Study Guide

Robinson Crusoe Themes

By Daniel Defoe

  • Religion

    Daniel Defoe's novel is, at its core, the spiritual autobiography of one man: Robinson Crusoe, mariner of York. He is first rebellious, then atones for his sins, and then converts himself and others to Christianity. We begin the novel with Crusoe's rebellion: defiance of his father's plan for him, an act that is framed as going against the authority of God himself. Crusoe then suffers the vicissitudes of fate – a series of misfortunes that land him on the deserted island. Once there, he finally atones for his sins and undergoes a serious religious conversion. The novel then becomes a collection of religious observations. We see Crusoe turn into a teacher, as he converts Friday upon meeting the guy.

    Besides the redemptive structure of Robinson Crusoe, we can see many Biblical themes developed in the novel. For example, Crusoe's own story is very much like the parable of the parable of the prodigal son. The character of Crusoe is also pretty similar to such Biblical figures as Jonah (the one who was swallowed by a whale/giant fish) or Job (the guy who loses everything and everyone he loves) who have their faith tested through many trials and a tremendous amount of suffering.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Crusoe's father say that his son will be cursed if he goes to sea?
    2. What causes Crusoe to begin to pray on the island?
    3. Why does Friday convert to Christianity?
    4. Why doesn't Crusoe attempt to convert Friday's father to Christianity too?
    5. Do a bit of research on the parable of the prodigal son, Job, and Jonah. What parallels can you see between Crusoe and these biblical figures?

    Chew on This

    This book suggests that religion is the foundational force is a person's life.

    While religion is an important part of life, this book suggests that we should be tolerant of other religions and cultures.

  • Wealth

    As an 18th-century mariner on the high seas, Robinson Crusoe is very interested in commerce, trade, and the accumulation of wealth. After all, the whole reason that Crusoe is on the ocean in the first place is to take part in trade. He makes money in Africa and also in the sugar plantations he buys in Brazil. While a religious theme is present throughout the book, so too is the idea of Crusoe's economic individualism.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What does Crusoe's father say about money?
    2. Why does Crusoe buy slaves for his sugar plantation?
    3. Why does Crusoe save the money he finds on the sinking ship, even though he has no use for it at the time?
    4. Is wealth Crusoe's reward at the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Robinson Crusoe suggests that wealth is not as important as spiritual well-being.

    In the novel, wealth is a reward for the virtuous.

  • Society and Class

    First, class. As Crusoe's father tells us at the opening of the novel, Robinson Crusoe's family is of the middle class. This class, according to old man Crusoe, is the best since it neither experiences the extremes of luxury nor poverty. Young Crusoe, though, strains against his father's class preference and decides to set off on his own.

    Second, society. This is a novel very concerned with what makes a society. We begin with Crusoe alone on an island and gradually we begin to see the social order come together. First, there are his animal friends (Poll and company), followed by Friday, the Spaniard, Friday's father, and then the mutineering Englishmen. Pretty soon the island is its own little society with Crusoe at the head of it.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why does Robinson Crusoe's father insist that the middle class is the best class? Does Robinson buy his father's argument?
    2. Who is at the head of the society of the island? And why?
    3. Why is Crusoe frightened by the footprint on the sand?
    4. What is Crusoe's relationship to Friday? The Spaniard?

    Chew on This

    Humans are inherently social creatures.

    Man is a self-sufficient individual.

  • Man and the Natural World

    What is man's role in the natural world? This is a question Defoe's novel wants you to ask yourself. Crusoe believes himself to be at the head of the social order. When he looks at the natural world, he sees its utility and the value of that. Instead of opining on the beauty of things, he notices production value. He also very much believes in the concept of private property. When Crusoe gets to the island, notice how he immediately believes that he somehow "owns" the island.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why does Crusoe take the skins of the leopards in Africa?
    2. Why does Crusoe kill the cats on the island?
    3. Why does Crusoe assume that he owns the island?
    4. What is the significance of Friday's encounter with the bear at the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    Humans should have dominion over the natural world.

    Once you extend your labor to a piece of land, it is your property.

  • Rules and Order

    How do we organize our world? <em>Robinson Crusoe</em> is a novel that is very interested in hierarchy and man's place in it. At the top, of course, is God. Next up? Well, Crusoe. He rules all that is under him. His moral authority – and his allegiance to God – gives him dominion over other people, places, and things. Xury and Friday, for example, or the animals of the island. For more on Crusoe's hierarchy, check out "Character Clues."

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What rules does Crusoe break by going to sea?
    2. Who is at the top of the island's hierarchy? Why?
    3. What rules does Crusoe set up on the island?
    4. What do the English mutineers symbolize?

    Chew on This

    Rules and order are necessary for the maintenance of any society.

    The order of the world is hierarchical, with Crusoe somewhere near the top.

  • Family

    The idea of the family is a central preoccupation in Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe must sort out his relationship to his biological father, of course, and his spiritual father (God). His defiance of his father is one that will haunt him until his eventual repentance, atonement, and conversion to Christianity. Once on the island, Crusoe must learn how to manage his little family – Friday and friends. Upon his return to England, we notice that he takes a wife, though her presence in the book is very limited.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why doesn't Crusoe's father want him to go to sea?
    2. Who is Crusoe's family on the island?
    3. Would you say that Crusoe and Friday have a father-son relationship?  Why or why not?
    4. What is the relationship between Friday and Friday's father?
    5. Why, in the end, does Robinson Crusoe get married? Is it significant that his wife is only mentioned in one sentence?

    Chew on This

    Robinson Crusoe argues that parents should always be obeyed.

    The novel argues that disobedience to the family is an important part of life and part of establishing one's identity.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    Crusoe does a whole lot of thinking about other cultures over the course of the novel. Because he is a man of trade, he comes into contact with many, many different cultures. He must figure out his relationship to the natives of the islands. He also thinks about former occupants, such as the Spanish, whose harsh treatment he condemns. What does it mean to be an Englishman? How do Englishmen like Crusoe see themselves in relationship to "others"?

    Questions About Foreignness and 'the Other'

    1. Why does Crusoe feel OK about giving up Xury to the Portuguese captain? How do you feel about that scene?
    2. Why does Crusoe rename Friday?
    3. Why does Crusoe not see Friday as his equal, even after Friday converts to Christianity?
    4. What is Crusoe's attitude toward the Spanish?
    5. Why does Crusoe decide not to kill the cannibals?
    6. Why does Friday call Crusoe "master"?
    7. Why does Friday return to England with Crusoe?

    Chew on This

    This book suggests that European culture is superior to other non-Western cultures.

    Robinson Crusoe suggests that cultures should be regarded relatively, on their own terms.

  • Slavery

    While the plot of Robinson Crusoe does not explicitly revolve around slavery, the institution of slavery serves as a basis for much of the action of the novel. When Crusoe heads to Africa, it is to purchase slaves. He himself becomes a slave and then soon becomes a slave owner. This idea of ownership and superiority impacts his relations with such people as Xury and Friday. Plus, Crusoe's wealth from his sugar plantations at the end of the novel would have come from slave labor.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Why is Crusoe made a slave? Is it important that he is both a slave and slave owner?
    2. What is the novel's attitude toward slavery?
    3. Why is Xury made a servant to the Portuguese sea captain?
    4. Is Friday Crusoe's slave? Why or why not?           
    5. Who provides the labor for Crusoe's sugar plantations in Brazil?

    Chew on This

    The slave trade is the underlying force of most of Crusoe's profits.

    <em>Robinson Crusoe</em> does not condemn slavery, but it doesn't celebrate slavery either.