Humanity: A Look at Robinson Crusoe

“Daniel Defoe achieved literary immortality when, in April 1719, he published Robinson Crusoe” (Stockton 2321). It dared to challenge the political, social, and economic status quo of his time. By depicting the utopian environment in which was created in the absence of society, Defoe criticizes the political and economic aspect of England’s society, but is also able to show the narrator’s relationship with nature in a vivid account of the personal growth and development that took place while stranded in solitude. Crusoe becomes “the universal representative, the person, for whom every reader could substitute himself” (Coleridge 2318). “Thus, Defoe persuades us to see remote islands and the solitude of the human soul. By believing fixedly in the solidity of the plot and its earthiness, he has subdued every other element to his design and has roped a whole universe into harmony” (Woolf 2303).

A common theme often portrayed in literature is the individual vs. society. In the beginning of Robinson Crusoe , the narrator deals with, not society, but his family’s views on how he was bound to fail in life if his parents’ expectations of him taking the family business were not met. However, Defoe’s novel was somewhat autobiographical. “What Defoe wrote was intimately connected with the sort of life he led, with the friends and enemies he made, and with the interests of natural to a merchant and a Dissenter” (Sutherland 2). These similarities are seen throughout the novel. “My father...gave me serious and excellent counsel against what he foresaw was my design,” says Crusoe (Defoe 8-9) . Like Crusoe, Defoe also rebelled against his parents. Unlike Crusoe, however, Defoe printed many essays and papers that rebelled against the government and society, just as Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, did in England by depicting society languishing in social malaise (Marowski 231). It were these writings that eventually got Defoe charged with libel and imprisoned (DIScovering Authors). In Defoe’s life it was the ministry that his father wanted him to pursue (Sutherland 2), but, instead, Defoe chose to become a tradesman (DIScovering Biography). The depth of the relationship between Crusoe and his parents in the book was specifically not elaborated upon because his parent’s become symbolic not only of all parents, but of society. In keeping this ambiguous relationship, Defoe is able to make Crusoe’s abrupt exodus much more believable and, thus, more humane. The reader, in turn, supports Crusoe’s decisions even though “his social relationships were shipwrecked by the rising tide of individualism” (Watt 59). Defoe, too, “shipwrecked financially” in the economic boom in England in 1962 in what he would go on to say shaped Robinson Crusoe (Sutherland xi).

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe uses the tale of a shipwrecked soldier to criticize society. Mainly, the story of Robinson Crusoe is based on a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk who lived alone of the island of Juan Fernandez for over four years until he was rescued (Sutherland 7). In the island setting, Defoe was able to show what is necessary for the formation of a utopian society. This depiction, however, differentiated from later writers such as Huxley who’s vision is “regarded as a classic examination of modern values and utopian thinking” (Bloom 232). “(Crusoe) takes a piece of paradise and makes it a sovereign state. He is king of vale, lord of the country, squire of the manor” (Seidel 10). While politicians argue about the best way to create a “perfect” society, Defoe says that the only way that it happens in the presence of everything except people, creating “Catch-22” irony. This was a very controversial topic in England at the time. Many citizens and people of certain religions were being persecuted because of their political beliefs (DIScovering Biography). Defoe, however, believed that religious freedom and political freedom was a right that every member of society should have, so “his entry into the world of politics was perhaps inevitable. Defoe was never content to remain for long in the realm of impersonal thought; he had a dangerous way of applying his mind to persons and parties” (Sutherland 2).

In his isolation from the rest of the world, Crusoe is able to create a utopian society that not only he depends on for survival, but it is also dependent on him (Defoe 58). This “Marx-like” economic system which was created proved that a utopian environment is possible to create, though easier having only one “citizen”. There are no other people to corrupt or destroy the harmony in which Crusoe is living in with nature. “It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days”(Defoe 113). As Defoe depicts it, the narrator’s solitary confinement, even though it was an event that Crusoe viewed as being a punishment from God for his sins in the beginning, has really caused the narrator to become “enlightened” and has also made him realize that his new life was by far better than that in England. “The state of nature which Crusoe has lived, a solitary life on the island, possessed a purity that cannot be duplicated” (Peck 99), even making Crusoe say, “I cared not if I was never to remove from the place where I lived” (Defoe 207) and “I lived there..perfectly and completely happy, if any such thing as complete happiness can be formed in a sublunary state” (Defoe 217).

“In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe has hit upon a situation that asks to be worked out. The episodes will arise naturally from the situation and the situation is such that it can lead naturally to a complete change in a hero’s outlook, and ultimately to a solution of all his problems” (Sutherland 11). The island had an effect on Crusoe that went deeper than it becoming solely a tool for his survival. It caused Crusoe to development mentally, physically, and spiritually. “Crusoe begins as a wanderer, aimless on the sea he does not understand; he ends as a pilgrim crossing a final mountain to enter the promised land” (Hunter 103). It is the confinement of the island that finally makes Crusoe stop running away from his problems and face both his fears and reality (Rousseau 2317). Crusoe learns that by working with his surroundings, rather than loathing in his misfortune, he is able to find and use everything he needs in order to carry out life (Defoe 106). Thus, the island is symbolic of his growth and could be considered the “healing” that ultimately brought him to both God and the realization that he could keep himself alive becoming the epitome of “man’s contest with, and final victory over nature” (Hawthorne 2320).

Along with the criticism of society, Defoe is able to give symbolism to the objects around Crusoe that support the idea of the creation a utopian environment. The new-grown barley and corn on the island, which Crusoe calls a “prodigy of Nature” (Defoe 80), is really symbolic of the spiritual and emotional growth that is taking place within himself (Peck 96). These grains, however, were also a main source of food for Crusoe. The idea of the island and Crusoe living with each other and giving to one another in harmony fully supports the idea of a utopian society. It is at this time in the book that Crusoe realizes that he can be dependent upon himself in order to survive. This is also the time in which he realizes that his “misfortune” of becoming stranded on an island is really a blessing for all of his party was dead (Defoe 66).

The island itself has symbolic significance because it is the physical means which changed Crusoe to stop wandering (Butler 99). The confinement found on the island is what is mostly responsible for the growth in which took place within Crusoe. “By acquiring a sense of place, (he) also established a sense of self” (Butler 99). This, again, illustrates the dramatic change in character that has taken place within Crusoe over the course of his “adventure”. Some see this “solitude as the universal state of man” (Watt 55) and in the case of Robinson Crusoe, it was this solitude that essentially changed his whole psyche and made him less of a wanderer, both spiritually and physically, for he found faith in God and no longer was able to aimlessly stray due to the confinement on the island.

Though Crusoe has developed throughout the novel to except what has become of him, near the end, the reader sees that loneliness has started to take its toll. This is where Crusoe becomes the “human representative” (Coleridge 2318). He is able to sustain life by himself, but also misses the contact that he had in society. It was Aristotle who said the man “who is unable to live in society, or has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god” (Watt 53). Though Crusoe found his island sanctuary to Although Crusoe has created this flawless home, humans are social beings, and need the contact that does not come with living in solitude. The change that took place on the island, essentially, made Crusoe realize that even the utopian experience while isolated is not comparable to that of sharing human emotion and the riddance of loneliness and makes him appreciate it that much more (Novak 77). The utopia suddenly seems more life-like.

Robinson Crusoe is a “story told with modesty, seriousness, and with religious application of events”(Defoe 7) written as a first person narrative. It is this writing that has caused its unrivaled popularity..... “no single book in the history of Western literature has spawned more editions, translations, imitations, continuations, and sequels than Crusoe” (Seidel 8). The tone and point of view in which Defoe uses enables the reader to experience first-hand the changes that take place within Crusoe while he is on the island. This gives validity to every word and quote in the novel because it is actually the narrator’s words. This point of view clearly shows criticism and feeling without being altered by interpretation. It also has the effect of “making the narrative itself seem to claim possession of qualities that we associate with concrete matter rather than with fiction, or the abstract effect in our minds of a certain arrangement of words” (Butler 185).

In Robinson Crusoe, the narrator develops to form an optimistic outlook towards an unfortunate situation, and, thus, creates a utopia for himself both mentally and physically. By doing this, he, essentially, broke through the mold in which both British society and his parents had set for him when becoming stranded with only his thoughts and fears. “Crusoe finds the power to overcome a hostile world of hunger and sickness, animal and human brutality, even the power to overcome his most dangerous adversary, himself”(Hunter 102-103). In doing so, Defoe is really criticizing the society in which he lived saying that the only truly peaceful and loving society is that which contains one person, though, as in Robinson Crusoe, maybe this is not the society in which humans are capable of living in. Just as Crusoe eventually saw his situation more optimistically, Defoe is saying that a society which is less critical of itself is one that is closer to utopia.