About the author:
Unsurprisingly, I have been an avid reader since I was a kid. I love reading books and thinking about books; I also love science fiction, painting, and plants that don’t die easily. I am currently in Pure & Applied Science and will be pursuing a career in physics, and I hope to eventually work in medical imaging and research.
“I was removed from all the wickedness of the world”: The Building of Identity
in Solitude in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
By Yuliya Shpunarska
for Unmapped: Encountering the Other with Prof. Rebecca Million
The problems encountered due to solitude are not often explored in adventure-oriented stories. Even nowadays, the lone hero, pinnacle of individualism, must face the world and build himself at the same time. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel and arguably the most iconic of castaway stories, hides behind a popular image comprised of adventurous shenanigans, and a protagonist bathed in symbolism and sociological implications, important in the context of the rise of individualism in Britain. Crusoe’s shaky boundaries between his psyche and the world outside place him simultaneously as a god-like demonic figure, a ruler, and a subject to his own Self, made concrete in the form of the island and his interactions with it.
Crusoe’s spirituality is an intrinsic part of his experience in solitude and the building of his identity away from social interaction. He reacts with impulsive superstition when seeing the eyes of “some creature, whether Devil or man” in a cave (Defoe 169), and similarly upon finding a man’s footprint on the shore, which he takes as a trick played by the Devil. These elements, the dying goat and his reaction to the footprint, permeated with references to a demonic presence on the island, indicate Crusoe’s internalized belief in his evil self and his duality as both a good Christian and a sinner. Indeed, in both cases he sees a mirror of himself. After calming his anxiety that arose from his discovery of the footprint, Crusoe is convinced that it was “a mere chimera of [his] own” (152), namely that the footprint was not the Devil’s, but his. The spectre of the old goat in the cave also seems to remind Crusoe of the possibility of a lonely death on the island, for the goat, old and frail, dies in confinement away from his peers. The symbolic goat is also placed in Christianity as an ambassador of sin and, by extension, of the Devil (NIV Bible, Matthew 25:41-46). However, Crusoe holds the role of yet another biblical figure; the naming of his rebellion against his father as his “Original Sin” (Defoe 183) places him in the shoes of Adam, the embodiment of all mankind, as well as Lucifer, who was confined to live away from his heaven. Let it be noted that Lucifer’s name means “bringer of light” as a Latin adjective, or “morning star” as a noun (Lewis and Short) – following Crusoe’s association with a devil figure, he can be either interpreted as the bringer of enlightenment and civilization to the island, or as an ironic figure of human corruption and a not-so-first bringer of fire to the island. Crusoe thus becomes an Adam for Homo Economicus, the new enlightened man of the 18th century who is both a devoted Protestant and an ambitious worker capable of independent thought. He is also a man whose colonial and industrial activity will, as history shows, destroy resources and peoples.
Crusoe’s need to dominate the island gives his life meaning for the years in which he isn’t living precariously. This could be a comment on the “natural” inevitability of colonization and the acquiring of private property in the eyes of the English; in this sense, any domination over a territory and its resources is justified by the fact that it is the only natural thing to do. After some time living on the island, Crusoe is convinced that he may “call [himself] king, or emperor over the whole country which [he] had possession of” (Defoe 125). He is empowered by his modifications, or in his eyes the civilization that he brought to the island, which makes the island a part of him. European ideas such as terra nullius, through which Crusoe decides that the land belongs to him as there was no one “to dispute sovereignty or command with [him]” (125), allow him to assert his power over his surroundings and prove the solidity of his identity. Since this identity rests in great part on the control that he exerts on his island through agriculture, infrastructure or simply possession, it is no surprise that individuals who could disturb his sovereignty over the island, and as such attack him from the inside, could evoke such a strong desire to “kill them all” (161). In this frame, Crusoe is not as much scared of the physical harm that the cannibals may cause, but rather of the domination that they can have over him by consuming his flesh or, almost synonymously, by using his island for their rituals.
Crusoe is subjected to the whims of the climate and the laws of nature as much as he is to his moments of madness and his passions. His constructions on the island, which he always fears collapsing, symbolize his own construct of his story. He feels the need, throughout his stay on the island, to build stronger fortifications, “growing so monstrous thick and strong” (155), to protect himself against an unseen danger. This protection offers him a metaphorical safe place to assert his beliefs about the world and the Other that it holds, and thereby build the boundaries of his identity. Despite the seemingly rational depiction of the Englishman, as is the common ideal in the Age of Enlightenment, some moments, especially in his solitude, betray a man to easily be tipped off into madness. His thoughts upon discovering the presence of another in his safe haven, despite his cold recollection of the event, indicate a profound anxiety. He immediately resolves to “throw down [his] enclosures”, and “demolish [his] bower, and tent” (153), essentially sabotaging years of hard work in a fit of panic. Symbolically, this refers to the fragility of an identity carefully crafted in solitude when it comes into contact with the Other, as the fear of this Other wakes feelings that subdue reason. Crusoe could not have established mechanisms to protect himself as part of his identity because of the distinct lack of others in his company: the only boundaries he knows to set are physical and spiritual (in his fever-induced dream about an assassin “as bright as a flame” (87), he clearly shows a distinction from and a subordination to an incomprehensible higher power). The reader is led to believe that Crusoe may have omitted or dampened some less flattering moments in his story upon telling it to civilized European audiences who are quick to judge the acts of men in unfamiliar and desperate situations. Indeed, people who have their basic physiological needs fulfilled may not find a story of survival interesting or relatable; it is possible that Crusoe exaggerated his intellectual prowess in hindsight to make the story more appealing to a demographic that craves a self-interested, rational, and stoic protagonist. A proof of his skewed recalling of the adventure is the lack of detail of his seafaring days, “wicked and profane to the last degree” (88), which one would expect to be flamboyant enough to be told in an adventure story. Nonetheless, no more details are ever given about this life, other than his acting “like a mere brute from the principles of Nature” (88). The audience is expected to know what is meant by this natural wickedness; an opportunity for them to project their insecurities upon the past of this character. Crusoe’s guilt and resentment over that lifestyle came only after spending a few decades away from society, but this attitude strangely enough converges back onto the beliefs of said society, namely that any life that is not pious and productive is not a good life.
In all, the many aspects of Crusoe’s construction of his Self, ranging from the loss of control over his feelings to the excessive control he needs to compensate for it, suggest the consequences of a lack of an Other for which to establish boundaries in the building of identity, but also point to a European man’s “natural” tendency to be proper when left alone. In this last sense, Crusoe’s story can be read as a guide (or even propaganda) to the perfect Englishman, who, when left in a state of nature, will build himself an identity that matches those of the English upper-middle class, justifying its legitimacy, as well as its growing importance and power. This obsessive self-justification may play a significant role in centuries of colonization and of pushing all boundaries, which proves to ultimately be the downfall of those terrible “savages” that Crusoe feared more than he feared the Devil.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London, Arcturus Publishing, 2018.
Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. “Lūcĭfer.” A Latin Dictionary, Perseus Digital Library. www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dlucifer. Accessed 7 April 2019.
The Bible. New International Version, MIT Bible Gateway. http://web.mit.edu/jywang/www/cef/
Bible/NIV/NIV_Bible/MATT+25.html. Accessed 10 April 2019.