Robinson Crusoe as a Spiritual Autobiography

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Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a seminal text in the English canon.  Written in the early seventeen hundreds, the text has endured no shortage of different perspectives for criticism, analysis, and evaluation.  It would not be false to say that Robinson Crusoe is “about” colonialism, imperialism, man’s sense of industry, the resolve of the committed human experience, and so on.  The novel undoubtedly contains enough material on each of these subjects, and more, to be subjected to criticism which extracts from it themes that are consistent with post-enlightenment notions of industry, politics, exploration, etc.  Perhaps it is partly due to the breadth of its content that reading Robinson Crusoe as a spiritual autobiography poses certain challenges, such that while critics will certainly cede religious elements to the story, actually viewing it as a complete spiritual biography is a difficult task due to the constant and consistent integration of non-spiritual events, sentiments, and persons.  In this short essay we will argue that Robinson Crusoe, though rife with political and secular sentiments throughout, can be read completely as a spiritual autobiography wherein the author expresses and explores spiritual confusion using Crusoe’s own actions and inactions.

The Spiritual Autobiography

The spiritual autobiography catalogs the different spiritual stages that a character will endure.  Naturally, this is somewhat subjective—not only because a given spiritual biography or autobiography may have at its object wildly different religions, but because not every journey itself is exactly the same.  Nevertheless, G.A. Starr in Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography identifies a certain chronological pattern of elements contained within spiritual biographies.  They begin with an original sin where the protagonist transgresses some law, and then include some event or events which serve to draw the protagonist’s attention (back) toward God, either by way of encouragement or by way of warning; such events are recognized by the character as being providential in nature, at least to some degree or another, and are then responded to by some form of conversion (or reinforcement) which itself is usually precipitated by some amount of agony (53-54).

A spiritual biography or autobiography does not, of its nature, require the complete and final conversion of a character.  While Starr’s description of the core elements of a spiritual autobiography chronologically “ends” with conversion, he does not say that the work itself must conclude once the character is converted.  A character may fall again, and may even eventually become completely separated from his previous pious notions (think of Joyce’s Portrait as a quintessential example of how the spiritual autobiography need not actually conclude itself with a favorable disposition toward religion).  By keeping this in mind we can see how Robinson Crusoe, despite the fact that the novel is not neatly wrapped up and concluded with Crusoe’s conversion, can be a complete spiritual autobiography nevertheless.

Starr’s Core Elements in Robinson Crusoe

Very little time or effort is required to see Crusoe’s original sin, as it occurs early on in the novel when he transgresses his father’s wishes and decides to set off abroad.  The sin is more or less immediately chastised with shipwreck, at which point Crusoe himself may not necessarily feel proper guilt over the sin (yet), but feels enough embarrassment at least to prefer to move forward rather than to return home.  The first shipwreck is the first in a serious of “providential messages” which try to draw Crusoe’s attention toward God.  He is shipwrecked again when attempting to leave Africa, and then again when he attempts to leave Brazil for the slave trade, where he finally finds himself in the novel’s most enduring period: shipwrecked on an island, alone, and destitute.

Only after each of these messages does Crusoe finally begin to start taking God seriously.  Emblemized in his desperation, his conversion begins by crying out “Lord, be my help, for I am in great distress” as he observes that “this was the first prayer, if I may call it so, that I had made for many years” (145). Marooned and destitute, he begins to communicate with God as he leverages his own will and industry to sustain himself, all the while considering what role the sins of his own youth and rebelliousness played in directing him toward his current state of affairs.

The Next Steps of the Spiritual Autobiography

As all know, the story does not end with Crusoe converting to God while on the Island.  Rather, previous ambitions frequently return.  His dealings with Friday, though nominally amicable, are also contemptuous.  With the opportunity for survival and rescue, resultant from his new acquaintances on the island, there is a return to the formerly secular and tenacious Crusoe, one who stands far less (if at all) on religious ceremony.  And of course, with the novel ending far more resoundingly in favor of Crusoe’s temporal gains rather than his spiritual ones, it is tempting to tend away from the work as a spiritual autobiography, viewing it as more of a simple biography or autobiography which, due to its breadth, naturally includes some spiritual elements.

Retaining the Spiritual Autobiography Reading through Difficulty

But we can retain the spiritual autobiography reading with an awareness of Crusoe’s (and Defoe’s) life and times.  It would be far too ambitious to attempt to prove that Crusoe is one “type” of man over another; critics can disagree over the type of man he is, and disagreement is warranted, given the host of apparent internal contradictions and strife present in him.  But what we can enter into the order of fact is that Crusoe is a protestant, as was Defoe.  Not only was Crusoe a protestant, but a Presbyterian, whose doctrine proceeds from Calvinism which is most notable for its tenets of double-predestination and human depravity.

In the Calvinist system, man’s free will is not really very free; he is somewhat infallibly pre-ordained to sin and to sin boldly, with or without baptism, with or without faith.  Providence plays a major role in all Christian denominations, but in Calvinist systems’ its role is heightened.  In this way, Crusoe’s entire journey, even when it is not explicitly spiritual, is still a spiritual autobiography.  Everything that happens happened because God so ordained it, including Crusoe’s own spiritual waffling, even post-conversion.  That Crusoe seems to nearly always find a way to forget his spiritual obligations is not even necessarily a failure in the spiritual journey, but rather a fact of the Calvinist, puritanical journey, a central tenet of which is man’s depravity and absolute helplessness sans God’s grace.  Crusoe, when he is not intimately connected with God, cannot help but to act ambitiously, rebelliously, and rashly.

His behavior itself plays a commentarial role in the puritanical spiritual journey.  As Hubbell puts it, “Defoe imagines a true-born Englishman fulfilling his fantasy” (para 4).  The apparent spiritual reticence throughout the novel, even (and perhaps especially) post-conversion, is not an indication that the spiritual autobiography has ended and has been replaced by a secular one, but it is the continuation of that biography within the framework of all man’s actions being depraved and without the possibility of goodness on their own.  Of this, Cope notes that “[Defoe] certainly complicated [the spiritual biography].  He lets Crusoe try on contrasting roles—prodigal son, penitent sinner, pirate, slaver, castaway, homo economicus, governor, king, family man, shipping magnate—in a sequence” (par. 17, emphasis added).  The keyword is contrasting rather than conflicting or contradicting.  In this particular spiritual autobiography, Crusoe could have become an elephant trainer or even a Catholic priest, and neither station would pose a challenge to a story about the ultimate and infallible depravity of his own actions when he is not immediately and intimately in communication with his Creator.

Conclusion

Starr’s elements of a spiritual biography are certainly present in Robinson Crusoe: there is an original sin, a series of retributive events that serve as “messages” to redirect Crusoe toward God, and then an eventual conversion.  But as Cope observed, the pattern is complicated by Crusoe’s own inconsistency in neatly participating in the pattern; at times, it appears that while something spiritual is occurring, it is really just a backdrop to secular, political, and economic concerns and ideas; besides, what else would a man due when marooned on an island in solitude for more than a decade, but try to communicate with God?

The lack of man’s own participation in the Divine economy, according to the Calvinist doctrine, leaves his own spiritual autobiography somewhat unremarkable insofar as he himself posits actions consistent with the divine law.  The lack of a consistent and persistent conversion on the part of Crusoe may indeed prove misleading for those who are anticipating a sustainable, “fundamentally changed” man in light of a conversion.  Readers may expect Defoe to take some spiritual lesson with him when he puts down the Bible and goes about his ordinary affairs.  But Defoe and Crusoe don’t really believe that such a man can exist, so it should be of no surprise that Robinson Crusoe gives the impression of an incomplete spiritual biography, even though it is quite a complete one when viewed in reference to its Calvinistic framework.

Works Cited

Cope, Kevin L. “All aboard the Ark of Possibility; or Robinson Crusoe returns from Mars as a small-footprint, Multi-Channel indeterminacy machine.” Studies in the Novel vol. 30 issue 2 (summer, 1998). Accessed 19 April 2017 from Gale.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. [.pdf file] made available from pdf planet.

Hubbell, Jeremy W. “Overview of ‘Robinson Crusoe’” Literature Resource Center. 2017. Accessed 19 April 2017 from Gale.

Starr, G.A. Defoe & Spiritual Autobiography. 1971. Gordian Press: New York, New York.