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!