Happy Friday, readers! Today in the Wardrobe we continue our Robinson Crusoe series. As you remember from the first installment, we revolved our analysis of the first English novel around Robinson Crusoe, the boy. The one filled with hubris and arrogance. The boy who was unwilling to credit any sort of divine power for his fortune.
This second installment will focus on Robinson Crusoe as he becomes a man, humbling himself to the work of something greater than himself and going down a path of introspection. While this is an old novel, keep in mind that the beauty of the written word is its timeless applicability. When I read this story now, I think of the film Castaway and the protagonist's physical struggles, his attachment to Wilson, and his evolution throughout the story. This is a modern retelling of an age-old story, and I would suggest watching it this weekend after reading this article to help further your connection with this epic novel.
Throughout the latter half of Robinson Crusoe, readers witness a constant battle between the divinity that presents itself to Crusoe, and the inescapable impulsivity that lies within human nature. We have seen this with another famous Puritan writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Similar to Defoe, Hawthorne grew up in the Puritan era where you were persecuted for questioning the doctrine. Rather than speak out publicly, Hawthorne used his wide array of characters to show the innate human inclinations juxtaposed with Divine Law and the set of expectations that the Puritans had.
In Bruce C. Daniels’ “Did the Puritans Have Fun”, he writes,
“…Hawthorne’s Puritans opposed happiness, leisure, and recreation
anywhere they found it.
Hawthorne, however, was transfixed with the idea
that joy cannot be forever banished;
suppression, of necessity, will be temporary
and joy will inevitably come bubbling up in every society” (9).
Hawthorne’s protagonist, Hester Prynne, is being shunned by the people of her town for getting pregnant out of wedlock. As the story progresses; however, readers learn that Prynne has a kind soul, and gave into the forces of love, rather than mere lust. Readers also experience a challenge to the status quo, where the minister was the father of Prynne’s baby.
In Puritan society, the minister served as the leader of their town, making him the most trusted citizen in the community. Hawthorne defies this convention by showing that even the most seemingly pious individual is not without sin. Furthermore, in revealing the beautiful, compassionate nature of Hester Prynne, we begin to sympathize with her, as we see that her impulsivity is simply in her nature, but does not necessarily mean she is damned for making a mistake.
Perhaps Hawthorne took a page out of Defoe’s novel, where readers watch Crusoe remain in a perpetual state of unrest, even when he is experiencing all the success and good graces that one could want. What both authors are trying to do is depict the realities of human nature and that they are not without their faults.
Although Puritans understood this, they believed that because of the original sin, humans had no hope of salvation unless they were chosen by God. Defoe offers a new perspective because he introduces hope, and the idea that in accepting your flaws and your circumstances, and through blind faith, humans can be saved, and that perhaps predestination isn’t as concrete of an idea.
Later in the novel, Crusoe grows incredibly ill and believes to be on the verge of death. Similar to when he was stuck in the torrential storm during his first time at sea, he begins praying and asking God for mercy. Again, only in his despair do we see some semblance of humility. Crusoe writes,
“…yet no sooner was the first fright over,
but the impression it had made, went off also.
I had no more sense of God or of his judgments,
much less of the present affliction of my circumstances being from his hand,
than if I had been in the most prosperous condition of life” (72).
In his feverish state, Crusoe begins to hallucinate and providence comes to him in a dream. Crusoe awakes from the dream realizing that he has been punished for his wickedness, but that penance has not been paid because of his pride and inability to pay homage to God when he receives His grace. It is then that he begins to ponder all of his near-death experiences; such as the earthquake which he survived, being stranded on an island and still managing to find food and supplies, and his illness that he was able to recover from.
At this moment he realizes,
“…God had delivered me,
but I had not glorified him; that is to say,
I had not owned and been thankful for that as a deliverance,
and how could I expect greater deliverance…
this touched my heart very much,
and immediately kneeled down,
and gave God thanks aloud for my recovery from my sickness” (77).
In this section, readers are reminded that Crusoe has been spared from the hands of death several times throughout his journey, despite living a sinful life in the eyes of the Puritans. Crusoe’s dream is a turning point for him religiously, as he finally embraces and accepts divine providence as a major force in his life, but it is also a turning point for Defoe’s internal monologue that we as an audience get to experience. The hopeful shift in tone veers away from the fearful damnation that Defoe grew up in.
Consistent with biblical form, Crusoe’s answers come in a dream. Both in the Old and New Testaments, we see many of the characters finding answers to their dilemmas through dreams of their own. From Joseph’s foreshadowing dreams that led him to governorship in Egypt, to Joseph’s dreams that led him to flee to safe cities with Jesus and Mary, we see that Christian literature uses dreams as a tool for conversion and illumination.
In a mind-altering state, Crusoe begins to read the Bible after his dream, and is suddenly overcome with humility and gratitude towards God. This is a direct affront to the traditions of Puritanism, who believed that falling ill was a physical manifestation of spiritual weakness.
What begins as Crusoe falling ill due to his disobedience and shunning of divine providence, turns into a hopeful dream that changes the way Crusoe conducts his life. For the duration of the novel, Crusoe goes from prideful and self-important to subservient and gracious.
The contrast between Crusoe’s flaws from the first half of the novel to the second half represents a shift in ideologies, and is unintentionally reminiscent of the stark contrast between the Old and New Testament, where the Old Testament focuses on God’s wraths and lessons learned from it, and the New Testament focuses on hope, love, and mercy.
After his illumination, Crusoe beings to change his tune, thanking God for his blessings and becoming well versed with the Bible. The latter half of the novel reads like the latter half of King David’s life.
The story of David is located in The Old Testament’s Book of Samuel, and it details the story of a pious young boy who defeats a giant and defends Israel solely through his faith in God. He eventually becomes king, but avarice and arrogance slowly begin to consume him, turning him into a betrayer and an adulterer.
After being exiled and paying his penance, he began to repent. He wrote a collection of songs and poetry known as “The Psalms of David”, which serve as pages of thankfulness for God’s mercy. It was said that the lyrics came to David through divine inspiration, much like Crusoe’s conversion. Not only does Defoe emulate David’s style, but he has Crusoe quote him during his time of spiritual rebirth:
“…the first words that occurred to me were these,
Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.
Upon this rising cheerfully out of my bed, my heart was not only comforted,
but I was guided and encouraged to pray earnestly to God for deliverance...
It is impossible to express the comfort this gave me.
In answer, I thankfully laid down the book, and was no more sad…” (125).
In this passage, Crusoe is reciting two psalms, which are separated according to themes; two of the themes being deliverance and divine intervention, similar to what we find in Robinson Crusoe.
Crusoe’s conversion is not to say that he is content. The shift readers witness in his character lends more to an acceptance of the situation he has been put in, rather than a state of happiness. Acceptance; however, brings about hope, because it forces the individual to look towards the future. The Puritans didn’t teach hope because it stands in direct contrast with their ideas on predestination. In believing that your fate has been chosen for you, and that nothing you do will save you, hope cannot exist in a state where you have no control over your future. Divine inspiration causes Crusoe to change his state of mind, and when he experiences his conversion, he is a man filled with hope.
“With these reflections I worked my mind up,
not only to resignation to the will of God in the present disposition of my circumstances;
but even to a sincere thankfulness for my condition,
and that I who was yet a living man,
ought not to complain,
seeing I had not due the punishment of my sins;
that I enjoyed so many mercies which I had no reason to have expected in that place;
that I ought never more to repine at my condition,
but to rejoice, and to give daily thanks for that daily bread,
which nothing but a crowd of wonders could have brought” (105).
Crusoe recalls the actions of his former self and repents for his “wickedness” and egotism. His newfound humility is depicted not only through his acceptance, but also through his ability to see the silver linings in his life, despite the less than desirable situation he has been put in. Maximillian Novak points out;
“But Defoe’s hero is not a hermit by nature;
he survives solitude, but he does not enjoy it.
When in his prayers Crusoe is about to thank God for giving him happiness,
he reproaches himself for lying:
‘I know not what it was, but something shocked my mind at that thought,
and I durst not speak the words:
How canst though be such a hypocrite, (said I, even audibly)
to pretend to be thankful for a condition, which however though may’st endeavor to be contented with, thou would’st rather pray heartily to be delivered from.’
For all the pleasure which he finds in invention,
he never regards his labor as anything but a humiliating punishment for his sin” (27).
At no point does Crusoe express pleasure in his plight, he merely relies on his faith to remain positive. Crusoe’s change in outlook signifies a change in belief system, as he no longer relies on predestination and the mercy of God to deliver him, but rather accepts his plight, feeling grateful for what he has accomplished.
In this conversion, Defoe is using his character to celebrate a lighter way, a new way of having faith. The New Testament focuses on faith and hope, and remaining steadfast even in the face of darkness. Crusoe’s conversion symbolizes a change from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from fire and brimstone to optimism and promise. Crusoe never fully embraces the island as his lot in life. He prays for deliverance from his life of desertion, but the positive change in his character shows in his ability to find reasons to remain thankful in spite of his sadness.
Although Robinson Crusoe is riddled with seamlessly hidden messages that go against his Puritan faith, some of the traditional Puritan themes found their way into Defoe’s work in a manner which seemed celebratory. Maximillian Novak writes that
“Crusoe feels that his story should teach content to those
‘who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them’” (27),
repeating the philosophy of Crusoe’s father, who fervently believed in the middle station, and remaining content in this position.
Similarly, in Bruce Daniels’ article, he notes that Hawthorne has moments in The Scarlet Letter where he seems to be in awe of the fervor and zeal the Puritans show for their convictions. What these two men share is a commonality in indoctrination.
Analyzing Robinson Crusoe as Defoe’s inner monologue allows us to see his views on religion from all sides of the spectrum. Although he shows his disdain towards the concept of original sin, predestination, and damnation, he also cannot fully escape the indoctrination he grew up with.
Even when Crusoe was “sinning”, he still implored for God’s help. When he meets Friday, he begins teaching him the scriptures in hopes that he can convert the little boy and turn him into a Christian. Even though Crusoe has experienced his conversion by this point of the novel, he still works tirelessly to convert his young slave, an action reminiscent of the Puritan faith, which believes that those who aren’t Christians have no chance of salvation.
Michael Wiggleworth’s famous poem titled Day of Doom expresses this widely shared Puritan sentiment, implying that even newborn babies aren’t safe unless they were baptized. Timothy Blackburn’s article “Friday’s Religion” makes note of this view of damnation, stating that Crusoe’s attempt to convert Friday
“…speaks to Defoe,
alarmed by the vast numbers of pagans in the world...
about the challenge of converting these ‘dogs’” (363).
It seems that even with Defoe’s subtle defiance, his Puritan background inescapably finds its way into his novel, which brings us to another interesting aspect of the story. Despite all the growth the Crusoe experienced and all the change that he had to adapt to, the foundation of who he was, although he didn’t realize it at first, never left him.
In the film Castaway, Chuck Noland’s character goes from buttoned-up in corporate to being unable to sleep in a bed upon his return from desertion. It is evident in his behavior that the experience rocked his foundation, but as viewers witness his slow return to normalcy, we realize that while it may have rocked his foundation, it didn’t crush it.
Crusoe’s Puritan beliefs, no matter how extreme and overzealous they may be, were a huge part of his foundation, one that not even years in desertion could diminish. This leads me to question Daniel Defoe, the creator of the story, and his view on the human condition. It appears that he was of the timeless belief that people can change their circumstances and the trappings that surround them, but they can never truly run away from who they are. So, how do we find a balance between who we were and who we want to be? Find out next week in the third and final installment of our Crusoe Series!