Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe - The First Fiction

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe - The First Fiction

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Robinson Crusoe: The First Fiction

 

Daniel Defoe is credited with writing the first long fiction novel in literary history. Drawing from established literary genres such as the guide and providence traditions and the spiritual biography, Defoe endeavored to illustrate the life of a man who "tempted Providence to his ruine (Defoe 13)" and the consequences of such actions. While stranded alone on an island the character of Robinson Crusoe seems to have a religious epiphany about the role of Providence in his life and resolves to live in accordance with God's will. However, Crusoe's internal reflections throughout his narrative and his actions do not correlate, causing the reader to question the validity of this conversion. By examining the plot and the process of psychological change Crusoe undergoes, it becomes apparent that "he experiences and accepts divine control but that control can only be realized in the free context he has himself created (359)." When push comes to shove, Crusoe reverts to human instinct and his own impulses rather than what he perceives to be the will of Providence. Crusoe uses his newfound religion only when convenient and as a means to justify his actions and an acceptable reason for everything unfortunate that happens. When he finally does leave the island and returns to society, Crusoe's faith is tested and fails miserably, with practically no mention of Providence towards the end of the story. At the beginning of the novel, Crusoe introduces himself and establishes that his narrative is a memoir of sorts, and is told while looking through more experienced, wise eyes than when he originally experienced his story. This is important to note, because his discourse is shaded with hindsight and interpreted through a mind that has come to accept Providence's hand in his life. For example, when the Turks capture Crusoe and he is enslaved, he reflects by saying, "now the Hand of Heaven had overtaken me, and I was undone without Redemption. But alas! This was but a Taste of the Misery I was to go thro' (15)." Because Crusoe is recalling the events from memory, as well as the lack of input from any other characters, his reliability can be questioned as a narrator. An unreliable narrator is one who may be in error in his or her understanding or report of things and who thus leaves readers without the guides needed for making judgements.

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For this reason, the reality of Crusoe's "religious conversion" later in the novel can be questioned as well as his interpretation of events. Crusoe begins by telling about his defiance of his father's wishes and advice. Crusoe's father advises him not to go to sea and suffer the same fate as his brother, now dead, and pursue a life "in the Middle of two Extremes, between the Mean and the Great…to have neither poverty or riches (5)." This ideal is reminiscent of Puritanism and its doctrine that discouraged the pursuit of wealth and power. Crusoe was "sincerely affected with this Discourse, which was truly Prophetick (6)," but its effects "wore all off" of him and he goes to sea anyway, seeking fortune and adventure. This action proves later to be very consistent with Crusoe's character, as he repeatedly is affected by the great, life-changing events in a spiritual sense, but with time these effects seem to "wear off." This event is also colored as Crusoe's "original sin," as none of the terrible events that happen later would have occurred if he had followed his father's advice. After an interesting chain of events, Crusoe finds himself shipwrecked upon an island while making a voyage to buy slaves. While trying to make sense of his condition, he falls very ill and cries out to God, "Lord look upon me, Lord pity on me, Lord have Mercy upon me (64)." Crusoe makes this first attempt at a relationship with God while in a very dire situation, not during his everyday life, making his religion that of convenience. Crusoe has a dream while ill and after experiencing an earthquake, seeing a terrible man descend from the heavens, declaring, "Seeing all these Things have not brought thee to Repentance, now thou shalt die (65)." This passage sounds quite like a Puritan sermon, with its ministers preaching fire and brimstone. The vision spurs a mortal fear of damnation within Crusoe and causes him to search for an explanation with Providence. He reflects upon his previous years by saying: "In relating what is already past of my Story, this will be more easily believ'd, when I shall add, that thro' all the Variety of Miseries that had to this Day befallen me, I had never had so much as one Thought of it being the Hand of God, or that it was a just Punishment for my Sin; my rebellious behavior against my Father, or my present Sins which were great…I was meerly thoughtless of a God, or a Providence; acted like a meer Brute from the Principles of Nature, and by the Dictates of common sense only, and indeed hardly that (65)." The phrase "this will be more easily believ'd" is interesting, as if Crusoe consciously knows that his audience would question the reliability of his story. Ironically enough, it seems his descriptive passages are much more trustworthy than his reflections. Crusoe now perceives his actions as a cause and effect relationship with his sins causing Providence to punish him and damn him to the island. His disobedience becomes his "original sin" and the misfortunes that follow stem from it. Crusoe states that he acted out of common sense rather than from the will of Providence. This statement, however, holds true for the rest of the novel, with this vision "wearing off" when he is faced with the external world. Crusoe continues his life on the island and endeavors to practice the will of Providence after his epiphany during his illness. He asserts this by saying, "It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this Life I now led was, with all its miserable Circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable Life I led all the past Part of my Days…I sincerely gave thanks to God for opening my Eyes (82-83)." While Crusoe does maintain his solitude on the island, he does to some extent practice what he now preaches. He begins to read the Bible and reflect upon its meanings. He incorporates religion into his life, shown by his statement, "by a constant Study, and serious Application of the Word of God, and by the Assistance of his Grace, I gain'd a different Knowledge from what I had before (93)." Crusoe, in effect, "pats himself on the back" for his change of heart and persistence with it, when often times he let his declarations "wear off." He continues his statement with, "I look'd now upon the World as a Thing remote, which I had nothing to do with (93-94)," not realizing that his faith is never really tested in his solitude. The reader cannot believe in the genuineness of this conversion without some kind of actions to prove it. The test does not come, indeed, until Crusoe encounters other humans on the island. The disparity becomes apparent between his thoughts and actions first when he encounters the "savages" who cannibalize on the shores of the island. Crusoe first resolves to kill them all for their sin of eating other humans. After carefully composing a plan to exterminate them the next time they visit, he later thinks, "What Authority, or Call I had, to pretend to be Judge and Executioner upon these Men as Criminals, whom Heaven had thought fit for so many Ages to suffer unpunish'd (124)?" However, when Crusoe is rescuing Friday, an escaped prisoner of the savages who was about to be eaten, he shoots two savages dead, in cold blood, without any thought of Providence. Crusoe rescues Friday and makes him his own servant, perceiving him to be inferior and "without the Light of Providence." Crusoe even bids Friday to call him "Master," clearly establishing himself as the superior and Friday as an unequal. He uses Providence as justification for this, as Friday is not a Christian and without the "light" of understanding. Crusoe reflects the notion of "the white man's burden," namely, that it is the duty of "civilized" Anglo-Saxon Christians to instruct the "uncivilized savages." He finds difficulty in Christianizing Friday, however, and when Friday asks why God does not simply kill the devil to eliminate evil, Crusoe pretends not to hear him and desperately tries to avoid answering him. Providence becomes inconvenient, and Crusoe "diverts the present Discourse hastily (158)." He does not, however, fail to "pat himself on the back" once again by saying, "I reflected that in this solitary Life which I had been confin'd to, I had not only been moved my self to look up to Heaven, and to seek to the Hand that had brought me there; but was now to be made an Instrument under Providence to save the Life (159)." Crusoe perceives himself to be Friday's savior, and therefore may be his master. He does not realize that he mentions the solitary nature of his conversion, and when he comes to deal with the external world and other people, he runs into problems and his faith fails. A ship that by chance comes to the island later delivers Crusoe. The ship's crew was in mutiny, and Crusoe rescues its captain and his followers. He immediately asserts authority over everyone and effectively regains control of the ship, but only by violence, a very un-Christian method. As an afterthought, Crusoe mentions, "I forgot not to lift up my Heart in Thankfulness to Heaven (197)." This is the last time the reader will hear any mention of Providence or God's will. Crusoe returns to his homeland like the Prodigal Son, but there is no reunion or reconciliation with the father. Crusoe's wealth had increased readily from his previous tobacco farming, and travels around to settle his financial affairs. The novel turns anecdotal and a stacking of events, with no final assertion of his Faith in the world he earlier "had nothing to do with." He does not gain any sense of place as he had upon the island, and ends the novel with an allusion to a sequel. When faced with the danger of the wolves while traveling in Spain, he relies upon his instinct and common sense and does not credit Providence for any sort of deliverance as he did previously on the island. These problems that are not resolved at the end are due to many factors in Defoe's authorship. Firstly, Crusoe can be described as a "hack" writer, his writing being his profession and source of income. Most likely he leaves things unresolved in the end of Robinson Crusoe in hopes of publishing another book and in turn, making more money. Also, Defoe pioneered the genre of long fiction and lacked a model to base his writing upon. There is no logical coherence, demonstrated most clearly by the lack of chapters. Leopold Damrosch, Jr., confirms these ideas with, "This primal novel, in the end, stands as a remarkable instance of a work that gets away from its author, and gives expression to attitudes that seem to lie far from his conscious intention. Defoe sets out to dramatize the conversion of the Puritan self, and he ends by celebrating a solitude that exalts autonomy instead of submission (374)." It is the solitude which impedes Crusoe's conversion, as not only does it happen in solitude, but can only be maintained in solitude. When tested by external forces, his actions reflect more someone "meerly thoughtless of a God, or a Providence; act[ing] like a meer Brute from the Principles of Nature, and by the Dictates of common sense only," what Crusoe thought he was steering away from. Also, the reader has no standard to measure Crusoe's word with, yet another reason to question the reliability of Crusoe as a narrator. Ultimately, his conversion comes in light of tragedy and leaves when things go right.
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