Just about everyone can recite the highlights of Robinson's adventures: A man is shipwrecked without resources on a desert island, survives for years by his own wits, undergoes immeasurable anguish as a result of his isolation, discovers a footprint in the sand that belongs to Friday, and is finally rescued from his exile. Unfortunately, all of this is wrong. But more significant than any of these details is that our overall perception of Robinson Crusoe is wrong. The single most important fact about this boy's adventure book is that it is not a boy's adventure book at all. It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man's discovery of himself, civilization, and God.
As Defoe's book begins, Robinson Crusoe of York commits what he calls his "Original Sin”—he spurns his father's advice to join the family business and instead heads out to sea. Robinson is self-willed, arrogant, and hungry for exploits. Catastrophes ensue—storms, shipwrecks, and slavery—but the lad continues in his follies. "I was," he confesses, "to be the willful Agent of all my own Miseries."
Then providence gives him a second chance, shipwrecking him on an Atlantic island, whose features roughly match those of the Juan Fernandez group in the Pacific Ocean where Robinson's real-life prototype, Alexander Selkirk, passed seven years in solitude. Robinson's island is a pristine land of surpassing beauty. To its forlorn first inhabitant, it seems nothing short of Eden: "the Country appear'd so fresh, so green, so flourishing, every thing being in a constant Verdure, or Flourish of Spring, that it looked like a planted Garden."
In this paradise Robinson builds a new home—without Eve...
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...ledge the enormity of our task; for when before has a secular culture rebuilt itself on sacred foundations? We need solutions as ingenious as any devised by our industrious hero. Like Robinson, we must never despair; like Robinson, we must find strength in prayer. It helps to bear in mind that it is we who have uprooted God from our homes, schools, books, arts; we have cast ourselves adrift. God, the master mariner, never abandons his children. We do well to remember, too, that Robinson found salvation in a plight more desperate than ours. Then, perhaps, we can relish the truth in Walter de la Mare's heartfelt remark about Defoe's finest creation: "Even to think of his admirable hermit is to be cheerful and to take heart of grace."
Zaleski, Philip. “The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe.” First Things 53 (May 1995): 38-44.
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