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October 13th, 2010

Crusoe Does It All on His Own…Again

Posted by meloni in Uncategorized

Daniel Defoe’s timeless text Robinson Crusoe exemplifies many of the Enlightenment ideals of the 18th century. Crusoe, the protagonist, is shipwrecked on an island and it is there that he must confront the ideals of civilization, or rather pre-civilization in a classic conflict of man versus nature. Moreover, it is an interesting point to note that it is in Crusoe’s solitary life on the island that he begins to challenge the social constraints of the time and to embrace the precepts of the Enlightenment. Elizabeth Eisenstein said:

One might compare the effects of listening to a Gospel passage read from the pulpit with reading the same passage at home for oneself.  In the first instance, the Word comes from a priest who is at a distance and on high; in the second it seems to come from a silent voice that is within . . . . I think that the ‘deep penetration of new controls’ to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized.  . . . In so far as they were internalized by silent and solitary readers, the voice of individual conscience was strengthened.

When Eisenstein’s insights are applied to Defoe’s work the reader is easily able to recognize Crusoe’s own development of his individual conscience, as well as his undertaking of interpreting the Gospel passages for himself. In his isolation from the rest of the world Crusoe still undertakes the progressive approach of the modern world, perhaps a tool used to indicate that forward thinking is in actuality a return to what is considered correct and true. In examining Crusoe’s individual study of the Bible and Gospel passages, as opposed to the communal and priest-directed activity it was before, Robinson Crusoe can be examined from an atomizing individualism critique.

Crusoe’s individual experience with religion begins while he is extremely sick on the island and he utters his first serious prayer to God for deliverance, stating, “Lord be my Help, for I am in great Distress” (67). It is at this point that Crusoe has sought to develop an individual relationship with his Savior, God the Almighty. Crusoe begins to actively participate in his newfound relationship with God, and his individual conscience is overtly strengthened, as is exemplified in the following exchange within Crusoe’s mind between himself and his conscience:

Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus us’d?

My Conscience presently check’d me in that Enquiry, as if I had blasphem’d, and methought it spoke to me like a Voice; W R E T C H ! dost thou ask what thou has done! Look back upon a dreadful mis-spent Life, and ask they self what thou has not don’t? Ask, Why is it that thou wert not long ago destroy’d? Why wert thou not drown’d in Yarmouth Roads? Kill’d in the Fight when the Ship was taken by the Sallee man of War? Devour’d by the wild Beasts on the Coast of Africa? Or, Drown’d H E R E, when all the Crew perish’d but thu self? Dost thou ask, What have I done? I was stuck dumb with these Reflections, as one astonish’d, and had not a Word to say, no not to answer to my self, but rose up pensive and sad… (68).

Crusoe is clearly partaking in his own examination of conscience in the above passage, which purposefully reflects Enlightenment ideals. Though Crusoe is forced to this action through his unavoidable isolation, he is nonetheless focusing on his individual relationship with God as opposed to ties with the Church and community.

Similarly, Crusoe goes on to read and interpret the Bible on his own as well, when he states:

…only having opened the Book casually, the first Words that occurr’d to me were these, Call on me in the Day of Trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me. The Words were very apt to my Case, and made some Impression upon my Thoughts at the Time of reading them, tho’ not so much as they did afterwards…So I began to say, Can God himself deliver me from this Place?…But however, the Words made a great Impression upon me, and I mused upon them very often…I did what I never done in all my Life, I kneel’d down and pray’d to God to fulfil the Promise to me, that if I call’d upon him in the Day of Trouble, he would deliver me…(69)

Crusoe’s interpretation of the Bible and direct communication between himself and his God refers back directly to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s ideas about the strengthening of the voice of individual conscience within the faithful who take it upon themselves to read the Bible and pray to God at home, fore-going the mediator in the form of a priest. Crusoe, in the above passage, awakens himself to a covenant between himself and his God, and prays directly to God about his revelation.

Though Crusoe’s isolation cannot be helped in the circumstances of the novel, his actions undoubtedly reflect an overt emphasis on the “…focus on individuals and rights rather than communal ties and duties” (Rasmussen, 18). Crusoe, void of any community at all during this point in the novel, embraces the solitary connection he can create with God, ultimately stressing his need for an individual connection and faith with his Maker. Likewise, in this vein of thinking the text is asserting and confirming Eisenstein’s idea about the usefulness of books and their portable nature, thereby making the content of the Bible easily accessible outside of Church to those who can read. In this way Crusoe becomes a prime example of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment being put into practice. The emphasis that Defoe places on Crusoe’s individual endeavors opens up his novel to the atomizing individualism critique that Rasmussen describes, and further, casts Defoe as a proponent of Enlightenment politics.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel, and Michael Shinagel. Robinson Crusoe: an Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 428-9.

Rasmussen, Dennis. “Contemporary Political Theory as an Anti-Enlightenment Project” (available at  www.brown.edu/Research/ppw/files/Rasmussen_PPW.pdf )

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