Written by Austin Barbosa
for Prof. Rebecca Million
In Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, the author tells the unfortunate and compelling tale of a very ordinary man living much of his life under extraordinary circumstances. Through the interpretation of the symbolism presented in the novel, this essay will argue that the character of Robinson Crusoe represents an embodiment of the transcending individualistic way of being that began to emerge in the 18th century, going so far as to conclude that Crusoe was most happy when on the island, isolated from the vast majority of civilized society. This thesis will be argued on the basis of three claims. Firstly, the bower that Crusoe builds further into the island as his country home portrays a meaningful change for him, which leads to an eventual enjoyment of his present condition. Secondly, the discovery of the lone footprint on the island’s shore incites a negative reaction from Crusoe, illustrating an evident preference for solitary life away from human danger. Lastly, the relationship formed between Crusoe and Friday exhibits a transition from traditional views, and embodies the evolving landscape of the 18th century, while also portraying a lasting fondness for life away from society, on the island.
Several years after his arrival on the island, Crusoe fabricates a second habitation in a more animated and plentiful area of the island, which he calls his “country seat”, or his “bower”. This second home represents a vital transformation in how Crusoe views his condition on the island. After spending several days living off this luxurious section of the island, Crusoe “was so Enamour’d of this Place, that [he] spent much of [his] Time there, for the whole remaining Part of the Month of July; and tho’ upon second Thoughts [he] resolv’d … not to remove … [he] built [himself] a little kind of bower” (Defoe 132). Crusoe’s decision to build this country home is an extremely significant moment during his 28-year confinement on the island, as it symbolizes the transition from survival to pleasure. From this moment on, the island becomes more than a dreadful, desolate place for Crusoe. The bower symbolizes the beginning of a long twenty-year transformation of the island from hell to home. Crusoe further implies a change in his demeanor when he recounts that at “About the Beginning of August … [he] had finish’d [his] Bower, and began to enjoy [himself]” (Defoe 132). The notion that one can never truly survive without leisure and enjoyment becomes evident when Crusoe endeavors to build a home in the area he is so fond of. After some time, he treats the bower much like a vacation home, stating that “whenever [he] had Occasion to be absent from [his] chief Seat, [he] took up [his] Country Habitation” (Defoe 175). Life on the island for Crusoe becomes remarkably comfortable. Between the combination of his ability to survive more than adequately, his newfound religious confidence and occasional pleasurable retreat to his country home, it is reasonable to speculate that Crusoe has never been more fulfilled, or at the very least, had very few problems with his current environment. Unfortunately, this euphoria is quickly overturned when a mysterious footprint is discovered on the shore of the island.
Finally achieving a state of peace and tranquility on the uninhabited island, Crusoe’s mental comportment drastically changes when he spots a single human footprint on shore. While this footprint symbolizes a shift in Crusoe’s spiritual management, it further demonstrates an extremely negative reaction by Crusoe, providing evidence that he now considers human contact as a threat, and has thus adopted a more individualistic view of society. After noticing something peculiar in the sand while going over to his boat, Crusoe describes the utter dismay of possible human presence on his island:
… there was exactly the very Print of a Foot, Toes, Heel, and every Part of a Foot; how it came thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus’d and out of my self, I came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground I went on, but terrify’d to the last Degree, looking behind me at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying every Stump at a Distance to be a Man. (Defoe 176)
Although the terrified reaction of Crusoe can be easily understood given the foreign nature of his environment, it is important to note that the discovery of the human footprint never once incites a positive feeling of possible companionship, or human interaction. At this point in time, Crusoe has entered a period of his life where he is spiritually at ease, and the footprint represents a rupture in his newly balanced lifestyle. The mere possibility of eventual human presence on his island incites an extremely dramatic response from Crusoe, as he recounts that “[he] now liv’d two Years under these Uneasinesses, which indeed made [his] Life much less comfortable than it was before; as may well be imagin’d by any who know what it is to live in the constant Snare of the Fear of Man” (Defoe 184). The footprint aids the reader to deduce that Crusoe has undergone a social transformation, where seclusion and individualism have led him to a much happier lifestyle than the shackles of society could ever provide. This is only further exemplified when the footprint confines Crusoe to two years of hiding, and living in utmost fear. The mere thought of a breach in his personal microcosm “rack’d [his] Imagination” and led him to pessimistically believe that if “there were People [there] […] [he] should certainly have them come again in greater Numbers, and devour [him]” (Defoe 178). The prospect of the introduction of a different human being on his individually conceived sense of being is immediately assumed to be an imminent threat that must be avoided at all costs; Crusoe is now much more independently inclined than ever before. This change in circumstance eventually leads to an affectionate relationship with an unassuming character, thus ultimately improving the society Crusoe has already put in place for himself.
Although Crusoe immediately establishes an explicit power relationship with Friday, several elements about their ensuing friendship display an unprecedented emotional response from Crusoe; one of love, and respect. This relationship suggests both that Crusoe begins to exhibit a modern human-focused view of society that was rising in popularity in the 18th century, and that he values his relationship with Friday, as well as their time spent together on the island. About a year after Crusoe met Friday, he states, “This was the pleasantest Year of all the Life I led in this Place … I began really to love the Creature; and on his Side, I believe he lov’d me more than it was possible for him ever to love any Thing before” (Defoe 226). It is definitive that Crusoe never experiences a relationship with anyone that is quite as affectionate as his with Friday. Even after leaving the island, Crusoe continues to be accompanied by “his man Friday” and he continues to “[prove] a most faithful Servant upon all Occasions” (Defoe 281-282). The relationship Crusoe has with Friday symbolizes a time of happiness and fulfillment, which can never quite be matched when off the island, and, once again, part of civilized society. The everlasting bond between the two men exhibits a lasting fondness of a simplistic life crafted to their own liking, where the absence of social stigmas allowed for the development of a loving relationship that embodied a universal human view of friendship despite racial differences. In a world where so-called savages would never be seen as powerful figures, Crusoe appoints Friday his “Lieutenant-General” (Defoe 271) within his kingdom, free from the overarching laws of social standards. A combination of love and respect provokes a slight change in the treatment of Friday when compared to the de facto standard of the era, and demonstrates an unmatched sense of happiness and companionship that could only be achieved when Crusoe was most happy; a leader with his subject, in a kingdom a thousand miles from nowhere, in the middle of the ocean.
In conclusion, Crusoe’s country seat, the footprint in the sand, and his tight-knit friendship with Friday symbolize a yearning for a life free from the shackles and restrictions of society, and suggest that Crusoe was only truly happy when he lived a thousand miles from the main-land, a king in his castle, with only his subjects to keep him company. In an era where the novel acted as a means for the general pursuit of knowledge and entertainment for all, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe led by example, telling the tale of a man whose lonesome journey emanated into the enlightenment of the human condition, and the realization that society is what the individual makes it out to be.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Ed. Evan R. Davis Claremont: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.