How does a story change?
In 1719, English author Daniel Defoe wrote The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe[i], whose classic story and thousands of adaptations have captivated audiences for 300 years. The novel was able to achieve such international success because of its diverse number of themes that present themselves to different audiences, centering around the theme of perseverance in the face of adversity. Reading Robinson Crusoe for the first time, I was struck by the intensity of religion, through several allusions and its role as a plot element, something that now I recognize as crucial to the understanding of Crusoe — yet not present in the film adaptations that I had then seen: Swiss Family Robinson, Cast Away, and The Martian. Defoe uses religious allegories, faith, and Providence as plot devices, embellishing Crusoe in the Christian experience, yet Robinson Crusoe is rarely described by the contemporary reader as a “religious” text. How has scholarly and public interpretation of the story of Crusoe evolved or diminished in the past 300 years, and why?
Selective choice and the simplifying of Robinson Crusoe
For books that are scrutinized for centuries and adapted countless times, like Homer’s Odyssey or the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales, there are several conscious and unconscious decisions made to establish a streamlined story. For example, Crusoe experienced multiple separate disasters at sea, including shipwrecks, pirates, and forced enslavement, yet Crusoe’s “story” — the collective societal understanding — often only consists of his final shipwreck and subsequent 28 years on his desert island. There are several instances of this “selective choice” within the story of Robinson Crusoe, but perhaps none more fundamental than the disregard of Defoe’s two Crusoe sequels, streamlining his series into a singular novel.
When someone refers to “Robinson Crusoe,” they likely mean The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe — the first in Defoe’s trilogy. This first book chronicles much of the life of fictional character Robinson Crusoe, describing his thoughts and experiences for roughly 43 years, from 1651 and 1694[ii]. This book contains the central story that has been adapted thousands of times, in which Crusoe survives on a desert island for 28 years following a shipwreck in 1659[iii]. The second and third volumes are often left out when discussing Robinson Crusoe, and though Defoe likely wrote the books to be a complete chronology, they differ from the primary story so much that their exclusion is justifiable. While The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a spiritual autobiography, the former of its two sequels, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, is better classified as an adventure narrative, and the latter, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, is composed of a series of essays written by Crusoe in reflection of his life in the primary two volumes — yet the latter two stories are rarely referred to or thought of when one mentions “Robinson Crusoe.” By separating the first volume from the latter two, the Story of Robinson Crusoe is already selectively chosen: “Robinson Crusoe” refers to only the first volume of the series, despite all three titles containing the words “Robinson Crusoe.” Even this first book in the series, which embodies the essential Robinson Crusoe Story, was diminished and simplified; Robinson Crusoe is known simply as the shipwrecked-on-a-desert-island story despite much of this first book describing Crusoe’s adventures before and after landing on his island. Furthermore, by using its adaptations to establish what constitutes the essential Robinson Crusoe Story, it is clear that the societal understanding of the story becomes simpler and more compounded with each new adaptation.
The full story of Robinson Crusoe is fundamentally religious
Defoe’s story is, from the start, fundamentally religious. It is complicated to discern what Defoe meant or thought — many of his biographers describe him as a Nonconformist or a Dissenter, ideologies which did not have much freedom of expression in the 18th century — but it is obvious from Crusoe that Defoe was well versed in Biblical stories and spirituality.
Defoe introduces elements at the beginning of and throughout Robinson Crusoe that imagine Crusoe as the Biblical Prodigal Son. The “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is a story told by Jesus in the New Testament in which the younger of two sons moves away from his father and family, loses his fortune, and goes hungry before returning home with sorrow. The son, having consciously sinned against his father, expects to not be accepted back, but his father exhibits the forgiveness and grace of God:
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate,” .
Similar to the Prodigal Son, Robinson Crusoe is not content with his life and decides to travel wayward in defiance of his father. Crusoe, though not bred to any trade, was afforded many opportunities by his father but could not shake his wandering spirit that was taking him to sea. As a final plea to pay credence to his demands, Crusoe admits that, “though (his father) said he would not cease to pray for me, yet he would venture to say to me, that if I did take this foolish step, God would not bless me, and I should have leisure hereafter to reflect upon having neglected his counsel when there might be none to assist in my recovery,” (5). Here Crusoe’s father vows that Crusoe will become the Prodigal son if he refuses to listen to him; not only was defying one’s father defying The Father (God), and Crusoe would therefore be doubly lost if he left, but Crusoe is straightly told by his father that God would not bless him away from his station.
Just a paragraph after Crusoe leaves for sea, he admits his becoming the Prodigal Son and prays to God: Defoe writes, “I made many vows and resolutions that if it would please God to spare my life in this one voyage… I would, like a true repenting prodigal, go home to my father,” (7). Crusoe compares himself to the Prodigal Son, vowing to return home to his father if he survives his first storm at sea; soon after, the storm resolves but Crusoe forgets his vow and subsequently endures more tragedy at sea, including multiple shipwrecks and enslavement by pirates. By continuing on his adventures with no regard for anyone or anything but his own wandering spirit, Crusoe is lost in the eyes of God.
The trope of Crusoe as the Prodigal Son is asserted at the very beginning of the novel and repeated through allusions or text throughout, but Crusoe’s story ends differently than the Parable’s. Crusoe returns to England to find his father dead and no inheritance left, but that is not to say that a fattened calf was not prepared for him; Crusoe was given his earnings from twelve years of running a plantation in Brazil before his shipwreck. Though Crusoe was not able to reconcile with his father, his time on the island allowed himself to fully reconcile with God, the Father, and he left the island a devout, protected, and loved Christian.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is just one of the many allusions Defoe makes in Robinson Crusoe. During a storm, a shipmate compares Crusoe to Jonah, saying “Perhaps this has befallen us on your account, like Jonah in the ship of Tarshish,” (11); Jonah, in this story, is swallowed by a whale during a divine storm at sea, after his shipmates threw him overboard. Towards the end of the novel, having left the island with God’s love, Crusoe reflects on his adventures as similar to those of Job, who endured many tests by God and found his acceptance through perseverance, much like Crusoe: “I might well say now, indeed, that the latter end of Job was better than the beginning,” (209). The Prodigal Son, Jonah, and Job are all stories of individuals who were put through tests and, through power or love, realized the importance of God; Defoe’s repetition of Biblical imagery, particularly with these stories, emphasizes his divine connection with God and the invisible hand that has been a present character throughout the story.
Crusoe’s condemning act of abandoning his family and disobeying his father is later self-proclaimed as his original sin, alluding to Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden; Defoe writes,
“I have been, in all my circumstances, a memento to those who are touched with the general plague of mankind… I mean that of not being satisfied with the station wherein God and Nature hath placed them — for, not to look back upon my primitive condition, and the excellent advice of my father, the opposition to which was, as I may call it, my original sin, my subsequent mistakes of the same kind had been the means of my coming into this miserable condition” (143).
Crusoe sees his choices at the beginning of the novel as similar to Adam and Eve consuming the forbidden fruit, as similarly detrimental to his life as the Fall was to Man. It should be no coincidence for Defoe to pair this spiritual culmination and admittance with a moral of sorts. Crusoe identifies his not being satisfied with his station as folly and his father’s advice to remain in England as excellent, and some see this admittance as Defoe’s ultimate moral: find more bliss within your allotted station as Crusoe could not. Regardless, with his original sin, Defoe insinuates similarities between Crusoe and Adam, and these similarities continue to present themselves to the reader on Crusoe’s island. In an article Order and Chaos in Paradise, Professor Didier Bertrand writes about Adam and Crusoe’s similar isolations in their Edens:
“In many ways, the shipwrecked Robinson stands for a new Adam, thrown into a virgin land that he alone inhabits…. Leaving his former life behind him at the age of 26, on September 30, 1659 – his birthday no less – Defoe’s hero is reborn to the ideal conditions of a pure natural state. Naked, dispossessed of his former life and later washed clean of his sin, he is in a perfect Adamic state.”
The allusion to Adam is referenced in the text with Crusoe’s original sin, indicating that it is not simply an interpretation but a part of the narrative. This does three main things to Crusoe: it gives him a habitat, like Eden, to occupy, it allows him to have a natural religious reawakening, and it establishes him as God’s Son. As Bertrand explains, Crusoe’s island is “a perfect Adamic state,” ready for him to organize and cultivate. In a foreign environment, Crusoe has to learn skills necessarily for survival just as Adam did. “Naked (and) dispossessed of his former life,” Crusoe requires help to survive on his island, which leads to his reawakening roughly nine months into his stay. Crusoe, at this point already the self-proclaimed Prodigal Son, spent his calamities at sea proclaiming his goodness to his father and God, but on the island, Crusoe defers to God foremost. In His Eden, naked, with few books salvaged from the shipwreck but several Bibles, Crusoe commits himself as God’s Son and is saved — through 28 years of salvation.
Religion is fully or mostly taken out of most adaptations
Despite the degree to which religion plays a role in the original story of Robinson Crusoe, it is rarely a focus in subsequent adaptations and sometimes excluded entirely. For example, the concept of religion is not mentioned in Swiss Family Robinson or Cast Away, though both island isolation stories share countless other similarities with Robinson Crusoe. In Ridley Scott’s cinematic adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian (a more sarcastic, scientific Robinson Crusoe on Mars), the vital role of religion in Defoe’s novel is alluded to when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is able to create fire using the only wood present in Mars, a cross. This choice was not accidental; Scott and Ridley are both paying homage to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe with their utilization of a cross as Crusoe did, yet definitively burning the religious symbol to emphasize the story’s use of science as a device rather than religion.
Ironically, religion is most present in a Robinson Crusoe adaptation in an anti-Robinsonade. A Robinsonade is an adaptation of Crusoe in which a stranded person or group, on an island or elsewhere uninhabitable, must create civilization to survive. In an anti-Robinsonade, on the other hand, the person or group slowly deteriorates as civilization, education, and morals disappear. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is the perfect example of an anti-Robinsonade, yet it is also an example of an adaptation of Crusoe that maintains religious subtext and allusions.
Where has the religion gone?
There are countless reasons why Robinson Crusoe converted from a religious novel to a basic story devoid of faith, but it can be narrowed down into three main ideas: the increase of the secular within society, the inherent subversive nature of adaptations, and the simplification of the Robinson Crusoe Story that omitted specific portions of the novel that were naturally surrounded by religion.
It is not controversial or debatable to claim that religion has a smaller role in society in the 21st century than in to the 18th century. As science, technology, and globalization have become more important and apparent in society, more people have found their faith in things other than religion. And recently, this trend is increasing exponentially. For example, since 1990, the percent of Americans who identify as nonreligious grew from 8 to 22 percent. As religion became less engrossed in society, its role similarly decreased in literature. Religion was the center of Robinson Crusoe 300 years ago, but now there is less of a want or a need for religion in stories and societal understanding of the text has adapted.
Many adaptations’ serve a purpose to subvert the initial story, and Robinson Crusoe adaptations are no different. For example, Coatzee’s Foe sees a woman playing Crusoe’s role. With religion as a major facet of the original story, its exclusion in most of its adaptations is in itself a subversion. In addition, adaptations often focus on a theme that was not present enough in the source material, and since it would be difficult to naturally adapt Crusoe to be more religious, it is simpler to exclude it from adaptations.
Lastly, within Robinson Crusoe, other than allusions to the Prodigal Son, Job, and Jonah, there are three main uses of religion: as prophecy, as repentance and rebirth, and regarding the character Friday. Within these three main concepts, it is evident to see why religion is notably absent from adaptations and the societal understanding of the story.
Prophecies play a large role in Robinson Crusoe. Before Crusoe lands on his fated island, he is given by his shipmates several prophetic claims that he is on a path to self-destruction:
“‘Young man,’ says (a shipmate), ‘you ought to take this (storm) for a plain and visible token that you are not to be a seafaring man,’… He afterwards talked very gravely to me, exhorting me to go back to my father, and not tempt Providence to my ruin, telling me I might see a visible hand of Heaven against me. ‘And, young man,’ says he, ‘depend upon it, if you do not go back, wherever you go, you will meet with nothing but disasters and disappointment, till your father’s words are fulfilled upon you,'” (11-12).
Crusoe is told by his father, his shipmates, and his own thoughts that he is rushing towards a destructive end, yet stubbornly pursues his passions and must later reap his fate. Prophecies as religious tools are absent from most adaptations of Crusoe because as the Robinson Crusoe Story was streamlined, his shipwreck and isolation became the whole story; with no long journeys for Crusoe (or the protagonist) to travel before he lands on his island as in the original, there no longer is a space for prophecies to aid in his fate.
Repentance and rebirth
On the island, Crusoe experiences a rebirth and reconciliation with Christianity. He struggles with Providence for a time — how can God allow all of these things to happen? — before he is visited in a dream by a man descending from the clouds, who says to him, “‘Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die,'” (66). Soon after, Crusoe finds a Bible and indiscriminately opens it; he reads portions that significantly apply to his own situation and subsequently falls asleep for multiple days. In his awakening, Crusoe reflects that he was a changed man:
“When I awaked I found myself exceedingly refreshed, and my spirits lively and cheerful; when I got up I was stronger than I was the day before, and my stomach better, for I was hungry; and, in short, I had no fit the next day, but continued much altered for the better,” (71).
This was Crusoe’s religious reawakening, and the remainder of his island experience is a devout one. The religious theme of rebirth in Robinson Crusoe is absent from many of its adaptations for a similar reason to prophecies; Crusoe’s rebirth is in direct response to his forsaking his father as the Prodigal Son, but with the story streamlined into just his life on the island, there is no original sin for him to repent for. This is not to say that Crusoe adaptations are missing themes of rebirth, but they lose their religious undertones when not precipitated by a similar original sin.
Friday and his conversion
The character Friday is one of the most impactful characters in Robinson Crusoe other than Crusoe himself. He appears on the island roughly 26 years into Crusoe’s isolation, with his remarkable and frightening footprint, seemingly divinely sent to Crusoe for him to spread Christianity. Friday’s conversion is one of Crusoe’s monumental steps to reclaiming his Christian identity and allowing Providence to deliver him from the island to home. Friday as a character is replicated in different forms in many adaptations, like Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away and Watney’s connection with NASA in The Martian, but Friday’s role as an actor in Crusoe’s religious experience is taken out for multiple reasons. Primarily, the role of Friday is forced to change as colonialism and slavery became less prominent aspects of English and American society. Crusoe’s relationship with Friday, though written beautifully and full of nuance, is that of a colonizer and colonized. The most apparent example of this is when Crusoe decides to name his comrade:
“In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to me, and first, I let him know that his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name,” (152).
Defoe’s naming of Friday as Friday is religious, in that Friday, the sixth day, was the day that God created Man, yet Defoe’s decision for Crusoe to instruct Friday to call himself “Master” is laden with ties to slavery and fulfills Crusoe with a “White savior” identity[iv]. With colonialist ideals and the concept of slavery diminishing in the 300 years since Robinson Crusoe‘s publication, intense colonialist or slave-holding identities of Crusoe were easy cuts in adaptations; but it was in these concepts of Defoe’s that religion was most used.
So, what is the modern Robinson Crusoe story?
There are over 13,000 different versions and adaptations of Robinson Crusoe. One can — and many do — understand Robinson Crusoe culturally without ever picking up the book, especially if visual adaptations remain in the mainstream, like Netflix’s new series Lost on Mars, which imagines Swiss Family Robinson in space. But as this story is spread between all corners of literature and media, it is spread thin. The connection between all Robinsonades lies in its plot, not in its themes, and one could argue that writers without total plot control would and should choose to take full control of a piece’s themes, subverting and omitting the ones present in the original.
The Story of Robinson Crusoe has shifted over the 300 years since its publication because the Story is different from the story. Robinson Crusoe has one of the most significant global cultural impacts of any work of fiction, continually within the minds of new perspectives as the idea of it develops and changes entirely. To go against this natural transformation is, for lack of a better word, stubborn. In fact, to Defoe, whose story of Crusoe alludes to and adapts the stories of the Prodigal Son, Jonah, Job, and Adam, the natural transformation of his Story may be the point. And as various themes have broken down into the central theme of perseverance in the face of adversity, so did Crusoe break down his desires and needs for the central theme of perseverance. Whether it retained its original religious themes or not, the perseverance of Crusoe for 28 years and of Crusoe for 300 years is special and worthy of celebrating.
In short, Robinson Crusoe is not necessarily a religious text; The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates, on the other hand, absolutely is.
1. Luke 15:11-32
2. Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner[i]. Vol. 1. London: Taylor, 1719. Print.
3. Bertrand, Didier. Order and Chaos in Paradise: Colonial and “Postcolonial” Constructions of Religious Identity through the Robinson Crusoe story. Vol. 27, no. 3. The University of Notre Dame, 1995. pp. 29-51
4. Downey, Allen. “The U.S. Is Retreating from Religion.” Scientific American Blog Network, Nature America, Inc., 20 Oct. 2017, blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-u-s-is-retreating-from-religion/.
i. The full name of the novel in its primary publication is: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates
ii. 1651 and 1694 are the first and final dates given in The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe on pages 6 and 223 respectively, not including “I was born in the year 1632” on page 3.
iii. Defoe himself adapted this story from the true tale of Alexander Selkirk, who escapes his own desert island a decade before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Contrary to Crusoe’s 28 years, Selkirk was stranded for 4.
iv. When Crusoe is no longer alone on his island, he develops an intense White savior complex (by 2019 standards, evidently not 1719). This implies that most of the help to the nonwhite island inhabitants he does, like his relationship with and conversion of Friday, is ultimately self-serving. Earlier in the novel, Defoe exhibits Crusoe’s self-serving relationship with non-white characters. Before he lands on the island, Crusoe is enslaved by pirates for roughly two years, and befriends a “Moor” Xury. When a captain asks to buy Xury from Crusoe (who, by no means, owned Xury), Crusoe described,
“I was very loth to sell the poor boy’s liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own. However, when I let him know my reason, he owned it to be just, and offered me this medium, that he would give the boy an obligation to set him free in ten years, if he turned Christian; upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the captain have him,” (26).
Figure 1: Crusoe and his cross. Digital Image. Britlitsurvey2.wordpress.com. February 24, 2014. https://britlitsurvey2.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/the-spiritual-journey-of-robinson-crusoe/
Figure 2: Parable of the Prodigal Son. Digital Image. ncregister.com. March 7, 2013. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/12-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-prodigal-son
Figure 3: Jonah and the Whale. Digital Image. wikipedia.org. n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Jonah
Figure 4: Carved cross in The Martian. Digital Image. IlluminatiWatcher.com. October 5, 2015. https://illuminatiwatcher.com/the-martian-illuminati-and-occult-messaging/
Figure 5: Robinson Crusoe discovers a footprint. Digital Image. Amazon.com. n.d. https://www.amazon.com/Robinson-Footprint-Thunderstruck-Illustration-Published/dp/B01L33UB3I
About the Author
Eli Kline is a rising sophomore at Duke University planning to study English and Visual & Media Studies. Eli conducted research regarding Robinson Crusoe with the Story+ summer program offered by the John Hope Franklin Institute of Humanities, along with Bailey Bogle, Cliff Haley, and Grant Glass.