The Role of the Family in Robinson Crusoe

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. What is a Family?

3. Robinson Crusoe´s Family
3.1 Crusoe introduces his Family
3.2 Crusoe´s Father as the Foreigner
3.2.1 The True born Englishman
3.3 Changing Names

4. The undesired convenient Life
4.1 Designed for the Law
4.2 Going away
4.3 The upper Station of low Life

5. The Reasons for Crusoe´s Flight
5.1 Who is to blame for his Escape?

6. Crusoe as the disobedient Son
6.1 Empathy versus Wanderlust
6.2 The Prophecy to his Perdition
6.3 The original Sin
6.4 The Prodigal Son

7. Replacing the Family?
7.1 Omitting the Family
7.2 ‘Building me a Home’
7.3 The Substitution of his Family

8. The Role of Women in Robinson Crusoe

9. Conclusion

10. List of Sources

1. Introduction

Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe, is one of the most read books in the world. There are numerous reasons for this success. Some people love the adventure story of Robinson who lives on a deserted island, far away from everyday life, which seems really desirable for the modern society. Others admire Robinson as the self-made man who is on his own in an uncivilized area and manages his life independently for so many years. That is why the story is often interpreted as an old form of the American Dream. It can also be seen as a religious story because of the importance of God in it. There are many more ways of reading the novel Robinson Crusoe and a lot of different themes that can be focused on, even though some are not apparently important for the development of Crusoe´s adventurous story.

This term paper refers to the roots of the protagonist´s life and deals with the role of the family in Robinson Crusoe. Even though the presence of Crusoe´s family is limited to the opening pages of the novel and ends when he escapes from home, there are a lot of influencing aspects that have to be explored. The family in Robinson Crusoe seems to be quite irrelevant when you read the book for the very first time or when you do not particularly pay attention to it but actually the early rebellious escape from his parental home is somehow responsible for Crusoe´s later fate and adventure. Even so, it is not obvious how Crusoe´s family can have an impact on him when they are absent for the rest of his story. Can the family really be important to him when he initially rejects them?

The paper especially sets the focus on the complicated relationship between Crusoe and his parents, especially between Crusoe and his father, who is not able to convince his son either of his social status or even to stay in his house but for all that, his importance for the protagonist cannot be denied, neither can be his strong influence on him.

As a contrast to his family life, the term paper concentrates on Crusoe´s isolated life on the island, which is the punishment for his disobedience to God and to his father on the one hand but his new fulfilment of independence on the other hand. Can he feel like home on the island? Is Crusoe able to start his own family? The paper will try to analyse the new kind of family structures he experiences on the island and describes the relation between Crusoe and Friday. What does Friday mean to him and what kind of relationship develops between them?

Furthermore, it is important and worth revealing some analogy between the family background of the author Daniel Defoe and of his protagonist because the novel Robinson Crusoe is partly autobiographical.

2. What is a Family?

This question cannot be answered clearly as everybody has a different imagination of what a ‘family’ is and which is even more important, what it used to mean. Apparently, we have a picture book of a perfect family in our heads suggested by means like media or even traditions and education. This ideal shows mother, father and children living together in perfect harmony. Both parents have a say in their relationship and in educating their children who are always obedient to them and stick to the given rules. For so many people the ‘family’ is the closest social contact group.

Roughly explained this seems to be the contemporary understanding of a good ‘family’ but this picture book is not comparable to the usual family life 300 years ago, namely in the eighteenth century. The institution ‘family’ has always been developed and it has been defined differently from century to century. On this development the lecturer and author Lawrence Stone sets focus in his book The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Stone gives a definition of what ‘family’ used to mean. “Here it is taken as synonymous neither with “household” nor with ‘kin’ - persons related by blood or marriage. It is taken to mean those members of the same kin who live together under one roof” (28). Stone goes on by explaining the term ‘household’. ”A household consists of all persons living under one roof.” This included more people than just the blood relatives and relations through a bond of matrimony. There were non-relatives also living in the household together with the actual ‘family’, such as domestic servants. According to Stone this was very common in the eighteenth century. Even though there was a difference between a ‘household’ and a ‘family’ he states that before the 18th century people used to understand the widened term ‘household’ as the ‘family’. “This composite group was confusingly known as a ‘family’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.” The author also gives the reason for this confusion as there was a strict hierarchy in the household with a head at the top rank.

Another author who deals with the topic ‘family’ is Roy Porter in his book English Society in the 18th Century. Amongst other things, he sets his focus on the structure of a ‘family’ and mentions the same fact like Stone does. “By contrast it was normal for domestic servants, apprentices, unmarried farm servants and paying lodgers to live with the family” (143). He goes on by indicating the hierarchy within a ‘family’. “In families, husbands ruled; contrary to the practice of some continental peasant societies, family decisions were not taken by the wider family acting in conference” (144). Roy Porter also concentrates on the relationship between parents and children or the expectation the head of the ‘family’ has of his offspring.

“In many families, youngsters were often expected to stand silently in their parents’ presence, and obedience was the child´s golden rule” (149).

The father as the head of the family, obedience, sticking to given rules and also servants are all aspects that can be found in the eighteenth-century novel Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe. The readers get the impression that Crusoe’s father acts as the head of the family and expects his son to be obedient but Defoe’s protagonist is a rebel who does not stick to the rules anymore and rejects the family life by leaving home against the urgent will of his parents to stay.

Today our picture book of how a good family may be shows parents who care for their children, support them, who educate and prepare them for their lives with the help of norms and values, by giving them the appropriate knowledge, by showing them moral behaviour and all the other things that have to be internalized by children on their long way to become adults. 300 years ago family relationships and educational habits were totally different. There is hardly any hint if the Crusoes raised their children on their own or if there were living-in servants who have cared for them instead of the parents but there is one fact that cannot be denied. The parents were not able to keep any of their sons at home and this could let the reader judge the weak influence they have on their children.

3. Robinson Crusoe’s Family

3.1 Crusoe introduces his Family

When talking about the role of the ‘family’ in Robinson Crusoe the focus has to be set especially on the very beginning of this novel. The opening paragraph contains information about Robinson´s date and place of birth, his social status, the origin and personal background of his father and the development of the family name.

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first to Hull: He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call´d me (4).

Robinson just enumerates social data and gives the reader the most important facts about his biography. He does not reveal too much of his privacy. He is very reserved and puts all his personal facts in just one sentence, which gives the reader the impression that Crusoe quickly wants to go on with his actual story without speaking too much about “indifferent” topics like his family. There is no emotional attachment recognizable and there are no sentimental remarks. In the following quotation John J. Richetti evaluates Crusoe´s fact-orientated beginning in his chapter “Robinson Crusoe: the Self as Master”:

[But] Crusoe supplies information which is at first merely neutral - date of birth, details of European immigration, and neutralization in England - undifferentiated data whose purpose is to certify Crusoe not simply as a real person but as a private person, one whose life begins in random, shapeless facts (25).

Richetti considers Crusoe a very “private person”. Regarding the familiar background of Daniel Defoe one will identify that the author himself was also known for his insistence on privacy. He kept his family concerns a secret. “It was not usually through any desire for mystery that Defoe kept his family life from the public eye. He sought privacy in his home, and to a large extent he secured it” (Moore 126).

Crusoe´s short introduction makes it very hard to evaluate him and his relationship to his parents and brothers, whom he introduces in the second paragraph. There he just describes the destinies of his two elder brothers. “The eldest joins “an English Regiment of Foot” and dies in the battle of Dunkirk. The second vanishes without a trace” (Flint 123). The comments on his brothers resemble those he makes on his parents. They are short and emotionless even though his siblings are dead now.

Crusoe introduces himself to be a part of “a good Family” but he rather seems to mean his social status than a kind of family life in perfect harmony (see also 4.2).

3.2 Crusoe´s Father as the Foreigner

In the same paragraph he calls his father a “Foreigner of Bremen” and this expression gives a quite negative impression on their relationship. When Crusoe calls his father a foreigner it sounds somehow dismissive and like reproaching him with not being a British native. He introduces him as a stranger from a different culture who emigrated from Germany. The fact that this is the very first comment he makes on his father increases the reader´s picture of Crusoe´s unsentimental feelings for him.

3.2.1 The true-born Englishman

Crusoe calls his father a stranger. His family´s origin is Germany, thus they are immigrants and no British natives. It is important to consider the concept of “being a foreigner” in connection with the appropriate background knowledge of the author. This fact of being a stranger in a foreign country seemed to be very important to Daniel Defoe because he also deals with the origin of English people in his poem The True Born Englishman in which he concentrates on the question whether there is a true-born Englishman or not. Who is a real native? “Blood claims are delusive because English origins can be traced back not to a splendid pedigree but to a debased heritage of barbarism: Thus from a Mixture of all Kinds began, That Het´rogeneous Thing, An Englishman: In eager Rapes, and furious Lust begot, Betwixt a Painted Britain and a Scot” (Flint 124). The essence of Defoe´s poem is that there is no true born English man, to all intents and purposes. An Englishman is a “Het´rogeneous Thing” like Crusoe´s father or even himself.

Actually, the last name of a family sheds light on its roots and identity but Defoe´s poem uncovers that names can be impermanent. “But as The True Born Englishman suggests, ancestry (which unites both linguistic and procreative transmission) divulges the limitations of traditional forms of kinship, revealing that heritage usually masks a corrupt history of ownership and power” (124). Considering Robinson Crusoe this inconstancy of names can also be noticed (see also 3.3).

3.3 Changing names

The importance of ‘names’ deserves a focus especially in the initial paragraph of the novel. Robinson describes the origin of his family and reveals that their original name was “Kreutznaer” which became “Crusoe” when the family immigrated to England. When thinking about the German origin the word ‘Kreutz’ resembles the word “Kreuz” which means ‘cross’ in English and this leads to the assumption that the last name could be seen as a symbol for the religion of the Crusoes because this does also play a very important role in the novel (see also 6.3).

Furthermore, Robinson describes the alteration of his family name as a result of “the usual corruption of words in England”. This mispronunciation of the name shows the acculturation to the British society and the blurring German roots of his family. The change of the family name stresses the emigrant status of the Crusoes.

As Robinson Crusoe is a partly autobiographical story Defoe´s personal background also has to be kept in mind. According to his biography his last name was actually “Foe” and he decided to put a “De” in front of “Foe”, thus he changed his name too. One can just guess the motif for this alteration. Maybe it was just because “Defoe” sounds better than only “Foe”. No matter of the reason the change of their names the author and his protagonist have in common.

In the opening paragraph of the novel there are much more conspicuous things worth mentioning. Robinson starts the story of his life by introducing his parents and in the following part his brothers without even mentioning their given names. He enumerates the basic social data like the origin of his family and leaves out important facts such as the names of his father, mother and his brothers. This information a real introduction usually contains because names belong to people and serve as identification. On the one hand it stresses again the privacy of his family but on the other hand the reader gets the impression that the surnames of his family members are not relevant or not worth mentioning. It seems as if he just wants to mention his relatives very short without paying them further attention. At this point one could think that it is his fact-oriented personality which lets him just focus on the social background of his family or it is his reservation that lets him leave out names in general but when thinking about his later relationships with Xury or Friday Robinson is obviously willing to mention given names and towards them he can suddenly show real affection in comparison to the sober description of his family.

Apart from the alteration from “Kreutznaer” to “Crusoe” or from “Foe” to “Defoe” there are other changes of names in the novel. Regarding the relationship between Robinson and Friday, especially at the very beginning, Crusoe feels free to give him the name “Friday” and he wants to be called “Master”. In addition to that, the following quotation does also show a sort of affection that Robinson feels for Friday and the developing relationship in which Crusoe acts as a teacher for Friday.

I understood him in many Things, and let him know, I was very well pleas´d with him; in a little Time I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak to me; and first I made him know his Name should be Friday, which was the Day I sav´d his Life; I call´d him so for the Memory of the Time; I likewise taught him to say Master […] (149).

The instability of his own family name could be the reason for the way he deals with ‘names’ in general. Names seem to be very arbitrary for him and they can easily be changed like his own one, which is just a result of the “usual Corruption of Words”.

The way his family name was adapted to English and the description of his father, who is a stranger in his eyes, could mirror the lacking national identity of him and his family.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Role of the Family in Robinson Crusoe
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Experiencing the Exotic: Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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594 KB
Friday, Robinson Crusoe, Kreutznaer, Daniel Defoe
Quote paper
Juliane Heß (Author), 2009, The Role of the Family in Robinson Crusoe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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