“Robinson Crusoe is an allegorical journey to imperialism. Comment.
Discuss Robinson Crusoe as a prototype colonizer.
What aspects/elements of colonialism do you find in Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe? Discuss in brief.
Is Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe is a colonizer? Give reasons for your answer.
To what extent Robinson Crusoe is a colonizer in Defoe’s book Robinson Crusoe?
Answer: Daniel Defoe’s world-class masterpiece Robinson Crusoe is a powerful adventure story of a seafaring person. The book tells the tale of a marooned individual who through relentless efforts ‘builds his own empire in a deserted island. But, it is not an adventure story only; it can be read at multiple levels. Brett C. Mcinelly comments in this regard:
“Spatially, Robinson Crusoe illustrates that the vastness of the globe can bring a corresponding enlargement, rather than shrinking, of the venturing self and can produce close self-reflection of a kind not easy to achieve in “civilized” society. Religiously, the novel demonstrates that a spiritual awakening can take place in isolation from society and can be crystallized when an Englishman subordinates and converts a non-European Other. Economically, Defoe’s novel functions as an argument for the expansion of trade. And psychologically, Robinson Crusoe shows that relations with an alien Other can hone an ego that can master both its own selfhood and the destiny of others.”
That Robinson Crusoe features a British trader as the hero and the novel is set on a distant Caribbean island cries out for interpretation of the text in the colonial contexts. On the surface, the novel is a powerful adventure story which deals with the fortune of a strong-willed and shipwrecked man and his subsequent struggle for survival in a deserted island. But, on another level, the book can be interpreted as an allegorical journey to imperialism. In fact, Robinson Crusoe is commonly regarded as the prototypical colonial novel of the eighteenth century. Critics have pointed out colonial elements in the book. In this regard, Edward Said’s comment is noteworthy; he says that Robinson Crusoe is “a work whose protagonist is the founder of a new world, which he rules and reclaims for Christianity and England”
Colonialism is one of the important aspects of the novel Robinson Crusoe. The adventure story of the book is related in a realist way. Robinson Crusoe and his life story are at the core of Defoe’s novel. Ian Watt in his book The Rise of the Novel identifies Robinson Crusoe as the first novel precisely because of the detailed attention Defoe gives an “ordinary” individual. The story apparently is an ordinary one. Crusoe’s journey begins on precarious grounds–he is nearly swallowed by a storm, enslaved by Moors, and shipwrecked on an uninhabited island frequented by cannibals and located in the middle of the Spanish Empire–Crusoe gradually learns how to assert himself over land and people. In short, the colonial setting facilitates Crusoe’s individualism as he comes to recognize the unique place he occupies as a British Protestant in a world in which he is surrounded by religious and cultural Others.
Brett C. Mclnelly comments that “Robinson Crusoe stands as an allegory or figure of colonialism Defoe transforms colonialism through the power of fictional representation into the adventures of a single man who masters an island, his native companion, and himself. His formal realism works to enfold the myths of psychological and economic self-sufficiency in a texture of convincing detail.” As we read the novel, its protagonist, Crusoe gradually unfolds to us as a prototype colonizer. After being stranded in a deserted island Crusoe through relentless efforts establishes his control over the island and thus shapes his own empire. In the novel Crusoe takes on significance as a character because he stands as a stable and coherent subject in the wake of an expanding empire. He possesses the mindset of a colonizer. He is a fighter who struggles hard to establish his self-importance and dominance. On the island, Crusoe constantly faces physical peril, both real and imagined. He finds himself in a landscape that could easily overpower him. But, Crusoe responds positively to confirm his self-importance. Surveying his circumstances on the island, Crusoe imagines himself “Lord of the whole Mannor; or if I pleas’d, I might call myself King, or Emperor over the whole Country which I had possession of”. Instead of shrinking in terror in an alien environment Crusoe imagines himself in grandiose terms — as a “King, or Emperor”. This shows that Crusoe saw himself as the founder of this island; and according to law in the eighteenth century, Islands i of the sea belonged to the first inhabitant. As the book progresses it s obvious that Crusoe starts to think of himself as the absolute ruler or lawmaker of the island.
Crusoe refashions himself and the island. His way of establishing gradual control over the island and his treatment of Friday make him an archetype of colonization. Crusoe not only takes physical control of things but he also confirms linguistic and cultural dominance too. He makes laws for the island, gives names to different places and things on the island and by doing so he both creates and assumes control over his island home. “By renaming [Friday],” Novak states in his article “Friday: or, the Power of Naming,”, “Crusoe assumes possession of him in the same way that Columbus assumed possession of the land by his namings.”
Like an ideal colonizer Crusoe establishes his cultural dominance on the island too. He establishes the supremacy of his religion. Though the sincerity of Crusoe’s conversion and his religious commitment have been debated by critics, in Robinson Crusoe Defoe creates a Protestant who is tolerant, committed to essential practices, keenly evaluative of his own behavior in relation to his religion, intensely personal in his encounter with God, and committed through acts of interpretation to seeing God’s hand in everything. In the novel Crusoe develops a complex relationship with Friday, his find Friday willingly submits to Robinson’s orders in gratitude for having being rescued. Friday voluntarily accepts a lifelong servitude under a mutual verbal agreement. Indeed, Robinson exercises total authority on Friday; who must obey and be useful to his master. Regarding Friday, Crusoe comments: “I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my business to teach him everything that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and understand me when I spoke….” It reveals Crusoe’s objective of teaching Friday English language, Western habits, and the new name of Friday With which the savage is reborn are obvious attempts for establishing cultural and linguistic dominance. Friday’s conversion to Christianity is another important aspect of colonization. The rescue of Friday, a “wild creature”, supposes to undertake a religious conversion and to educate him into civilized habits. The event further reinforces the theme of colonialism in the novel.
Robinson Crusoe is more than just a story about a man shipwrecked on an island. The island is only a paradoxical place, because it simultaneously becomes a heaven and a threat. It will overwhelm and conquer Crusoe if he does not make it his paradise. It depicts a man’s journey of Christianity and how his faith gives him a sense of power which he pushes upon others. Simultaneously, the novel does not only portray the allegorical journey of spiritual development, it also portrays categorically Crusoe’s allegorical journey to colonialism. The novel shows that Crusoe by mastering his own self masters his destiny; by mastering his destiny he masters others; and by mastering these he masters the economic contingencies of life.