Robinson Crusoe Themes

The main themes in Robinson Crusoe include fear, the human condition, and money.

  • Fear: In order to survive on the island, Crusoe must overcome his fear of the unknown, such as when he confronts what he believes to be the devil in a cave.
  • The human condition: The novel suggests that the struggle to conquer nature and maintain civilization lies at the heart of the human condition.
  • Money: While his money loses all meaning on the island, Crusoe continues to treasure it as a keepsake and resumes his reliance on money when he returns to England.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

Fear

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Robinson Crusoe must overcome his fear in order to survive his long ordeal on the deserted island. The trial by fear begins when he runs about like a madman, scared of every shadow, and sleeps in a tree with a weapon: “fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God.” He quickly realizes that he must recover his wits and reason if he is to survive.

At several points in the narrative, Crusoe is almost overwhelmed by his fear of the unknown. It propels him to colonize the island, securing his shelter and becoming self-sufficient. His ability to funnel his fear into productivity and creativity allows him to survive under extreme conditions.

Crusoe masters his fear when he faces the ultimate challenge—the devil. Investigating a cave, he is met by a pair of eyes. At first scared, he realizes that he can confront this enemy just like he has met every other challenge on the island: “He that was afraid to see the devil, was not fit to live twenty years in an island all alone.”

With that, he rushes in to confront the devil and discovers a dying goat. He has passed his trial. Had he not faced his fears, he would have run away in full belief that the devil lived in that cave. Instead, he investigates and confronts his fear.

The Human Condition

Robinson Crusoe is a meditation on the human condition and an argument for challenging traditional notions about that condition. Finding himself alone on a deserted island, Crusoe struggles to maintain reason, order, and civilization. His “original sin” is his rejection of a conventional life. When he leaves England for a life on the high seas, he refuses to be “satisfied with the station wherein God and Nature hath placed” him.

Crusoe struggles with—and eventually triumphs over—nature. The book suggests that this struggle is at the heart of human nature: man is on earth to triumph and gain profit from nature. Any profit makes sense in this view of the world, whether that means getting just one plank out of a huge tree or building a boat too heavy to bring to the water. Once Crusoe is able to overcome his fear and subdue nature, he is rewarded handsomely.

Money

Consistent with Defoe’s writings on economics, money is an important theme in Robinson Crusoe. At the beginning of the narrative, Crusoe details how much money he has, what he does with it, and what he gains by his actions.

On the island, money loses all value. Crusoe has to find another way to measure his worth. While rummaging through a ship for salvage, he laments aloud at the sight of some money, “O Drug! . . . what are thou good for.” At that point he realizes that just one knife is worth more than money. Usefulness is the key to evaluation of worth.

Crusoe’s hope of returning to England is symbolized by these tokens of civilization—on the island, the money is only a reminder of his old life, and he treasures it as a memento. In all of his other endeavors he freely admits his success or failure. But as a merchant, he knows that though separated from the world now, he can only reconnect with it if he has money. Once he returns to London, his old reliance on money returns.

Industrialization

Industrialization is defined here as a process whereby humans channel the forces of nature into the production and manufacture of goods for their economic consumption. This industrialization is Crusoe’s occupation, according to his cultural background and his religion. He immediately sets out to be productive and self-sufficient on the island.

By the time of Robinson Crusoe, most villages were experiencing labor specialization. People began to buy bread instead of baking it. Thus Crusoe has to relearn many of these arts to survive. With practice, Crusoe is able to increase the level of industrialization on his island.

Crusoe has a few implements with which he is able to reconstruct a semblance of civilization as well as create more advanced technology. While building his house, he notes that every task is exhausting. In brief, he praises the idea of “division of labor” as he describes cutting timber out of trees, bringing the wood from the trees to the construction site, and then constructing his shelter. He soon devises labor-saving devices, thus increasing his efficiency and productivity.

The necessity of a sharp axe leads Crusoe to invent his own foot-powered sharpener. He has “no notion of a kiln,” but he manages to fire pottery. He needs a mill for grinding his grain, but not finding a proper stone, he settles for a block of hard wood. The entire process of baking his own bread spurs a realization of how wonderful the state of human technology is.

People take the labor behind the necessities of life for granted when such items can be easily purchased in the market. Crusoe is not suggesting that people return to a world of self-sufficient households. Instead, as he goes about his Herculean tasks, like creating a simple shelf in his house, he comments that a carpenter could have finished the two-day job in an hour. Thus he appreciates the process of specialization that helps make industrialization so successful.

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