Robinson Crusoe Essay Questions

1. Defoe has his hero practice two different types of writing in the novel. One type is the journal that Crusoe keeps for a few chapters until his ink runs out. The other is the fuller type of storytelling that makes up the bulk of the novel. Both are in the first-person voice, but they produce different effects. Why does Defoe include both types? What does a comparison between them tell us about the overall purpose of the novel?

With his interest in practical details, Crusoe naturally gravitates toward the journal as a form of writing. His idea of journal keeping follows the example of a captain’s logbook rather than a personal diary: it is objective and factual, sometimes tediously so, rather than emotional or self-reflective. But Defoe could not sustain the whole novel as a journal, since much of the moral meaning of the story emerges only retrospectively. Having survived his ordeal, Crusoe can now write his story from the perspective of one remembering past mistakes and judging past behavior. The day-by-day format of the journal is focused on the present rather than the past, and it makes this kind of retrospection difficult. The moral dimension of the novel can best be emphasized through a full autobiographical narrative, with Crusoe looking back upon earlier stages of life and evaluating them.


Crusoe expresses very little appreciation of beauty in the novel. He describes the valley where he builds his bower as pleasant, recognizes that some of his early attempts at pottery making are unattractive, and acknowledges that Friday is good-looking. But overall, he shows little interest in aesthetics. Is this lack of interest in beauty an important aspect of the character of Crusoe, or of the novel?

A marked indifference to beauty is indeed an important feature both of Crusoe and of the novel. Not only does Crusoe devote little attention to the visual attractions of his Caribbean landscape, but he also has hardly any interest in more abstract forms of beauty, such as beauty of character or of experience. Beautiful ideas like heroism or moral excellence, for example, rarely enter his head. Moreover, since Crusoe is in many ways a stand-in for the author, we can say that Defoe too seems resistant to aesthetics. This lack of attention to aesthetics is in large part his revolutionary contribution to English literature. Rejecting earlier views that the purpose of art is to embellish and make charming what is ordinary, Crusoe and Defoe show that novels can be profound by focusing on the humdrum, unattractive facts of everyday life that nevertheless are deeply meaningful to us.


Crusoe spends much time on the island devising ways to escape it. But when he finally does escape, his return to Europe is anticlimactic. Nothing he finds there, not even friends or family, is described with the same interest evoked earlier by his fortress or farm. Indeed, at the end of the novel Crusoe returns to the island. Why does Defoe portray the island originally as a place of captivity and then later as a desired destination?

Crusoe’s ordeal is not merely the adventure tale it seems at first, but a moral and religious illustration of the virtues of solitude and self-reliance. At the beginning, Crusoe can only perceive his isolation as a punishment. But after his religious illumination, and after he has turned an uninhabited island into a satisfying piece of real estate, he learns to relish his solitude. His panic at the sight of a footprint shows how he has come to view other humans as threatening invaders of his private realm. His fellow humans in Europe undoubtedly also represent not the advantages of society, but the loss of empowered solitude, and so he dreams of returning to the island where he was king alone.

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1. How does Robinson Crusoe's conversation with his father at the beginning of the book relate to the novel's overarching concern with "providence" or fate?
Crusoe's conversation with his father introduces the question of whether one should be content with one's given lot in life. Although the bourgeois would not emerge as the predominant social class until the mid- to late-19th century, Defoe's work is clearly preoccupied with the middle class' station, influence, and privilege. Crusoe's father attempts to impress upon him the advantages of being born into the middle class' relatively comfortable existence. Crusoe, however, by his own admission, is driven by a compulsion to seek adventure; not even the unfortunate case of his elder brother, who was killed in "the Low Country Wars" (that is, conflicts in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), can dissuade Crusoe from going to sea. And although the narrator insists throughout the text that his decision to do so was a mistake-note, for instance, the many occasions on which Crusoe bewails the "evil influence which carryed me first away from my Father's House"-readers may justly wonder how seriously this judgment should be received. After all, were it not for that "evil influence," neither Crusoe nor, of course, his creator Defoe would have a tale to tell! This conversation thus poses the question of whether a safe and comfortable life (such as that open the socio-economic stratum in which Crusoe was born) is, in fact, to be preferred to a life in which, for good or for ill, one is the maker of one's own fortune (both economic and otherwise). Throughout the rest of the novel, we will see Crusoe making his own life-especially, of course, on the island-and our ultimate impression of who is "in the right" in this exchange between Crusoe and his father will depend on how we judge the life that Crusoe establishes, and the character that he becomes.
2. How is Crusoe's shipwreck upon the island a "baptismal" experience? How does this symbolism connect with larger thematic concerns of the novel?
The symbolic value of water in the section about the shipwreck should not be overlooked. As Thomas C. Foster points out, in literature, "weather is never just weather." The sea storms may be taken (whether Defoe intended them as such or not) as symbols of the "storms" within Crusoe, as he knows he is undertaking a voyage he does not need to undertake. Furthermore, the vividly described shipwreck scene itself evokes baptismal imagery and associations; as Foster claims about water in literature, submersion and emergence generally points to baptism-not necessarily the literal Christian sacrament, but rather the experience of rebirth to which it points. Crusoe himself speaks more than once of his emergence from the sea onto the island as his "Deliverance," a word with religious and baptismal overtones. He states, "I was now landed, and safe on Shore, and began to look up and thank God that my Life was sav'd." Readers are thus prepared to see how, if at all, Crusoe has been "reborn" through his "baptism" in the hurricane. He has been delivered from death through water. How will he shape-or how will he be shaped by-his "new" life? The rest of the novel explores the answers to these questions.
3. Before his shipwreck, Crusoe has the services of a boy named Xury; afterward, he has the services of "my man Friday." Before his shipwreck, Crusoe had an estranged relationship with his father; afterward, he witnesses the affectionate reunion of Friday with Friday's father. How do these parallels develop the thematic concerns of Robinson Crusoe?
The parallels are certainly not accidental. The first parallel, between Xury and Friday, may serve to establish that Crusoe does not actually change much as a character throughout the course of the book (in this writer's judgment-other readers may of course disagree!). Crusoe professes affection for both Xury and Friday, but ultimately seems to value them both only in a utilitarian way: how can they serve him? The parallel between Crusoe's failed relationship to his father and Friday's loving relationship to his may further point out the negative character flaws of Crusoe. The Puritan society in which Defoe wrote his text would have valued the biblical injunction to "honor thy father and mother," and Crusoe broke this commandment in leaving Hull to seek adventure at sea. Crusoe acknowledges this, of course-during much of his exile, he regards his isolation as punishment for this prideful sin-but he is prevented from making amends with his father because his father has died by the time he, Crusoe, returns to England. Friday, on the other hand, has never become estranged from his father. For all his supposed "savagery," then, Friday has achieved something the "civilized" Crusoe has not: a continued, close, affectionate relationship with his father.
4. Discuss the significance of Crusoe's discovery of another human's footprint in terms of the novel's larger thematic concerns
The discovery of the footprint is one of the most dramatic turn of events in Crusoe's narrative, and it serves as the occasion for some further reflections upon Crusoe's situation and life. For example, note how Crusoe speaks of returning to his "Castle, for so I think I call'd it ever after this," upon discovering the footprint. We have seen before how Crusoe has fancied himself as monarch of the island; now, however, such terminology as "castle" acquires an ironic edge: if he is not alone on the island, he is perhaps not the "sovereign" he imagines himself to be. Furthermore, we see illustrated in Crusoe's reactions how, in his own words, "Fear banish[es] all. religious Hope." Since Crusoe's faith in the benign nature of Providence will be strengthened by the end of this segment of the text, we can perhaps take the incident as a narrative homily on 1 John 4:18: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." Once Crusoe comes to a fuller "love," or at the least trust, in God's goodness by the end of this section, he no longer fears the maker of the footprint-at least not as much as he initially did! We also learn from Crusoe how fear is the enemy of reason, and watch Crusoe struggle to bring reason to bear to the situation-possibly a struggle we can construe as his continued assertion of "civilization" in the face of "savagery"-or "humane" versus "inhumane," to use Crusoe's own terms-a recurring thematic dichotomy in the text.
5. Is the Christian faith a positive or negative force within Robinson Crusoe?
Although Christian faith helps Crusoe through many difficult and dark hours on the island, the text also provides evidence that the same faith has a potentially darker edge. Note how, for example, Crusoe continues to see himself explicitly as an agent of God: "I would only go and place my self near them. and that I would act as God should direct." As another example, note that Crusoe shares bread and wine with the freed Spaniard-perhaps a parody of the Christian Eucharist (Mass). Religion, as students of history are aware, can be a savage force in its service of "civilization," and readers of Crusoe's narrative must determine the extent to which the protagonist truly sees himself as acting "in the Name of God"-the phrase may be far more than a casual turn of speech, and far more dangerous: Readers will not fail to note the triumphant language Crusoe uses to describe his situation once all the prisoners have been freed: "I was absolute Lord and Lawgiver: they all owed their Lives to me." Crusoe-once more, as Adam before him-is committing the sin of hubris. He has replaced God in his own eyes. Perhaps most telling is the point at which Crusoe claims he has "set a Table there for them"-a direct and seemingly inescapable allusion to his own earlier, more humble acknowledgment that only God can "set a table in the wilderness." Upon undertaking the mission to liberate the other Spaniards, Crusoe takes on the aspect of some sort of avenger, reserving to himself the right to mete out life and death. Is he the picture of a civilized man? Whether Defoe intended his text to be interpreted in this skeptical way, the raw materials for such a reading are present and ought not be ignored.

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