While it is the subject of much debate amongst the world's leading scholars, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is widely accepted in the world of academia as being the first English novel. With how much the language has progressed since the time of its conception, it's understandable that many readers today would find the story difficult to relate to.
At the beginning of this year, we discussed the importance of the arts and the lessons that we can learn from them. In my humble opinion, there is no art that is greater or more important than the written word. I believe this because literature goes beyond art. It transcends into the the very fiber of evolution and seeps into every facet of a culture. Coinciding with this; however, is the power of education. Often times, our fear is rooted in that which we do not understand. When we take the time to tackle even the most insurmountable of challenges, when we accept the challenge of stretching our minds, of going to depths we didn't even know existed, we realize that our limits are merely hurdles; designed with the purpose of being surpassed.
Although Robinson Crusoe is an old work dating back to 1719, its lessons of hubris and survival can still be applied to the present day, and its journalistic format makes it incredibly easy to break up and set up stopping points for discussion. It has been one of only a few works credited with being the first English novel, so it comes as no surprise that Defoe seems to draw from earlier stories of creation and mythology as inspiration, emulating them in format, and through his use of similar tools. To understand the novel's influences and appreciate its religious overtones, we must first take a quick look at the religion Defoe was brought up in.
The Puritans were a group of people who were members of the Church of England, a religious sect that began by breaking away from the Catholic Church. While the Church of England shared similar views to the Catholics in theory, they did not share Catholic views in practice, so they broke away and formed their own doctrine. Although they were members of the Church of England, the Puritans believed that the Church’s practices were too reminiscent of Catholicism, and so they formed their own belief system that stripped the religion to its core, getting rid of the protocol, and keeping worship “pure", as they described it.
The Puritans were one of the first religious groups to take on the Church of England, an already revolutionary sect that had broken away from the Catholic Church. While the Pilgrims broke away from the Church of England, the Puritans wished to remain apart of it, merely wanting to transform it to fit a stricter moral code. This code focused heavily on the teachings of the Old Testament, which served as the fire and brimstone perspective of The Bible.
Puritans did not believe in the chanting and the music that would be played during Catholic masses. Rather, they believed worship should be done simply and in silence. While Catholics maintained a strict creed that required sitting and kneeling during different parts of a religious ceremony, hand gestures, and spoken prayers, the Puritans did none of these things. As opposed to hand gestures and intercessions, they sat in their pews, wrestling with their own inner monologue. During this time of reformation, the Puritans believed that individuals who questioned their doctrine were questioning God. Questioning God was considered to be a grave sin because it was the cause of man’s fall from grace. For this reason, many Puritans had to hide their disillusionment, turning to writing as an outlet for their frustrations.
One of the bases of Puritan belief is that all humans stem from Original Sin. They believed humans carry Original Sin with them because the first humans, Adam and Eve, sinned; therefore, we cannot escape our propensity to sin. Following this logic, Puritans believed that all humans were damned, and that God had already chosen who he would allow into paradise. As opposed to religions like Daoism, where it is believed that every action in this life will effect your happiness and good fortune in the next life, Puritans believed that living a decent life was merely an indication of whether you were going to Heaven or not. They believed God had already chosen your fate, and that if you were able to live a pious life, your virtue was a sign that God had chosen you.
This concept is incredibly difficult to grasp because it is essentially saying that one has no control over their fate; you are either born to go to hell or born to go to Heaven. Nothing can be done because it has already been chosen for you. Defoe challenges this concept by having Crusoe mirror Adam’s life; from his disobedience, all the way to the curse he suffers as punishment.
In The Book of Genesis, God creates the first man, Adam, and allows him dominion over the entire Garden of Eden, Paradise. Adam wants for nothing, and is even given a female companion to love and spend his life with. The only command God gives Adam is to stay away from the tree of knowledge and refrain from eating its fruit.
A common theme throughout mythology is that of the innate curiosity that lives in humans, a thirst so unquenchable it leads them to curse themselves. Adam is no different, as he and his wife, Eve, eat the fruit from the tree, subsequently shunned from Paradise and cursed on Earth as a result of their disobedience.
In Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe’s father offers counsel similar to what Adam received from God. Crusoe writes,
“…I was under no necessity of seeking my bread;
that he would do well for me,
and endeavor to enter me fairly into the station of life
which he had been just recommending to me…” (7).
His father urges him to live “in the middle station”, and tells him that he will not want for anything as a result. He goes on to warn his son that God will not bless him if he does not follow his counsel, similar to the warning Adam received regarding the knowledge tree. Crusoe breaches his duty to his father and God through his disobedience as he sets sail against his father’s will.
Readers see that he is completely aware of his rebellion when he reaches tumultuous waters during a bad storm at sea and fears death. He contemplates life in the middle station, almost in an admittance of his defiance, and what seems to be an extension of humility, which quickly goes away when the waters calm and the sea lures him in again. Both Crusoe’s story and the story of Adam begin by showing the weakness of man and his effortless ability to crumble to temptation. After a long series of events, Crusoe finds himself shipwrecked on a deserted island, and so begins his fall from grace, his banishment from the comfortable middle station; the paradise of sorts that was promised by his father if he chose to forego his own rebellious inclinations.
Prior to the shipwreck, Crusoe spends time in Brazil where he becomes a farmer, holding slaves and attaining wealth in the process. Again, readers witness the central flaw in the protagonist, that of restlessness. Above all, Crusoe despises repetition, and the prospect of life in the middle station, with all the comforts that it affords him, seems mundane and leaves him wanting. Although his father isn’t with him during his time in Brazil, his words constantly resound in Crusoe’s mind, and he chooses to disobey and leave in spite of his father’s counsel. While Crusoe does many things throughout the novel that would be deemed “sinful”, he continuously points out that disobedience was his greatest sin, almost echoing an Adam-like lament over his original sin.
In Maximillian Novak’s “Robinson Crusoe’s ‘Original Sin’”, he points out that
“on the island, shipwrecked and alone,
he confesses that his condition is the result
of God’s punishment upon him for leaving his plantation
and the calling in which he might have been prosperous,
if neither content nor happy” (26).
It appears that Crusoe is constantly at odds with what is expected of him and with what will bring him happiness, a battle that seems to resonate with the author as well.
Puritans revolved their lives around Divine Law, meaning that no familial ties or personal wants or needs were more important than the laws passed down by God. This concept manifests itself in the novel through divine providence. When an individual would be rescued from a dangerous situation or miraculously saved from trouble, they looked at these interventions as a direct result of God’s grace. During his time on the island, we see Crusoe as an incredibly resourceful survivalist, salvaging European goods from the ship and repurposing them to fit his needs. Even with this ingenuity, it is obvious to readers and to Crusoe that much of his survival must be attributed to the grace of God, divine providence being the reward for his penance.
Early on in his adventure on the deserted island, he discovers barley in a shaded area of the island. The barley is vibrant and healthy, and he is able to use it to make himself some bread. When Crusoe first discovers the barley, he is astonished and attributes it to God because the conditions on the island weren’t favorable for barley growth. It appears that his luck on the island is beginning to change, but Crusoe immediately reverts and loses his faith in God, recalling the sacks of rotten corn husks he had emptied in the spot where the barley grew a year prior, stating
“...I must confess, my religious thankfulness
to God’s Providence began to abate too
upon the Discovering that all this was nothing
but what was common” (72).
Martin Grief analyzes this passage in his article “The Conversion of Robinson Crusoe”, “again the sinner has failed to respond to the mercy of God’s providence,
has failed to see the principles of grace in this accidental sowing of seed…
in first considering the growth “miraculous”
Crusoe misses the spiritual message inherent in the planting of the grain:
‘The earth at first naturally brought forth corn,
and every seed yielding fruit without human industry;
but since the curse came upon it,
it must be plowed and sowed, or no fruit can be expected.
So man, at first, had all the principles of holiness in his nature,
but now they must be infused by regeneration,
or else his nature is as void of holiness as the barren and untilled desert is of corn’” (566).
Even when Crusoe is presented with a stroke of luck, his cynicism takes over, much like it did when he disobeyed his father early in the novel, and much like it did when he chose to leave Brazil. It seems that Crusoe’s greatest fault isn’t simply restlessness, but arrogance as well.
Crusoe’s religion, when the novel opens, is a sort of faith by convenience rather than the burning ember of devotion that the Puritans preached. Looking back on Crusoe’s experiences, he was constantly facing death and was always delivered from death by sheer luck. His first trip at sea, he encounters a tumultuous storm with waves so enormous, he believed he would be swallowed up. At this point, he begs God for salvation and swears that:
“…if I ever got once my foot upon dry land again,
I would go directly home to my father,
and never set it into a ship again while I lived…
now I saw plainly the goodness of his observations about the middle station of life…
never had been exposed to tempests at sea….
and I resolved that I would, like a true repenting Prodigal, go home to my father” (9).
Backed into a corner in a state of fear, Crusoe begs for deliverance from his near death experience. He survives the storm and is left with no mark of it except for that of a little sea sickness. However, when the distress of the moment wore off and it was time to join his fellow sailors in evening shenanigans, he quickly forgets the divine providence that saved him:
“…in that one night’s wickedness
I drowned all my repentance,
all my reflections upon my past conduct,
and all my resolutions for my future….
as the sea was returned to its smoothness…
I entirely forgot the vows and promises that I made in my distress” (10).
Crusoe admits that he was riddled with thoughts about his deliverance, but he grabbed ahold of them long enough to forget, his pride taking over his conscience again. At this stage in his journal, he admits that his preceding tests would be much worse because he chose to forsake divinity so early in his adventure.
Divine Providence is a theme that is seen repeatedly throughout the novel. Taking a look at Crusoe’s time in Brazil, he is experiencing incredible success as a plantation owner but seems to have no regard for human life, as he only laments over his previous child slave, Xury, when he thinks of the labor he could’ve gotten out of him.
For this reason, he sets sail, yet again, in search of black slaves for his plantation. In true biblical fashion, deliverance comes via a storm, which Crusoe encounters again during his second trip where all his men are killed. Once again, he fears death and begs God for mercy, and is delivered, again; except this time, he isn't delivered freely.
While Crusoe was thankful to God at first, he soon became fully aware of the fact that he was on a deserted island and came to address it as “a dreadful deliverance” (39). During his early months on the island, he attributes none of his good graces as a form of deliverance. Although he prays in moments of fear, each time his anxiety subsides, he finds a justification for the terrifying events that have nothing to do with divinity. Martin Grief writes,
“But despite the tremors and hurricanes,
the 'man' is unmoved…
so hardened is he in his 'actions' that he ascribes these providential phenomena
to natural causes: the island is subject to earthquakes;
therefore winds and rain are the consequences of earth-tremors” (567).
This marks the end of the first installment of our Robinson Crusoe analysis. Notice that in this first segment, the novel focuses heavily on Crusoe's hubris amidst his struggles with survival. Readers pick up on the fact that he seems utterly incapable of showing any semblance of humility, nor does he seem to appreciate the good graces that he receives time and time again. When death comes knocking on his door, he grows fearful and begs the Lord to deliver him from suffering, yet when he is spared from misfortune he immediately forgets about his moment of distress and chalks it up to some nebulous happen-chance that inevitably aggrandizes his sense of self-worth.
In the coming installments, we will see a shift in Crusoe's approach. His time in desertion eventually makes him see things in a different light, and readers get to experience the exciting evolution of an incredibly relatable character. As we continue down this analysis of Defoe's groundbreaking and innovative work, it is important to consider Crusoe's missteps up until this point, and ponder over how his egotistical view of his good fortune severely hamstrings his approach to survival. In the coming weeks, we will not only see a change in approach, but we will see that this introspection ultimately leads to a change in spiritual trajectory.