17th century England, 18th century England, absence, adventure, author, belief, character, choices, civilization, consequence, controversial, corruption, daniel defoe, desertion, desire, development, downfall of society, English culture, experience, exploration, exposure, gender, humanity, individual, integrity, isolation, literature, man, morals, motives, power, reality, religion, repressed, research paper, rights, robinson crusoe, social class mobility, society, solace, survival
Allison Ryder ENL 365
The Battle between Humanity and Man
Daniel Defoe fiercely and openly challenges the idea of individual versus society within England during the 17th and 18th century, in the novel Robinson Crusoe. The author addresses the challenge of placing Crusoe in the 17th century, yet he writes for an 18th century audience. Nevertheless the argument stands because the story resides in English culture; portraying both 17th and 18th century England and the power of society over the individual versus the fight of the individual against society. Defoe strikes back at the faces of society with the character Crusoe, who goes against what his family (the authority figures in his life), tells him to do and creates a new world on a deserted island. The individual development and growth in this novel, is fueled by the absence of society and the reliance on nature, rather than capital. Through this novel, one not only sees the contrasting relationship between humanity and man, but the insertion of the morals and actions of society into the individual realm.
The contrast between man and society, as well as the relationship where it blends, is portrayed in the character growth of Crusoe, Crusoe’s disregard for his parent’s warnings, and what Crusoe does on the island when he is shipwrecked. All of the situations that unfold portray the contrasting relationship. Defoe immediately dives into personal desires versus family expectation, as Crusoe’s father expects him to take part in the family business, while Crusoe has the persistent desire to go to sea and travel around the world. His father states that their placement within society is one of great comfort and remaining in it would make Crusoe: “most suited for happiness, not exposed to the miseries of hardships, the labour and sufferings of the
mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrass’d with pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind” (Defoe 6). This quote portrays the comfort level of people within society and their obedience towards their class. People within society were expected to follow the paths laid out for them; “In England, as long as everyone recognized and accepted the hierarchy itself and behaved according to the prescribed forms and standards at each level, then the structure itself was stable” (Heyck 51). The character of Crusoe does not follow the path laid out before him but rather the adventurer deeply rooted within. This desire becomes a direct opposition of the norms within society. Here, the rigid walls of society are torn down and the individual is developed. Defoe sheds light on: “the individual road to self-improvement functioned as a sign of inner virtue, in contrast to the shadowy insubstantiality of the unlearned aristocrat” (Gregg 43). The character of Robinson Crusoe produces an important aspect of independence and living by one’s own accord, as well as taking hold of one’s own rights and not allowing society to dictate the rights one’s given.
Defoe was particular with his character of Crusoe when it came to gender: “[Defoe] was drawn to [the] failings of masculinity” (Gregg 175). Through a man’s individual endeavors, confrontations with conflict, and various situations, one learns what it is to be a man and then becomes one. Crusoe faced hardships and obstacles but they are what created him; rather than falling in place within society and allowing the politics and economy to dictate who he was. This paints the image of the individual holding the rights of the repressed. Focusing on the individual character, Seidel states: “Individual character cannot define itself by the strict imposition of another’s will. No model of action that demands absolute obedience to anyone is tenable unless that desire replicates one’s own” (87). Seidel’s statement supports the idea that individual
temptation is greater than the comforts and expectations derived from society. The primary responsibility in this novel is to Crusoe’s own conscience and humanity, and every choice he makes portrays this. Speaking of England and Robinson Crusoe, Moss and Wilson create an important portrayal of Defoe and Crusoe, as well as society:
“Like Defoe himself, middle-class men risked what little they had to outfit expeditions and trading voyages overseas. Exchanging a simple but secure life for adventure and possible wealth or bankruptcy, Defoe and many of his contemporaries invested in overseas enterprises. Both Defoe and his fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, suffered the consequences of such risks… In the novel, Crusoe is captured by pirates. In real life, Defoe’s cargoes were seized by French sailors in 1692… As one of his contemporaries observed, ‘it is possible to base a study of English society in the early eighteenth century almost entirely on the writings of Daniel Defoe’ (Shinagel, p.17)” (Moss, Wilson 338).
Though there are consequences to their desires; they gain knowledge about themselves and about society from an outside view. Like Crusoe, Defoe also goes against his parent’s rule, and Defoe was born into the middle class and was expected to live accordingly to that standard. Another similarity between the author and his character, was Defoe’s loyalty to his desires and principles regardless of his family or of society’s outlook on them. Defoe was a man who was willing to sacrifice himself while holding the courage to go after what he desired in life and what he believed was right. Though society did not embrace Defoe’s tactics; Defoe was able to expose the deceit in politics, the importance of trade, and the revelations he had made about the economy and the advancement of society. Robinson Crusoe being one of the novels he had written later on, in his life, held many similarities between author and main character.
The author did not create similarities within the individual, without also creating similarities between societies. Defoe transcended his society’s principles into the book and
recreated the journey he had gone through, through alternate misfortunes. When it came to England; “he constantly revisited the relations between wealth and commerce, effeminacy, morality, political constitution and national character. Unavoidably, then, Defoe needed to draw upon the dominant models of social change to explain these relations: civic humanism and commercial ideology” (Gregg 27). These subjects found themselves within the novel, expressing the ways in which they combined into the independence of the individual, and how these concepts altered that independence.
Crusoe’s desertion and isolation on the island contributes to his growth as an individual as he finds solace in the absence of civilization, however, one can see how Defoe inserts society onto the abandoned island. In associating the character with the island, Gregg defines Crusoe: “[I]t is in the landscape of Crusoe’s island that we see the emblem of his manliness” (63). Understanding Defoe’s representation of ‘manliness,’ in this novel is a crucial part of understanding the individual. It is not simply about gender being a specific quality of the character; it is about the conflicts he endures and the hard work he engages in, upon this island, that makes him a man. In Defoe’s eyes, a man is not someone who simply takes orders from his parents and follows humanity down a never ending tunnel of corruption and deceit but someone who follows their own impulses, desires and dreams.
“The question in Robinson Crusoe, as in almost all of Defoe’s works, is not so much what happens when one resists authority as what happens when traditionally formed class values are juxtaposed against the drives, impulses, inclinations, and desires of particular individuals. It is in this very area that the novel, past and present, finds its most fascinating subject matter” (87-88).
Crusoe is not making his choices to intentionally fight against society but because his decisions oppose the traditional class values of what a man during this time period in England, should be taking part in, the character becomes a part of a greater philosophical concept.
The notions of survival, slavery, money, existence of other people and creatures, and religion are taken from the world and slowly injected onto the island. The concept of money is deeply inserted into Crusoe’s journey’s and various interactions; where he always ends up trading one thing for something else:
“he offer’d me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor boy’s liberty who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own… Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him” (Defoe 29).
This creates a controversial political statement causing readers to contemplate and question the moral code and values of not only Crusoe but society during this time period. Crusoe takes part in various acts of slavery; inadvertently reflecting society’s power over someone else, to the point where they own someone.
The controversial portrayal of politics and power were not the only blatant attacks on society, but Defoe included religion into his novel as well. Defoe’s father desired his son to dive into the ministry but Daniel had different motives and outlooks on religion. The author has Crusoe find religion not within public discourse but in his private realm on the island. Dr. Morillo states: “[F]inding God should and must be an independent act… [I]t was his very
rebellion against his father and the “Middle Station” that put him in a position to find God on his own.” (2) Though Crusoe is equipped with a Bible; the insertion of God and the contemplations of his journey, not being found through the Church but his own individual sickness, opposed society’s declaration of religion. Furthermore; “This introduction of another human being to the
system, and his discourse with Crusoe on religious matters, is where the public realm of religion emerges… Friday’s own innate goodness [makes] Crusoe question his own God” (Morillo 2).
Sharing his religious revelations with Friday, Crusoe began to question his own beliefs and this portrays the impact of civilization on an individual’s beliefs. Through these subtle insertions, Defoe is blending the contrasting relationship between man and humanity, and exposing the truth about society during this time.
Since Crusoe had been on the island and was left to fend for himself, readers can see the growth of his character in certain aspects:
“I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here: I had neither the lust of flesh, the lust of eye, or the pride of life.36 I had nothing to covet; for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying” (Defoe 102).
Though Crusoe’s desire for adventuring and exploring led him to various obstacles, it led him away from the materialistic evils of the world, as he had no choice but to become dependent on the natural world. Here, Crusoe only had what he needed for comfort and survival; creating the idea that happiness and satisfaction would be found more in a life one created for one’s self, than a life bound and limited by the laws of England.
The removal of society made the questionable values of civilization fade, as Crusoe created his own form of society where he was fit for each occupation; such as constructing a home, becoming a hunter, and relying on nature which he needed desperately. The island became a place where neither money nor class status held any power. Heyck declares: “Each person and family assumed the style, the duties, and the privileges of their new position as they moved up the rungs. Social mobility thus provided a safety valve for the economic dynamism of the country” (51). There were no concerns of social mobility or class on the island; there was just the
importance of one man and his survival. The nonexistent exposed England’s downfalls: “Defoe may be uncovering an unpalatable truth in a pragmatic way, but his lament is directed at ‘the times’ and their seeming obsession with appearances and status emulation” (Gregg 20). Defoe takes readers away from their time, placing them on a deserted island, in the mind of a man who has nothing but himself; to ponder the realities of England’s ‘prosperous’ actions, as well as the consequences.
Through the insertion of humanity such as the cannibals and Friday, Defoe paints a new kind of society:
“Defoe illustrates the idea of tolerance when he shows that African, British, and Spanish men can peacefully coexist on one island. Crusoe’s island is the site of cooperation and tolerance among men of different religions and nationalities. Defoe holds up the island as a model upon which his own country, the island nation of England, can rebuild itself” (Moss, Wilson 338).
This display of various humans being united breaks the chains of slavery and class. It creates the notion that all people, regardless of their backgrounds or religion are equal, and there was no forced religion or forced law upon them. They were free to be who they were and practice their individual beliefs. This creates a great distinction between Crusoe’s society and society within England.
The absence of the need for money, trade, and wealth creates the importance of labor and production with no control over the means. Crusoe was forced to face the repercussions of his choices and within his suffering, gains more knowledge than he would have had, had he obliged the authority figures in his life.
Though Crusoe never quite detaches himself from the warnings his father gave him before leaving, his journey enhances the individual and exposes the flaws in society:
“[H]is character may be better served in the long run by resisting his father’s advice than by giving in to it complacently. There are times when the secure and complacent life he recommends is worse than the necessary errantry of a free soul… Some of the best of recent work on Crusoe by young scholars, such as Richard Braverman and Christopher Flint, see the struggle of Crusoe as the struggle of the new order in English commercial or civic life, an order based not so much on family relations and custom as on proprietary contract and economic expansion. For Flint, the annulment of the family is a paramount experience in the whole of the Crusoe saga and made a necessity of island life. Island life, that is, becomes the symbol of what Crusoe seeks and needs all along: independence21” (Seidel 88).
Here, Seidel is exploring the desire for independence; Crusoe’s desire to break his ties from England and live his own life, without worrying about abiding by someone else’s laws. Crusoe’s desires made him stubborn to the warnings in front of him because he did not desire being cemented in a cell where his life was dictated by the most powerful.
Visconsi offers a different representation of the novel, as he says: “the novel wrestle[s] with the problems of civility and barbarism; the novel proposes trade as a remedy for New World
savagery on the model of England’s own unfinished word of civilizing itself through enterprise and trade” (187). England thrived on wealth and trade, and this provided the foundation for members within society to flourish. From slavery to savages, to religion and unnecessary money found on the wrecked ship; one can view the insertion of society into the individual realm the island provides Crusoe with. Even in his quest for independence, Defoe presents readers with the
societal values that have already been engraved in Crusoe’s mind: “[I]n another I found about thirty six pounds value in money, some European coins, some Brasil, some pieces of Eight, some gold, some silver… O dryg! said I aloud, what art thou good for?” (Defoe 47) Though Crusoe does not require any money, has no use for it, and even goes as far as saying one knife is
worth more than all those coins, gold, and silver; he takes the money with him regardless. While Defoe portrays the lack of necessity for money, he also shows the power money holds over a person during this time. As stripped from humanity as Crusoe is, and though he finds peace within nature, he still possesses qualities and holds values of those he left behind. This is the third place where the relationship between man and society blurs. The first place was Crusoe’s selling Xury and the second was Crusoe’s religious discourse with Friday.
Through the misadventures of Robinson Crusoe; one can view the struggle of maintaining independence in a corrupted society. Defoe’s portrayal of 17th century England and in retrospect, the advancements that would come within the next century, reflects the downfalls of civilization. The author shows the power of a class over one man, the doubt society can instill within a person’s beliefs, and the questionable integrity of a man should he abide by social class mobility, rather than stand strong beside his own personal beliefs. If there were a piece of knowledge that was nonexistent at the beginning of this novel, it would have to be Daniel Defoe’s ability to reveal the individual versus society on a deserted island, in deep comparison with the choices, actions, and morals of England; giving readers a better understanding of the development of civilization over time.
1. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Ed. John Richetti. Penguin Classics, 2001.
2. Moss, Joyce and George Wilson. Vol. 1: Ancient Times to the American and French Revolutions (Pre-History-1790s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 337-343
3. Gregg, Stephen. Defoe’s Writings and Manliness: Contrary Men. Farnharm, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2009. 20-164
4. Visconsi, Elliott. Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2008. 185-187
5. Seidel, Michael. Tawyne’s Masterwork Studies 64. Boston: Twayne, 1991. 87-88
6. Morillo. PHD. “Robinson Crusoe: An Evolution of Political Religion.” English 362: Eighteenth-Century Novel. 12 March 2012 .
7. Heyck, Thomas. The People of the British Isles. Lycem Books, 2002. 50-5