Robinson Crusoe: A Guidebook for English Colonialism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1669

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I came to an opening…the country appeared so fresh…it looked like a planted garden…surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure…to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly, and had a right and possession; and, if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England

Here, Crusoe is expressing a Lockean sentiment: the perception that "I own it" is half of ownership. Yet this is insufficient, because anyone or anything could perceive and state likewise.

So Crusoe uses fear to complete his conquest. A metaphor for his use of terror is found in his conflicts with his winged enemies, the crows. He employs terror in the same way the English crown does; he hangs three dead crows as if they were "notorious thieves" and, consequently, he never sees another bird in that part of the island.

He also employs terror with the goats. He learns the value of entrapment and starvation as coercive devices, and soon has a tame herd serving his nutritional needs. The most radical element of terror Crusoe employs in his campaign against the armies of nature and barbarity is the fortification of his shelter. For this, he uses trees, cables, and the earth to make impenetrable shelter.

However, his construction never serves a defensive purpose. Rather, it signifies the completion of his ownership; with his ten-foot walls, there is no doubt that he rules the land he has surveyed.

Crusoe's power depends upon a constant supply of labor. Once he has conquered the island with his hedges, fences, granaries and boats, he begins to fear that the cannibals will take it all away from him. Clearly, God's work is never finished, but Crusoe soon finds help.

As in his earlier ceremony of possession, he visualizes having a servant before he even rescues Friday. Colonialism according to Crusoe, demands a steady state of mind developed in the course of laborious exercises. Even when Friday shows him an easier way of constructing a boat, Crusoe sticks to his own method.

Crusoe's success results from a cruelty to self. By doing things the hard way, he learned hard lessons, and he wants Friday to imitate him. His relationship with Friday reflects his relationship with himself

Away from the hectic world of 1719, Crusoe is on his island in perfect isolation. Not only is Crusoe geographically located where Defoe had pinned his hopes (a colony at the mouth of the Orinoco where Sir Walter Raleigh attempted a settlement), but he lives in the time of greatest hope.

Defoe admired many of Oliver Cromwell's projects, especially the Navigation Acts, so it is not surprising that Crusoe is lost to civilization in 1659, the year Cromwell's son, Richard, lost political power. Once on the island, Crusoe reinvents society for himself. The island becomes his benevolent garden and he laboriously constructs the infrastructure of civilization by subjugating nature.

This is precisely the process the Puritans went through. As Joyce Appleby describes them in her Capitalism and a New Social Order, "Far from turning into modern entrepreneurs, Puritan men became rural patriarchs…who commanded their wives, controlled their [children] and kept out any deviants who might spoil the sweet harmony of their peaceable kingdom." Crusoe behaves in the same way, keeping out crows, cannibals, or anyone refusing his authority. Power, for Crusoe, comes down to control:

It would have made a stoic 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 [two cats, a parrot who is the only one permitted to talk, and a dog] at my absolute command, I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away; and no rebels among all my subjects

This, and like passages, express Crusoe's belief in his "undoubted right of dominion" over the whole island. Such a belief in patriarchal forms of government led Philip Morgan to comment in his opus, Slave Counterpoint, that "Defoe had shrewdly caught the tenor of idealized plantation life." Granted, Defoe remains anxious about his ownership until he can register his claim in a European court.

The story of Crusoe is a counterpoint to the attitude that prevailed in London at the time: work, not speculation, will offer people full employment and contentment. Defoe was prophesying do_omfor the stock market, but he was echoing the warnings and calls for moderation issued by Horace Walpole.

The only thing of value in Crusoe's story is his right to rule his work and accomplishments. All of his speculations lead only to his distraction and endangerment. With a cool head and reason, as well as the backing of God, Crusoe will be safe, fed, and happy—not to mention rich. Defoe hoped the same for England and its people.

If Defoe wanted to write a novel of capitalism, he would not isolate his hero on an island for twenty-four years. In fact, Defoe never tired of pointing out that a proper economy depends upon an individual's free access to the market, other people, currency, and an unimpeded right to invest and profit with that capital. Defoe did not write a novel about the trials and tribulations of those attempting to involve themselves in commerce. His novel does not resemble a Horatio Alger story.

Robinson Crusoe is a religious instruction manual, cautioning the people of England against capital speculation or abandonment of their Puritan work ethic. Furthermore, the novel suggests that the English are destined to reap the rewards of colonialism due to their work ethic and their religious convictions.

Unlike every other castaway story popular in Defoe's time, in which the "hero" essentially goes crazy as a result of solitude, Crusoe thrives utilizing the Puritan principles—reason, work, and God. That is the lesson he wanted to provide to the English people.

Source: Jeremy W Hubbell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Jeremy W. Hubbell is a graduate student in History at SUNY Stony Brook and has written for a wide variety of business, academic, and educational publishers.

The Creation of an Ordered World in Robinson Crusoe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4818

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crusoe wakes filled with the horrors of this terrible vision.

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

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

From this point on his spiritual cure is hardly in doubt. Looking for tobacco as medicine for his sickness, he finds a Bible; looking in the Bible he finds guidance from the word of God. He is led to reconsider his past life, and given hope for the future. He comes to understand that from being confined upon a barren island, he has been delivered from a sinful career, from being imprisoned, he is now free.

On recovering from his sickness—which is of course spiritual as well as physical—he is able for the first time to set out upon a journey of exploration. He has a "great Desire to make a more perfect Discovery of the Island, and to see what other Productions I might find, which I yet knew nothing of." He crosses over into the other half of the island, finding that it is fruitful—his own part is barren—having meadows, a great deal of tobacco (the herb that had cured his illness), sugar canes, melons, and grapes. Going further, Crusoe finds a spring, and everything in "a constant Verdure…that is looked like a planted Garden." He immediately imagines himself as the lord of this fair country.

It is clear that the effect of this scene is symbolic. Crusoe could not have found the fruitful part of the island until he had made peace with God; once he has realized he is no longer a prisoner the bars are open, and he is ready to be led into green pastures. On the psychological level, with his visionary dream Crusoe reaches into his unconscious, and is afterwards guided through his sickness by intuition and instinct. Until this point he has been resisting the forces within himself; after this dream he becomes resigned to his condition. On his recovery from his ague he is able to proceed further and explore the wonders of a new and delightful country, which in a sense may be said to stand for the unconscious itself. He builds a "bower" in this lotus land, and eventually sets up a little farm there, but significantly enough he never abandons his first home on the barren side of the island, telling himself that his rescue must come from that direction. The fruitful side has an almost seductive charm; there is something dangerous about it: it is from this side that the savages come when they do. Crusoe never thoroughly makes it his own, never quite surrenders himself, tempted though he is, to the "Pleasantness of the Place."

He is now able, however, to set up a reasonable and almost complete order in his new world after this first exploration of the island. He finds no want of food, and delights in all its variety. He tames first a parrot, then a young goat; added to his dog and cats they form his society. He professes himself increasingly comfortable, and his own house becomes a "perfect Settlement" to him. He still has his wanderings and doubts, but essentially he is at peace with himself:

I began to conclude in my Mind, That it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken Solitary Condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other Particular State in the World; and with this Thought I was going to give Thanks to God for bringing me to this Place.

It is at this point that we can see how completely Crusoe's inner order is reflected by his outer order. His actions at this stage of the novel are methodical and precise; working with hope in his breast he becomes increasingly constructive. He is an experimenter, hindered only by the inadequacies of his tools; he is a creator, limited only by his diminishing ignorance. We notice that Defoe's treatment of work is symbolic when we compare what Crusoe did before his dream and after. His first attempt to organize his solitary life was energetic rather than directed; with beaver-like industry he worked to create a world about him, making himself a home, fixing himself furniture, exploring a part of his neighbourhood. Immediately before his sickness he had worked frantically on a second salvage of the wreck, but all to very little purpose: he was frustrated by the tide and the sand; he could only hack pieces off the roll of lead, and the figurehead itself, freed by the wind, proved too heavy for him to move. He did manage to bring a mass of timber, planks and iron-work ashore, enough to build a boat "if I had known how." What characterizes this labour is its pointlessness. This is made quite plain by the contrast of the work done after his recovery from his sickness: now his labour is as tedious, but it is purposeful. He makes himself a board, and though it takes him five days before he can even begin to flatten the sides, he does succeed in his design, for he is patient. What does he need with boards, we might ask, remembering that he had salvaged enough planks from the ship to build a boat? The answer—unless we are willing to accept the explanation of the forgetful author—is that the labour is symbolic of his spiritual and physical cure, now Crusoe is a creator, who is building his own order. He does not want nor need the abundance of the wreck, which in a sense is tainted by his previous sin, but he must make do with natural material. He must make his own things, and he must make things work. So he proceeds by trial and error, often laboriously, but with a new sense of design. He discovers how to grow his corn, and in his many difficulties he is "content to work it out with Patience, and bear with the badness of the Performance."

In settling the small world about him, he adjusts to the cosmos itself, observing and taking note of the seasons. He organizes his agriculture according to these observations, sowing and harvesting at the proper times. He sets his daily routine in strict and sensible parts; no time is unaccounted for, no time is wasted:

I was very seldom idle; but having regularly divided my Time, according to the several daily Employments that were before me, such as First, My Duty to God, and the Reading the Scriptures, which I constantly set a part some Time for thrice every Day. Secondly, The going Abroad with my Gun for Food, which generally took me three Hours in every Morning, when it did not Rain. Thirdly, The ordering, curing, preserving, and cooking what I had kill'd or catch'd for my Supply, these took up great Part of the Day…

He becomes an inventor, and after a fashion, a craftsman, discovering rough and ready ways to make his tools and pots. He sets himself up as the judge and executioner of his society, first over the animals (as with the birds that rob his field) and later over the savages and the mutineers. He still on occasion "wastes" his labour, spending long and fruitless hours on such a hopeless project as the first dug-out canoe, but this is a lapse, a backsliding from his real knowledge of God. In the main he is at peace with his inner self. He has long dialogues with his soul, questioning his fate and the workings of Providence, reassuring himself

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 sociable.

He still has occasional meetings with the world of the unconscious which unnerve him, and show him the limits of his psychic order. On launching his second canoe, he is carried away by the current; on reaching firm land with much difficulty he regains his bower, and drops into a sleep of exhaustion. He is awakened by a voice calling his name, "where are you Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?" This excursion into unknown waters is a frightening experience, and it is only after an extended self-explanation that he really accepts his questioner as "honest Poll," the "sociable Creature."

It is in the middle of a long and circumstantial account of Crusoe's ordered world—his plantations, his fortifications, his stores, his goats—that we are suddenly surprised, as he is himself, by the appearance of "the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore." Crusoe of course is more than surprised, he is "Thunder-struck," and all his carefully constructed tranquility seems at once overturned. He hurries home to his fort, imagining intruders behind every bush, and immediately shuts himself up in great "Terror of Mind." His fears are far from rational: he finds it impossible "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." He supposes at times that the footprint belongs to the devil, for there is something supernatural about its appearance, something terrifying in it being a single mark. His musings at length take a more balanced note, and he turns once again to God, finding in His revealed work comfort and direction.

The footprint is a disruption of Crusoe's little kingdom; it is a sign that there have been trespassers about on the island. Its dramatic effect is all the more powerful for the detailed description we have just had of an island apparently tamed; now civilization is shown to be a facade, the inviolate society broken into almost by malevolent magic. Crusoe's immediate action is to re-organize his world, to set up more and yet more lines of defence about his fortifications, to crawl once more back into his island womb, to regret even the door on his cave. It is two years before he sees any further sign of the savages, and his mind, at first obsessed by thoughts of his own defence, then significantly enough turns to thoughts of revenge. "It would take up a larger Volume than this whole Work is intended to be, to set down all the Contrivances I hatch'd, or rather brooded upon in my Thought, for the destroying these Creatures." The savages are the intruders from another world; they must be met and destroyed before order can be restored.

It is as much Crusoe's inner peace that has been threatened as his outer order. Musing upon his now unsettled condition, he resolves to take direction from his unconscious:

How when we are in (a Quandary, as we call it) a Doubt or Hesitation, whether to go this Way, or that Way, a Secret Hint shall direct us this Way, when we intended to go that Way…

He makes it a rule of conduct from this time forth to obey these "secret Hints, or pressings of my Mind." To the Puritan this was a familiar way of receiving God's own instruction; Crusoe's speculations go a little further than usual, since he goes on to suppose that these "Intimations of Providence…are Proof of the Converse of Spirits, and the secret Communication between those embody'd, and those unembody'd…" It is just after these thoughts that he has another nasty fright in a second encounter with the devil, when, exploring a cave, he sees "two broad shining Eyes of some Creature," which terrifies him with a pair of loud, deep sighs. The devil turns out to be a goat. Crusoe once again in crawling into this enclosed and dark world—which reveals itself to be in its innermost depths the most "glorious Sight seen in the Island"—learns that the fear is of the unknown within and that indeed there is nothing so fearful as fear itself. Taking possession of this inner and most splendid cave, Crusoe fancies himself "like one of the ancient Giants," and for the first time feels quite safe from even "five hundred Savages."

Up to this point we have been shown a series of archetypal images in the life-voyage of this Wanderer: his disengorgement from the sea, more helpless and no wiser than Jonah himself; his isolation; his peril, first from (imaginary) wild animals, and later, from wild men; his burrowing back into the elemental earth: his expulsion from this womb to face the divine. As we have seen, this crisis, this meeting with the unconscious, is followed by the meticulous re-ordering of both the inner and the outer realities. The island, though still surrounded by the dangerous currents of the elemental waters, turns from prison into a kingdom, while the images of the wilderness give way to those of the enclosed garden. Now Crusoe, faced with the threat from the outside world, significantly seeks the solution within himself, enters the mouth of hell, confronts the devil, and finds in that cave of the unconscious a secure and hidden retreat.

He is by no means settled and easy after this experience in the cave, but still finds himself prey to innumerable doubts and fears. It is not until he meets his danger in the form of Friday that he becomes his old self once more: by taming, teaching and forming Friday after his own image he sets his world back to rights. Once the unknown becomes familiar, once he is able to make it his own and impose his own order upon it, it no longer offers a real threat to him. With Friday at his side, Crusoe spends "the pleasantest Year of all the Life I led in this Place."

Crusoe has now regained his confidence, and during the rest of the novel he is in command of his growing society. With the addition of Friday's father and the Spaniard "my Island was now peopled," and he is no longer just king in fancy. His resoluteness in guiding the attack on the savages, and later, in directing the defeat of the mutineers, makes us accept his title of "Governour" as real rather than ironic just as later, safe in Spain, his companions call him their "Captain." The order that he has imposed so carefully upon his own life is extended to those who come near him. He plans the rescue of the fourteen shipwrecked Spaniards, and he restores to his ship the captain and his companions, imposing resolute yet merciful justice upon the mutinous crew. The final imposition of order upon his by now expanded world is the settlement of his commercial affairs, whose notable success—and it is none of Crusoe's doing—is a reward for his finding of God and self.

He is now quite in touch with God and is content to be guided by the promptings of his inner self. His unconscious speaks to him in moments of crisis, and he listens: "I had some secret Doubts hung about me, I cannot tell from whence they came…" And they bid him to be on his guard, and so he is cautious. He speculates on the nature of such warnings, speaking of "certain Discoveries of an invisible World, and a Converse of Spirits." "Let no Man despise the secret Hints and Notices of Danger" he says, and later, on his way home to England, when he finds he has a "strange Aversion" to going to sea, he repeats the lesson: "let no Man slight the strong Impulses of his own Thoughts in Cases of such Moment."

Seen in this light, Crusoe's life becomes the experiencing and the ordering of the unknown. The peculiar scene of the wolves in the pass of the Pyrenees is felt as one last attack upon his psyche; by now he is so strong that even when "above three hundred Devils come roaring and open mouth'd" to devour him, and he tells us that he gives himself over for lost, we have little sense of crisis, and no fear for his safety.

This scene may be unrealistic, but realism, for all the detail of homo economicus, is not always Defoe's point. Crusoe's island is a world of creation and experience, and his twenty-eight years on the island should be read in somewhat of the same light as Jehovah's six days of creation. All is drawn into the myth of order Crusoe becomes more than homo economicus and more than the Wanderer: he becomes, finally, every man who has ever tried to cope with a chaotic and hostile world.

Source: Robert H. MacDonald, "The Creation of an Ordered World in Robinson Crusoe," in Dalhousie Review, Vol. LVI, 1976, pp. 23-34.

Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820

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

Allegory seems to have been always congenial to the Puritan mind as a legitimate province in which the imagination might exercise itself; and although at times in the eighteenth century it came to be looked down upon as a rather crude vehicle of literary expression, it continued longer as a vital tradition in the dissenting milieu in which Defoe's mind was molded than in more advanced intellectual and literary circles. Defoe can hardly have been unaffected by the forces that shaped Bunyan and that accounted for the continued popularity of his allegories. It is perhaps surprising that in view of his background we do not find more evidences of allegory in the work of Defoe.

Robinson Crusoe is far more than the account of a practical man's adjustment to life on a deserted island. Side by side with Crusoe's physical conquest of nature is his struggle to conquer himself and to find God. It is really a conversion story; like that of Augustine or Baxter, with the classic symptoms of supernatural guidance (in this case in a dream), penitential tears, and Biblical text. Despite repeated signs and warnings, Crusoe only gradually awakens to the necessity for salvation; and it is not until in his illness he stumbles to the tobacco box and comes upon the Bible that he crosses the hump. The final stage is his realization that his deliverance from the island is unimportant in comparison with his deliverance from sin through the mercy of God.

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, but not I learn'd to take it in another sense. Now I look'd back upon my past life with such horrour, and my sins appear'd so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort. As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much pray to be deliver'd from it, or think of it, it was all of no consideration in comparison to this.

From this point on, his mind is essentially at peace, and the remainder of his autobiography is in the nature of an account of the due rewards and powers of the man who has been saved.

Although Defoe's Christianity is at times fairly materialistic, especially in comparison with that of Augustine, Bunyan or Baxter, the account of Crusoe's conversion has a peculiar force and intensity to it that tempts one into believing it of some greater than ordinary personal significance to Defoe. It is indicative, I think, that as soon as Crusoe gets back to Europe, he sheds his Christianity like an old cloak and pursues his complacent way with only the most perfunctory expressions of gratitude to his Creator and Preserver (e.g., the scene in the Pyrenees when he is attacked by wolves). But whatever the personal associations of the story to Defoe, at least a part of the effectiveness of the novel is due to the way in which the parallel struggles set off and suggest one another. Some of the details of Crusoe's struggle with nature seem to symbolize his spiritual quest, though perhaps not intentionally on the part of Defoe. One notices that many of these are among the most emphatic and memorable incidents of the novel.

The main outline of Crusoe's story lends itself readily to allegorization. Given the notion of life as a voyage, which is at least as old as patristic commentaries on the Aeneid, both storm and desert island, punishment and proving ground, are logical corollaries. Contemporary use of some of these ideas can be found, for instance, in Matthew Greene's witty urbane The Spleen.

Thus, thus I steer my bark, and sail
On even keel with gentle gale;
At helm I make my reason sit,
My crew of passions all submit.
If dark and blustering prove some nights,
Philosophy puts forth her lights;
Experience holds the cautious glass,
To shun the breakers, as I pass,
And once in seven years I'm seen
At Bath or Tunbridge to careen.
Though pleased to see the dolphins play,
I mind my compass and my way.
I make (may heaven propitious send
Such wind and weather to the end)
Neither becalmed nor over-blown,
Life's voyage to the world unknown

However, it should be emphasized that the distinctive feature of Crusoe is that which is apparently original with Defoe, the detailed account of Crusoe's adjustment to the island.

By no means all the details of the novel are allegorical. Some of these I have chosen may be found unconvincing, the well-disposed reader may wish to add others; but at least this will be a start toward isolating one of the elements that make the book such an appealing one.

The geography of the island is conceived in moral terms. The side of the island on which Crusoe lands and where he establishes his "home," as he calls it, although it affords a better prospect of the ocean, is less favored naturally than the other side that he explores later and where he builds his "bower." The latter yields not only a greater variety of fruits—aloes, limes, wild sugar cane, grapes—but a more numerous fauna. Goats abound in the rich meadow, also hares and fox-like creatures, and on the shore a great profusion of turtles, which are something of a rarity on the other side of the island. Crusoe is tempted to move, but decides against it—wisely, as it turns out; for the shore where the turtles can be found is the one where the cannibals are accustomed to land for their inhuman feasts. Also, the richness proves to be largely illusory. Crusoe doesn't dare eat the grapes until dried, for fear of flux; a batch he gathers and leaves overnight are "trod to pieces" and spread about by some "wild creatures;" the goats, though more numerous, are harder to catch because of lack of cover. In a curious passage in his second trip he describes descending into a large wooded valley where he becomes lost for several days in the forests and in a haze that springs up.

It is difficult not to sense allegory at work behind all this. Turtle, as in Pope and Fielding, is a symbol of luxurious living; the grapes are harder to fix, though there may be Biblical overtones here; and the hot misty forest has suggestions of sloth and lassitude: "…and then by easy journies I turn'd homeward, the weather being exceeding hot, and my gun, ammunition, hatchet, and other things very heavy." Since these experiences happen to Crusoe on his two exploratory trips shortly after his conversion, the thither side of the island becomes to him, like Egypt to the Israelites on the march to Canaan, a temptation to be resisted.

Fundamentally, the temptation to move is an appeal to a species of pride; not to remain where he had been cast up by divine Providence, but to go whoring after false gods. When it comes to attempting to escape from the island entirely, however, which presumably he must not do until a sign has been given, Crusoe shows that he is not proof against this sin. In his first effort, pride acts to blind his reason; he selects for his periagua a cedar so large (there is a significant reference to the temple of Solomon at this point) that when fashioned into a vessel, it cannot be launched by one man. Yet despite this warning he persists, builds a second boat, and, in maneuvering about the island, is almost swept away by currents to certain death. It is only then that Crusoe realizes where his unwillingness to accept his lot has led him, falling on his knees, he thanks God for his preservation and resolves "to lay aside all thoughts of my deliverance by my boat."

This incident acts as a turning point in Crusoe's career, from here on he makes no major mistakes, though he is capable of certain indiscreet plans in reference to the cannibals in the long course of his preoccupation with them.

Generally, the symbolism is clustered around the conversion. The peculiar effectiveness of the descriptions of the shoots of barley and the making of the earthen pot is probably due to their symbolic value in the religious context. Crusoe sheds tears at the realization that the stalks are "perfect green barley," and for the first time begins to reflect seriously on God's providence. Clearly, they are the seeds of grace stirring in his heart and sending forth their first tender sprouts. Similarly, Crusoe's ultimate success in fashioning an earthen pot after certain false starts is analogous to his ultimate success in attaining a spiritual goal. In a sense Crusoe is the pot himself. Several times he has been brought to the fire, but nothing had come of it. Finally, however, his trials redouble (fresh fuel is brought to the fire), he glows clear red, and emerges a serviceable, if not handsome pipkin of the Lord. The analogy may seem far-fetched at first; but one should remember, in addition to the fact that the very intensity of these descriptions suggests a special meaning for them, that dissenting circles were accustomed to think and to express themselves in terms of "chosen vessels" and seeds of grace or doctrine.

Other incidents may be susceptible of such an interpretation. The goatskin clothes he makes after his old ones wear out may be the new armor of faith, and the elaborate system of defense that Crusoe establishes on the island may suggest the invulnerability of the true believer, but the four examples I have chosen are the most obvious in respect to both their nature and their position in the narrative.

Source: Edwin B Benjamin, "Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 2, April 1951, pp 206-11.

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