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Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and the Protestant Work Ethic

Powerful Essays
Robinson Crusoe and the Protestant Work Ethic

The story of Robinson Crusoe is, in a very obvious sense, a morality story about a wayward but typical youth of no particular talent whose life turned out all right in the end because he discovered the importance of the values that really matter. The values that he discovers are those associated with the Protestant Work Ethic, those virtues which arise out of the Puritan’s sense of the religious life as a total commitment to a calling, unremitting service in what generally appears as a very restricted but often challenging commitment.

The central concern of Robinson Crusoe’s experiences on the island is work. The great majority of the text is taken up with describing his unceasing efforts at mundane tasks. Robinson Crusoe is clearly eager to persuade his readers that he was never idle. Many of his undertakings may have been futile (like his first big boat, which he could not move to the water), but they kept him busy. We might wonder to what extent he needs to do all the things he describes for us, like, for example, making bread or living off the produce he creates through his own agriculture. Is there no natural sustenance on the island which might be obtained with less labor? What about fishing? Wouldn’t that be easier? He tries it and has success, but he doesn’t stay with it. Why not? Surely, given the topical nature of the island, he doesn’t have to labor so much?

Questions like this miss the point. Robinson Crusoe is a tribute to work, and the overwhelming message is: God has put us on this world to work. That, in effect, means directing our energies to transform the world around us, to shape it to our will, t...

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...ing it with a secret kind

of pleasure (though mixed with my other afflicting thoughts), to think that this was

all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly and had a right

of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance, as completely

as any lord of a manor in England. (101)

The language of this quotation is interesting. He admits he takes pleasure in his accomplishment, but there’s a sense of guilt in the admission (he has to remind us that he also has afflictions). And he frames his feelings of satisfaction entirely in legal terms (“indefeasibly,” “right of possession,” “convey”). What stimulates his satisfaction is not the accomplishment or the beauty or the sense of his own proven skill, but the sense of legal ownership. He has gone from a castaway to the equivalent of an aristocrat.
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