Robinson Crusoe was one of the bestselling novels in the year 1719 and its hero, our friend Mr. Crusoe, was a man very much of his 18th-century moment. His continued staying power over the years suggests that the values he represented in 18th-century England have resonated with readers for centuries since.
What kind of values, though, does Crusoe embody? Well, let's get down to brass tacks.
Robinson Crusoe is a (fictional) spiritual autobiography. Crusoe is first the rebellious son, then the repentant castaway, and finally the faithful Christian convert. We begin the novel with Crusoe's rebellion: the defiance of his father's plan for him, which is framed as defying the authority of God himself. Crusoe then suffers a series of misfortunes that land him on the island. Once there, he must atone for his sins, and undergoes a serious religious conversion. The novel then becomes a collection of religious observations. We eventually see Crusoe turn into a religious teacher, as he manages to convert Friday to Christianity upon meeting him.
Besides the redemptive structure of Robinson Crusoe, we can see many Biblical themes developed in the novel. For example, Crusoe's own story is a whole lot like the parable of the prodigal son. The character of Crusoe is also pretty similar to such Biblical figures as Jonah (swallowed by a whale/giant fish) or Job (loses everything he cares about) who have their faith tested through many trials and a tremendous amount of suffering. Like Jonah and Job, Crusoe survives his suffering only to have a stronger faith in God.
Finally, the novel is also a theodicy of sorts, which means an exploration of why good things happen to bad people – or why God allows evil to exist in the world. We can see this when Crusoe is lamenting his fate: "Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus us'd?" (78-79).
Sure, Crusoe's goal is adventure, but also adventure by way of major profit. Crusoe is involved in early mercantile capitalism. He buys and sells things and is very interested in making cashola. Notice how he tallies up his earnings:
The generous Treatment the Captain gave me, I can never enough remember; he would take nothing of me for my Passage, gave me twenty Ducats for the Leopard's Skin, and forty for the Lyon's Skin which I had in my Boat, and caused every thing I had in the Ship to be punctually deliver'd me, and what I was willing to sell he bought, such as the Case of Bottles, two of my Guns, and a Piece of the Lump of Bees-wax, for I had made Candles of the rest; in a word, I made about 220 Pieces of Eight of all my Cargo, and with this Stock I went on Shoar in the Brasils. (31)
As a man of trade, Crusoe is very interested in acquisition of goods and wealth. The novel often catalogues in great detail how much money he makes, even when he's on an island where such things don't matter. Remember, though, Crusoe's involvement in trade also deeply implicates him in the slave trade. He not only buys and sells commodities, but also human beings.
After landing on the island, Crusoe quantifies and calculates nearly everything. He makes a calendar and records all of his observations in his journal. For Crusoe, even the natural world is knowable and quantifiable.
Take, for example, his description of building furniture (a table and chair):
So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as Reason is the Substance and Original of the Mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by Reason, and by making the most rational Judgment of things, every Man may be in time Master of every mechanick Art. (59)
Crusoe displays here his ultimate faith in reason and logic. His worldview is one in which the world is knowable and reason brings light to the dark corners of existence. The island starts out as a frightening place but is soon organized and colonized.
Crusoe sees nature as something that must be useful. He isn't into all that getting-out-and-connecting-with-nature stuff, nor is he interested in the beauty of nature. Nope, Crusoe colonizes the island and turns it into his own dominion:
I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure, (tho' mixt with my other afflicting Thoughts) to think that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as completely as any Lord of a Mannor in England. (85)
As we see here, Crusoe believes in private property. It's not so much the beauty of the island that brings him pleasure as the idea that he can own the island – that it's his to possess.
As a mariner and world traveler, Crusoe has an interesting role in terms of the different cultures he comes into contact with. In the following description we see him becoming a patchwork man of many different cultures:
My Beard I had once suffer'd to grow till it was about a quarter of a Yard long; but as I had both Scissars and Razors sufficient, I had cut it pretty short, except what grew on my upper Lip, which I had trimm'd into a large Pair of Mahometan Whiskers, wuch as I had seen worn by some Turks, who I saw at Sallee; for the Moors did not wear such, tho's the Turks did; of these Muschatoes or Whiskers, I will not say they were long enough to hang my Hat upon them; but they were of a Length and Shape monstrous enough, and such as in England would have pass'd for frightful. (127)
No longer a proper English gentleman, Crusoe modifies his look while on the island.
Crusoe's attitudes toward other cultures are what we might call Eurocentric, an attitude in which he assumes that white, Western culture is superior.
Xury, for example, because he is not white, European, or Christian, gets handed over by Crusoe to the Portuguese sea captain. To Crusoe, Xury is obviously his subordinate.
This same attitude later extends to Crusoe's man Friday. Friday is ostensibly a native of the area, but Crusoe does not regard him as an equal. Their relationship is one in which Crusoe is dominant and Friday is subordinate. Notice the hierarchy inherent in all of Crusoe's relationships with people from other cultures.
You've probably noticed that there are no women in the world of Robinson Crusoe. They are defined, more or less, by their absence. Crusoe does take a wife, at one point, but this action is reserved for the very end of the novel – and only gets one measly paragraph:
In the mean time, I in Part settled my self here; for first of all I marry'd, and that not either to my Disadvantage or Dissatisfaction, and has three Children, two Sons and one Daughter: But my Wife dying, and my Nephew coming Home with good Success from a Voyage to Spain, my Inclination to go Abroad, and his Importunity prevailed and engag'd me to go in his Ship, as a private Trader to the East Indies: This was in the Year 1694. (257)
Notice that Crusoe's wife's name is never mentioned, and their life together is not described in any detail whatsoever. (Did you notice how we learn that they married and that she died all in one sentence?) Why do you think that might be?
Crusoe sees himself as the top of the island's social order. This becomes especially apparent as the island gains more and more inhabitants. We'll let Crusoe explain the situation himself:
My Island was now peopled, and I thought my self very rich in Subjects; and it was a merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look'd. First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion. 2dly, My people were perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Law-giver; they all owed their Lives to me, and were ready to lay down their Lives, if there had been Occasion of it, for me. It was remarkable too, we had but three Subjects, and they were of three different Religions. My Man Friday was a Protestant, his Father was a Pagan and a Cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: However, I allow'd Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominions: But this is by the Way. (203)
Crusoe sees himself as the ruler – the king, even – of the small society on the island.Timeline