Daniel Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" and J.M. Coetzee’s "Foe": Colonial Imagination and its Postcolonial Deconstruction

Seminar Paper, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and its Colonial Connotations
2.1 Colonial Space: The Myth of Nature
2.2 Labour, Economic Man and the Colony
2.3 Friday: The Legitimized Slave

3. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe and the Postcolonial Deconstruction of the Robinson Myth
3.1 Island Spaces and Colonial Appropriation in Robinson Crusoe and Foe
3.2 Crusoe and Cruso: The Colonizer in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature
3.3 Friday and Friday: The Colonial and Postcolonial Portrait of the Slave
3.4 The Telling of Colonial History in Foe

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Without question Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Strange Suprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, often regarded as the first realist novel in English, has gained a fame that goes beyond that of many other novels. The story of Robinson Crusoe, at least the island episode, seems to be universally known. This paper, however, will deal with certain interpretations of the novel that regard the protagonist Crusoe as a classic example of homo economicus, focus on a concept of work that is supposed to underline what is called dignity of labour and construct Crusoe’s island life as an ideal state of natural existence. All these concepts of interpretation that were applied to Defoe’s novel during time share, as conceived here, certain colonial connotations, which are also emphasised by Defoe’s concept of the native colonial subject Friday. Although some of these concepts disintegrate upon closer examination and seem not fully to represent Defoe’s own intentions, his novel Robinson Crusoe can still be read as a prototype of colonial fiction, mirroring the ideological concerns of the Western imagery on the New World, that was being colonized in Defoe’s time. Regarded as such a prototype of colonial imagery, Robinson Crusoe has already received a lot of critical attention, both in literary criticism and in literature itself.

In literature one of the intertextual rereadings of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the novel Foe, by the South African author J.M. Coetzee, which serves here to exemplify the colonial connotations of Defoe’s work and its interpretations. Coetzee’s work itself is here conceived as an attempt to deconstruct the colonial myth that has been implicitly or explicitly attached to the figure of Crusoe or his story. In regard to Coetzee’s reconception of the English classic the concepts that are illustrated and examined in the first part of this paper, in context of Defoe’s original, will be revised in terms of appropriation of space in colonial fiction, the figure of Crusoe and of Friday and the question of the telling of colonial history.

2. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and its Colonial Connotations

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the tale of a castaway turning his misfortune into a great enterprise, has become more than a famous novel; it has found its place among our cultural heritage. The very essence of Crusoe’s story, i.e. the island episode, is known to almost every generation: “The centrality of the Crusoe story in the collective mind of this culture […] is astounding” (Seidel 8). Defoe’s novel functions as an “archetypal story” (Seidel 9) and his protagonist Crusoe has soon become more than a fictive character, according to Ian Watt “he himself has acquired a kind of semi-historical status” (Watt 96), and his tale “seems to fall more naturally into place with Faust, Don Juan and Don Quixote, the great myths of our civilization” (Watt 95). And yet its author, Daniel Defoe, and the original version of his novel, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, do not share the same fame among popular culture, actually Robinson Crusoe “enjoy[s] the cultural privilege of acquaintance before a reader engages the special pleasures afforded by reading [it]” (Seidel 8). Thus the general notion of Crusoe, his character and story as well as his companion Friday, serves rather as a preconception of a certain cultural phenomenon.

As such an ‘archetypal story’ the phenomenon Robinson Crusoe is only approached uncritically, ultimately it represents a certain concept of western civilization. The tale of Robinson Crusoe has turned into a myth. As such Robinson Crusoe represents “characteristic aspirations of Western man” (Watt 95). More specifically “Crusoe lives in the imagination mainly as a triumph of human achievement and enterprise, and as a favourite example of the elementary processes of political economy” (Watt 97). Robinson Crusoe has therefore become an “Urtext of Western modernity” (Clowes 149). Ian Watt identified at least “three essential themes of modern civilization – which we can briefly designate as ‘Back to Nature’, ‘The Dignity of Labour’ and ‘Economic Man’” (Watt 97), whereas the latter is the most central one. Additionally colonial imagery has to be regarded as the context of Defoe’s novel, since it serves as an archetypal text of the colonial enterprise. In a way, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is to be considered a perfect example for the spirit of the time it was written in. The way Robinson cultivates and reigns the island and the slave-master relationship between him and Friday represent the attitude of colonial rule: white European men come to a foreign, apparently uninhabited island and turn it into a fertile, liveable environment through their intelligence and hard labour.

In some of these ways the novel even extended far beyond the author’s intention: “It is not an author, but a society, that metamorphoses a story into a myth” (Watt 97). And in several aspects the implications given to the original story of the castaway Crusoe do also contradict Defoe’s own convictions. Nonetheless the novel has been associated with these motifs and they must first of all be questioned more closely. While the first themes of the Robinson myth disintegrate upon closer examination, it is especially the topic of the economic individual in the context of colonial ideology that has to be read and analysed in reference to J.M. Coetzee’s intertextual approach of a postcolonial deconstruction of the Robinson myth in his novel Foe .

2.1 Colonial Space: The Myth of Nature

A first and famous theme that has been attached to Robinson Crusoe is what Ian Watt describes with the term ‘Back to Nature’. Especially in the early modern age this term described a favourable idea of “varied forms of primitivism, of revulsion from the contemporary complexities of civilization into a simpler and more ‘natural’ order” (Watt 97f.). At a first glance Crusoe on his desert island seems to serve as a perfect example of such a retreat from the civilized world back into a more natural state of life. Especially the French philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau credited Defoe’s novel, which he counted among the few books that he would recommend at all, as a book that “supplies the happiest introduction to natural education” (cited after Rogers 52). To him Crusoe is the archetype of man outside society, which he appreciated as a kind of natural state of man and the “surest way of rising above prejudice and ordering one’s opinions according to the real relations of things” (cited after Rogers 53).

In this sense the shipwrecked Crusoe is regarded as a genuine example of solitary man in nature, serving as an example for the unprejudiced education of Rousseau’s fictive pupil Émile. According to Rousseau’s idea of radical individualism (Cf. Watt 98) Crusoe experiences the natural state of human life, characterized both by a retreat into untouched nature and by being cut loose from technology and complex economic structures. However, Defoe’s original novel seems not to support this notion. Crusoe’s return to nature is not that of an unbiased man adapting his life to the natural order of things, instead “Defoe’s ‘nature’ appeals not for adoration but for exploitation” (Watt 100). Defoe’s novel and conviction is “fundamentally anti-primitivist” (Watt 101). In fact Crusoe lands on his island involuntary, but soon remembers the very concept of taking care of uninhabited and unattained land as it was common to him and his time, namely the concept of colonialism. In this sense Crusoe takes care of ‘his’ island, making it his ‘kingdom’.

At first Crusoe “apply’d my self to the works proper for my preservation and supply” (Defoe 72), but soon his efforts to survive turned into a greater enterprise, since he insisted that “the whole country was my own property; so that I had an undoubted right of dominion” (Defoe 190), even after others had arrived there. His colonial enterprise later reached its peak when he inhabited his island, i.e. his colony, with the proper stock of productive forces and labour force in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe . Ultimately, Crusoe is not an unbiased man in nature, he “observes nature, not with the eyes of a pantheist primitive, but with the calculating gaze of colonial capitalism; wherever he looks he sees acres that cry out for improvement, and as he settles down to the task he glows, not with noble savagery, but purposive possession” (Watt 100). In the end there is no natural order and no primitive life that can resist the colonial desire, no chance of ‘returning to nature’ or escaping the orders of modern capitalist society, not even for Crusoe on his desert island. The structures of modern society, both in terms of the mode of production and social or racial hierarchy, no matter how they may be morally judged, are reproduced wherever the white man sets his feet. And thus the myth of the prosperous colonial enterprise of western civilization can even be witnessed in Crusoe’s own small efforts, a notion that Coetzee shares as well in his critical retelling of Crusoe’s story. In this sense Crusoe’s island can be seen as an allegory for all colonial appropriation, it is the ‘New World’ that western man had first set their feet upon rather by accident, and that should soon serve as the perfect occasion for taking possession of new and large parts of the world:

For Defoe and the western capitalist, imperialistic culture that he represents and glorifies, the island is an opportunity for colonial expropriation, for development and improvement (exploitation, some might say) by human technology. (Richetti xxii)

2.2 Labour, Economic Man and the Colony

In the same way Robinson Crusoe implies other famous colonial and economic themes, namely the ‘Dignity of Labour’ and the myth of the economic individual. Often, and according to the protestant and puritan work ethics, it is said that Crusoe establishes some kind of “therapy of work” (Watts 104):

One of the reasons for the canonization of Robinson Crusoe is certainly its consonance with the modern view that labour is both the most valuable form of human activity in itself, and at the same time the only reliable way of developing one’s spiritual biceps. (Watt 105f.)

On the one hand Robinson Crusoe seems to confirm this belief in the saving power of work, for “the moments when he [Crusoe] seems the happiest and most fulfilled, the least troubled by anxieties and fears, and totally absorbed by his work, are his own technological breakthroughs” (Richetti xxiii). Nonetheless there are wider circumstances that must be taken into account, for on the other hand it is clear that “Crusoe works because he must in order to survive, not because he believes in the saving power or the inherent dignity of labour” (Richetti xxiii), and furthermore “we need to remember that he has been shipwrecked at the head of an illegal expedition to buy slaves” (Richetti xxiii). Again the actual colonial subtext of Defoe’s novel does not contribute to the bright image that his protagonist has often resembled, namely the image of a man coping with solitude, back in a natural state of man, relying on the dignity of his own labour and turning his misfortune into a glorious enterprise by recreating the process of civilization like the model of the economic individual in classic liberal theory. Instead “Crusoe is an adventure capitalist as well as a slaveholder [...]; he is essentially a manager and entrepreneur (like Defoe) rather than a worker” (Richetti xxiii).

Crusoe’s practical activity does not only contribute to a glorification of labour, but also “the classical political economists found in the idea of Robinson Crusoe, the solitary individual on a desert island, a splendid example for their system-building” (Watt 111). Since then Crusoe has always been seen as the prototype of ‘homo economicus’ par excellence. By definition homo economicus acts rational and in a self-interested manner, seeking to optimize his condition with the least possible cost given perceived opportunities. Indeed Crusoe, once he became acquainted with his situation on the island, starts to optimize his island life with the few opportunities that are given, and did so in complete isolation and, most important, as a mere individual, all on his own. It must not be due to Defoe’s own consideration of economic thinking that Crusoe turns his tragedy into a great success story mainly by rational economic thinking, for Defoe basically believed “in a broad, national economic vision [...], insular or local practices were anathema to him” (Seidel 100), and thus “Robinson Crusoe is not set up primarily to explore Defoe’s national economic theories” (Seidel 101). Still Crusoe’s testimony of good and evil circumstances gives evidence for Crusoe’s belief in his individual power: “I have gotten out so many necessary things as will either supply my wants, or enable me to supply my self even as long as I live” (Defoe 54). Only little later Crusoe starts to put his conviction that indeed clearly reminds of classical economic theory, into action:

So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as reason is the substance and original of mathematicks, so by stating and squaring every thing by reason, and by making the most rational judgement of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanick art. (Defoe 55)

Even if Defoe himself did not share the classical economic premise of the modern individual, his character still represents a first outline of what later should become homo economicus. A fact that also becomes clear in Crusoe’s relationships to other people, especially to Xury and Friday. Indeed, “Crusoe treats his personal relationships in terms of their commodity value” (Watt 113); he totally acts on his self-interest, always being aware of his personal outcome in his few relationships. For instance, he does not hesitate to sell Xury back into slavery for the right price and later regrets what he did, just because Xury could be useful to him once more as his personal slave on his island. Crusoe shows the same behaviour, when, after more than two decades of isolation, he turns the first human being that he meets immediately into his slave, giving him a name and teaching him to call him ‘master’. And even in their forthcoming years on the island and during all their adventures Crusoe still shows “aremarkable lack of interest in Friday as a person” (Watt 113). The relationship between Crusoe and Friday is still more complex than a simple master-slave relationship, especially in terms of a postcolonial interpretation, but it is quite obvious that it gives also prove to the picture of economic individualism, in the end “Crusoe is a strict utilitarian” (Watt 113), not only in his actions but also in his relationship to others.


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Daniel Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" and J.M. Coetzee’s "Foe": Colonial Imagination and its Postcolonial Deconstruction
University of Trier
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Daniel, Defoe’s, Robinson, Crusoe, Coetzee’s, Colonial, Imagination, Postcolonial, Deconstruction
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Marc Alexander Amlinger (Author), 2005, Daniel Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" and J.M. Coetzee’s "Foe": Colonial Imagination and its Postcolonial Deconstruction , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/120711


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