Exploring Themes in Robinson Crusoe
Before Your Class Reads the Novel:
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has, over the last century, become more than just a novel. It has achieved the status of a meta-fiction. The novel has caught the imagination of readers through the centuries and has inspired countless other books. Since the advent of the moving pictures, many versions of the Crusoe story have appeared as films. Whether or not we have read the original novel, we all know and recognize this modern myth of a solitary man abandoned or lost on an uninhabited island.
As you give them the background information and introduction to the story, identify the major themes of the story. You may even spend a class discussing the spin-off films and stories that have been inspired by Defoe's novel. Encourage your students to see some of the movies before they read the novel.
The major themes of Robinson Crusoe are:
- Colonization: The theme of colonization (and Defoe’s obvious and triumphant justification of western man’s right to “discover” countries and continents, lay claim to their riches and own land and people anywhere in the world) is the core and most obvious refrain in the novel.
- the Master-Slave relationship: In conjunction with the theme of colonization, of course, is the Master-Slave dialectic. This can be seen in many ways. Robinson is the force of civilization who finds himself on a savage island with only a savage for company. He works hard to civilize them both by making them conform to his own steadfast notions of what civilization means. Defoe’s Robinson does not show a moment of self-doubt and is absolutely sure that he is meant to inflict his will on both the land and its (as good as) native inhabitant. You should discuss the Master-Slave theme with your students in both the colonial context and in the Nietzschean sense and point your students to the interesting paradox that Robinson is a colonial Master but a Neitschean Slave.
- Rational Man's civilization of Nature: Robinson is methodical in imposing order on the chaotic island he is confronted with. He lists his successes in a lucid and precise account. His work is systematic and logical and all his actions are disciplined. His rationality is beyond question and his animal libido never gains the upper hand. You can set this theme in the context of the theory, literature and philosophy of the Neo-classical age in England.
- The archetypal adventurer: One of the novel’s most charming themes is that Robinson is the ultimate pioneer, the unflappable, all conquering hero: A man who forges ahead into unknown territory and breaks new ground, boldly going where no man has gone before!
- human being as Technological Innovator: Man as the ultimate technological innovator and capitalist entrepreneur, another idea that was part of the zeidgeist of Defoe's times.
- the theme of Christianity in its Puritan / Protestant form: Part of the reason why Robinson can be so unerring and supremely self-confident about his actions is the strong theme of Christianity in its Puritan/Protestant form and characterized by the central character’s strict enforcement of rules, even upon himself. Robinson’s last name brings the “crusade” idea immediately to one’s mind and scholars over the years have read the story as a spiritual biography. In fact, Defoe himself introduces this theme in his preface. He says he writes Robinson’s story to “justify and honor the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances.” The theme of religion, redemption, puritan work ethic and conversion runs through the novel and as a teacher you cannot disregard it.
Divide your class into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group one theme that they will track from the beginning to the end as they read the novel. You may choose to divide the story into shorter bits of a few chapters per student in the group or you may ask the group to choose how to divide the task of reading the novel.
Their reading is sure to become richer and more layered when you introduce these ideas in class.
1. O. Mannoni, Pamela Poweslan: Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization; London: 1956
2. Ian Watt: The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding; Chatto and Windus: 1957