The conversion of Robinson Crusoe  

by
25 April 2019

On the 300th anniversary of Defoe’s novel, Nicholas Seager considers how religion shaped a tale of a man all at sea

BRITISH MUSEUM

Robinson Crusoe reading the Bible to Friday, 1836 engraving

Robinson Crusoe reading the Bible to Friday, 1836 engraving

ON 25 April 1719, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner was published. At first glance, it looked like numerous other exciting accounts of seafaring in the Age of Discovery. But this one would change the course of literary history and become a work of global importance.

The title page advertised that Robinson Crusoe was “written by himself”: that is, by the man stranded for 28 years on a deserted Caribbean island. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe.

A frontispiece portrait showed Crusoe looking rather wild, but wielding guns like any well-to-do landowner back in Britain. An editor’s preface to the book maintained the deception, calling the story a “history of fact”, and denying that any of it was fictional. Robinson Crusoe rapidly became a bestseller.

Defoe’s authorship did not remain concealed for long. Reacting to its success, a rival author, Charles Gildon, published The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D--- de F-- of London, Hosier. He exposed not just the fact that Defoe had written it, but also that it was a work of fiction. Gildon’s snooty pamphlet derided Robinson Crusoe’s populism as well as Defoe’s background in trade. Years earlier, the moralistic Defoe had satirised Gildon as a libertine adulterer; so this was payback.

Gildon reeled off continuity errors in Crusoe, and laughed at the portrayal of Friday, the indigenous Caribee saved from cannibals by Crusoe and thereafter his faithful “servant” (the word “slave” is carefully avoided). Friday, Gildon observed, speaks broken English after a couple of weeks, but is at about the same level of fluency 12 years later.

His most damning indictment, and one that definitely got to Defoe, was that the novel was “destructive of religion and morality”. To Gildon’s mind, the religious parts of Crusoe were mere padding, added to flesh out a barren story. Defoe’s attempts to relate Crusoe’s adventures to scripture, Gildon asserted, failed as novelistic craft and as sound doctrine alike.

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“The Christian religion and the doctrine of Providence are too sacred to be delivered in fictions and lies,” he thundered.

 

THE idea that religion is an inessential, even an insincere, part of Robinson Crusoe has prevailed ever since. In Das Kapital (1867-83), Karl Marx interpreted Crusoe as an illustration of the use-value theory of labour: objects on the island are valuable for their utility, not their “exchange” value. Marx marginalises Crusoe’s religion as a mere hobby, not genuine piety. It is secondary to Defoe’s materialistic ideas: the story resonates as a modern myth because it is a capitalist fantasy, not because it tells us something about religious experience.

Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, we find that the “Cruso” imagined in J. M. Coetzee’s 1986 post-colonial masterpiece Foe is an impious wretch, wholly “indifferent to salvation”. He speaks of “Providence” only to justify his ownership of Friday. “If Providence were to watch over all of us, who would be left to pick the cotton and cut the sugar-cane? For the business of the world to prosper, Providence must sometimes wake and sometimes sleep, as lower creatures do.” Christian notions of cosmic justice seem incompatible with the patriarchal and imperialist world that Coetzee creates.

 

DANIEL DEFOE was born in 1660 into a Nonconformist family. Until 1688, dissent from the Church of England was illegal, and its adherents were fined and imprisoned. Even after the Toleration Act, the Nonconformists suffered civic restrictions, which were not fully lifted until the 19th century: they could not attend universities or hold political office. For many, trade was a means of social mobility, and Defoe, although he trained for the ministry, started out as a tradesman. Crusoe is a hero in his creator’s image: an assiduous self-made man.

But Crusoe also shares his creator’s religious convictions: the belief that salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus Christ; that a benevolent deity presides over human affairs; and that life is a preparation for what lies beyond. Across his voluminous writings, Defoe abides by these principles of the Christian faith. The preface that insisted that the story was true also said that the events had a religious significance.

Crusoe himself starts out numb to the religious significance of his experiences. Biblical parallels elude him in the early pages. Against his father’s commands, he leaves a safe home for unpredictable seafaring adventures, and later understands this disobedience as an “Original Sin”. When early expeditions result in repeated shipwrecks, he is identified as a Jonah; and, although the story of the Prodigal Son comes to his mind, he does not return to his father’s house. Instead, he becomes a colonial planter in Brazil, without giving religion much thought.

Then, in the clearest indication of God’s displeasure, Crusoe winds up the sole survivor of a shipwreck, washed up on an island when undertaking an illicit voyage to import African slaves. During his time on the island, despair will be converted to hope, and Crusoe will discover a faith that not only aids his survival but also his colonialist evangelism.

Nine months after being cast away, Crusoe falls perilously ill. Now he reflects on the irreligious life that he has led. After praying to God, he has a “terrible Dream” in which an avenging angel threatens him with death because he has ignored the misfortunes that God has sent his way to stir his penitence. It is one of the most vivid numinous experiences in all fiction.

Once awake, Crusoe is in despair, alive to the fact that he has lived without “the least sense, either of the fear of God in danger, or of thankfulness to God in deliverances”. He now thinks of his sin, particularly “my rebellious behaviour against my father”. Eventually, he reaches for one of the Bibles that he rescued from the shipwreck, and, “having opened the book casually, the first words that occurr’d to me were these, Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.”

This moment is transformative. Crusoe now prays with what he calls “a true scripture view of hope founded on the encouragement of the Word of God”. He starts to think of his deliverance from the burden of sin a greater relief than deliverance from his island captivity could ever be. Fear is converted to hope, and random occurrence is converted to Providence.

 

CRUSOE spends another 27 years on the island, most of that time alone. As he becomes more proficient in husbandry, agriculture, and manufacture, he relates his actions to his spiritual state. He has religious setbacks, but maintains his equanimity as he continues to develop as a Christian.

The greatest jolt to Crusoe’s faith comes in the famous moment when he discovers “the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore”. His fear that cannibals visit the island is confirmed when he discovers the remains of one of their feasts. Crusoe confesses, “My fear banished all my religious hope; all that former confidence in God which was founded upon such wonderful experience as I had had of his goodness, now vanished.” He gains solace from reading his Bible, especially passages from the Psalms that promise God’s protection.

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When Crusoe finally encounters the native islanders, he rescues Friday (named after the day of the week). Crusoe feels that his part now is to bring about Friday’s conversion to Christianity, “lay a foundation of religious knowledge”, and displace the “heathenish” religion his servant was raised in.

He feels “a secret joy” at the chance to “save the soul of a poor savage, and bring him to the true knowledge of the Christian doctrine”. Defoe was a supporter of bodies such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which sought to spread the gospel to indigenous Americans. Crusoe, in some respects, is a propagandic blueprint for converting the heathens.

 

FRIDAY is an apt pupil, but the questions that he raises soon trouble his tutor, and again check Crusoe’s religious confidence. In particular, Friday is perplexed at the existence of evil in a world presided over by a benevolent and omnipotent deity, and in earnest he asks, “Why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?” Crusoe, by his own admission, is a novice theologian, and so initially is at a loss to answer the question of theodicy.

He first pretends not to hear, then says that Satan is reserved for the final judgement. Friday is still dissatisfied: why does God not kill him now to prevent the evil that he will do before then? Crusoe says that we might as well ask why God does not kill us instantly for wicked actions: we are set aside for repentance and can be pardoned. Friday ponders this, and then seems satisfied: “That well; so you, I, Devil, all wicked, all preserve, repent, God pardon all.” Crusoe is horrified that he has led Friday to such a heterodox position.

It takes Crusoe some time, but he manages to come back to Friday with (from Defoe’s point of view) the right answer. He has a long conversation with Friday “upon the subject of the Redemption of Man by the saviour of the world”. Christ took on human form to atone for humanity’s original sin; so “the fallen angels had no share in the redemption; that he came only to the lost sheep of Israel, and the like.”

Defoe provides a blueprint for the Evangelical missionary. Robinson Crusoe became a mainstay of religious propaganda in the British Empire during the coming centuries.

 

IT IS, therefore, surprising that Crusoe’s religion, his own conversion experience, and his faltering but ultimately successful conversion of Friday, remain an overlooked aspect of this great novel as it turns 300. Consider the 1836 engraving that depicts Crusoe reading the Bible to Friday. The striking thing is how bored Crusoe looks, head resting on one fist while his other hand is languidly resting on the book. Friday seems at least alert, and is kneeling in a manner that suggests reverence. The image indicates that Gildon’s view of the novel has been hard to shake off.

Robinson Crusoe has been valued by literary historians, many of whom would argue that it marks the birth of the modern realist novel that constructs a plausible psychological individualism. Economic historians since Marx have interpreted it variously as an endorsement of an analysis of capitalism. And post-colonial critics and authors have revisited it to understand how empire was promoted in powerful myths.

Literary, economic, and imperial readings are valuable, but they are partial without a recognition of how religion shapes all of these facets of Robinson Crusoe.

 

Dr Nicholas Seager is a Reader in English at Keele University. He is currently editing Daniel Defoe’s letters for Cambridge University Press.

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