‘Moral instruction is still very much part of a writer’s duty in the literature of this period.’ – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe & Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko represent two of the most important texts of early fiction and as such, it bears importance when reading them to understand the ideas that went through the author’s minds when they wrote the texts. The concept of moral instruction is one that poses an interesting dilemma; in works of fiction designed to entertain, is there room for a more significant meaning, a layer of the text that can inform and educate the reader. In a period where social norms were in constant flux and concept such as religion and the rights of an individual person came under constant scrutiny, by looking at these two texts we can asses if both Defoe and Behn were successful in integrating elements of moral instruction into their work.

One of the most crucial scenes within Robinson Crusoe occurs roughly halfway through the text where Crusoe finds a beach littered with human bones, the grisly remains left by cannibalistic savages. Crusoe’s initial reaction is one of horror and revulsion, his anger swiftly turning to thoughts of killing the savages. As time passes though, he speculates on the savage’s behaviour and readers are presented with a thought process that is as much a window into Crusoe’s character as it is an opportunity for Defoe, as author of the text, to present an investigation into human morals.

Crusoe, portrayed throughout the text as an everyman, can be seen to represent European culture in this foreign environment and thus his first feelings of hatred at the savages ‘unnatural custom’ and ‘abominable’ behaviour can be linked to a fear of otherness. Indeed, this could be perceived as racism; Crusoe thinks only of the values of his own culture and how these ‘naked savages’ should be exterminated. His language continually marks out how different they are from him; how they wear no clothes and eat human flesh. Perhaps most shocking of all is the way Crusoe sees his vision of destroying the cannibals not as a killing, but as an ‘execution’, as if he is legally and morally justified to end these people’s lives.

This presents an interesting parallel with the execution portrayed in Oroonoko where in the final few paragraphs of the text Behn describes ‘so inhuman were the justices, who stood by to see the execution’. Here, the author’s stance is defiantly against the horrible bloodshed unfolding before her eyes, dressed up in the form of ‘justice’. In this scene, those that are bringing about Oroonoko’s death believe they are morally in the right to do so, but the author’s opinion, throughout the text, clearly presents a different point of view. The author’s bias presents a view of the slave that is in her words, a ‘great man, worthy of a better fate’. Thus, through the reader is inclined to ally themselves to Behn’s opinion, due to the amount of time invested in both her writing and her portrayal of Oroonoko. Through this, she presents a form of moral instruction that presents the actions of Oroonoko’s killers as profoundly wrong and her view as a more enlightened and morally correct one.

Whereas Behn’s techniques are more subtle and less intrusive, Defoe is more direct in his approach; presenting Crusoe’s actual thoughts as his opinion on the savages changes. In the aforementioned scene Crusoe describes how he begins to consider things with ‘cooler and calmer thoughts’, presenting the ideas that follow as a more rational and civilised way of thinking. As a man of European culture, who has survived on this remote island through innovation and wit in the face of adversity, we now see him applying his mind to this dilemma and realising that he does in fact have no justified means to kill the savages. Thus, by showing how Crusoe thinks about a situation and realises the error of his ways, Defoe asks the reader to do the same.

One of the most powerful elements of Crusoe’s internal argument is the concept of God. Since discovering religion, God has guided many of Crusoe’s decision and allayed many of his fears, and here we see the same occurring again. The crux of Crusoe’s thought process comes in the lines ‘How do I know what God himself judges in this particular Case? It is certain these People either do not commit this as a Crime… they do not know it be an Offence.’

Crusoe realises that it is not his right to play God and decide the fates of these people, that there are limits to his power as an individual. His thinking continues that because the cannibals do not knowingly do anything wrong, they are not to blame. It is interesting to note the words Defoe capitalises, primarily ‘Case’, ‘Crime’ and ‘Offence’; giving Crusoe’s statement a legal feel. This carries its own irony as Crusoe’s parents wanted him to become a lawyer instead of travel the world by sea. It is important though as it shows how a very different kind of ‘justice’ from the brutal killing of Oroonoko can be used to rationally present a case for why people of a different culture are entitled to their customs.

Defoe furthers his moral instruction to the reader in Crusoe’s argument by relating the cannibal’s behaviour to our own; in Crusoe’s words ‘They think it no more a crime…. to eat humane flesh, than we do to eat mutton’. He goes on to show how wars, waged in the name of religion have often given cause for soldiers to put to death ‘whole troops of men’ even when they surrendered. This is Defoe asking the reader to now look beyond Crusoe’s isolated existence and question the behaviour of their supposedly civilised culture as a whole and find to what degree it is morally ‘right’. The argument Crusoe presents is so compelling and persuasive because it is so complete and analytical in its approach. It presents pieces of evidence and examples in a slow, considered, methodical approach, in many ways similar to the way Crusoe has triumphed over other adversities in the text.

Analysing Behn’s approach to moral instruction in Oroonoko the reader is made to question whether she is as successful in her mission. Arguably, Behn presents herself in her text as a far more passive character than Crusoe is. She is often found in the background, rarely involving herself directly in the action, as evidenced in the final few scenes where she is merely an onlooker as Oroonoko is captured and killed. Furthermore, while Behn displays clear sympathy for Oroonoko as an individual, she never seems explicitly opposed to slavery. This raises the question of a selective morality amongst the two authors.

Though opinions on slavery differ drastically between the time these two texts were written and now, the reader is made to consider why Behn and Defoe’s respect for the lives of people from other cultures cannot extend to their liberty and freedom. Indeed, Defoe is shipwrecked while on a voyage to bring more slaves to his plantation. This may highlight a more subtle piece of moral instruction, in that because Crusoe is taking part in the slave trade, he is then punished by God and placed on the remote island to pay penance of sorts. This concept is confused however by the matter of Friday, who Crusoe treats well, but assimilates into his own culture and continually calls ‘My Man Friday’ as if he is merely a possession.

Ultimately, the ‘duty’ of a writer is largely a question of the interplay between reader and writer – a question of what the writer wants to write and what the reader wants to read. A text may be designed primarily to entertain, to educate and inform, or even a combination of the both. It is impossible to ignore the position of power a writer and their text has though; their ability to either explicitly or subliminally present ideas to the reader. Both Robinson Crusoe and Oroonoko do this frequently throughout their duration, both playing with their capability to give some form of moral instruction to the reader. Whether it be a more subtle presence as in Behn’s case, or a fully thought out and elaborate argument in the case of Defoe’s approach, the writer’s ability to explore what is morally right or wrong and present this case to the reader is something that lends both texts considerable depth and power.



Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

Damrosch, Leopold, God’s Plot and Man’s Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Greenblatt, Stephen, The Norton Anthology of English Literature – Volume 1 (London: W. W. Norton & Co, 2006)

Novak, Maximillian, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Martin, John, Beyond Belief: The Real Life of Daniel Defoe, (London: Accent Press, 2006)

Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2000)

Todd, Janet, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (London: Pandora Press, 2000)