Interfaces between Religion and Empire in Robinson Crusoe

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 1,6




1. The role and the development of religion throughout the novel
1.1 The initial situation concerning Robinson’s religious attitude
1.2 Robinson’s religious development during the stay on the island
1.2.1 First religious contacts
1.2.2 Robinson’s conversion
1.2.3 The conversion of Friday
1.2.4 Christian symbolism in Robinson Crusoe

2. Colonialism, imperialism and the role of the novel

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited


This term paper deals with the representation of religion in general and especially the religious development of the protagonist in the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Therefore different phases of the relationship to God and religion will be illustrated and compared with in the following elaborations. Moreover, the role of religion within the Empire and the way it is represented in the medium of the novel is another aspect that will be discussed. The importance of the role of religion in the novel is, as many other aspects as well and the novel as a whole, not only considerable for the reader of Defoe’s time, but is also valid nowadays and therefore timeless.

As Robinson Crusoe is

“told […] with a religious application of events to the uses to which wise men always apply them, viz. to the instruction of others by this example, and to justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances, let them happen how they will” (Frick 1986: 109).

By creating the protagonist Robinson Crusoe, Defoe has managed to give the readership a character they can easily identify with, because Crusoe awakens interest in his adventures by just being himself. “But […] that interest does not arise because Crusoe’s life resembles those of his contemporaries, not because he is a typical private man. Rather, his life is one of ‘wonders’ unparalleled, ‘variety’ without precedent” (Richetti 1975: 24). The reason why Crusoe’s story is that much worthy for public notice is, that it “is, obviously, being sold as an extravaganza to people who like all of us value the exotic and the various as a pleasurable relief from the humdrum and uniform quality of daily life” (Richetti 1975: 24). To sum it up, Richetti mentions that Crusoe “lives in an uncommon common fashion” (1975: 24f) and as his daily life is made public to the reader as a typical private person it gains attractiveness as well as relevance. Among other things he succeeds in doing so by creating contraries while introducing private and already well-known activities into exciting and exceptional events (cf. Richetti 1975: 24f).

1. The role and the development of religion throughout the novel

1.1 The initial situation concerning Robinson’s religious attitude

Even if there are assumptions by some critics who claim that Robinson Crusoe is at the beginning of the novel unreligious or has almost atheistic features, according to Halewood (1969: 79), this is not true. Robinson is, due to his sheltered childhood and his good education, probably nurtured in religious aspects, too. Particularly as his parents, especially his father, are very conservative, which becomes apparent in the following quotation:

“My Father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent Share of Learning, as far as House-Education, and a Country Free-School generally goes, and design’d me for the Law” (Defoe 2008: 5). Throughout the whole novel there are consistently allusions and parallels to contents of the Bible, which also strengthens the role of religion and begins right at the beginning of the book with the description of the disagreement between Robinson and his father. As Hunter describes it, “Robinson Crusoe is structured on the basis of a familiar Christian pattern of disobedience-punishment-repentance-deliverance, a pattern set up in the first few pages of the book” (Defoe 2008: xxvii). Biblical comparisons can be made with several passages, for example with Jonah, who was punished for his disobedience by being captured in a storm respectively being swallowed by a whale or Job, whose perseverance is tested by several torments after being challenged by Satan. The most adequate parallel is probably the story of the prodigal but repentant son, who does not listen to the advices of his father. Even though Robinson’s father uses several arguments to prevent him from going to the sea he cannot persuade his son of staying in England and enjoying the “middle State, or what might be called the upper Station of Low Life, which […] was the best State in the World, the most suited to Happiness, not exposed to the Miseries and Hardships, the Labour and Sufferings of the mechanic Part of Mankind” (Defoe 2008: 6). Realizing that his youngest son will not change his mind, his father reminds him of his eldest brother, who did not want to take his father’s advice either and therefore died in the Low Country Wars. This could also be seen as a kind of foreshadowing of his fate as Robinson himself realizes after his adventure, as the novel is written in the form of a factual report, when he mentions that he “observed in this last Part of Discourse, which was truly Prophetick, tho’ I suppose my Father did not know it to be so himself” (Defoe 2008: 7). Another outlook into the future is made by his father when saying that in the case of Robinson realizing his plans, he will not stop praying for him, but God will neither answer the prayers nor bless him and claiming Robinson will return some day and regret not having listened to his father’s advice (cf. Defoe 2008: 7). According to Frick (1988: 125) this kind of a presage at the beginning of the novels develops a key function within the story. Although most of the so far mentioned predictions will not fulfill literally throughout the novel, Robinson’s father claims during a dialogue with his wife, that Robinson “might be happy if he would stay at home, but if he goes abroad he will be the miserablest Wretch that was ever born” (Defoe 2008: 8) and this prophecy will come true as Robinson repeats this sentence several times during his stay on the island.

Robinson’s decision to go to the sea without his father’s permission right at the beginning of the novel can be seen as his original sin, which builds the basis for all his following adventures and miseries. Throughout the stay on the island he also repeatedly blames himself for this fault and reflects his disobedience towards his father to God, too. When thinking of his first voyage to the sea, Robinson remembers that he was totally aware of acting against his father’s will and therefore sinning:

“I began now seriously to reflect upon what I had done, and how justly I was overtaken by the Judgment of Heaven for my wicked leaving my Father's house, and abandoning my Duty; all the good Counsel of my Parents, my Father's Tears and my Mother's Entreaties, came now fresh into my Mind, and my Conscience, which was not yet come to the Pitch of Hardness which it has been since, reproach’d me with the Contempt of Advice and the Breach of my Duty to God and my Father (Defoe 2008: 9)

The close connection to the Bible becomes once again clear when considering the Puritan family background at that time. As the father of the Puritan family was seen as the deputy of God, Robinson not only disobeys his father but also God and therefore his action can definitely be compared to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Old Testament. The motive for Robinson’s plans, and so for his failure, is his restlessness as Hunter explains (1966: 71) and consequently the same as for Adam and Eve, who moreover sin due to the discontent of their situation, although they do not lack anything (cf. Melani, 2002).

Another evidence for Robinson being to some extent religious delivers the following quotation: “I consulted neither my Father or Mother any more, […] leaving them to hear of it as they might, without God’s Blessing, or my Father’s, without any Consideration of Circumstances or Consequences, and in an ill Hour, God knows” (Defoe 2008: 9). According to Seidel (1943: 86), Robinson’s sin is caused by his anxiety of being located somewhere and not being able to move from this situation. He does not only have such feelings while being in England, but also during his stay in Brazil and on the island, too.

The fact that on the one hand Robinson mentions the lack of God’s blessing shows that he does think about it, but at that time did not attach so much importance to it. On the other hand the attachment “God knows” strengthens the ubiquity, superiority and almightiness of God in opposition to Robinson’s or Man’s helplessness and arbitrariness in the course of life and nature’s caprice.

1.2 Robinson’s religious development during the stay on the island

1.2.1 First religious contacts

Despite the fact of sinning and having to some extent obviously a bad conscience, Robinson goes on board of a ship on September the first 1651 and begins his first voyage. As the ship sails someday into a storm, Robinson gets seasick and afraid of capsizing as the prophecy seems already to fulfill. After the situation improves and Robinson gets used to travelling on the sea another storm arises and the ship gets shipwrecked. However, Robinson is rescued and not injured. Until this point of the novel almost two possibilities have emerged that could have led to the final fulfillment of the prevision. When Robinson meets the master of the sunken boat in Yarmouth, he again receives an advice, comparable to the warnings of his father and it somehow seems to be a very last counsel. The master of the ship tries insistently to talk Robinson out of sailing to the sea again and calls this last voyage a trial, contrastable to the story of Jonah in the Bible. Because heaven, respectively God, has once spared him and let him feel that there is a visible hand of heaven against him, he should not challenge his luck again. Otherwise, the master says to Robinson: “If you do not go back, where-ever you go, you will meet with nothing but Disasters and Disappointments till your Father’s Words are fulfilled upon you” (Defoe 2008: 15). This anew repetition of the father’s prophesied fate of Robinson has an important effect. The probability that Robinson sooner or later will have to conform to the divine prevision is emphasized by this second premonition, but Robinson again disbelieves the warnings and enters a ship, which is on its way to Guinea.

Up to that point of the novel, when Robinson has not yet entered the island and is more or less still on the way to this situation, his religiousness is very confined and only comes out in bad times, e.g. when he fears to die on the sea or is being captured as a slave. These times remember Robinson of having sinned and being totally at God’s mercy in the end: “Now the Hand of Heaven had overtaken me, and I was undone without Redemption” (Defoe 2008: 18). As Robinson does only connect the miserable part of his adventures with God so far, but not the benignancy he receives by getting away from these situations relatively safely, his beliefs in God are more or less limited to the image of a castigator but not of a rescuer. The connection between these troubles and his disobedience towards his father respectively God is catching up with him only when they are actually happening. In return he does not think of his failure at all when he is in good times, even if the reason for this is based on his original sin. This very selective world view diminishes in the course of the novel and causes that Robinson, after his conversion, imputes his luck in the end to his comprehension, which will be discussed later on (cf. Bode 2005: 50f). The fact that Robinson is not repentant, respectively he only regrets his actions in temporally limited phases, which succumb to the much prevailing phases of feeling good, support the aforementioned behavior and make Robinson start to “sin” again as soon as the shock and the thoughts about God, as well as his transgressing, are forgotten.

After Robinson’s second shipwreck, the final fulfillment of his father’s prophecy and the landing on the shore of the island, the first thing Robinson does is to thank God: “I was now landed, and safe on Shore, and began to look up and thank God that my Life was sev’d in a Case wherin there was some Minutes before scarce any room to hope” (Defoe 2008: 40). On the one hand Robinson here follows his model of being religious only in bad times, but also begins slowly to break this habit as he is not any longer in danger when uttering this. On the other hand the fact that this thanksgiving is the very first action that Robinson is doing on the island points out that religion and especially his relationship to God plays an important role during his stay on the island.

Even if Robinson owns to God having the ubiquitous and almighty power when he is in dangerous situations, it is striking that he totally delivers his fate to God’s graciousness as soon as he enters the island. The following quotations exemplify this:

“I cast my Eyes to the stranded Vessel, when the Breach and froth of the Sea being so big, I could hardly see it, it lay so far off, and considered, Lord! How was it possible I could get on Shore? (Defoe 2008: 41).

“[…] 4thly. A View to the Sea, that if God sent a Ship in Sight, I might not lose any Advantage for my Deliverance, of which I was not willing to banish all my Expectation yet” (Defoe 2008: 51).

As being stranded on a unknown island is, of course, an oppressive situation it seems not that illegitimate to turn to God, but Robinson’s situation, being able to save a lot of useful equipment, does not look as bad as it could have been. Therefore he refers to God more out of gratefulness than of desperation. Moreover, Robinson complains in his list, comparing evil and good conditions, that he has to bear that on the island there is no one he can talk to. However, this nuisance is balanced by the fact that God enabled Robinson to get so many things out of the shipwreck. (cf. Defoe 2008: 58). In addition, Robinson talks to God more and more and appeals him partly as if he were standing next to him. This is indeed not the kind of conversational partner as Robinson probably wishes for, but at least he can address someone. Another important situation concerning Robinson’s religious opinion and his relationship to God is the success in growing grain. Not remembering having sowed any corn, at first he believes this is nothing but a divine wonder and happens only due to God’s providence towards him, as the text tells the reader:

“It is impossible to express the astonishment and Confusion of my Thoughts on this Occasion; I had hithero acted upon no religious Foundation at all, indeed I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head, or had entertain’d any Sense of any Thing that had befallen me [….] and I began to suggest, that God had miraculously caus’d this Grain to grow without any Help of Seed sown, and that it was so directly purely for my Sustenance, on that wild miserable Place” (Defoe 2008: 67).

But then Robinson remembers having shaken out a bag of chicken’s meat on the ground where the scions come out of the soil and he knows now that this is not a miracle. Nevertheless, even if “the Wonder began to cease” (Defoe 2008: 68) and his “religious thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate too upon the Discovering that all this was nothing but what was common” (Defoe 2008: 68), Robinson stays thankful, because the grain he threw away was firstly spoiled by rats and secondly the soil he threw it on could have also been barren. Therefore it is not self-evident and only a natural process, but more or less a divine coincidence that all factors are matching. Although this was a very big step concerning Robinson’s religion and his belief in God, by finding a rational explanation for the “miracle” of the grain, he again loses some of his new-found belief. The final step to convince him entirely is still lacking.

1.2.2 Robinson’s conversion

By discovering the first scions of the grain Robinson discovers also his religious feelings and believes in a miracle, at least as long as he has found a common explanation for it and he loses faith but not his gratefulness.

There are two further events that influence Robinson’s religious beliefs much more and convert him to be an honest Christian. The first one is the earthquake which frightens him a lot due to the massive destructiveness and his fear of being buried alive. Even if he admits that he has “not the least serious religious Thought” (Defoe 2008: 70), Robinson is addressing God by shouting “Lord ha’ Mercy upon me” (Defoe 2008: 70). The appendage “when it was over, that went away, too” (Defoe 2008: 70) illustrates that he is still only addressing God in bad times, as it is already discussed before. The second radical event is the serious disease that affects Robinson in the middle of June. He describes that he suffers from shivering, strong headaches and severe fever attacks. Although his state of health sometimes seems to improve, he gets weaker and weaker every day due to the fact that he cannot barely eat or drink. Robinson again begins to speak to God and prays for mercy and help: “Lord look upon me, Lord pity me, Lord have Mercy upon me” (Defoe 2008: 75). This prayer, being probably his longest ever until then, lasts several hours and Robinson, feeling better as the fit decreases, but very tired, falls asleep and has a terrible nightmare. In this dream Robinson meets a man who descends in a bright flame from a black cloud, while the air around him looks like being filled with fire. The man is armed with a weapon that looks like a spear, approaches Robinson and talks to him. As Robinson is so much frightened by this appearance and the voice is so terrible the only sentence he understands is: “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to Repentance, now thou shalt die” (Defoe 2008: 75).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Interfaces between Religion and Empire in Robinson Crusoe
University of Passau
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interfaces, religion, empire, robinson, crusoe
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Martin Eder (Author), 2011, Interfaces between Religion and Empire in Robinson Crusoe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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