Crusoe, His Faith, and the Outside World’s Influences
Many struggle with religion, either in its entirety, or with specific aspects such as its exclusionary process, or its supposed rules and regulations. Some people who were previously skeptical of religion experience a life altering event which alters their perception of previous events and causes them to veer towards a religious belief. Robinson Crusoe, while a fictional character, is one such example. A mere sailor tale, based on potentially several true occurrences, is one of the best known novels of all time. Many classic and fantastic interpretations of this work exist of the novel itself, as a statement about society, and also, specific messages contained within its pages. The author, Daniel Defoe, viewed as a master of his craft, or alternatively as a bumbling turncoat, undeniably secured his place in history when his story was originally published. The questioning of faith by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe mirrors the religious conflict throughout England and Scotland at the time. During the time that Robinson Crusoe was published, England and Scotland were in a constant state of flux. A significant step away from the middle ages and even the Renaissance, England and subsequently Scotland, moved quickly toward a more modern sense of thinking, understanding, and experimentation. Frank Smitha, a self proclaimed but highly educated historian, speaks of the time as a real breakthrough for Britain due to its productivity and developmental proposals that would eventually become the building blocks of modern society, and the idea of worldwide trade opening up with other countries and colonies causing new ideas and products to be implemented and improved upon (Smitha). This flow of fresh substance almost gave a jumpstart to the stagnating England, causing a refresh on ideas and inventions that quickened the minds of society at the time. However, alongside these new and enlightening ideas came the reality of mortality with occasional outbreaks of the plague. The plague during this time period was still a huge menace and although it was not on the same level as the Black Plague, it was still catastrophic. James Sutherland, in a biography about the time and Robinson Crusoe’s author, writes in particular about how the plague caused much distress and turmoil, stating “for years there was talk of the Plague among those who had survived it” (10). This sense of ever looming death and mortality caused many to turn towards or flee from what they had relied upon prior to the plague -ideals previously viewed as archaic were brought back into such as religion. Religion was a sensitive subject however, due to its precarious nature of the past and its presence in both the intellectual and political world of the time. Although open to new trade and experimental schemes, England was still consumed with a religious fight. Smitha speaks of the domination of the Church of England (also known as Anglicans) which was considered the orthodox faith. This was due in part to the Church of England being a favorite of the landowners and the House of Lords considered an Anglican preserve (Smitha). A common theme throughout history is that of the citizens with the most money wield the most power. These wealthy and influential people disliked the idea of different interpretations of the same faith and made it difficult for people with different interpretations –most often called Dissenters- to gather; often they would even ban them from meeting to worship (Smitha). Sutherland talks about London, and how it was full of people with differing ideas, “the Town was filling up with clever young men who took a perverse delight in shocking the Godly with their extravagant and dissipated behavior…” (3). Sutherland further explains how these ideas were used against those who were particular about their religion and their beliefs; these young men were testing the waters from both a political and religious standpoint. These young men soon became a commonplace thing, knowledge and intelligence being constantly challenged and questioned. Vast quantities of knowledge and good ideas come from these processes and as such, the age was rife with change, and there was a new outlet for people to express themselves: print available to the common man due to literacy levels skyrocketing. The more people were capable of reading, the more they read, thus opening their minds towards differing religions and differing stances on religion as a whole. These changes led to religious turmoil throughout this period of history causing prejudices and hardships for believers in God. Robinson Crusoe starts out as a mere passenger on a boat but by the end of the tale his prospects in life completely change. Initially running from his family’s chosen path for him, Crusoe ends up stranded and as such, taking an internal journey towards faith and spirituality. In an essay about religion in Robinson Crusoe, William Halewood states “Crusoe’s warmest and most characteristic emotion, his anxiety for his soul, is first fully glimpsed in the vivid account of his ‘vision’ early in his stay on the island…” (79). Halewood’s statement further alludes to the sense of humanity in Crusoe’s desperation and willingness to believe in a higher power in a time of strife; for in a sense of urgency or survival, a person will cling to nostalgia driven ideas, such as morals and ideals accepted early on in childhood. This particular instance is that of Crusoe trying to find a sense of the menial through religion. Crusoe’s acceptance of his previously ignored faith talks about such topics in an essay alongside the symbolic elements in Robinson Crusoe by Edwin B. Benjamin, who discusses the hardships Crusoe goes through and parallels “Crusoe’s physical conquest of nature [with] his struggle to conquer himself and to find God…” (35). In addition to Crusoe’s struggles to build a safe place to live and prosper, he struggles within himself, trying to come to terms with his fate. His solution is his faith in God. Benjamin states as well that “The final stage is his realization that his deliverance from the island is unimportant in comparison with his deliverance from sin through the mercy of God” (35). Crusoe’s mental toil illustrates his struggle in coming to his ultimate conclusion: a respect for God is manageable when one comes to terms with his own sins alongside his previous life. Robinson Crusoe’s journey towards his faith and spirituality is similar to both England and Scotland’s knowledge of mortality. This terrifying knowledge of death led many towards rediscovering or denying their faith and religion, regardless of the government’s preference of their official religion or that of the Dissenters. The masses of people found comfort in the Christian symbols present throughout Robinson Crusoe and many drew parallels to their own times of personal strife. A relatable example of Christian symbolism found within Robinson Crusoe is that of the shipwrecks. The shipwrecks would have symbolized the shipwreck of a wayward soul and that of a spiritual shipwreck. His initial symbol of taking off away from his father’s request is typical of that of a person going spiritually adrift as well (“Christian Symbolism”). These symbols rang true with many people from England and Scotland, people just wanted to be more informed about the future and how their eternal state of being would be. Crusoe’s lot in life is similar: his whole existence upon the deserted island is a constant state of unknown and initially, of fear. As Crusoe works towards his conversion of faith, he continues to fight with himself over God’s existence, using previous facts and data to back up his island findings. This struggle within oneself is common among people who have recently undergone strenuous life changes. Crusoe struggles at first against himself and his originally accepted idea of God. As his trials and tribulations continue, he makes amends and eventually finds himself becoming free from his spiritual burden by accepting responsibility for his spiritual wrongs and places more faith in God. He also follows his faith far enough to convert Friday to Christianity, and to continue on towards the path to spirituality by himself and the Bible. Robinson Crusoe is a strong character, made of both mettle and powerful will; he is a classic example of an Englishman and when Robinson Crusoe came out, it was a historic moment for literature and became a genre in itself, the fiction novel. Defoe created a masterpiece that although criticized, was a great start to a vast genre of literature. Crusoe’s personal yet fictionalized tale of desire and hunger for religion and spirituality wends its way throughout the book and creates a beautiful classical tale of a single man’s personal plight and his discovery of his true faith. Resonating with the English and Scottish people who were also dealing with the new and improving ideas of religion and yet also were working around the political backlash of the government. Crusoe’s plight of survival and religious turmoil was valuable to many people and impacted a nation. Spirituality was a significant theme throughout Robinson Crusoe, one that echoed throughout that of the English people.
Benjamin, Edwin B. "Symbolic Elements in Robinson Crusoe." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. Ed. Frank H. Ellis. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc., 1969. 35. Print. "Christian Symbolism." Religion in "Robinson Crusoe". (2002): n. page. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. . Halewood, William. "Religion and Invention in Robinson Crusoe." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. Ed. Frank H. Ellis. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc., 1969. 80-81. Print. Smitha, Frank. "Britain in the mid-1700s." Macrohistory and World Report. n. page. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. . Sutherland, James. Defoe. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc. and Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971. Print.