Crusoe, A Parable for Our Time


I have been teaching Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in an Introduction to Literature class and am struck once more by how important a book it is. I say this even though it is not read or taught as much as it once was. Robinson Crusoe continues to be relevant because it goes right to the heart of how we still feel about work, achievement, and self worth. It also gets at some of the shame or dread that may lurk behind our drive to succeed and our fear of failure.

In many ways, the book is an entrepreneurial fantasy.  Crusoe is a compulsive and relentless worker. When he is shipwrecked upon his island, he takes the capital he has been advanced (i.e., whatever he can salvage from the ship) and uses it establish Robinson Crusoe Inc.

For 26 of the 28 years he is on the island, he works in solitude. He erects fortifications, tames goats, plants crops, builds boats, makes pots, and does a host of other things. “An idle mind is the devil’s playground,” the old saying goes, and Crusoe is determined never to be idle. He is the quintessential workaholic.

While I enjoy his problem solving and his society building, what makes the book interesting to me are his interior conversations. These give us insight into what drives him.

First of all, there is his guilt over his rebellion against his father, who wants him to live a comfortable middle class life close to home. Crusoe can’t explain or defend the impulse that pushes him towards the sea, but he feels compelled to follow it. His resistance to his father’s vision goes so deep that when, following several adventures (including having been made a slave by the Moors), he realizes that the successful plantation he is running in Brazil is a version of the future his father wanted for him, he promptly puts out to sea again.

Crusoe also spends a lot of his time questioning whether he is doing God’s will. He’s pretty sure he has sinned in running away from his father although that doesn’t send him back home when he has the chance. He looks for the hand of God in everything that happens to him. He even make lists in an effort to determine whether he is being blessed or damned by God.

Finally, there are his fears and nightmares and violent fantasies. When he sees a human footprint on the island, he goes crazy and considers tearing down everything he has built to hide all traces of himself. He has elaborate and bloody fantasies of destroying the cannibals who visit the island from time to time. He dreams of dark father figures thundering at him. He is paranoid about Friday, who he sometimes thinks will murder and eat him.

One doesn’t have to believe in God to find oneself in Crusoe. We can recognize, in Defoe’s creation, an articulation of the Protestant/American Work Ethic that drives so many of us. Do you strive to work efficiently and feel guilty when you don’t? Are you living up to expectations that have somehow been instilled in you and feel a failure when you come up short? Do you compulsively look at how you manage your time and become depressed by wasted effort? Do you have to set up special dates to see your friends so that you might as well call them Friday or whatever day of the week it is when you get together? Do you treat people as use objects rather than as beings who are important in and of themselves?

Here’s an example from the book of this last tendency. One of the worst things that Crusoe does is resell into slavery a boy who has become a friend. On a trading voyage, Crusoe is captured by Moorish pirates and made a slave. However, he has access to his master’s boat and takes off in it, along with a fellow slave Xury. He promises Xury that, if they ever achieve their freedom, he will make him a “great man,” and Xury at one point puts his life in danger to protect Crusoe from lions. But when they are rescued on the open sea by a Portuguese captain, Crusoe sells Xury to him. He rationalizes the act by supposedly getting Xury’s permission, along with a guarantee that Xury will be freed in 10 years. But he is selling a friend!

Nor is that the end of it. Twice in subsequent years Crusoe regrets having sold Xury. But the regrets only come about when he is faced with tasks which Xury could have helped him with. People are instruments to him.

Psychologists say that Defoe’s novel is unrealistic in one respect: we cannot live in isolation as he does without going mad. While this may be true, the novel captures the kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps individualism that is celebrated in our country. Crusoe is a hymn to the self in both its good and bad aspects. We admire Crusoe’s self-sufficiency but see the emptiness of it as well.

Only when he is sick does Crusoe have time to reflect, and at those times he teeters on the edge of madness. His forced leisure time sends him to the Bible, and he begins looking for guidance there.

His religion is just as individualistic as everything else, however. It’s all about him. If there is a shipwreck, God must have sent it to punish him. (Forget about everyone else who dies.) Same with an earthquake that nearly buries Crusoe. Then again, if he survived the wreck while the others drowned, that means he must have found special favor with God. Practicing a version of what some televangelists now call “prosperity theology,” Crusoe looks at every success and every setback as an instance of God intervening in his life. If he prospers, that means that he must be living in accord with God’s will. If he comes up short, well, that means that he must just get right with God again.

Certain authors, most notably Max Veber (in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and R. H. Tawney (in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism) have found religious views such as Crusoe’s to be at the foundation of our current economic system. They are talking about Calvinism, the religion that first came over to America on board the Mayflower.

Here’s how the thinking goes. Believing that God knows everything, including whether we will be saved or damned (this is the doctrine of predestination), people scrutinize their lives to figure out their own fate. If their lives are going well, they believe, that must be a sign that they are amongst the elect. They then work hard to make sure their lives are going well. (There’s a logic flaw here but we do not live by logic.) Conversely, people who do poorly must be headed for damnation.

Transmuted into the American work ethic and the American dream, Calvinism is adopted by most immigrants to our shores, regardless of what they officially believe or don’t believe (Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, whatever).

Crusoe, in short, is the embodiment of the capitalist spirit. He does amazing things, which capture our imaginations. It is noteworthy to look at what Crusoe does not do, however. He never describes the scenery. He is not curious about the kinds of birds he kills or the kinds of trees that he cuts down. He never talks about enjoying the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. Nature is to him what people are to him, something to be used.

To sum it up, there is an emptiness that underlies all of Crusoe’s endeavors. Rather than confronting the emptiness, however, he fills up his time with work, even to the point of berating himself when he is idle.

From a modern perspective, there’s an enjoyable irony here. To escape our busy fast-paced and stress-filled lives, we sometimes fantasize about visiting a Caribbean island and basking in the sun. Crusoe ends up on one of those islands. Instead of finding inner peace, however, he simply replicates the life he has fled from. He’s like the vacationer who uses his or her free time to catch up on office work. Better that than confronting one’s empty existence.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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