“Defoe’s first full-length work of fiction seems to fall more naturally into place with Faust, Don Juan and Don Quixote, the great myths of our civilization.” – Ian Watt. “Robinson Crusoe as a Myth” By thus enshrining Crusoe as a legendary religious character, the novel Robinson Crusoe seems to suggest that physical reality transcends into spirituality. Or does it? The gate-way erected between these two boundaries perhaps implicitly suggests a certain close proximity between God and the work that Crusoe does; which is nicely illustrated by the Protestant work ethic that Crusoe displays – perhaps as an active covenant between him and God.
What particularly caught my attention was the archetypal use of the parable of the prodigal son:
“… I broke loose, tho’ in the mean time I continued obstinately deaf to all Proposals of settling into Business, and frequently expostulating with my Father and Mother”
No doubt, this act of childish rebellion (subject to opinion) receives its comeuppance in a storm, his first shipwreck where he “seriously [begins] to reflect upon… how justly [he] was overtaken by the Judgment of Heaven” leaving his father’s home. There is a faint mocking in Defoe’s writing (or am I wrong?) of Crusoe’s fate; however, I believe that his follies and subsequent (unjust) rewards is a slightly different take of the parable of the Prodigal Son. His resolutions, like the modern-day New Year’s resolution, are breakable for he does not, “like a true repenting Prodigal, go home to [his] Father.” Crusoe does not learn his lesson the first time; instead, he sells the Moorish boy who saves his life for money. Robinson Crusoe’s entire narrative reflects Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism, Put crudely, the “greatest good for the greatest number”; in fact, I will go even further by saying that element of Utilitarianism is superimposed on the narrative to create a certain “devil-may-care” attitude about Crusoe at the beginning. Ironically, this slight distortion of the Prodigal Son parable is one that reaps high returns. He returns better, wealthier than his Father was. Rising higher than the “middle State”, the “State”that dictated that “thing were all either too far above me, or too far below me”, Defoe seems to infuse the element of “in your face”-ness at the end of the novel. And so involved are we with the text that the latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
The story of sin-redemption-atonement” as the basis of Puritanical economic means; the emotional transactions that Crusoe has with God seems to follow this line of logic: Because I have committed sin thus if I am punished, it is just. Rather interesting, no? By playing on this certain ‘logic’, we have a better understanding or comprehension of how Crusoe works on the island. Many academics have noted how Crusoe keeps a rather careful tally of his stock and money. Although money he has no use for on the unnamed island, his possessions multiply under his care. Like Adam (from Genesis), he plows and works in his Garden of Eden. He is in the island, but not of it. He surveys his island with an ecumenical eye that seems to border on the acceptance of stewardship of the island; of course, he resents it and merely wishes to survive and seek deliverance out of his terrible fate. However, as his Mind begins to reject his desire deliverance, he receives the gift of knowing that he has already been delivered; he does not toil or labour, but does his work with pleasure. Like Adam before the Fall, He takes great care of his livestock and nature. He shares a kind of kinship with them, but he does not allow sentimentality to override his practical nature.
Despite all that, however, he retains his calculative nature (or Protestant work ethic if you will) is etched into the very fabric of this novel. The duplicitous nature of the selling of this novel is one that is “so amusing, that girls read them for novels; and he gives them such an air of verisimilitude, that men read them for histories.” (Quincey, Thomas. The Double Character of Defoes’ Works). Defoe’s composition of the novel itself is an economic investment. If you read the biography of his life, one would immediately conceive of how he became the accidental artist. I can’t quite tell if he enjoys writing, since my lecturer says that he could be a “literary tradesman”.
I wonder if I should detest such a mercantile writer, however, perhaps practicality was paired with his religious (or faithful) views, and one can’t quite divorce one from the other.