Themes in Robinson Crusoe

Religion and repentance: The story of Robinson Crusoe was intended by Defoe to be a moral example for readers on how to live godly lives. The importance of repenting one's sins is the primary religious issue Crusoe faces in the novel. When he sets out, Crusoe defies both his father’s and what he believes are God’s wishes for his life, likening his eventual isolation on the island to Adam and Eve’s being cast out of the Garden of Eden. For Crusoe to prosper on the island, an angel in a dream tells him he must repent and throw himself at the mercy of God. Only after he repents does he begin to perceive the challenge of mastering nature and taming the island in a positive light. Crusoe’s repentance marks the key point of his transition from self-pitying victim to determined master of his environment.

Master vs. Servant: The importance of mastery is present in many facets of Robinson Crusoe. The ideology that God is the master of the universe and that the human race must answer directly to him is one Crusoe subscribes to and believes is directly relevant to his success on the island and in trade. Crusoe also embodies the literary trope of a man who masters his own fate. He sets out on his own and overcomes the challenges he faces, effectively controlling his environment and eventually becoming the master of other men in the process. His journey from slave to master is an example of a self-man that makes the ultimate socioeconomic gain of the time within which he lived.

Themes Examples in Robinson Crusoe:

Chapter I - Start In Life 2

""Young man," says he, "you ought never to go to sea any more; you ought to take this for a plain and visible token that you are not to be a seafaring man."..."   (Chapter I - Start In Life)

Much like Crusoe’s father, the captain warns him against continuing to pursue a life at sea. This is yet another warning that Crusoe ignores in order to pursue his ambitions. In this way, the narrator sets the story up to be a moral allegory about pride, ambition, and lack of reverence for the will of god.

"we are now called - nay we call ourselves and write our name - Crusoe..."   (Chapter I - Start In Life)

Notice how Crusoe establishes the importance of naming at the very beginning of his story. Historically, one’s family name, reputation, and social status was inherited. However, here we see Crusoe and his family making their own wealth and creating their own name. This establishes the fluid nature of the novel’s social setting: personal status is determined by earned or chosen names, not by family.

"THAT evil influence which carried me first away from my father's house..."   (Chapter II - Slavery And Escape)

Having returned to England, Crusoe joins another ship, one going to the African coast. While he knows that his father, and even God, would prefer he stay, Crusoe cannot follow those desires. He claims that an “evil influence” made this decision for him. This appears to strip him of agency and responsibility for his actions. This rejection of God’s and society’s wishes marks the emergence of a two themes that endure throughout the novel: the individual in tension with society’s expectations and the spiritual journey towards repentance and redemption.

"I believe it is impossible to express, to the life, what the ecstasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so saved, as I may say, out of the very grave..."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

Since its beginnings, the novel has attracted critics who argued these books were immoral or distractions from more pious pursuits. In this light, Crusoe’s gestures of piety and the novel’s religious themes are partially an attempt to maintain some redemptive moral value. In a moment like this, defenders of the novel could even argue along somewhat Aristotelian lines that readers benefit morally from the vicarious experiences of the story’s characters.

"I told him he had been so generous to me in everything that I could not offer to make any price of the boat, but left it entirely to him: upon which he told me he would give me a note of hand to pay me eighty pieces of eight for it at Brazil; and when it came there, if any one offered to give more, he would make it up...."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

Compare this moment to Crusoe’s exchanges with the people on-shore. Here, value is shown to be negotiable and even arbitrary. Yet, the possibility of a market where two or more people might bid for the value of a given commodity (Crusoe’s boat) serves as a means for the final arbitration of value, as in capitalism.

"and I began to suggest that God had miraculously caused His grain to grow ..."   (Chapter V - Builds A House - The Journal)

This passage shows that although Crusoe has imagined he’s being punished for forsaking the wishes of God and his father, he still credits his success as a miracle God has performed for him. He believes that he threw away empty corn husks and God made them sprout and grow to keep him alive. Crusoe does not stop to consider the logic of the discarded husks having the potential to yield new stalks when watered.

"All the rest of the day I spent in afflicting myself at the dismal circumstances I was brought to..."   (Chapter V - Builds A House - The Journal)

In his early days on the island, Crusoe plays the role of victim rather than fearless conqueror. By juxtaposing the helpless man he was when he arrived at the island with the determined master of his own fate Crusoe became after repenting his sins to God, Defoe emphasizes the importance of spirituality in determining the course of an individual’s life. Crusoe effectively made his own fate, but not without first gaining pardon from God.

"the grapes were spoiled; the richness of the fruit and the weight of the juice having broken them and bruised them, they were good for little or nothing..."   (Chapter VII - Agricultural Experience)

Notice that Crusoe once again tries to separate himself from the concept of “barbary.” While shipwrecked on an island with presumably limited food, he rejects these grapes simply because they are “bruised” and some are “broken.” His selective tastes reveal his upper-middle class upbringing and the “civilized” standards by which he lives his life.

"Accordingly, having spent three days in this journey, I came home (so I must now call my tent and my cave)..."   (Chapter VII - Agricultural Experience)

Crusoe comes to view his hut on the beach as “home.” It seems important to him to establish home and order within that home. One explanation for this connection to a seemingly unimportant place touches on the theme of civilization vs. barbary. The concept of home and the establishment of this “settlement” connects Crusoe to his “civilized,” domestic world; he continues to reveal the importance he places on “civilization” and act in a way that separates him from what he perceives to be “barbary.”

"I had the next six months to apply myself wholly, by labour and invention, to furnish myself with utensils proper for the performing all the operations necessary for making the corn, when I had it, fit for my use...."   (Chapter VIII - Surveys His Position)

In his previous life as a farmer, Crusoe never needed to worry about starting a farm from nothing. This passage focuses in on the difficulties of life without tools and support from society. As even simplest tasks become more difficult and time-consuming, Crusoe has to try and recreate the farming environment to which he is accustomed. His realizing how difficult this is emphasizes the benefits of working as part of a society, because when removed from others, he is forced to do everything for himself, which is inefficient and far more difficult.

"I opened the Bible upon these words, "I will never, never leave thee, nor forsake thee...."   (Chapter VIII - Surveys His Position)

Crusoe’s mood improves after opening his Bible to this passage. Having accepted that he is isolated from society on the island, this statement reminds him that God will keep him company. This presence, Crusoe alleges, is better felt without society around him, giving him comfort in the belief that God has a plan for him. This eases his mind and reduces his worry about survival.

"and therefore I acquiesced in the dispositions of Providence, which I began now to own and to believe ordered everything for the best..."   (Chapter VIII - Surveys His Position)

While Crusoe recognizes the potential threat of unknown people to his safety, another reason for choosing to stay is his decision to accept “the dispositions of Providence.” This decision contrasts with his earlier disregard for the wishes of his father and God, preferring to fight his destiny and choose his own paths. This recognition to remain because it is the will of God marks a turning point in his character and faith.

"This made my life better than sociable,..."   (Chapter IX - A Boat)

As the chapter comes to a close, Crusoe reflects on the religious character of his island solitude. His unignorable loneliness pushes Crusoe to connect with God. He reflects that his life has become “better than sociable.” He asks himself whether conversing with “God Himself, by ejaculations, was not better than the utmost enjoyment of human society in the world?”

"this gave me great hopes that my repentance was accepted, and that God had yet mercy in store for me...."   (Chapter IX - A Boat)

As a Christian, Robinson Crusoe often wrestles with the notion of Providence, attempting to divine his fortune by wondering whether his actions are favored or rejected by God. By reframing his condition in terms of the relative plenty he enjoys, Crusoe decides that God is treating him mercifully.

" and it cost me a prodigious deal of pains (but who grudge pains who have their deliverance in view?)..."   (Chapter IX - A Boat)

This sentence contains a double entendre on the word “deliverance.” Struggling to drag his boat across a significant stretch of land, Crusoe copes with the frustration by keeping the “deliverance in view.” There is Crusoe’s literal deliverance of the boat to the sea. Crusoe also considers deliverance in the biblical sense—that is, to be rescued from trouble by God. This notion of deliverance makes sense given Crusoe’s increasingly devout Christian philosophy over the course of Chapter IX.

""Call upon Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me."..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

This is a quote from the biblical book of Psalms 50:15. Crusoe uses the message of this quote—that God will always take care of his faithful followers, even in difficult times—to comfort himself and reaffirm his religious devotion.

"my fear banished all my religious hope..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

Crusoe’s spiritual devotion is tested, and he is filled with doubt in God’s ability to keep him alive on the island. He has always trusted in God to take care of him, but the possibility of others arriving causes him to resolve to be more self-reliant. Notice also that Crusoe seems to be making an allusion to the biblical Garden of Eden, where food was plentiful; Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, which God had created for them out of “goodness.”

"This will testify for me that I was not idle..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

For Christians, laziness is immoral and subject to divine punishment. Crusoe worries about seeming idle on the island, so he constantly devotes himself to projects that prove he is hard at work making a civilized home for himself. Notice the word choice of “testify,” which suggests Crusoe believes that he is constantly on trial and having to defend himself and his actions.

" I would build, or rather make, me another periagua or canoe, and so have one for one side of the island, and one for the other..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

Repetition of tasks and improving upon old designs keeps Crusoe busy during his many years on the island. Though another boat assists with his physical survival, the effort to build the boat is more important to keep his mental health intact. Crusoe is always looking for new duties so that he will not succumb to the sin of idleness.

"resolved to spend some time in the observing it..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

Notice Crusoe’s desire to comprehend what he doesn’t understand. He wishes to come to some understanding of how the tides work so that he can better use them for his own ambitions, speaking to his desire to master the island and its natural mysteries.

"There was my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island;..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

Crusoe uses the metaphor of a kingdom where he is the ruler to show both his pride in his accomplishments and to make fun of himself. While it is impressive that he has built a habitable dwelling and survived stranded for so long, his royal “subjects” are animals, who, though they are under his care, likely do not fully obey him. He does not leave behind his imperialist mindset, as he still believes he has animals under his command. However, there might be a note of sarcasm in his description here.

"But still plucking up my spirits as well as I could, and encouraging myself a little with considering that the power and presence of God was everywhere, and was able to protect me, I stepped forward again, and by the light of the firebrand, holding it up a little over my head,..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Crusoe mentions multiple times that his faith in God mediates his crushing fear. These assertions reinforce the theme of religion and faith: Crusoe teaches readers how to react to challenging situations with grace.

"even in this miserable condition, been comforted with the knowledge of Himself, and the hope of His blessing: which was a felicity more than sufficiently equivalent to all the misery which I had suffered, or could suffer..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Crusoe demonstrates the proper Christian response to his plight. He never loses faith in God or God’s plan, and he believes that every silver lining is evidence that God is still protecting him. In this way, Crusoe represents the ideal colonial settler: a faithful man who is able to endure hardships because of his belief.

"had yet given me so many comforts in it that I had still more to give thanks for than to complain of..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Again, Crusoe thanks God for the positive things, or silver linings, that make his life bearable rather than decrying the horrors of his condition. This reflects Crusoe’s focus on religion and Christian responses to his situation.

"But it was otherwise directed; and it may not be amiss for all people who shall meet with my story to make this just observation from it: How frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again from the affliction we are fallen into...."   (Chapter XIII - Wreck Of A Spanish Ship)

Crusoe presents a paradox indicating that humankind has a limited perspective: often situations that they believe are hopeless will bring about their divine deliverance. This paradox speaks to larger Christian dynamics of God as omnipotent and His providence, to which humanity has only limited access through the word of the Bible.

"This frequently gave me occasion to observe, and that with wonder..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

Crusoe voices questions that have long-ranging theological histories, particularly as these questions inform his relationship to other parts of God’s creation. He wonders why God would show favor to one part of his creation over others, and he concludes that it’s best perhaps not to ask too many questions along this line.

"first, I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

The acts of naming here reveal much about the relationship between these two figures. Crusoe names Friday, and he renames himself in terms of the social position he wants to inhabit in their relationship.

"I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever...."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

This is a key moment in terms of the novel’s master and servant theme. As Crusoe tells it, the man he rescues submits completely and immediately to his mastery, making Crusoe a master figure. Notably, Crusoe himself cannot submit to this extent—even to God, the clearest master-servant analogue.

"He had a very good countenance..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

This is a key moment in terms of the novel’s master and servant theme. As Crusoe tells it, the man he rescues submits completely and immediately to his mastery, making Crusoe a master figure. Notably, Crusoe himself cannot submit to this extent—even to God, the clearest master-servant analogue.

"When these thoughts were over, my head was for some time taken up in considering the nature of these wretched creatures, I mean the savages, and how it came to pass in the world that the wise Governor of all things should give up any of His creatures to such inhumanity - nay, to something so much below even brutality itself - as to devour its own kind: but as this ended in some (at that time) fruitless speculations, it occurred to me to inquire what part of the world these wretches lived in?..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

Crusoe here wonders about a question that runs deep in Western theology. If God is perfect, and good, and all-powerful, then how does one account for evil or imperfection in the world? While this line of questioning could lead Crusoe to re-evaluate his stance toward the indigenous islanders, he stops short of questioning the premise that God has given them up. Who and why God gives up, though, is a question that presses on Crusoe’s mind in his situation on the island.

"to save the life, and, for aught I knew, the soul of a poor savage,..."   (Chapter XV - Friday's Education)

Notice that the religious journey Defoe documents in Robinson Crusoe is deepened by his sharing of his faith with another individual. Though Crusoe seems to struggle with his own faith and how it dictates the events of his life, he seems to believe that bringing Friday to the knowledge of the Christian God will save his life and his soul. Crusoe enjoys a degree of satisfaction in bringing another individual to Christ even though he is far from the perfect Christian himself.

"he believed they would tell the people they were all killed by thunder and lightning, not by the hand of man..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

This sensational retelling of the conflict sets up a comparison between the natives and Europeans. Because the natives have not encountered gunfire before, they instead explain what they cannot understand in religious terms. To them, Europeans and Europeanized Friday appear to be powerful, vengeful gods, elevating them higher—both technologically and spiritually—than the natives. This depiction would have appealed to Europeans of Defoe’s time, as it asserts that Europeans were the most advanced civilization at that time.

"I also ordered him to bury the horrid remains of their barbarous feast, which I could not think of doing myself;..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Although Crusoe is no stranger to violence, he is unable to bury the remains of the person the cannibals ate. Friday, on the other hand, has little trouble cleaning up the place. Note the word choice “effaced,” to rub out or obliterate. Crusoe wants to erase evidence of the cannibals in much the same way English imperialists sought to eradicate all signs of things they deemed “savage.”

"it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked...."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Notice Crusoe’s narcissism and entitlement in this passage. Though others have visited the island, Crusoe claims control over the land because he has built a home there. He also believes that he has total control over Friday, Friday’s father, and the Spaniard because he saved them—a mindset that modern readers may recognize as problematic. Notice that Crusoe conveniently leaves out Friday’s role in helping to rescue the others and contributing to Crusoe’s homestead.

"whose barbarous customs were their own disaster, being in them a token, indeed, of God's having left them, with the other nations of that part of the world, to such stupidity, and to such inhuman courses, but did not call me to take upon me to be a judge of their actions, much less an executioner of His justice..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Here Crusoe encounters a dilemma: he believes he should not punish the natives for cannibalism since they don’t know any better without the teachings of the Christian God. God, he believes, will discipline them when the time is right. He decides that he is neither the right person to judge nor decide on a just punishment. Notice how Crusoe attributes the native’s cannibalism to their location. At the time, non-European nations were thought to have been abandoned by God, which was why they had resorted to less appropriate behaviors—a lack of guidance that Europeans would be happy to provide.

"riday wished to burn the hollow or cavity of this tree out, to make it for a boat, but I showed him how to cut it with tools..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Friday’s more “savage” methods of boat-building are contrasted with Crusoe’s more advanced use of tools. After Crusoe shows him a better method, Friday, ever the model native convert, proves to be adept at the English building method and leaves behind his old ways with no complaints.

"I told him then and often after, that I would never send him away from me if he was willing to stay with me..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Crusoe justifies keeping Friday as a servant because of Friday’s devotion to him. Since Friday is so attached to Crusoe that he claims he would rather die than leave Crusoe’s side. Here Crusoe shows his dominion not only over the island’s natural wonders but also its native inhabitants. Since people like Friday were seen as backwards and barbarous, it would not have surprised Defoe’s 18th century English audience that Friday was devoted to the person who brought him enlightenment.

""you teach wild mans be good, sober, tame mans; you tell them know God, pray God, and live new life."..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Here Friday praises the English imperial system. Teaching a “wild” person like Friday the proper, “civilized,” and Christian ways of English society was a goal of imperialism, and helped justify Europeans taking over land throughout the world and replacing local cultures with their own. Friday is the perfect “liberated” native character for an English audience, in that he has embraced European ideals and wishes to spread them among people like him.

"I ordered Friday also, whom I had made an excellent marksman with his gun, to load himself with arms. ..."   (Chapter XVII - Visit Of Mutineers)

Notice the language of ownership that Crusoe uses to refer to Friday. Crusoe takes credit for Friday’s accomplishment with marksmanship because he ordered his servant to learn the skill. This assumption demonstrates Crusoe’s colonial mindset: he does not see Friday as a human being; he sees him as an object.

"He does not leave His creatures so absolutely destitute, but that in the worst circumstances they have always something to be thankful for, and sometimes are nearer deliverance than they imagine; nay, are even brought to their deliverance by the means by which they seem to be brought to their destruction...."   (Chapter XVII - Visit Of Mutineers)

Crusoe reinforces the moral of his story and his religious interpretation of events. It may strike readers as odd that Crusoe never seems to despair over his condition or lapse into excessive self-pity. One explanation for this surprising reaction could be his faith in God: he believes that there is alway something to be thankful for even in bad situations. Crusoe demonstrates how he wants people to approach hard situations.

"if the tendency of them seems to be to warn us of danger, why should we not suppose they are from some friendly agent (whether supreme, or inferior and subordinate, is not the question), and that they are given for our good?..."   (Chapter XVII - Visit Of Mutineers)

Crusoe reinforces his connection with God by suggesting that his intuition is divinely inspired. When he gets a feeling that something is not right, he assumes God is cautioning him against a bad situation. Crusoe’s faith can be interpreted as a model for readers; in other words, readers might learn a moral from Crusoe’s faith and trust in God’s divine wisdom.

"I told him I looked upon him as a man sent by Heaven to deliver me, and that the whole transaction seemed to be a chain of wonders; that such things as these were the testimonies we had of a secret hand of Providence governing the world..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

Crusoe’s religious faith is cemented in this conversation with the captain, showing that he has fully repented from his earlier mistakes. Notice that Crusoe believes that everything—from his first marooning to his rescue—is determined by God, as the chain of events that has led to his rescue is too outrageous to be anything but divinely planned. At this point in the novel, Crusoe is gracious and repentant, believing that he has adequately atoned for his previous sins—and that such atonement is acknowledged through the captain’s presence.

""My dear friend and deliverer," says he, "there's your ship; for she is all yours, and so are we, and all that belong to her."..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

Because the captain believes he owes his life and his ship to Crusoe, he gifts the ship and his crew to Crusoe. This presents Crusoe with an opportunity to finally escape the island, continuing the theme of Crusoe’s gaining mastery of the natural world through hard work and cunning. Now that the island, Friday, and the English ship are all under his command, Crusoe is now able to return to Europe.

"trust to the governor's mercy: by which he meant me, for they all called me governor..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

Crusoe’s title of “governor” shows not only the respect his various comrades give him but also his adherence to English civility after all the time he’s spent on the island. They likely choose to call him governor to try and put the mutineers at ease since the title would signify that they were dealing with an educated, civilized sort of person—and someone who has total control over the island, their fates, and the laws that may deal out their punishments.

"I immediately advanced with my whole army..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

Notice Crusoe’s metaphorical usage of military ranks and terms. His army is rather small as far as armies go, indicating that this vocabulary choice is somewhat sarcastic. Though it’s obvious that Crusoe still considers himself in command as a general would be, he curiously ranks Friday above the English captain, showing that his friendship and camaraderie with Friday is to some extent sincere.

"telling one another they were got into an enchanted island; that either there were inhabitants in it, and they should all be murdered, or else there were devils and spirits in it, and they should be all carried away and devoured..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

The mutineers show superstitious tendencies when they can’t figure out how Crusoe and the others are manipulating them. In their confusion, they believe that evil and elusive supernatural beings are intent on eating them, or native inhabitants want to kill them. This reaction shows a common fear of the unknown—a reaction earlier exhibited by Crusoe when he found a native footprint—and speaks to English sailors’ lack of knowledge of the people or places they encountered in their travels. When unable to comprehend their circumstances, they seek answers in the supernatural and fear.

""Why," said I, "it is, that as you say there are three or four honest fellows among them which should be spared, had they been all of the wicked part of the crew I should have thought God's providence had singled them out to deliver them into your hands; for depend upon it, every man that comes ashore is our own, and shall die or live as they behave to us."..."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

Here Crusoe shares his total control over the island with the English captain. Since they’re both masters of their various domains and have saved one another—the captain having been saved by Crusoe from his mutineering crew, and Crusoe saved from being stranded on the island—Crusoe declares that anyone who arrives on the island is at their mercy. Crusoe thinks it would have been a nice coincidence if the captain’s crew had been entirely violent mutineers, as that would make the decision for what to do with them easy and show that God was looking out for the captain.