Robinson Crusoe follows its titular protagonist on his journey toward self-realization, religious acceptance, and physical survival. What Crusoe wants most changes over the course of the story; his initial desire is formed by his adventurous nature and fraught relationship with his family. As the youngest of three children, Crusoe harbors resentment for the lesser inheritance and lack of favoritism he receives. This resentment, as well as Crusoe’s natural rebelliousness, drives him to the novel’s inciting incident, in which he instead sets out to sea.

Following the inciting incident, Crusoe experiences many changing landscapes and obstacles which make up the novel’s rising action. From his hometown, Crusoe sets off on a financially lucrative merchant trip to London, providing a temporary sense of hope that his decision to seek adventure may pay off. From London, however, Crusoe sets out to sea again and is captured and enslaved by North African pirates. Crusoe’s enslavement is the first in a series of misfortunes that will motivate his future guilt and repentance. After escaping slavery, Crusoe experiences a brief respite from disaster as he meets a Portuguese captain who takes Crusoe to Brazil where he establishes a successful tobacco plantation. Influenced by his newfound success, Crusoe’s greed motivates his decision to set sail again in hopes of procuring a number of slaves.

While on his way to buy the slaves, Crusoe’s ship is destroyed in a storm. Crusoe is the only survivor of the wreckage, as both the crew and the ship were carried away into the ocean. Crusoe finds himself stranded ashore on an unknown island. This serves as a turning point for Crusoe’s desires. Whereas his initial desire was to establish his independence from his family, Crusoe is now confronted with the consequences of his actions and his actions are fueled by dual motivations. On the one hand, Crusoe must reconcile his rebellious selfishness and decide whether his misfortunes are cosmic or religious punishments for his roguish behavior. On the other hand, Crusoe is now driven by the need to survive and return home. Each element of conflict in the novel follows one of three major literary conflicts that include Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, and Man versus God. 

The narration explores Crusoe’s physical motivations and desires through his interactions and clashes with the natural world of the island and other humans. Much of the novel explores Crusoe’s growth as a survivalist. Crusoe finds the most success in his ability to conquer the natural world around him. From resource gathering and animal husbandry to the building of shelter and boats, Crusoe thoroughly acclimates to island life over his multi-decade stay. His desire for survival is largely fulfilled as Crusoe uses barley to make bread, domesticates island animals such as goats and parrots, and even builds a canoe. The only moments where it seems as if nature may threaten Crusoe’s survival are during disasters like the earthquake and hurricane. Crusoe, however, escapes these misfortunes largely unscathed.

Unlike Crusoe’s encounters with nature, his encounters with other humans are much more complex. Through evidence such as footprints, bones, and eventual sightings, Crusoe comes to learn of the presence of cannibalistic humans on or near the island. While the presence of the cannibals certainly puts Crusoe’s life in danger, it also brings companionship. Characters such as the Spaniard and Friday, who originally are captives of the cannibals, come to devote their lives to Crusoe as subordinates after Crusoe saves them from their captors. 

While Crusoe develops into a survivalist on his quest to ensure his health and safety, he also embarks on an emotional and religious journey towards reconciliation for his past. From the moment he lands on the island, Crusoe begins to struggle with religious guilt for his past decisions. The root of his guilt lies in the combination of his rebelliousness towards his family and the greed he exhibited once he left home. Spurred by a hallucination in which Crusoe is visited by an angelic figure who suggests his predicament is punishment for his ill deeds, Crusoe begins a quest to repent and grow closer to God. This quest motivates Crusoe to repent through prayer, read more scripture, and act charitably to other characters like Friday and the Spaniard. 

The novel’s conflict culminates in a climactic turning point as Crusoe finds himself rescued by an English ship. After nearly thirty years on the island, Crusoe returns home to find misfortune in the deaths of nearly his whole family. Although Crusoe feels he adequately repented for his actions, the consequences of his rebellion led to him losing his family while away, and gone with them is any opportunity to ask them for forgiveness. Despite his grief and his scarring experiences, the novel ends with Crusoe getting married and returning to Brazil to find his tobacco plantation brimming with success.