The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has not emerged popular merely, because of its roller coaster rides and suspenseful life story but because underneath its veneer, there unfolds multiple vicissitudes. Sampurna Chowdhury critiques the classic.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, England was wearing its crown in agricultural expansion and rapid growth of industrialization. Reason has emerged as the catch word in this age of enlightenment, where the individual consciousness of man was balanced with toleration in religion, removing all the blind beliefs of men. Daniel Defoe, ‘the author of the True-Born Englishman’ wrote a simple adventurous story involving ship wreck spearheading the genre of novel in English in truest terms. But The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has not emerged popular merely, because of its roller coaster rides and suspenseful life story but because underneath its veneer, there unfolds multiple vicissitudes.
Robinson Crusoe was born into a well bred family, which focused on the stability of life. His father, a wise and grave man, had a notable estate who later settled in York by ceasing from merchandise. He tried to mould his son according to his own life principles, by cautioning that adventure would always be followed by Tempest where “rest can never dwell, hope never comes” (Paradise Lost Book 1 Line 65). His father said “…the middle Station of Life was calculated for all kind of Virtues and all kinds of Enjoyments; that Peace and Plenty were the Hand-maids of a middle Fortune… not sold to the Life of Slavery for daily Bread …which rob the Soul of Peace …or secret burning Lust of Ambition for great things…”
Robinson Crusoe initially was swayed by his father’s requests, but the unknown hands of destiny fore-grounded his fortune. In the sole pursuit of unknown enterprise, he defied his father’s warnings and his mother’s pleadings, as he said “…my Thoughts were so entirely bent upon seeing the world”. The readers come to know that “there seem’d to be something fatal in that propension of Nature tending directly to the life of misery” which was to strike upon his rosary dreams.
An analogy can be drawn in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles; the readers come to know that Oedipus was hubristic about his ability to rescue the boat of the entire Greek civilization from their wailing miseries. Unfortunately the actions undertaken by him, as a moral responsible ruler, leads to a fateful search of knowing thyself .In the process, Oedipus turned out to be the scapegoat leading to hamartia. So Jocasta said “It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random”. When Robinson Crusoe left his natal house by not informing his parents, his father’s advice became a prophetic statement “That Boy might be happy if he would stay at home, but if he goes abroad he will be the miserable Wretch that was ever born…”
By disobeying the ‘Calling’ chosen for Crusoe by his father, he became a scapegoat of God’s revenge. The economic individualism and self will possessed by him, constitutes a scathing attack on the profound religion. Professor Novak explains that Crusoe never followed the footsteps of his father because of “his lack of economic prudence, his inability to follow a steady profession, his indifference to a calm bourgeoisie life and his love of travel”.
Crusoe fell into temptation to go to sea for the first time at the age of nineteen accompanying his friend in a ship bound for London. Immediately, he is confronted by two violent storms and although being a passenger, he had to pump out the water. He said that “One Night’s Wickedness I drowned all my Repentance, all my Reflections upon my past Conduct and all my Resolutions for future.” But he misused the Chance given by God to correct his Sins, and he set off for London, where he again set off for a sea voyage under the able guidance of a Sea captain earning quite a good fortune. From this voyage he got a thorough knowledge about the rules of navigation, the observational skills needed to be a sailor which boosted up his self-confidence. But later he said “This was the only Voyage which I say was successful in all my Adventures…” as after this he had to rummage around for security and peace in his life.
The third trip that Crusoe undertook had the looming presence of God’s wrath. His ship was attacked by a group of pirates and he was shackled as a slave. However, life gave him a chance as he turned out to be a merchant and fisherman, and he escaped by the aid of the Portuguese Captain, became a tobacco planter, earned money and even bought slaves. God was determined to place him in the “middle station, or upper degree of Low life.” But he again fled away from the comforts of this life, only to invite the everlasting doom to his life. He became shipwrecked in a lonely island for twenty eight long years, two months and nineteen days.
Robinson Crusoe realizes that God is punishing him for his transgressions as in the case of Santiago in The Old Man and The Sea. He retorts, “All the good counsel of my Father’s Tears and Mother’s Entreaties came now fresh into my mind and my conscience … reproached me with the contempt of Advice, and the Breach of Duty to my God and Father”. He struggles to build a little cosmos in “the Island of Despair”, mastered Friday and underwent an enterprise of Salvation and was able to curb his ardent desires that brought him despair.
Robinson Crusoe is believed to be the mouthpiece of the stubborn Scottish Sailor, Alexander Selkirk who also marooned himself on an island in 1704, for the sake of safety of being drowned. It is said that he quarreled with the captain because he believed “The ship itself was in poor condition”. Waiting for another ship took a roundabout of four and half years in desolation.
Although, this account was earlier believed to be the sole account of Defoe’s work, now it is being contradicted by many critics that there were other buccaneers’ account among which is the first surveyor of Bermuda Triangle in 1616, Richard Norwood, which ignited Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Tales circulate that he repented for taking extravagant steps against God’s Calling.
The modern prototype of Robinson Crusoe, twenty-six year old John Allen Chau was adamant to spread the light of Christianity in the lonesome island of Sentinelese tribe. He said that the godforsaken tribe “need to know that the Creator God exists and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins”. However, the benefactor had to meet his premature death at the hand of his beneficiaries.
The creator of Robinson Crusoe gave a didactic lesson i.e. “to keep within the bounds where Providence has placed him, be content to rise gradually and gently.” However, Daniel Defoe also committed sin in the eyes of the ‘Orient’ when Crusoe taught the voiceless Friday to revere him as “Master”. Ian Watt pointed out that Crusoe “does not ask his name, but gives him one”. The dichotomy of white and black was raised, where ‘man Friday’ was referred to as ‘savage’. The fictional character Friday was not confined to being a Caribbean, but emerged as a mouthpiece of the colonized people where, white men like Crusoe tried to Europeanize or enlighten them.
The reference of the slave trade was treated by Defoe as natural, but it ignited the spark among the people who are “non whites”. He brought many instances, where Crusoe had made good profit by slave trade and even witnessed slaves (termed as Negros) being the commodity of exchange in Guinea. He even sold the Moorish boy, Xury, for his own benefit. This gives the readers a befitting sketch that how the Occident viewed themselves as the proper ‘self’ creating a stigmatization of the ‘other’, which is still recurrent in present times as we observe the tragic demise of Afro-American, George Floyd in the hands of White skinned Police men.
The fictional novel of Robinson Crusoe gives a moral teaching to the people of Augustan Age as to remains within the bounds ordained by the Higher Power; otherwise Fate will take its own course to make life miserable and pitiable. Defoe does not sketch him entirely as a tragic figure, as in the end he emerges victorious. However, the spiritual journey of the protagonist breaks the sanctity, when it is read through the lens of post colonial perspective.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
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