Religion in Robinson Crusoe by Lilia Melani

Religion in Robinson Crusoe

by Dr. Lilia Melani

Religious Considerations

Robinson Crusoe, alone on the island, turns to God.

N. C. Wyeth illustration for Robinson Crusoe, Chapter 10
Thanks to the ArtPassions website for this image.

For many, perhaps most readers, Crusoe’s many references to God, to Providence, to sin are extraneous to the real interest of the novel and they quickly skim these passages, to get to the “good parts.” Some see the religious references as Defoe’s attempt to make his fiction acceptable to the large section of the book-reading and book-buying public which regarded fiction as lies which endangered the soul’s salvation. So a major critical issue for you to think about is whether religion plays an essential role in this novel or whether it has been imposed upon the novel.

Spiritual Autobiography

One way of reading Robinson Crusoe is as a spiritual autobiography. The spiritual biography/autobiography portrays the Puritan drama of the soul. Concerned about being saved, having a profound sense of God’s presence, seeing His will manifest everywhere, and aware of the unceasing conflict between good and evil, Puritans constantly scrutinized their lives to determine the state of their souls and looked for signs of the nature of their relationship with God (i.e., saved or not). The spiritual autobiography usually follows a common pattern: the narrator sins, ignores God’s warnings, hardens his heart to God, repents as a result of God’s grace and mercy, experiences a soul-wrenching conversion, and achieves salvation. The writer emphasizes his former sinfulness as a way of glorifying God; the deeper his sinfulness, the greater God’s grace and mercy in electing to save him. He reviews his life from the new perspective his conversion has given him and writes of the present and the future with a deep sense of God’s presence in his life and in the world.

Readers through the nineteenth century read Robinson Crusoe in this light. For example, a reviewer for the Dublin University Magazine called the book “a great religious poem, showing that God is found where men are absent” (1856). In deciding whether or to what extent Robinson Crusoe is a spiritual autobiography and “a great religious poem,” you might consider the following:

  • In the “Preface,” Defoe announces that his intention is “to justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances” (xv).
  •  Crusoe receives warnings against the rashness of going to sea from his father and from the captain of the first ship he sails on. Both are figures of authority and can be seen as proxies for God. In ignoring their warnings, is he also denying God’s providential social order in the world and, by implication, God? By “God’s providential social order in the world” I mean that God arranged the world hierarchically, endowing the king with authority in the political realm and the father with authority in the family.
  •  Does Providence send him punishments and deliverances to awaken a sense of his sinfulness and to turn him to God? Are the shipwrecks and his enslavement, his escape from slavery and then from the island evidence of God’s Providence or merely chance?
  •  In the Puritan view, the duplication of dates for significant events is indisputable evidence of Providence at work. Crusoe notes that the date he ran away from his family is the same date he was captured and made a slave; the day that he survived his first shipwreck is the same date he was cast ashore on the island; and the day he was born is the same day he was cast ashore, “so that my wicked life and my solitary life begun both on a day” (129). Is this similarity of dates the working of Providence or merely chance, meaningless coincidence?
  •  Crusoe throughout uses religious language, imagery, and Biblical references (he quotes 20 passages from the Bible). Does this reflect the extent to which his belief in Providence has permeated his life, or have his conversion and subsequent Bible studies and religious meditation merely provided him with a language which has become habitual?
  •  Crusoe converts Friday to Christianity. Is Crusoe saving his soul for spiritual reasons or for self-interest to make Friday more tractable, reliable, and controllable?
  •  Crusoe narrates his life story long afterward, and from the beginning of his tale Crusoe presents events not only from his point of view as a youth but also from a Christian perspective; he looks at his past through the eyes of the convert who now constantly sees the working of Providence. He tells of his first shipwreck and of his then ignoring what he now perceives as God’s warning, “… Providence, as in such cases generally it does, resolved to leave me entirely without excuse. For if I would not take this for a deliverance, the next was to be such a one as the worst and most hardened wretch among us would confess both the danger and the mercy” (7).
  •  Are “the secret hints and notices of danger” (244) evidence of Providence’s warnings or merely the expression of his unconscious or unacknowledged desires and fears? Is it relevant that Defoe believed in friendly Daimons who execute God’s Providence?

 When we are in a quandary, as we call it, a doubt or hesitation, whether to go this way or that, a secret hint shall direct us to got his way when we intended to go another way; nay, when sense, our own inclination, and perhaps business has called to go the other way, yet a strange impression upon the mind, from we know not what springs, and by we know not what power, shall overrule us to go this way, and it shall afterwards appear that had we gone that way which we would have gone and even to our imagination ought to have gone, we should have been ruined and lost. (Vision of the Angelic World)

Crusoe’s Original Sin

Crusoe’s conversation with his father about leaving home can be interpreted from a religious perspective as well from an economic perspective. Crusoe repeatedly refers to leaving home without his father’s permission as his “original sin”; he not only associates God and his father but regards his sin against his father as a sin against God also. Remembering his first voyage, Crusoe comments: “…my conscience, which was not yet come to the pitch of hardness to which it has been since, reproached me with the contempt of advice and the breach of my duty to God and my Father” (5). In the Puritan family structure, the father was regarded as God’s deputy; in rejecting his father’s advice, Crusoe is committing Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience. For Crusoe, as for Adam, and Eve, disobedience grows out of restlessness and discontent with the station God assigned.

When Crusoe is cast ashore on a deserted island, he sees his situation as the fulfillment of his father’s prediction that if Crusoe disregarded his advice, Crusoe would find himself alone with no source of help. Alone on the island, is Crusoe Everyman, alienated from God because of sin? Alternately, Michael McKeon offers possible interpretations of Crusoe’s original sin which are related to social motivation:

— an expression of capitalistic industry,

— an anticapitalist impulse to ramble and evade his capitalist calling,

— an anti-Puritan motive to evade his Puritan calling, with a general unregenerate waywardness with no social significance.

Crusoe’s Religious Conversion

How sincere and how profound is Crusoe’s conversion? Clearly, it is a long time coming, for he resists a succession of Providential warnings and deliverances. Discovering the barley and rice inspires him with religious feeling as long as he believes their growth miraculous; but once he finds the rational explanation for their appearing, he loses faith. Hence a wrathful God threatens him in a dream, he believes. But how are we to understand that dream of God? Is it a hallucination caused by fever? an expression of his terror at being alone which the illness brought out? or, what Crusoe takes it to be, a warning from God? Is Crusoe’s warmest, most characteristic emotion, as William H. Halewood suggests, his anxiety for his soul, an anxiety which fully manifests itself in his dream of God?

Once the process of conversion begins, it follows a typical pattern. After his dream and the beginning of his regeneration, Defoe reviews his life (89-94) and his understanding and sense of God deepen. But reason alone is not sufficient to result in conversion, and Crusoe turns to the Bible; studying it reveals God’s word and will to him, and he finds comfort, guidance, and instruction in it. For the first time in many years he prays, and he prays, not for rescue from the island, but for God’s help, “Lord be my help, for I am in great distress” (88). After thinking about his life, he kneels to God for the first time in his life and prays to God to fulfill his promise “that if I called upon Him in the day of trouble, He would deliver me” (91). His next step toward conversion is asking for God’s grace, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, Jesus, Thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me repentance!” (93). He comes to realize that spiritual deliverance from sin is more important than physical deliverance from the island. A little later, when he is about to thank God for bringing him to the island and so saving him, he stops, shocked at himself and the hypocrisy of such a statement. Then he “sincerely gave thanks to God for opening my eyes, by whatever afflicting providences, to see the former condition of my life, and to mourn for my wickedness, and repent” (110). Does this incident indicate that Crusoe’s faith is fervent and honest?

Crusoe shares his religion with Friday; is there any greater gift or expression of love than saving the soul of another? Crusoe is able to admit, humbly, that Friday is the better Christian. When he is delivered from the island by the English captain, he acknowledges God’s power and Providence and “forgot not to lift up my heart in thankfulness to Heaven; and what heart could forbear to bless Him” (266). His gratitude to God on this occasion contrasts with his merely mouthing thanks to God for being saved from the shipwreck; does the difference in his response reflect an abiding faith in Defoe or does the difference in the circumstances account for the change?

No matter how you interpret his conversion, it is undeniable that Crusoe has lapses into an unregenerate state. After he comes across the single footprint, Crusoe is so terrified that he irrationally considers laying waste to his crops, livestock, and home; finds himself seldom able to pray; and loses his ability to create. When he realizes cannibals visit the island, he is so filled with hatred, rage, and fear that he becomes obsessed with bloodthirsty plans to annihilate them. These responses last for years.

So, is his physical survival more important to Crusoe than his relationship with God? Is it accurate to say that whenever his survival is threatened, his religious practice and sense of God’s presence all but disappear? Even his conversion after his dream can be seen as a matter of self-preservation; is he terrified by God’s threat into conversion? Do these responses indicate that his religion is a matter of convenience, an expression of fear, or perhaps a means to control his terror? Is Crusoe unknowingly using a relationship with God to substitute for human relationships?

When he dreams of rescuing a cannibal, he unhesitatingly sees the dream as Providence-sent. But when the dream becomes reality, he does not act completely in accordance with it; he does not take Friday into his home immediately. Does this indicate a deficiency in his faith in God, or is his behavior merely prudent and sensible?

It is understandable that the unregenerate Crusoe is willing to pass as a Catholic in Brazil; however, what explains his behavior after his conversion, when he seriously considers returning to Brazil and passing as a Catholic again, in order to regain his estate? True, he finally “began to regret my having professed myself a Papist, and thought it might not be the best religion to die with” (280). But still, his main reason for not going to Brazil is that he doesn’t know what to do with the wealth he has accumulated in Portugal. In the conflict between economic motive and spiritual salvation, is the economic drive stronger? And if so, does it dominate only temporarily, sporadically, or consistently?

Do Crusoe’s religious lapses necessarily indicate insincerity and a superficial conversion or are there other explanations? For example, is Defoe showing imperfect human nature and the difficulty of maintaining a religious spirit and of living in the light of conversion? Does conversion mean that the sinner becomes a saint and never falters? Or does conversion, rather, give the individual the strength to overcome spiritual obstacles and temptations, not immunity to them? In a fallen, evil world, does the saved sinner still have temptations to overcome, dangers to face, and sorrows to deal with, and is it this reality that Defoe is showing with Crusoe’s temporarily falling away from God?

Defoe’s Failure to Justify Providence

Even if we accept that Defoe’s intention is to justify and honor Providence, the question still remains whether he carries out his intention. Leopold Damrosch, Jr. thinks not:

Defoe sets out to dramatize the conversion of the Puritan self, and he ends by celebrating a solitude that exalts autonomy instead of submission. He undertakes to show the dividedness of a sinner, and ends by projecting a hero so massively self-enclosed that almost nothing of his inner life is revealed. He proposes a naturalistic account of real life in a real world, and ends by creating an immortal triumph of wish-fulfillment.

Damrosch does not attribute Defoe’s failure to carry out his intention to insincerity; rather it stems in part from a failure in Puritanism, which changed from an ideology which wanted to transform the world (e.g., founding Massachusetts Bay Colony as God’s commonwealth on earth) to a social class motivated by self interest.

John Richetti offers a different explanation for what he sees as Defoe’s failure. Richetti identifies Crusoe’s mastery of himself and nature as the novel’s central concern; this concern, he believes, invalidates Crusoe’s religious beliefs and experience. Defoe was unable “to allow Crusoe to achieve and enjoy freedom and power without violating the restrictions of a moral and religious ideology which defines the individual as less than autonomous.”

Is there an inherent conflict between Crusoe’s religion and his economic concerns, one which Defoe may or may not have been aware of? Are diligence in making money and concern about worldly affairs necessarily incompatible with spiritual well-being and a sincere religious faith? Puritans debated these questions in terms of faith versus works, and some found ways to resolve the conflict. Stephen Charnock urged, “Tho we are sure God has decreed the certain event of such a thing, yet we must not encourage our idleness but our diligence.” Defoe held similar views:

To be utterly careless of ourselves, and talk of trusting Providence, is a lethargy of the worst nature; for as we are to trust Providence with our estates, but to use, at the same time, all diligence in our callings, so we are to trust Providence with our safety, but with our eyes open to all its necessary cautions, warnings, and instructions. (Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe)

Christian Symbolism

For the Puritans, every happening had a spiritual meaning as well as, usually, a moral meaning. It was their duty to try to decipher these spiritual meanings. One reason for the Puritan practice of keeping a journal or diary was to make a permanent record of events, to be reviewed later for their spiritual meaning and to perceive patterns of meaning. As a sample of this way of looking at the world, I have listed some of the events in Crusoe’s life with possible spiritual interpretations. It is up to you to decide whether Defoe and/or Crusoe saw any of them in this way.

going off course at sea spiritual drift
being a slave being enslaved by sin
his shipwrecks spiritual shipwreck
physical illness and recovery spiritual disease and conversion/salvation
almost swept out to sea in canoe danger of relying on self, not God
wild animals in Africa human beings’ depraved nature
cannibals human beings’ depraved nature
Crusoe’s struggles in ocean and being cast ashore rebirth/start of new life
Crusoe alone on island man alone in relationship with God
seeds of barley and rice sprouting seeds of grace stirring in Crusoe
finally succeeding in making an earthen pot finally achieving religious conversion (He refers to himself as a serviceable pot.)
goatskin clothes armor of faith
Crusoe’s impregnable, extensive fortifications the invuln[er]ability of the true Christian

Many thanks to Dr. Lilia Melani, a member of the English Department at Brooklyn College (City University of New York), for graciously granting permission to reproduce this article. The original article is available on her website: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_18c/defoe/religion.html

This article is reprinted here for educational purposes,  with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.


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