Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

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At the beginning of Bible study last September, our leader asked us to introduce ourselves and say a little something about our favourite place in the world. I’m not very eloquent on the spot or in new groups, but I ventured to praise my parents’ cabin on the Chilliwack River, one of the loveliest places I know: “The cabin has a large, beautiful wooden deck on which it’s always toasty warm in the summer. The grass all around the deck is a vibrant green, the mountains loom in the distance, and you can always hear the sound of the river bubbling by.” The cabin is a lovely, serene place. All of the women in the Bible study group were mothers, and nearly all of us described a setting that was both natural and peaceful – a place of respite, a retreat from the noise and clamour that habitually surrounds us.

So when I read Robinson Crusoe, a part of me relished the prospect of being deserted on an island. I love my job as a mom, don’t get me wrong. I recognize that tending to the bodies and souls of my dear little ones is both precious and important. But there are days when I feel worn and raw, where the constant, “Hey, mom! Hey, mom!” takes more away from me than I think I have to give. I dream little dreams of silence, a tidy home and uninterrupted work.

Robinson Crusoe.  This man never dreamed of being stranded alone on an island. And he certainly never hankered after solitude; his heart’s desire’s for adventures on the open sea, which necessitates shipmates. When his father tries to compel him with tears and stern admonitions to a quiet life in England, Robinson runs away from home. His strange, surprising adventures begin, and so does his love affair with superlatives: “On the first of September 1651 I went on board a ship bound for London; never any young adventurer’s misfortunes, I believe, began sooner, or continued longer, than mine.” He’s shipwrecked, enslaved; he escapes, buys a plantation. After a few more crazy escapades, he’s shipwrecked on the island he names the Island of Despair where he’ll spend the next twenty-eight years. More superlatives follow: “I believe it is impossible to express to the life what the extasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so sav’d, as I may say, out of the very grave . . . I walk’d about on the shore, lifting up my hands, and my whole being, as I may say, wrapt up in the contemplation of my deliverance, making a thousand gestures and motions which I cannot describe.” There is something compellingly fresh and vivid about his language. I quite loved it.

I found Robinson Crusoe admirable for a variety of reasons. First of all, he’s so diligent. The man puts his mind to a project and works on it wholeheartedly. After taking care of water, food and shelter, he fixates on securing his premises. A fence is what’s required, and so he spends three months working on this thing! It reminds me of a quote on the wall of the Dillon Panther’s locker-room: “Character is who you are when no one else is watching.” What I’m trying to say is, if I were alone on an island, I’d be tempted to suntan a lot. Not so Mr. Crusoe.

I’m also impressed by Robinson’s patient endurance. He spends twenty-eight years on the island, twenty-five of them alone (he rescues a man who’s supposed to be eaten in a cannibalistic post-war ritual and they spend the next three years living peaceably in a master-servant relationship). And yet he doesn’t go mad, he doesn’t attempt suicide, he doesn’t spend half the years railing against God. He makes peace with God, accepts the path God’s chosen for him to walk, and faithfully treads his steps each day. His days are necessarily filled with activities that serve to preserve his life: gathering grapes, hunting goats, making baskets to hold his corn, etc. These passages about the mundane things of life are a little slow – but then, life is like that, isn’t it? It’s full of faithful plodding (laundry, dishes, re-reading stories to children) more than it is wild excitement.

That’s what I loved about the book. Robinson’s been stranded – but he doesn’t see it as a random or meaningless event; he sees himself as part of a larger story. He understands that there’s a reason why he has survived when all his shipmates have drowned. This understanding leads him to repentance.

Robinson’s spiritual development is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. He’d been raised by Christian parents, but impetuously leaves them to become a sailor. One night he has a fever-induced vision of a flaming man with a dreadful countenance who rebukes him, saying, “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die.” He wakes just as the man is about to kill him with a spear. His conscience convicts him of sin and he begins to consider his desertion on the island an act of God’s judgment. I was expecting him to recount a litany of appalling sins he’d committed during his life at sea – murder, prostitution, theft, etc. Instead he reflects that his primary faults are against God, namely ingratitude and being “perfectly destitute of the knowledge and fear of God.” He begins to seek God through prayer and Bible reading (he salvaged one from the shipwreck), and his repentance marks a turning point in his life. Knowing Robinson’s plight, it is poignant to hear him say,

“As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be deliver’d from it . . . And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.”

While the majority of the book is lively and interspersed with tension, the event that ought to be the apex of the novel – Robinson’s rescue from the island – is confusing and disappointingly anticlimactic. I found myself dissatisfied the final thirty pages of the book, as so little is said about Robinson Crusoe’s reintegration into society (and I might add that far too much is said about a horde of starving wolves and a dancing bear). I was left with unanswered questions – what was it like to be in a city again, surrounded by thousands and thousands of people, after spending twenty-five years alone? What joy was found in marrying and experiencing that most intimate bond of kinship after a period of protracted solitude? (Robinson’s marriage is described with utmost brevity and his wife dies a sentence later. Daniel Defoe apparently was not much of a romantic.) Didn’t the extraordinary seclusion leave an impression on his heart? Were the buildings and other emblems of civilization overwhelming? Had language changed? What was it like to worship God with other believers again?

My quibbles with the ending of the novel aside, I’d recommend Robinson Crusoe to nearly anyone as it’s both a wonderful tale of adventure and an insightful look at what makes us human, and how we endure suffering. If you find yourself hesitating, I’ll leave you with the words of Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, who has this enthusiastic endorsement to offer:

You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years – generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco – and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.

(from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins)

Take the elderly butler’s advice: a spoonful of Robinson Crusoe will do you good!

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