Arguably, the main struggle of a fiction writer is the conflict between originality and believability, to create a living, breathing character that carries the author’s message forward. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is not immune to this struggle as the marooned hero slowly converts himself alone on his island. Michael McKeon calls this disparity the dynamic between “Character and Narrator,” so meaning Crusoe’s transformation from rambling sinner when the book physically began to the devout governor that he is at the point of narration (McKeon, 402).
In a way, Crusoe as a character has to catch up to himself as a narrator, as Defoe’s agent. This gap demands growth and without this growth, without this transformation, Robinson Crusoe would have fallen completely flat. For Robinson to be a successful character, he has to exist in a space deeper than the page. A deep character—a really deep character is what separates the literary from the pulp, what makes James Patterson’s Alex Cross nothing more than an infallible detective but makes Hamlet a deeply flawed and interesting character.
More importantly though, Crusoe’s inner life is managed deliberately by Daniel Defoe to show the reader a representation of the Good Christian, one who is thoughtful and accepting of his place in God’s plan.
Defoe begins his novel conventionally enough, particularly for the time, by detailing Robinson’s life until the action of the novel begins. The first line, “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family” (Defoe, 4).
Crusoe goes on to tell us about his father’s estate and the “upper Station of Low Life” he was occupied with during his early years and that his father is so fond of (Defoe, 5). All of this mirrors, or perhaps is the mirror, for later novels. For instance, when Frankenstein begins telling his tale in Mary Shelly’s novel of the same name, he begins, “I am by birth Genovese” (Shelly, 18), elaborating on similar details to Crusoe’s initial backstory. Gulliver, too, begins his dissertation by telling us that his “father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire” (Swift, 15).By setting this precedent, by allowing Crusoe to detail his birth and upbringing, Defoe establishes his character as a fixture within a class based society, the carnal base for the desire that sends Crusoe adventuring.
In particular, Crusoe tells us that his father explained to him how it was for “Men of desperate Fortune on one Hand, or of aspiring, superior Fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon Adventures” for their enterprise, though Crusoe displays resistance to this idea (Defoe, 5). This, however, means little to Crusoe who feels the need for the opposite, a need to go out and seek his fortune at any cost to himself. Then, when Crusoe tells us that he should “certainly run away from my Master [in some trade), and go to Sea,” there’s a pre-established underlying tone of parental and even spiritual disobediencein disobeying his father’s law, thus breaking God’s commandment (Defoe, 6). This classist and religious nonconformity displayed by Robinson almost makes him the original rebel, the Beatnik of the Sea, but it also presents him as a character that has something to learn or something to tell the world. He will either discover that his father’s belief in the value of the “middle station,” or he will prove him wrong.
As Crusoe works through the book, he constantly sets himself up as a reasonable human being. Setting aside the fact that he, a lone merchant sailor, is able to survive on his own for over twenty-eight years with no real technical skills and the implications this has on human nature itself, Crusoe’s voice gives us constant reasoning and problem solving. In fact, the majority of the novel is problem solving. In the beginning of his time on the island, Crusoe tells about building his castle, fortifying it and stocking it, about making containers and searching for plants and killing goats. From November sixth to December twentieth Crusoe builds a table and a chair, separates his powder for fear of lightning strikes, digs out his grotto, makes boxes for powder, and survives a bit of a cave in (Defoe, 54-5). All of this is done not only to prove to us as readers the realism of his stay on the island, but to show us Crusoe’s intelligence and his mastery of building and thinking. It’s yet another demonstration of a good Christian, though a good Christian is not yet, done so that, by the end, we trust his high reasoning and follow Defoe’s greater argument. Later, for instance, Crusoe develops his own theory of just war. He allows for Friday to kill the “savages” his tribe was fighting because he could “by national Vengeance punish them as a People” but that for Crusoe to do so would be unethical because “it was none of [hisBusiness” (Defoe, 168). The idea that God is the only judge unless he has bestowed authority on a human punisher for personal crimes is, if strange, a product of Crusoe’s brand of Predestination. But all of these deep considerations of when and how Crusoe may kill would seem almost insane if he hadn’t first given us proof that he was a reasonable if sinful human being.
It is also important to note that at the beginning of the novel and throughout the period of his life prior to his being marooned on the island, the narrator of Robinson Crusoe, who McKeown maintains is a somewhat different character to the Crusoe we meet on page one, has a sense of what is to come, an inkling of the lesson he is to learn. After his first ship is wrecked off the coast of Britain and he first considers returning to his father who would have “killed the fatt’d calf” on his return, Crusoe, or rather, the Narrator says, “my ill fate push’d me now with an Obstinacy that nothing could resist” as if cognizant of what is coming (Defoe, 12). No doubt this is a simple function of Crusoe as a character looking back on his story and telling it as if the story has come to its conclusion and he is only remembering it but still, this creates a divide between the narration and Crusoe as a person.
The Narrator has learned his lesson; Crusoe has not. This allows for careful reflection and a channel for Defoe’s purpose, almost as if the Narrator himself has read the passage of God’s book of life pertaining to Crusoe’s adventures and is capable, now, of reflecting upon them. And the Narrator has learned Crusoe’s lesson from this prior to Crusoe the Character. This is exemplified, in part, by Crusoe’s journal keeping. At first, he holds true to the physical goings on of his time on the island, but as time goes on, the Narrator breaks in more and more often. At first, his journal entries are brief, describing the events of the day. For instance, December twenty-sixth’s entry simply reads: “rain all day” (Defoe, 56). But after his religious epiphany, the entries get longer. Following a significant religious digression on the July fourth, the narrator actually says, “But leaving this Part, I return to my Journal,” as if to admit that significant portions of Crusoe’s journal have been edited by the future Narrator (Defoe, 71). The repentant Crusoe wrote the book, not the marooned blasphemer. Even when the Character is a sinner, the Narrator is around to keep the audience on track.
If Defoe were to set his character on the Godly path from the start, Crusoe would have lacked the emotional depth to connect to readers, especially modern readers. A character who speaks like a preacher does not so easily fit the story of repentance and predestination that the Puritans were so fond of, the story that Defoe is pushing in Robinson Crusoe. At the start, when Crusoe lands upon the island, he begins to first use the term “saved,” saying, “I believe it impossible to express to the Life what the Ecstasies and Transports of the Soul are, when it is to be sav’d, as I may say, out of the very Grave” (Defoe, 35). The meaning of “saved” here is, of course, not in the religious sense, but in the physical sense of surviving shipwreck and yet he thanks God all the same. The Narrator then brings up this quotation: “For sudden Joys, like Griefs, confound at first” (Defoe, 35). This is the beginning of the Character’s merging with the Narrator: the start of Crusoe’s path to God. This sentence, set apart from the others and italicized in the Norton Critical Edition, speaks both to the physical tragedy of Crusoe’s abandonment and to the spiritual joy of it. Though Crusoe the Character does not yet realize the spiritual impact of the island, looking upon it only as a confounding grief, Crusoe the Narrator will later ruminate on his condition on the island, saying, “I liv’d mighty comfortably, my Mind being entirely composed to the Will of God” as if to recognize the joy of his society alone with God (Defoe, 99). The fact that Crusoe has to grow into his religious affiliations makes him fallible, a character who has to learn.
The primary fixture of Crusoe’s character growth is his journal. Particularly with the narrator’s voice breaking in and mixing with Crusoe’s itemization of his time on the island, Defoe gives us insight into Crusoe’s head. Prominent twentieth-century philosopher, Michael Foucault, contributed to the construction of “technologies of the self,” that is, internal instruments that examine a person’s character. To take care of oneself, Foucault argues, “one must know of what the soul consists” (Foucault, 25). Christianity, it seems, would agree with this notion given Crusoe’s consideration of his own soul on the island and the fact that he examines himself so thoroughly. Furthermore, Foucault actually says “the self is something to write about, a theme…of writing activity” (Foucault, 27).
So Crusoe goes about this process of understanding himself by writing in this journal. We can imagine the journal both as something the Character would do alone on the island as a way to preserve his soul, his self, but also as a function of the Narrator as a way to understand his own transformative condition. Even the act of reading the Bible is a sort of technology of the self in that it helps Crusoe come to a deeper understanding of himself, and thus a deeper character for the reader. Upon the reading of Acts 5.31 and the promise of deliverance by God upon repentance, Crusoe says, “I pray’d with a sense of my Condition…. I began to have Hope that God would hear me” (Defoe, 71). In this way, salvation is turned inwards. God’s presence comes out of a book and is felt in the island by way of reflection. Without Crusoe’s depth of interiority there is no God, no hope for deliverance.
As such, Robinson Crusoe’s character is as much about what is on the page as it is about what is said about God. His revelations come from reflection, for within himself through the act of reading the Bible and recording his days’ events. Without his depth of character, without the desire which set him on this path, all of his prayers and pious reflections would culminate in nothing. Instead, the island cures him of his ills, the Character becomes the Narrator, and Crusoe recognizes his sin and begins the process of repairing his soul, as it were. It takes two years in isolation on this island as a Monk in a monastery before Crusoe recognizes that of not being satisfy’d with the Station wherein God and nature had placed” him his been his original sin and that these mistakes “had been the means of [his] coming into this miserable Condition” (Defoe, 141). This discovery represents with Defoe’s puritanical argument, brought forth by the narrator and the character coming together into the same person of the same beliefs, that to be a good Christian, one must accept their predestined state and trust in God’s plan. Following Crusoe’s submission to God’s will, one almost as blunt and outright as Friday’s submission to Crusoe, and his ultimate refusal of his rebellious nature, Crusoe becomes God’s instrument. To the men he rescued from pirates, he says, “He sent me directly from heaven,” referring to himself as their divine savior (Defoe, 183). This, according to Defoe, is a perfect state of nature: one in which all of God’s creatures are in tune with their creator and acting as His instruments.
Crusoe finds himself as the high priest of his island, God’s only confidant in that place, and yet Crusoe’s journey to God isn’t as simple as a shipwreck and the miracle of survival without human society. He, like a real person, has moments of doubt even when he is at his most devout. For instance, when the “savages” came to his island, Crusoe says, “my fear banish’d all my religious Hope” (Defoe, 113). Even when Crusoe has fully given himself to God, he’s only seconds away from falling back to his heathenish state. Though Crusoe later becomes God’s hand, almost a prophet, he’s just as fallible as the rest of us mortals. So just as Crusoe becomes the divine Narrator of his destiny, we, as readers, can still see ourselves in him, recognize that his actions make reasonable sense and that he is in fact just as human as we and that we can be just as godly as he.
Daniel Defoe strives to create a character that is trustworthy and honest, one that can accept God’s mantle and be understood for it. These are all rather pious considerations but underneath it all are the instincts of a fiction writer. In order to balance purpose with plot, Defoe uses a character who is fallible, thoughtful, and above all transformative. The conversion of Crusoe from the start of the novel and his youthful, roaming ways to the end and his settled, pious nature is handled carefully, slowly, and deliberately so that by the time Crusoe meets Friday and the other marooned men, he is ready to convert them to his religion and to his divine rule. A rich interior life is what makes a good Christian in Robinson Crusoe. Thus, Defoe changes the meaning of what character depth is. It isn’t simply a writer’s tool. Rather, Robinson Crusoe makes the argument that depth of character is revelevent to the subject matter itself, that Christianity can be proven true—maybe—by self-examination and personal thought. Crusoe’s character is both a form of fiction and a function of the novel as a whole.