Robinson Crusoe, as a novel, contains various stages of development, from Crusoe’s initial journeys to his arrival on the island, from his journal entries to the introduction of Friday – every step is ripe for analysis. However, one extract in particular represents a crucial shift for the novel – the moment where Crusoe now finds his island populated not only by himself and Friday, but also Friday’s father and a Spaniard. In a novel defined by isolation, the introduction of a ‘community’ into affairs signifies a massive change and thus Defoe’s writing should, by association, contain various themes that relate to this change too. It is through the examination of these themes that helps us better understand Robinson Crusoe, both as a text, and as a character in his own right.
Looking at this in the most fundamental sense, Crusoe gives his own views on the situation in the first line of this extract, stating ‘I thought my self very rich in subjects’. Here, Crusoe places massive worth on now having people around him, ‘rich’ hinting at how throughout the novel he finds humour in the fact the money he salvaged from his ship is worthless on the island. Whereas before, his father would judge him on what he managed to achieve in life and his time in Brazil centred around the monetary gain of his plantation, now he is far more concerned with having fellow men around him and the sheer joy he gains from this is palpable.
The irony is, of course, that Crusoe’s status on the island is greater than he could ever have achieved in the outside world. His line ‘the whole country was my own meer property’ and his own admission to feeling ‘like a king’ shows how he recognises the power he has over the other three individuals on the island. There’s a sense that Crusoe is perhaps almost tempted to mis-use his powers, the fact he repeats in numerous ways the extent of his powers, linking them to titles such as ‘lord’ and ‘lawgiver’ and how pleasurable he finds thoughts of such things suggests strongly how easy it is for power to corrupt someone.
In his years of isolation on the island, Crusoe had escaped all notions of this, all the rules and laws of the civilised world. But now, with just three others on the island, these notions are already returning to Crusoe, hinting at a basic element of human nature to seek order and structure. Part of this structure is a sense of hierarchy, something which is prevalent throughout this extract – Crusoe continuously uses the possessive ‘my’, referring both to the island, and more crucially, Friday. This can in many ways be attributed to the fact black slaves were common during this period of history. Despite on the whole Crusoe being seen to treat Friday in a far higher regard than a slave, in showing us this rootedness in the tradition of a sense ownership of another human being – particular of a white man ‘owning’ a black man, Defoe provides a window into the context of the time.
What’s interesting to note however is that although Crusoe does give this sense of ownership over Friday, he also gives him an elevated status over others of his race. The very fact he has a name and is called ‘man’ lifts him above the nameless mass of savages from which he came. Through Crusoe’s intervention he has in many ways become more human. This leads onto the way Crusoe has also taught him language, and looking into the latter part of the extract we also see ‘the Spaniard spoke the language of the savages pretty well’. This sharing of each-others languages and cultures is of massive importance, highlighted further when looking at the text in deictic terms by the use of ‘after we had dined’ – after so much of the novel focussing on Crusoe as ‘I’, the singular person, there is now a sense of ‘we’, a community of people eating and co-existing together. Through the bringing together of these people there is now a feel of civilisation even in this most remote of places, an marked contrast from the beginning of Crusoe’s spell in this place where he described it as a ‘horrible desolate island’.
Crusoe not only shares his language with Friday, but also his religion, teaching him the ways of Protestant Christianity. One interesting element is that in this extract Crusoe’s dialogue with Friday is through the means of reported speech, a simple ‘I ordered…’. In contrast, when we are given direct speech between the two men, it is frequently on the topic of religion. Thus, where menial tasks are concerned, Friday is ordered about, but when he and Crusoe discuss the nature of god, they become equals.
The theme of religion is one that is explored further in this extract in relation to all the individuals now living on the island, as Crusoe points out ‘and they were of three different religions’. There is presented here a danger that the three religions may clash – we need only look to the series of wars over religion – most commonly between Catholics and Protestants – that broke out across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as proof of this. The mention of ‘the place of battle’ in this extract also hints at this and Defoe’s wish to give his writing added weight by associating it with the historical gravitas the mention of battle conjures up. These events would have been well known to Defoe as he wrote Robinson Crusoe and thus when Crusoe states he ‘allowed liberty’ of the others’ religions it strikes us as decidedly forward thinking and modern, Crusoe showing respect for other cultures and beliefs even if they are not the same as his own. Of course, the clash between religions is also one that still afflicts the world today, the wars in the Middle-East standing as testament to this.
This aspect of respect, however, is one that is also present in the writing of one of Defoe’s contemporaries. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko was the first English novel to show black Africans in a sympathetic light and this ties in to Defoe’s treatment of other cultures in Robinson Crusoe, both in regards to Friday but also the boy Xury in the earlier passages of the novel. Furthermore, looking at both of these works – it is important to note that they both stand regarded as candidates for the first ‘true’ English novel. They both present accounts of great men that make lengthy journeys across the world and experience both hardship and joy in exotic locations. Thus, with this subject matter therein lies the foundations for what we would now call the basis of a ‘novel’.
One of said elements is that of description – of both the setting and the proceedings which take place within. This is an element which features prominently throughout Robinson Crusoe as a whole and within this extract, here taking the form of Crusoe’s description of the preparation of a meal. What makes this passage so important though is how it relates to the savages’ ‘feast’ – the remains of which are described in the next paragraph. Crusoe details the killing of a goat in an almost ceremonious way to mark the occasion of the newcomers to the island. This draws similarities to the savages and their ceremonious killing and eating of humans. What marks the goat out as different? Well, aside from the fact it is an animal, Crusoe’s detailed description of the various cuts of meat, ingredients and cooking process, ‘having put some barley and rice also into the broth’ stands as a perfect example of culture, society and method in the face of the uncivilised, cannibalistic savages. This idea is continued as Crusoe stresses the importance of burying their dead bodies due to the fact they would quickly begin to rot in the sunlight. Here we see the use of logic – knowledge of a scientific process – put to practice, again upholding the values and routines of civilisation even in adverse conditions.
Thus, even within this small extract from the entirety of Robinson Crusoe, it is evident how many themes are at work here and it is testament both to Defoe’s skill as a writer and Crusoe himself as a creation. With his values, ideals, ambitions, passions, through him we experience the world of the novel. In a strange, exotic land, he is our touching point, the source of our empathy, our opinions, our emotions. But most importantly, as a character, he stands not only as an individual, but a metaphor for society and civilisation as a whole.
Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko, Penguin Classics: 2003
Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, Oxford University Press: 2008
Drescher, Seymour, Abolition, Cambridge University Press: 2009
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation : Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, Penguin: 2004
Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding: Pimlico: 2000