He “Found [God] in a Hopeless Place”: The Miracle of Sanity for Robinson Crusoe

This is my first time reading Robinson Crusoe, and as I made my way through the first half, I couldn’t help but miss our multi-personality heroine from last week’s reading, Fantomina. If I had world enough and time to compose 18th century related fan fiction, I would drop her on the island with Crusoe, and, quite economically, provide the reader with four fascinating characters in one person. To my dismay, I found out very early that Crusoe is not as fascinating and scandalous as Haywood’s protagonist. Really, Crusoe is rather a bland heathen, whose worst sins are materialism, despair (understandable), and solipsism. But Defoe’s hero has a nuanced wickedness, and I was most intrigued by his faults and spiritual weakness as well as his unstable mental state before his conversion.

We don’t get many details from Defoe, but according to subtle (ish) tidbits of Crusoe’s narration, he was allegedly a very wicked man for at least eight years. Unfortunately, Crusoe spares us the exciting details in his narrative, hoping we’re satisfied with the assurance that he was “wicked and prophane to the last Degree” (120). At the beginning of the novel, he acknowledges his tendency to act “the fool to my own interest” (80), and as readers, that’s really the only perspective we get—his internal sinful life. He’s pretty unbearable before his conversion on the island. He lacks human sympathy, and fails to consider Xury’s feelings, for instance, when he sells him into slavery. Crusoe’s only regret for selling the boy is that he could have used him on his plantation (unlucky man!). And when he is first alone on the island, he alone matters. Instead of reflecting at this point on what he has done to deserve his predicament, he instead feels that he is the chiefest of sufferers, “singled out and separated, as it were from all the world to be miserable” (101).

It seemed fitting to me that the very solipsistic and materialistic Crusoe, who seems devoid of true love for his parents, and mercenary in his friendships, would be punished by God by being alone on an island and forced to obsess, for the sake of survival, over his material supplies. The editor of my edition, Evan R. Davis, states that Crusoe’s solitude is “psychologically unrealistic”, and that Defoe knew that castaways who were alone for too long typically lost sense of their mental faculties (Appendix D, 350). The text suggests Defoe’s awareness of the negative effects of solitude on Crusoe’s mind. Reason aids Crusoe for a time (99, 103), but since it cannot give an overarching meaning or significance to his suffering, he becomes subject to despair and fear. When “sudden griefs . . . confound” him, Crusoe loses all perspective and suffers terrible “agonies of Mind,” behaving and thinking “like a Mad-Man” (85). Crusoe realizes, “it could hardly be rational to be thankful” for his situation, and we can assume that these self-destructive patterns of thought would eventually lead to his insanity (98).

It certainly would be a shame if Crusoe’s mental health did not have the same shelf life as his carefully stowed gun powder, and I was grateful for the terrifying angel of God who made this narrative a little more interesting, and rendered Crusoe’s character a little less annoying. If it weren’t for his trippy tobacco spiritual vision (fun!), I don’t think he could have lasted very long. It’s interesting that though this novel was written in a time when the importance and power of Reason was increasingly emphasized, what saves Crusoe from madness is not the sharpening of rational thought, but his repentance to God. The preservation of Crusoe’s mind, then, is not “psychologically unrealistic” so much as it is a divine miracle. Now I can only hope that when he meets Friday (spoiler, sorry), he’ll treat him with the same dignity and love he received from his Maker. Fingers crossed!

“Meer Fate or Fault”

Robinson Crusoe can’t quite decide what’s going on: is he in charge or isn’t he?

For a guy who begins his career by defying his father and can’t quite let himself forget it, he seems all too eager to rid himself of blame.  “[T]here seem’d to be something fatal in that Propension of Nature tending directly to the Life of Misery which was to befal me.” (47) Fatal, Propension, Nature, Befall—that practically spells out, “It’s not my fault!” Curiously enough, it is this very statement in which Crusoe attempts to exonerate himself from guilt that prefaces his account of choosing against the wishes of his father. Aboard a ship for the first time, terrified as it is tossed on a stormy sea, Crusoe castigates himself “for my wicked leaving my Father’s House, and abandoning my Duty” (51).  

Like his resolutions to return home a prodigal son, however, Crusoe’s willingness to assume blame does not last long. He makes another statement in favor of a worldview that would excuse him from the guilt of defying his father, this one even stronger than the first. “I had no Power to [return home]…it is a secret over ruling Decree that hurries us on to be the Instruments of our own Destruction…Certainly nothing but some decreed unavoidable Misery…could have  push’d me forward” (57). His fellow seafarer has a different way of reading the situation: Crusoe, by refusing the wishes of his father and leaving home without a blessing, is “tempt[ing] Providence to [his] ruine” (58, emphasis mine). Later, Crusoe himself seems to adopt this same mindset after being shipwrecked, even echoing the words of this other passenger: “[S]ometimes I would expostulate with my self, Why Providence should thus completely ruine its Creatures” (98).  

It is not even as simple and clear-cut as a debate among Fate, Providence, or Free Will as responsible for man’s actions: Crusoe complicates the matter by mixing his terms and equating some which would seem to be opposites. “[I]t was always my Fate,” he gloomily relates, “to choose for the worse” (59, emphasis mine)—before narrating the journey that ended with his capture as a slave. Later on, he says, “I was still to be the wilful Agent of all my own Miseries” despite the fact that “Nature and Providence concurred to present me with” opportunities to be happy and prosperous (78). Even around the time Crusoe experiences his conversion on the island, he still seems to be conflicted: “I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head…otherwise than as a Chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God” (112, emphasis mine).  

Whether Crusoe is here equating what happens by chance as “what pleases God” or saying that “what pleases God” is merely a matter of chance, or whether Defoe meant to remark on the condition of religious beliefs in his day is not entirely clear. Undoubtedly, though, there does exist a tension between Chance and Divine Order, Fate and Free Will, Nature and Circumstance—all encompassed in Crusoe’s attempts to navigate the different forces at work in his world and anxieties in determining for what he must assume responsibility and what was beyond his control.

A Good Ol’ Fashioned Survival Story

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Robinson Crusoe is feeling like I’m reading a grown-up version of Hatchet. As a middle-schooler, I loved a good survival story. Returning to this particular pleasure that I have not known for some time has made me think about the appeal of this type of story. There’s something innately fascinating about survival stories that’s not limited to genre (as evidenced by the popularity of Survivor and Castaway) or time period (Robinson Crusoe and Hatchet are separated by over 250 years). Samuel Johnson’s wry comment in the Rambler about the prevalence of shipwrecked stories as material for the novel attests to the popularity of the survival story during Defoe’s day. Yet, the author was not merely capitalizing on a popular genre that would last only as long as the eighteenth century. The survival story continues to appeal to modern readers, which could perhaps contribute to Robinson Crusoe’s sustained prevalence in the canon, as well as its prominent role in the “Rise of the Novel” conversation.

Why are survival stories so interesting? First of all, they highlight human ingenuity. Defoe spends much of the novel on the sheer cleverness of Crusoe. While the mariner himself does not take much credit for his ability and believes that with enough careful attention and practice “every man may be in time master of every mechanick art,” the reader is still fascinated by the way that Crusoe is able to take the salvage from the shipwreck and create an orderly and fulfilling life (Defoe 49). His story is particularly interesting because he comes from a “civilized” culture that has knowledge of cultivation and bread making, yet he is cut off from the tools and structures that make that sort of life readily available. Much of the fascination of this novel comes from Crusoe’s attempts to recapture many aspects of his former “civilized” life with only the remains of the shipwreck and what he finds on the island. His resourcefulness eases the fear that people are too reliant on technology and not able to provide for themselves and live off the land anymore.

Secondly, this novel appeals to readers of various times because (like all good survival stories), it deals with what it means to be human on a very fundamental level. As I was rereading the novel, I was curious as to what Defoe believes is essential to retaining one’s humanity. Understandably, Crusoe begins his time on the island securing shelter. But the basic need for safety quickly transforms in the desire for a home. Crusoe takes a great deal of care to organize his supplies by digging out the “kitchen” area and hanging objects on the stone walls (50). He needs a comfortable living space that has a sense of order and permanence: “This little wandering journey, without settled place of abode, had been so unpleasant to me, that my own house, as I call’d it to my self, was a perfect settlement to me” (81). In keeping with this need for spatial order, Crusoe also needs temporal order. Though it varies with the season, he tries to keep a daily schedule as much as possible. Furthermore, he needs “diversion” in the form of walking with his gun for a few hours every day (52). He often ends up hunting on these trips; nevertheless, it still provides him with a break from his other labors. At this point in the novel social interaction is not part of Crusoe’s life, but he does attempt to fill that basic human need with his “family” of animals (132). While modern readers would agree with Defoe’s assessment of what it means to be human up to this point, they might not all agree with the primacy that Defoe places on religion. Crusoe’s early illness on the island brings about a conversion experience (70). After this point, Crusoe reads the Bible multiple times a day, continually engages in prayer, and observes the Sabbath. Modern survival stories do not typically emphasize faith to this degree. Despite this difference in what it means to be human, readers still resonate with Crusoe’s struggle to create a meaningful life in difficult conditions.

The Making of a Man

“I soon neglected my keeping of Sundays;
for, omitting my mark for them on my post, I forgot which was which” (76).

 It’s evident early in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that Crusoe is a bit of a git. Despite the best efforts of his parents to provide him with everything he could want and much he didn’t—such as their wise council—he is ungrateful and flighty (4). After his first voyage, during which he survives a storm that almost kills him, he conveniently forgets all the promises he makes to God if he could but survive (6). Then, as the story progresses, we see his greed overcome his good sense, especially in Brazil, where he decides to embark on the slave trade (39).

Because of this background, it is surprising that one of his stated reasons for keeping a calendar is that without it, he might “even forget the Sabbath days” (65) and completely unsurprising that eleven pages later he has neglected making his seventh mark longer to indicate the Sabbath and as such, no longer knows which day is Sunday.

Obviously, since he doesn’t know which day is Sunday, he can’t observe the Sabbath.

And apparently, he can’t count to seven.

Regardless, at this point we, the audience, are fairly well set up to distrust the faith-related gestures Crusoe makes, because they seem nothing but gestures—little faith actually appears in them. Crusoe as narrator agrees with this assessment, calling himself the most “hardened, unthinking, wicked creature,” having “no fear of God in danger” or “thankfulness to God in deliverance” (94).

When Crusoe falls violently ill, however, and has a vision of damnation, we see his behavior change. He becomes more aware of God, even tentatively offering blessings over his meals (97), and begins reading the Bible conveniently included in the items he rescued from the ship (99). He begins praying and demonstrates more gratefulness for his survival (119).  As the story progresses, he also begins showing more humility, identifying his folly when he thoughtlessly makes a canoe too large to carry and leaving it “as a memorandum to teach me to be wiser the next time” (145).

At the same time, Crusoe as narrator also points out that he is far from temptation on the island, being “removed from all the wickedness of the world” (136), and the earlier preparation to distrust his gestures of faith makes us cynically suspect that his behavior will be but a return to the selfish, ungrateful Crusoe when, indeed, he does encounter the outer world.

Fortunately, his first encounter is with a footprint, not a person, which with a gruesome discovery on the southwest side of the island sends him on a spiral of fear and planned physical violence (177, 183). Crusoe is given time to react, then reconsider, before actually encountering another person, and he recalls that he is but a fallible human, and cannot understand the way “God Himself judges” (183). For the first time, Crusoe’s faith is provided with a significant challenge and temptation from the outsider world, to act violently in ignorance and fear, and while he falls to that temptation at first, it is pleasantly surprising that he checks his behavior and considers God’s will in the matter. Thus, we are left at the end of the first half of the novel somewhat encouraged that Crusoe might not end the book as he began, and that the island might indeed be the making of him as a grateful, humble man.

God, I Thank Thee that I am Not a Savage

In the preface of Robinson Crusoe, “the Editor” claims not only that the story is “a just History of Fact” without the slightest “Appearance of Fiction in it,” but that it is also a story “with a religious Application” to be used for “the Instruction of others by this Example” (45). These are some pretty heavy claims, especially since the Editor is lying through his teeth while claiming to present a tale of great moral value. So, what exactly is the Reader supposed to learn from Mr. Crusoe’s history? What is the nature of the religious education we receive at his feet?

First of all, we learn the importance of obeying our parents. Crusoe’s father tells him explicitly to put away his silly notions of a life at sea and enjoy the blessings of his Goldilocksian existence in the middle station of life, where he is not too rich and not too poor. His mother echoes this advice, yet Crusoe dismisses them both and takes off on his first adventure without so much as a goodbye. Of course, this goes badly, and Crusoe will lament throughout the novel the misery that could have been avoided had he simply listened to his father and mother.

As readers, we also learn the necessity of repentance. It takes repeatedly getting slapped in the face by life for Crusoe to learn this lesson, but hopefully we can benefit from his unhappy experiences. Finally, after suffering through raging sea storms and years of slavery and, ultimately, being shipwrecked on an island and sentenced to a hard life of loneliness, Crusoe comes to understand that maybe he hasn’t been doing right all these years. He comes to understand that his miserable circumstances are the direct result of his own sin, and he begs that Christ grant him repentance.

Probably the most important lesson we can learn from Mr. Crusoe is gratitude. After he finds religion and repents, Crusoe learns to be thankful for what he has. He is thankful that he is not living the wretched, sinful life of his past. He is thankful that he has food and shelter. He is thankful that he is not dead like his comrades. And (this one is key) he is thankful that he is not a savage. Crusoe expertly advises the Reader that life would be so much better if we all spent less time envying those who are more fortunate than we and more time thanking God that we are better off than those beneath us.

Though Crusoe’s story does impart a few worthwhile lessons, it doesn’t do much for teaching the value of human life. There is little about loving thy neighbor. Granted, his interactions with people at this point in the novel all take place before his conversion. Still, as he recounts his experiences, he blames himself more for his wanderlust than for his ill treatment of his fellow man. He sells poor Xury for practically nothing despite the fact that he was his devoted companion during one of the most difficult parts of his life. When he sees that the ship is still intact just off shore, he is sad to think that his companions could have survived. Not because he values their lives, but because he could have used the company. Maybe he has learned something about the greatest commandment, but he still needs some work where the second is concerned. So, Reader, tread lightly. This novel’s relationship to spiritual truth is only slightly less tenuous than it’s relationship to actual truth, despite the claims of its “Editor.”

“Written by Himself:” Experimentation with Ways of Knowing in Robinson Crusoe

In Robinson Crusoe we can see Daniel Defoe wrestling with one of the framing questions of our course: how does one know? Within the novel we see the character Crusoe wrestling with matters of knowledge and truth. There is a continued emphasis on not only knowledge and truth gained through observation—such as learning navigation from a captain or deducing the seasons of the island by recording the wet and dry periods—but also that obtained from the divine: he “gain’d a different Knowledge” from “a constant Study and serious Application of the Word of God, and by the Assistance of his Grace” (154-155).

However, we also see Defoe’s concern for knowing before the story proper even begins. Namely, Defoe is concerned with knowledge and truth in the very form of his work. With the genre of the novel still a fledging, Defoe seems to be experimenting with how to give authority to the voice of his work—to grant a believability, or at least a means for his readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Defoe begins the imaginary world of his novel (though he refers to it as a “story,” not a novel) not with the opening paragraph of the work but with the title page and preface. Following a lengthy title meant to snag readers with its preview of the plot, the title page states that the work is “written by himself,” that is, written by Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe elaborates on this attribution in the preface, claiming for himself solely the role of editor. In doing so, Defoe limits his voice to the preface and thus gives authorial authority to his main character. He constructs for himself an outside role as a mere conduit for Crusoe’s own story, and from this position, Defoe can safely vouch for the veracity of the story, having distanced himself from the telling itself. Speaking in the third person, he proclaims it to be “a just History of Fact” without “any Appearance of Fiction in it” (45). Defoe capitalizes on the audience’s expectation that the preface and title page function as reliable sources of knowledge from the creator of the text—a peek behind the curtains, if you will—by incorporating both title and preface into his fiction.

Thus the “life and strange surprising adventures” of Robinson Crusoe are told primarily as memories, recounted after the fact by Crusoe himself. Defoe continues to perpetuate this depiction of Crusoe as the true author with the inclusion of Crusoe’s journal. Defoe takes great pains to make it as realistic as possible, with Crusoe referring repeatedly to the journal’s brevity and truncation due to a lack of ink. While the execution of this form falls short at times—the repetition between the memories and the journal is often tedious and only acknowledged once by Crusoe—the self-conscious inclusion of the journal certainly reemphasizes Crusoe’s authority and thus the ‘truth’ of the narrative as a whole.

By presenting the narrator of Robinson Crusoe in this manner, Defoe explores not only matters of knowledge making and the truth of the novel through the authority of Crusoe, but also ways of knowing and determining truth from the reader’s perspective. How should one react to the words of a narrator endorsed by the “editor?” Though the execution occasionally leaves something to be desired, I admire Defoe’s willingness to experiment and thus participate in the formation of the novel we know today.

D-I-Y Vacation

Of particular interest to me in Robinson Crusoe is the subject of Crusoe’s separation from his family, and what this separation has to do with his personality as well as his circumstances. We see at the beginning of the novel that Crusoe’s emotions are not deeply invested in his family; he has a stubborn hankering for adventures at sea, and is only temporarily dissuaded by his father from pursuing a life outside the “middle station” and “middle fortune” (5,6). Within a few days all intentions of fulfilling his father’s wishes wear off, and he decides to “run quite away from him”. At the time he breaks free, a year later, he consults neither of his parents; what is more noteworthy is that he does not even send them word that he has left. Only when the storm arises does he think of his father, and going back to him; as soon as the storm is over, “I entirely forgot the vows and promises I had made in my distress” (11).  The absoluteness of Crusoe’s expressions struck me as I was reading the novel. Had Crusoe later missed his father, I would have taken his initial declarations to be the sign of immature and unthinking zeal. However, Crusoe remains unmoved by thoughts of his parents later in life; even as he recalls the memories of basket-weaving, he mentions his father very perfunctorily. Any semblance of guilt that Crusoe exhibits about his past life (“Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort”) is tightly interwoven with his desire to be forgiven by God — the guilt is never a natural by-product of his desertion of his parents. He says, “As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it” (96). He is constantly grateful for God’s providence, and it seems that this very providence prevents him from ruing the day he abandoned his father and the comforts of the middle station. Added to Crusoe’s resourcefulness and independence is the fact that his circumstances are just favorable enough (and by that, I mean often enough) that he can hack it alone, and therefore he has no qualms about having left the love and caring of his family behind. At the end of the novel, Crusoe very blandly states that in his absence, all of his family save for two sisters and two nephews had expired. He lightly mentions the fact that he had married, and that his wife had died. His children are not spoken of with much warmth either. This absence of feeling towards family members was most intriguing to me, given that Crusoe shows much more emotion towards Friday. I have deliberately left Friday out of much of this conversation, as my purpose had been to focus on biological family and family through marriage, not the kind of “family” that may emerge as a result of common goals and circumstances. I find that Crusoe’s apathy towards his family makes me appreciate the length of time he spent on the island far less.