Robinson Crusoe, Enlightenment Man
Robinson Crusoe was an immediate success when first published in April, 1719. By the end of the year, it had been put through four editions in English, appeared in Dutch, French and German, was already being pirated (appropriately enough), and Defoe had completed a sequel, the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and another story, The King of the Pirates. It was, by any standard, a smash hit and remains Defoe’s most popular novel, even more than Moll Flanders with its risqué sex.
It’s easy to see why. The story is thrilling, even with its didactic moral lessons, the main character is affably flawed, the images are striking, and the scenario is one that’s at least so provocative that we’ve all mused about it. If you were stuck on a deserted island with only one novel, you’d maybe want it to be this one!
It’s a bit of a surprise, therefore, to read the novel and find Defoe offering heaping helpings of moral instruction along with speculation about civilization and the capacities of reason. Robinson Crusoe draws from Defoe’s Puritan background and the genre of instructive spiritual autobiographies, while dealing with many of the major preoccupations of the Enlightenment and narrowly eluding others. It is the story of a young man who is spiritually enlightened through adversity; it’s also strongly Lockean and was considered by Rousseau the only novel a child should be allowed to read before the age of twelve because it would teach them self-reliance.
First the religious lessons; after Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck lands him on an uninhabited island, there follow several pages about his means of survival woven together with passages about how adversity brought him to faith in God. Defoe is believed to have gotten much of his information from the flood of travel accounts popular at the time, and particularly Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk’s account of his own time on an uninhabited island. But his narrative differs from those travel books in its emphasis on the narrator’s inner life. Travel accounts were written in a journalistic style; the narrators excluded themselves from the narrative as much as possible. They were non-autobiographical. Robinson Crusoe, however, is all about its narrator’s inner life. At points, it’s hard not to wonder if the story would have been much the same if he had stayed home! It is very reminiscent of the typical spiritual autobiography and points out one of the main reasons we read novels in the first place: they help us to explore that inward empire that is our birthright and which modern life otherwise distracts us from. They are aids to mental health.
Robinson Crusoe is supposed to teach us about piety. Crusoe is such an interesting character partly because he is so deeply flawed. We’re to understand that his original sin was a boundless curiosity about the world. Sea travel was dangerous in the era and the novel exploits that danger. As one Defoe scholar puts it, “In the simplest terms… travel on land corresponds to accepting one’s station, while ventures by sea, in contrast, demonstrate dangerous personal willfulness”. Crusoe’s willfulness and curiosity lead him, quite literally, to his downfall. The story parallels the Biblical Fall in that Robinson Crusoe’s curiosity is rebellion against patriarchal authority (both his own father and God) that goes punished, and for which he repents and is redeemed. Every event reveals Providence to our narrator; one wonders if he could stub his toe without seeing it as divine punishment.
But his curiosity also leads him to salvation and survival on the island. Locke’s landmark Essay concerning Human Understanding is sometimes seen as an obvious inspiration to Defoe because it deals with all human knowledge as growing out of perception, driven by curiosity. Locke defines curiosity as, “Desire, which is an uneasiness of Mind for want of some absent Good”. Curiosity leads us to perception of our surroundings, which leads to reflection upon perception, and then to abstract reasoning. This reminds one of the Enlightenment as understood by Kant: a sort of intellectual self-determination that, if left to our own devices, brings us to revelation. Kant rejects intellectual reliance on our elders or those he calls “guardians”. Crusoe learns nothing from his parents and everything by his own reason after being totally removed from all human company.
In fact, Robinson Crusoe is almost a case study of the Lockean idea. On the island, he comes to enlightenment from the most basic perceptions of his surroundings, up through reflection and reasoning about his situation, and finally to a higher understanding of human life and then spiritual awakening. Locke said that God gave man enough reasoning ability to come to God and Defoe demonstrates this.
Among other things, this is a novel about instruction. A few years before Robinson Crusoe, Defoe wrote a book that was nearly as popular, entitled The Family Instructor, in which he approached the question of how to educate a child. The older approach was to give the child strict rules and lots of them, and then reinforce the rules through corporal punishment. Locke had argued that giving a child rules does not work because it goes against their own reason. Instead, they should have areas in which they are free to make mistakes and to learn from experience. Teaching by the traditional method simply doesn’t teach them much.
Crusoe reasons his way through the rudiments of survival and civilization, and, in turn, becomes an instructor to Friday, following Defoe’s methods of instruction almost entirely. Notice that Friday, as a native, savage, and cannibal, reveals himself to be of equal intellectual capacity to Crusoe and, in a twist Shaftesbury would have appreciated, of a superior character. Here there is some sign of the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment.
Notice how strange it is that Crusoe and Friday immediately enter into a master/slave relationship, wordlessly with Friday placing Crusoe’s foot upon his own head- an image that mirrors the famous image of a footprint on a beach thought uninhabited that occurs earlier in the text. Defoe seems to take a Hobbesian view in which domination and submission is naturally at the base of civilization. It is perhaps unfair to note that the novel was one of Hitler’s prized possessions, but not meaningless.
Nor can we avoid the issue of slavery, which one scholar calls a “seemingly tangential issue” in the text that still, “hovers like something of a curse over the narrative”. Crusoe, after escaping from slavery with the help of fellow slave Xury, sells his friend to a Portuguese slave trader who promises to free him after ten years if Xury is converted to Christianity, a promise that Robinson Crusoe has no reason to believe he will keep. Crusoe also owns at least one slave in Brazil, engages in slaving voyages twice, and keeps Friday as a lifelong servant or slave. During his deep spiritual awakening, Crusoe never even questions the morality of owning slaves. And, if there was any time for him to think about what Providence indicated about the trade, it would have been after his last slaving voyage ended in shipwreck. Slavery is a narrative lacuna as noticeable as his lack of any interest in sex or romantic companionship.
The fact is that Defoe was something of a reformer, but not an abolitionist. In his journalism, he criticized the cruelties of the institution, but accepted its necessary existence for the health of British trade. He was also a shareholder, so to speak, having invested poorly in the Royal African Company on the Guinea coast. Friday loves his master and is loyal enough to have given us the term “man Friday” as a description of a loyal servant. Crusoe is an ideal master, but a master all the same.
He’s also an ideal colonist, as James Joyce pointed out in his essay on the novel. Defoe was a vocal supporter of foreign trade, a middling merchant, and a believer in the mercantilist idea that England needed many foreign colonies to trade with. Among other things, Robinson Crusoe is an advertisement for what an enterprising colonist could do in a part of the world where the resources are seemingly inexhaustible.
The novel endures today because it’s an advertisement also for what the reasoning capacities of the individual can do when unaided or unrestricted by others. Crusoe, a seemingly average young man in every way, creates his own civilization from scratch, is saved, and becomes “Governor” of a new society. It is a novel flush with all of the enthusiasms of the Enlightenment and complete with all of its blind spots.