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.
1. Although he is happy to watch his goat and cat population multiply on his island, Crusoe never expresses any regret for not having a wife or children. He refers to his pets as his family, but never mentions any wish for a real human family. While he is sad that his dog never has a mate, he never seems saddened by his own thirty-five years of bachelor existence. Does Crusoe’s indifference to mating and reproduction tell us anything about his view of life, or about the novel?
2. Although Crusoe proudly reports that he allows freedom of religion on his island, giving his Catholic and pagan subjects the right to practice their own faiths, he describes Friday as a Protestant. He attempts to rid his servant of his belief in the pagan god Benamuckee. Why does Crusoe generally show religious tolerance, but insist on Friday’s Protestantism?
3. During the return voyage to England from Lisbon at the end of the novel, Crusoe and his traveling party encounter a bear that is frightening until Friday turns it into an amusing spectacle. His teasing of the bear, which prompts the group’s laughter, is the first example of live entertainment in the novel. There is no mention of Friday trying to amuse Crusoe on the island. Does this episode foreshadow a new role for Friday after he moves to Europe from the Caribbean? What is Defoe trying to symbolize in having Crusoe bring Friday with him to Europe at all?
4. In many ways Crusoe appears to be the same sort of person at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning. Despite decades of solitude and exile, wars with cannibals, and the subjugation of a mutiny, Crusoe hardly seems to grow or develop. Is Crusoe an unchanging character, or does he change in subtle ways as a result of his ordeal?
5. Crusoe’s religious illumination, in which he beholds an angelic figure descending on a flame, ordering him to repent or die, is extremely vivid. Afterward he does repent, and his faith seems sincere. Yet Defoe complicates this religious experience by making us wonder whether it is instead a result of Crusoe’s fever, or of the tobacco and rum he has consumed. We wonder whether the vision may be health- or drug-related rather than supernatural and divine. Why does Defoe mix the divine and the medical in this scene? Does he want us to question Crusoe’s turn to religion?