Robinson Crusoe: Two Sides Of The Same Coin
Robinson, the common hero, extremely practical, self-made, and self-reliant has become a world-famous character since Daniel Defoe published the novel Robinson Crusoe in 1719. One of the most interesting points of the novel concerns the conflict existing between Robinson’s economic motivation and his religious salvation. Crusoe is indeed the embodiment of various, although quite controversial, ideologies. As the literary critic John Richetti points out, there are two main interpretations of the novel taken into consideration over the years. From one perspective, “Robinson represents the capitalist ideology, driven to acquire, control and dominate but, on another hand, Robinson also embodies a religious ideology by seeking a spiritual definition and divine pattern in his life”. Crusoe constantly displays an eager willingness to achieve liberty and exercise power which opposes the religious morality that defines individuals as less than autonomous, subordinate to God’s authority.
A hybrid character, Robinson “is neither exclusively a masterful economic individual nor a heroically spiritual slave.” The island becomes, at the same time, a Purgatory where he purges his soul and a place where he becomes master of himself, achieving and glorifying his power and independence. Once Crusoe is shipwrecked on the desert island, he undergoes a slow conversion, realizing how weak his previous life was and how the spiritual deliverance is greater than the physical one, “Deliverance from Sin a much greater Blessing, than Deliverance from Affliction”. He comes to a point where he “sincerely gave Thanks to God for opening his Eyes, by whatever afflicting Providences, to see the former Condition of his Life, and to mourn for his Wickedness, and repent.” The island thus becomes an experience of redemption, the occasion to strengthen his faith and devote himself to God’s willingness and authority. However, alongside the conversion, Crusoe masterfully imposes control over the island, which he calls his “little kingdom”. Robinson proudly says: “I pleas’d, I might call my self King, or Emperor over the whole Country which I had Possession of. There were no Rivals. I had no Competitor, none to dispute Sovereignty or Command with me.” By identifying himself as a King, or more magnificently, as an Emperor, Crusoe displays an individualistic and commanding attitude, which is contradictory with his religious ideology. In fact, Robinson “the king” has a conflict with Robinson “the Christian” because, by saying that no one commands him, he negates the uncontested and absolute authority that God exercises upon men. Critic Leopold Damrosch comments on the novel that the solitude of the island “exalts autonomy instead of submission” resulting in an “immortal triumph of wish fulfillment.”
As soon as Robinson meets Friday, he decides to convert him to Christianity, feeling the necessity to “bring him to the true Knowledge of Religion”. From this perspective, Crusoe may be seen as a missionary or, as he defines himself, as “an Instrument under Providence to save the Life, [..], the Soul of a poor Savage”. Robinson, after his experience with Friday, believes that God has:bestow’d upon them the same Powers, the same Reason, the same Affections, the same Sentiments of Kindness and Obligation, the same Passions and Resentments of Wrongs, the same Sense of Gratitude, Sincerity, Fidelity, and all the Capacities of doing Good, and receiving Good, that he has given to us. However, despite this religious observation, he considers Friday the “most faithful, loving, sincere Servant” he could ever have had. Robinson affirms that God has made all humans equal, however, he establishes a hierarchical relationship with Friday: Crusoe is the master, Friday his servant. As George Orwell would argue many years later, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The fact that Robinson has converted Friday to Christianity and, at the same time, the imposition of mastery upon him, suggests that the conversion is a way to merely command the native, who indeed becomes diligent and submissive to his master Crusoe. This hypothesis is even reinforced by the fact that Robinson himself says that he “was greatly delighted with him, and made it his Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful”. Additionally, Crusoe literally objectifies Friday when he considers him as a mere means, “I might find an Opportunity to make my Escape from this Place; and that this poor Savage might be a Means to help me to do it”.
The dichotomy between the religious salvation and the economic motivation come to a “crescendo” towards the end of the novel when Robinson is finally rescued and rewarded once in England.Such things as these were the Testimonies we had of a secret Hand of Providence governing the World, and an Evidence, that the Eyes of an infinite Power could search into the remotest Corner of the World, and send Help to the Miserable whenever he pleased. I forgot not to lift up my Heart in Thankfulness to Heaven, and what Heart could forbear to bless him, who had not only in a miraculous Manner provided for one in such a Wilderness,* and in such a desolate Condition, but from whom every Deliverance must always be acknowledged to proceed.
When Robinson is delivered, he thanks God as never before, realizing that he is finally saved. The rescue is the definitive proof that God’s Providence controls the world and that he has been rewarded for having been a devoted, diligent, and faithful Christian. Back in England, he learns that his plantation has made him rich and as soon as he receives this notice, he becomes so ill for the joy that: The sudden Surprize of Joy had overset Nature, and I had dy’d upon the Spot. Nay after that, I continu’d very ill, and was so some Hours, ’till a Physician being sent for, and something of the real Cause of my Illness being known, he order’d me to be let Blood.
Crusoe feels he could die from the excitement, manifesting an exaggerated attachment to money. From this moment on, money seems to be the strongest source of joy and his strongest drive. During his stay on the island, Crusoe regretted the relationship he had with money in his previous life, so much so that when he found it on board he became quite nervous, “O Drug! said I aloud, what art thou good for?”. However, back in England, he has the same restlessness and willingness to accumulate more money. In fact, in order to assure his finances, he starts to stipulate contracts and administrate his wealth as a successful businessman. The crucial point occurs when he decides to go to sea once again, abandoning his home and the place where God has placed him. It is here that the conflict struggles to find a plausible resolution. On the island, he regretted that he was “not being satisfy’d with the Station wherein God and Nature has plac’d” him, recognizing the choice to venture as his “original sin”. Nevertheless, after his conversion and salvation, he decides to venture again. By the time he goes to sea, he has “three Children, two Sons and one Daughter” but his “Inclination to go Abroad” prevails and he sails again. As a son, he left his home disobeying his father’s “law”, and now, as a father he leaves his home, refusing his paternal duties and responsibilities. From my perspective, the prevalence of his individualistic attitude, which pushes him towards a self-realization, proclaims the victory of self-achievement instead of Christian acceptance and religious devotion.
However, we must consider the historical context of the novel, especially the strong influence of the Puritan work ethic during Defoe’s lifetime. By the end of the 17th century, “A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness of God’s grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois businessman, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so”. The individual is therefore urged to work since work is intended to be a “call” from God: “God helps those who help themselves.” From this perspective, Robinson’s productiveness, self-reliance, and independence are justified since they have guaranteed not only his survival but his salvation too. Weber’s thesis suggests that economic motivation and the religious salvation “are inseparable, if ultimately contradictory, parts of a complex intellectual and behavior system”. Nevertheless, where individualism ends and religious submission to God’s authority begins, remains open to debate.
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