sense, but which finally fails to account for the troubling paradoxes and contradictions of the text as it presents its account of life in this problematic secular world.

So the ambiguity in Crusoe results in part from Defoe's immethodical, paratactic method and in part from his inherited dissenting tradition. Crusoe is a work that lacks the ideological interaction between character development and sequences of causally linked events which comes to define the achievement of novelists later in the eighteenth century, just as it lacks the consistent telic pattern that Puritans in the previous century had sought to impose on their own lives. And because of its transitional status as a narrative improvisation on older themes set in a newly commercialized world, Crusoe's status as a novel may remain margin al. Defoe's text lacks the consistency of authorial control and intention that manifests itself in the mid-century works of Richardson and Fielding. Yet the innovative importance of Defoe's first extended fiction in the history of the novel may be said to consist in his intuitive, psychological perception of character in its imaginative and linguistic projection. If Defoe fails to write a thematically and structurally consistent narrative, then he still introduces psychological and interpretive complexity into his fiction. For this reason, then, questions may always remain as to whether Crusoe, because of its imaginative vitality, can be discussed as a novel or as an early prototype manifesting a novelistic potential for the dialectical presentation of a divided identity. But for this reason, too, Crusoe will remain a complex and tantalizing work, inviting as well as frustrating interpretive efforts to provide a consistent pattern of meaning for Defoe's improvisations and imaginative inventions.


12 Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 286–87.

13 The Puritan automachia, or self-civil-war, is discussed in some detail by Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 19–25. A seventeenth-century discussion can be found in Richard Sibbes, The Soules Conflict with Itselfe (London, 1635). The sustained automachia in autobiographical writing is perhaps most powerfully exemplified in the spiritual autobiography of John Bunyan and the journal of Thomas Shepard. See God's Plot: The Paradoxes of Puritan Piety. Being the Autobiography and Journal of Thomas Shepard, ed. Michael McGiffert (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972).

14 Leopold Damrosch, Jr., quotes this passage in his God's Plot and Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 199–200. He finds the passage complicated but unambiguous: "Crusoe uses Calvinist language here to suggest that he cannot be morally responsible for actions in which he is moved about like a chess piece" (p. 200). Where Damrosch finds predestination, I see Crusoe trying to understand to what extent he can control his own will in order to affect the outcome of events.

15 John Bunyan, "The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded" and "I Will Pray with the Spirit, " ed. Richard L. Greaves (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 184.

16 This pattern is succinctly summarized by G. A. Starr in "Defoe's Prose Style: 1. The Language of Interpretation," MP, 71 (1974), 292.

17 Here I have followed and extended an argument made by Brown, p. 584.

18 Spacks, among others, assumes that the spiritual autobiography stabilizes—and therefore renders safe—identity (p. 28). Spiritual autobiographies, however, quite often reveal the chaos of subrational compulsions that destabilizes identity and that creates an unbearable anxiety over the state of one's immortal soul. Bunyan's Grace Abounding would offer a case in point.

19 Reiss has also noted that the retrospective narrator adds the religious material to the journal. He analyzes several passages to demonstrate that the retrospective Crusoe is in effect rewriting his story (p. 323). The idea that Crusoe's journal offers superimposed interpretations rather than facts may help to explain the contradictions between the original events and their journalistic redaction that some critics find so troubling.

20 See Frank H. Ellis's discussion of the recurring imagery of eating and being eaten in his introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Robinson Crusoe" (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), pp. 12–13.

21 See John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960). In Chapter 5, "Of Property," of The Second Treatise (pp. 327–44), Locke argues that when an individual improves and cultivates land and uses its produce then that land becomes the individual's property by right.

22 In his Serious Reflections, Crusoe describes part of his mental experience on the island as the result of a "brain-sick fancy, the vapourish hypochondriac imagination," and equates the function of the imagination with a disease of the mind (Defoe, Romances and Narratives, III, 247). The official moral voice condemns the excesses of the imagination in representing to the mind apparitions and spirits, but the passage suggests as well Defoe's dualistic view of the imagination as a force for order and a force for chaos. Defoe may therefore be aware of this deep fissure in the experience and mental life of his main character.

23 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. MacPherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 136.

Homer Obed Brown (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2704

SOURCE: "The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe," in Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, pp. 54–60.

[In the following excerpt, Brown explores the need of Defoe's characters for isolation, concealment, and guarded exposure as defenses against threats of "menacing otherness."]

… In my youth, I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.

—Augustine, Confessions

Defoe's novels are based on a notion of radical egocentricity. Robinson wonders why his isolation on the island was "any grievance or affliction" since "it seems to me that life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal act of solitude":

The world, I say, is nothing to us as it is more or less to our relish. All reflection is carried home, and our dear self is, in one respect, the end of living. Hence man may be properly said to be alone in the midst of the crowds and hurry of men and business. All the reflections which he makes are to himself; all that is pleasant he embraces for himself; all that is irksome and grievous is tasted but by his own palate.

What are the sorrows of other men to us, and what their joy? Something we may be touched indeed with by the power of sympathy, and a secret turn of the affections; but all the solid reflection is directed to ourselves. Our meditations are all solitude in perfection; our passions are all exercised in retirement; we love, we hate, we covet, we enjoy, all in privacy and solitude. All that we communicate of those things to any other is but for their assistance in the pursuit of our desires; the end is at home; the enjoyment, the contemplation, is all solitude and retirement; it is for ourselves we enjoy, and for ourselves we suffer. (Serious Reflections, 2–3)

Robinson's thirty years of solitude on a desert island is the metaphor of this selfishness. In fact, his story is based on the etymological metaphor "islanded"—isolated. When Robinson was in Brazil, he "used to say, I lived just like a man cast away upon some desolate island that has nobody there but himself (VII, 39). The whole book has to do with the progressive materialization of spiritual metaphor for what is implicit in Robinson's condition from the beginning, in the same way that the book itself is a factualization of the metaphors of the whole tradition of spiritual autobiographies.3

Selfish, isolated, but is he really alone? Other Defoe narrators are just as solitary in the midst of society. Robinson's island isolation is after all only a metaphor for the solitary selfishness of all men. This seemingly impenetrable selfishness, however, is a Hobbesian "state of nature," transposed into a social world, atomistic, volatile, where the mere existence of another person, for Robinson even the possibility of the existence of another person, is a threat to the self. Even Robinson in his wilderness, through all those years of never encountering another human being, is constantly haunted by a sense of menacing otherness. He must always be on guard. He never loses the agonizing sense of being watched. Far from only being a representation of Robinson's egocentric isolation, the book is peopled by signs of the constant presence of the other—Robinson's fear, the footprint of a man, the Hand of God, the constant presence of the older Robinson in the double perspective of the narration, the presence of the spectator-reader before whom Robinson rehearses his solitude. In a sense, no Defoe character, not even Robinson, is ever alone.

The need for secrecy at the moment of narration for most of Defoe's "autobiographers" is no mystery. With the exception of Robinson and H. F., they have committed crimes for which they can be called to justice. Near the beginnings of their stories, however, they also are all bereft of family and protection and are thrown into a harsh and dangerous world of deceptive appearances, whose inhabitants are indifferent, conniving, and menacing. Some, like Robinson or H. F., orphan themselves seemingly by choice. Others, like Colonel Jack and Bob Singleton, are virtually cut off from their origins, and so from their true names. Roxana, even as a young girl, long before she is deserted by her husband and left to protect herself and her family, is removed from France and her childhood, bringing with her nothing "but the Language." The separation from any guardian structure is sharp. Their isolation is complete.

No wonder, then, that Defoe has been said to have discounted the importance of personal relationship in his novels.4 There is no richly complex conflict between wills more or less equal in strength in his fictional world. The Defoe character has to struggle against all the others, against a harsh necessity.5 There is no sense of an individualized other consciousness confronting the protagonist as there is in the worlds of Richardson, Austen, or George Eliot. The paradigm is Moll in a crowded London street; her survival depends on her ability to take "the advantages of other people's mistakes" while remaining unseen herself. The value of her story for the reader will be in its warning "to Guard against the like Surprizes, and to have their Eyes about them when they have to do with Strangers of any kind, for 'tis very seldom that some Snare or other is not in their way" (II, 92). Otherness for a Defoe character is generic, anonymous. Individual antagonists like Roxana's landlord or even her Amy, Moll's various men, Robinson's Moorish captor, or Friday can be tricked or subordinated without much apparent difficulty, but a single, anonymous footprint in the sand seizes Crusoe's mind with uncontrollable terror. However easily any Defoe "I" can deal with any individual menace, the unnamed dread remains. Perhaps the most striking example is the London of the plague. The "others" of the Journal are anonymous numbers of dead and dying. Any conversation, even the slightest human contact, carries the risk of death.

When Robinson finds himself shipwrecked, almost his first act is to begin to build a wall around himself. He further insulates himself; he creates an island within the island. His action is obsessive. He spends almost three and a half months building the wall—"I thought I should never be perfectly secure 'till this Wall was finish'd" (VII, 87). Although he longs for deliverance from his solitude, he is compelled to hide his presence so "that if any People were to come on Shore there, they would not perceive any Thing like a Habitation" (VII, 87). So in the midst of a threatening and unknown space, Robinson creates for himself an ordered interior, crowded with things that can be listed and enumerated to his satisfaction. He "furnishes" himself "with many things." Like the fallen angels, Robinson sets about to build and secure his own Pandemonium, following the advice of Mammon to "seek / Our own good from ourselves, and from our own / Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess, / Free, and to none accountable" (Paradise Lost II, 252–55). But, of course, their self-reliance is a sham, and their Pandemonium is a parody of Heaven, founded upon denial of the divine Other, whose power they can never escape. Like the angels, Robinson's concern with things is a symptom of his fall.

Moll Flanders in disguise in the middle of a crowded London Street, H. F. in his "safe" house surrounded by the plague, Robinson in his fort—the image is a recurrent one. Earlier in Robinson's account, in Brazil he carves out a plantation "among Strangers and Savages in a Wilderness, and at such a Distance, as never to hear from any Part of the World that had the least Knowledge of me" (VII, 30). Still earlier, there is Robinson quavering in the hold of the ship that takes him from home, surrounded by a raging sea.

At the beginning of the book Robinson's father points out to him that his "was the middle State, or what might be called the upper Station of Low Life, … that this was the State of Life which all other People envied" because

the middle Station had the fewest Disasters, and was not expos'd to so many Vicissitudes as the higher or lower Part of Mankind … that this Way Men went silently and smoothly thro' the World, and comfortably out of it, not embarrass'd with the Labours of the Hands or of the Head, not sold to the Life of Slavery for daily Bread, or harasst with perplx'd Circumstances, which rob the Soul of Peace and the Body of Rest; not enrag'd with the Passion of Envy, or secret burning Lust of Ambition for great things; but in easy Circumstances sliding gently thro' the World, and sensibly tasting the Sweets of living, without the bitter, feeling that they are happy, and learning by every Day's Experience to know it more sensibly. (VII, 2–4)

At the outset, then, Robinson already possesses the kind of security, freedom from exposure, that most other Defoe narrators and later even Robinson himself long for. What is given to Robinson is suddenly taken from other Defoe protagonists by circumstances over which they have no control. Moll Flanders and even H. F. must expose themselves to danger in order to survive. Why does Robinson give up so easily what the others have to struggle so hard to gain? In a sense, this is the question implicit in the beginning of this essay: expressing so strong a desire for concealment, why do they offer their confessions at all? This is as difficult a question as asking why Defoe wrote novels. The desire for concealment could have been easily satisfied by silence, by writing or publishing no books at all.6 The obvious answer to so manifestly impossible a question—that Defoe wrote books to make money, that is to say, like Moll or H. F., to survive—is less satisfactory than it might at first appear. There were other ways to make money, many of which Defoe tried. Much of the other writing Defoe did involved the need for secrecy or masking.

Defoe's narrators seem obsessed with concealing themselves, but the impulse leading them toward exposure appears equally strong. Complete concealment is impossible, perhaps not even desirable. On the one hand there is the insistence on building a faceless shelter around the self, but on the other a recurring compulsion to move out into the open. This double compulsion can be expressed as a double fear. When an earthquake makes him fear the security of his cave, Robinson writes that "the fear of being swallow'd up alive, made me that I never slept in quiet, and yet the Apprehensions of lying abroad without any Fence was almost equal to it" (VII, 94). These two fears, however—fear of being swallowed up by the earth, fear of lying in the open—are the same at bottom. Why does Robinson fear sleeping without the protection of a wall? He is afraid of ravenous beasts and cannibals. If one is caught abroad with one's guard down, unconscious (sleeping), one risks loss of self. But the dangers are as great, apparently, if one never ventures out. Both fears are basically fears of engulfment: one, the fear of being lost in the recesses of one's own nature (the earth), of solipsism and anonymity; alternately, fear of being captured, "eaten" by the other. Perhaps behind both, Defoe's fear of imprisonment.7 Fear of forms, equally strong fears of the formless. The fear of being devoured recurs throughout Robinson's narrative. At the beginning, he is afraid of being swallowed alive by the sea. Near the end, he defends himself against the devouring wolves.8

Besides fear or biological need, there are other reasons apparently for venturing abroad. Curiosity forces H. F. constantly to risk infection. Moll learns that the others betray moments of unconsciousness from which she can profit: "a Thief being a Creature that Watches the Advantages of other Peoples mistakes" (II, 92). Why does Robinson surrender his initial security? The reasons are intentionally vague to point to the fact that his motivation is beyond his understanding and ambiguously beyond personal choice, for the reasons are generic and at the same time subject to his accountability. His motivation or lack of justifiable motivation, involving disobedience of the father, is a restlessness of spirit which is simultaneously culpability and its own punishment. He describes the sources of his "meer wandering Inclination" as "something fatal," a "Propension of Nature," symptoms of what he shares with general man, the heritage of the fall. "Design'd" by his father "for the Law," he "would be satisfied with nothing but going to Sea," great symbol of the unformed. The opposition could not be more clear. What is most threatening is also most alluring. Throughout his life, even after his conversion, Robinson will feel the compulsion to leave behind the preformed, the already-given world of law, and face the unknown and undifferentiated, full of menace for the self and simultaneously full of promise. Unable to accept the given definition of himself, the will and legacy of his father, the world of law, Robinson experiences himself as incomplete and searches mistakenly for completion in the world outside. He does not possess himself but is scattered among a world of things. He must externalize himself in the world. He must create a self out of the formless sea of pure possibility, out of the surrounding, anonymous wilderness. The world is for him to make something of his own.

Here is the source of his egocentricity. His feeling of loneliness in Brazil at being "at such a Distance as never to hear from any Part of the World that had the least Knowledge of me" suggests that this distance is an alienation from a part of himself held in thrall by the world outside. This alienation, his longing for companionship through his years of isolation on the "Island of Despair," and his fear of the other all testify to his continuing sense of incompleteness, but also reveal the lie behind the way he has sought fulfillment.

Fear of the other, determining need for concealment; necessity, allurement of the world offering some form of completion to the self, determining the impulse to risk exposure. These oppositions suggest an explanation of the concealment and exposure, or guarded exposure, of Defoe's narrators that is revealed by the play of names. Hiding behind the disguise of Robinson and his factual-seeming narrative, Defoe is doing what Robinson does—constructing and hiding inside a "natural" fortification that cannot be perceived as a "habitation" from the outside. In a sense, this is as close as we can get to an answer to the problem formulated at the beginning. Pursuit of the mystery might, however, give a fuller sense of the implications of this strategy for the development of the novel….


3 See G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965) and J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966).

4 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 133.

5 At least part of the impulse behind Defoe's fiction is the desire to explore human possibilities in the face of a necessity so harsh as to suspend normal laws. The whole question of natural right has been examined in Maximillian E. Novak's Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

6 The pressures against Defoe's writing these novels seem multiplied when one remembers that Defoe was violating the Puritan ban against realistic fictions. For a discussion of this problem, see Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim, 114–24. For other accounts of Defoe's ambivalence about "feign'd Histories," see Maximillian Novak, "Defoe's Theory of Fiction," SP 61 (1964): 650–68, and the chapter on Defoe in Alan McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1956). For a discussion of the background of this problem, see William Nelson, "The Boundaries of Fiction in the Renaissance: A Treaty Between Truth and Falsehood," ELH 36 (1969): 30–58.

7 See James Sutherland, Defoe (London, 1950), 91.

8 Frank H. Ellis has revealed in the introduction to his Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 12ff., the extent to which Defoe organized this book on the basis of images of devouring….


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