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Robinson Crusoe: Crusoe’s Creation Of An Ordered World

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Arguably one of the most well-known events in Defoe’s 18th-century masterpiece Robinson Crusoe is Crusoe's discovery of the footprint in the sand. Crusoe can be seen peering downwards, appalled at the sight of an oversized and remarkably distinct single footprint which, oddly enough, is still visible several days later. The image, a construct of what the novel means; the adventurer in his goatskins, his isolation, the lingering danger from a tribe of vicious cannibals. The footprint scene comes well on in the novel, and its effect belongs as much to what popularity and posterity have done to Crusoe, as to the text itself. For the reader, an image appears earlier of Crusoe driven by the earthquake from his refuge, sitting alone in the storm, outside his shelter. He is, he tells us, 'greatly cast down and disconsolate,' as well as, 'very much terrify'd and dejected,' and remains in his solitary, defenseless position for upwards of two hours. Initially, his intuition is nowhere to be found. It is not until he all of a sudden decides that the wind and the rain which follow the earthquake are the consequence of the earthquake, and it would be safe for him to retreat once more into his cave, that he moves at all. Defoe does not tell us so, but it is easy to imagine a dissatisfied Crusoe sitting and shivering, clasping his knees, his head bowed in despair.

These two scenes might serve to epitomize two views of the novel: if the first is a dominant image, Robinson Crusoe can be visualized as a resilient hero, the man who survived, the man alone, triumphant over not only nature but all outside danger. Giving the second image precedence in our imagination leaves us with a different Crusoe. Here, Crusoe can be perceived as a solitary, pathetic figure; an outcast, alienated by man and deserted by God. Chronologically, these images do not have to contradict one another, and we can read the novel as the history of the outcast's triumph, his finding of God, and through God, fortitude. With this in mind, the memory of Crusoe as an orphan of the storm fades, and the scene of his isolation becomes but a prelude to his inevitable victory. Yet such a reconciliation seems unsatisfactory; the image of isolation is too strong to be forgotten.

In recent years, criticism of the book has forced people to look at Robinson Crusoe with more respect and has gone a long way to explain the novel's extraordinary force and strength. Through lots of analyses, we know that the book is full of faults, that it is repetitious and often boring, that it is sloppily written by a forgetful author. We are aware that the time scheme is improbable and the end of the novel is tacked on. We are told that Crusoe's life is unrealistic, that he does not seem to suffer from the lack of company, or women, or an adequate diet. We know too that all these things matter very little since the book has a mythic simplicity, an appeal that owes little to realism and nothing to chronology.

Yet what is the central myth behind Robinson Crusoe; what single theme lends the novel its structure? Ian Watt, in his thesis of Crusoe as Homo economicus, argued for the novel as a myth of man alone, independent and free, while E.M.W. Tillyard placed the book in the tradition of epic. More recently, J. Paul Hunter has reminded us of the religious allegory in the story, where Crusoe is painted as a sort of Adam, with his trials and tribulations patterned upon the wanderings of the children of Israel. These views are well known, and each is necessary to an understanding of the novel: Crusoe is an example of an economic man, the hero of an epic, and a reluctant pilgrim all at once. Yet in thinking of him as a type we neglect his humanity and forget how similar he is to us. An article by Eric Berne on the psychology of the novel suggests a way of adjusting our perspective, in drawing attention to the man himself. Berne argues that Crusoe's behavior on the island is motivated by his need to explore and secure the space around him, and in this Crusoe is at least partially successful. What is important about Berne's argument is not its conclusion—as a Freudian, he sees Crusoe as something of a neurotic, the victim of an oral fixation—but his realization that the hero's conquest of the outer space of the island parallels the exploration of the inner space of the self. I choose to look at this parallel from an archetypal standpoint. Crusoe's quest is to find himself, plain and simple. This journey is both extraordinary and commonplace; heroic and human. He is an exceptional man, yet he remains an ordinary man. His adventure can be interpreted as an 18th-century midlife crisis. Our response to him is one of sympathy, understanding and immediate recognition of his situation. Robinson Crusoe, I will argue, is a novel about order, both physical and psychic, and the establishment of this order is its dominant myth.

The island is Crusoe's own territory, a microcosm of sorts; it contains the extreme conditions he must learn to cope with, the dangers and the delights, both around him and within his self. On the island, he learns to progress from a complete disregard for anything metaphysical to spiritual integration. In the middle of the storm after the earthquake, we see him at perhaps his lowest point. He has survived his shipwreck, he has overcome his first fears of savages and wild animals, and he has laboriously salvaged innumerable articles from the hulk on the rocks. He has begun his system of fortification, erecting a semi-circular palisade of stakes around the face of a wall of rock, and he has tunneled out his cave from this rock. Just before this point in the story, he seems to be well on his way to establishing himself in safety. He witnesses what he describes as his first miracle, the first sign of God's hand, in the discovery of the stalks of barley. Then comes the earthquake, which finds him inside his cave. His first action is to escape into the open, and he does this instinctively, being afterward 'like one dead or stupify'd.' His first fear is of being buried himself, his next, that his tent and all his goods will be buried even if he is not. When the storm is over and he has had time to consider, he finds himself subject to two equal fears: one, of being swallowed up alive, the other, of being vulnerable to anything beyond himself, of 'lying abroad without any fence.'

Perceiving the novel as a record of the hero's establishment of some kind of psychic order within his personality, this scene takes on a powerful meaning. We remember that Crusoe has been buried before; when he is shipwrecked we are told that the wave swallowed him up, and 'buried me at once 20 or 30 Foot deep in its own Body.' Now, he again lives in fear of 'being swallow'd up alive.' His battle with Nature is cosmic; she seems a most terrifying and powerful force, ready to devour her unfortunate child. We remember that Crusoe is a Jonah and that Leviathan lurks in the waves, even that he is a type of Christ, and must need to descend into the dark jaws of Hell before he can be reborn. With these mythic and allegorical parallels in our minds, we can see this earthquake scene as a second beginning, a thrusting out from the womb-like cave into the open world. Until Crusoe has become aware of his defenselessness he cannot (like Jonah) begin the ordering of his life.

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What emerges from the first part of the story is the inevitability of Crusoe's role as a wanderer, a man driven by Providence towards some critical moment. This moment is not just retribution, nor another adventure, but a meeting with God. Crusoe's God is an external power, controlling the elemental forces, showing himself to Crusoe through the sea, the storm, the earthquake, and nature, but he is at the same time within Crusoe, manifesting himself in his thoughts and his dreams, directing his soul through secret stirrings. It does no historical injustice to the novel to see in this communication with God Crusoe's exploration of his psyche, and in particular, to recognize, in the gradual freeing of Crusoe's soul, his acceptance of his unconscious.

Up to this point we have been shown a series of archetypal images in the life-voyage of this Wanderer; his ejection from the sea, more helpless and no wiser than Jonah himself; his isolation; his peril, first from imaginary animals, and later, from cannibals; his burrowing back into the elemental earth: his expulsion from this “womb” to face the divine. As we have seen, this crisis, this meeting with the unconscious, is followed by the meticulous re-ordering of both the inner and the outer realities. The island, though still surrounded by the dangerous currents of the elemental waters, turns from prison into a kingdom, while the images of the wilderness give way to those of the enclosed garden. Now Crusoe, faced with the threat from the outside world, significantly seeks the solution within himself, enters the mouth of hell, confronts the devil, and finds in that cave of the unconscious a secure and hidden retreat.

He is by no means settled and easy after this experience in the cave, but still finds himself prey to innumerable doubts and fears. It is not until he meets his danger in the form of Friday that he becomes his old self once more: by taming, teaching, and forming Friday after his own image he sets his world back to rights. Once the unknown becomes familiar, once he is able to make it his own and impose his own order upon it, it no longer offers a real threat to him. With Friday at his side, Crusoe spends 'the pleasantest Year of all the Life I led in this Place'.

Crusoe has now regained his confidence, and during the rest of the novel, he is in command of his growing society. With the addition of Friday's father and the Spaniard 'my Island was now peopled,” and he is no longer just king in fancy. His resoluteness in guiding the attack on the savages, and later, in directing the defeat of the mutineers, makes us accept his title of 'Governour' as real rather than ironic just as later, safe in Spain, his companions call him their 'Captain'. The order that he has imposed so carefully upon his own life is extended to those who come near him: he plans the rescue of the fourteen shipwrecked Spaniards, and he restores to his ship the captain and his companions, imposing resolute yet merciful justice upon the mutinous crew. The final imposition of order upon his by now expanded world is the settlement of his commercial affairs, whose notable success - and it is none of Crusoe's doing- is a reward for his finding of God and self.

He is now quite in touch with God and is content to be guided by the promptings of his inner self. His unconscious speaks to him in moments of crisis, and he listens: 'I had some secret Doubts hung about me, I cannot tell from whence they came...' and they bid him to be on his guard, and so he is cautious. He speculates on the nature of such warnings, speaking of 'certain Discoveries of an invisible World, and a Converse of Spirits”. 'Let no Man despise the secret Hints and Notices of Danger' he says, and later, on his way home to England, when he finds he has a 'strange Aversion' to going to sea, he repeats the lesson: 'let no Man slight the strong Impulses of his own Thoughts in Cases of such Moment'.

Seen in this light, Crusoe's life becomes the experiencing and the ordering of the unknown. The peculiar scene of the wolves in the pass of the Pyrenees is felt like one last attack upon his psyche; by now he is so strong that even when 'above three hundred Devils come roaring and open mouth'd' to devour him, and he tells us that he gives himself over for lost, we have little sense of crisis, and no fear for his safety. This scene may be unrealistic, but realism, for all the detail of homo economicus, is not always Defoe's point. Crusoe's island is a world of creation and experience, and his twenty-eight years on the island should be read in somewhat of the same light as Jehovah’s six days of creation. All is drawn into the myth of order: Crusoe becomes more than Homo economicus and more than the Wanderer; he becomes, finally, every man who has ever tried to cope with a chaotic and hostile world.

Works Cited

  1. Berne, Eric. “The Psychological Structure of Space with Some Remarks on Robinson Crusoe.” Taylor and Francis Online, 1956,
  2. Hunter, J. Paul. The Reluctant Pilgrim : Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in Robinson Crusoe. Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.
  3. Tillyard, E. M. W. The Epic Strain in the English Novel. Greenwood Press, 1975.
  4. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Michael Shinagel, Norton & Company, 2001.
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