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Themes

Learn about themes in Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe with Course Hero's video study guide.

Robinson Crusoe | Themes

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The major event in Robinson Crusoe is the shipwreck that lands Robinson Crusoe on a remote, unpopulated island. In many ways it is paradise—a wild, pristine, completely undeveloped place that offers Crusoe everything he needs to survive and prosper, but one that requires him to build his life there from scratch. In telling this story, Defoe explores a number of themes a reader would naturally tie to such an enterprise.

Self-Reliance

Robinson Crusoe is at its core a story of adventure, and true to its nature the hero must rely upon his wits and courage to survive. Throughout the novel readers see this theme in action. Robinson Crusoe chooses the right moment to escape from his slave master and thinks quickly to push the Moor accompanying him on the boat overboard. He demonstrates self-reliance in building his plantation in Brazil. And most clearly and indefatigably, he uses his self-reliance to survive on the island. Defoe goes to extraordinary lengths to tell how Crusoe sorts through the goods on the wrecked ship to find just what he needs to survive and how he builds his rafts to bring it all ashore. It describes how he builds his castle for both comfort and defense. Crusoe has few materials available to him, but he manages to use what he does have in creative ways to build a comfortable and safe home on the island.

Civilization

A system of rules and order governs Crusoe's life, even when he is isolated from organized and civil society. Importantly, his concept of civilization is based on his experience with European culture and civilization, so he does not recognize that the natives he encounters have civilizations of their own. As a result, he insists that Friday give up his cannibal ways, wear clothing, and learn to speak English. Readers are never given a hint that Crusoe makes any effort to learn Friday's language. And remarkably, it seems Crusoe himself never adopts any of the cultural habits of the natives with which he interacts. Yet the Spaniards who were cast ashore on Trinidad, and thus at the mercy of the natives, do learn to speak their language. Friday and the other natives have lived and thrived in the environment that Crusoe has been cast into for untold thousands of years, and yet he does not adopt any technique that they use that might be useful for him. It could be noted, however, that Crusoe does at least acknowledge that, although the natives are cannibals, he finally recognizes that it is ingrained in their culture and that they do not see it as a sin.

Progress

During his time on the island, Crusoe moves from pure survival in the wild to hunting and farming, which raises him to a kind of relative prosperity. He makes his own tools and furniture, domesticates animals, plants crops, and eventually even establishes a small colony on his island as he gathers about him various groups of castaways and natives. The kind of progress and mobility he is able to achieve was rare in the England of his day.

Christianity

Crusoe relies on God to take care of him and also fears God's punishment for abandoning his family and for his lack of faith and gratitude on past occasions. He finds his quality of life improves as his faith in God becomes stronger, and this motivates him to continue. He begins to believe that God has placed him on the earth for a reason, and he initially thinks that because he alone (of all the crew and passengers on the two ships) has survived shipwrecks that God must therefore have some purpose for him. Later in Chapter 18, as he tries to encourage the English captain to take action to recover his ship, Crusoe asks, "And where, sir ... is your belief of my being preserved here on purpose to save your life?"

One of the more provocative chapters in the text (Chapter 15) has Crusoe teaching this faith to Friday, who is a quick study, and soon seems to become as devoted a Christian as Crusoe. But Friday also asks questions that Crusoe finds difficult to answer. Friday asks, "Why God no kill the devil, so make him no more do wicked?" Crusoe stumbles over the answer but continues his teaching. In the end he realizes that in teaching Christianity to Friday, he has become a better and more understanding Christian himself. However, at the end of the novel he decides against resettling in Brazil, in part because he does not wish to live among Catholics.

Nature

In Robinson Crusoe, nature is one of the chief actors in guiding the plot. It is nature that blows Crusoe's ship onto the sand near the island and that casts Crusoe alone of all the men on that ship onto the shores of the island. It is nature that provides calm seas so Crusoe can salvage all the tools, food, and other supplies from the wrecked ship. It is nature that wrecks the Spaniard's ship, and later on that sends the wolves and bear to attack Crusoe's party as they journey to England. It is also nature that provides all the plenty that Crusoe enjoys on the island, from the goats that nourish him to the parrot that keeps him company to the seeds that grow and become the source of much of his food during his years on the island. Crusoe learns during the novel that nature can provide bounty if cultivated—or destruction, if not treated with caution. Crusoe discovers that even his most diligent work cannot overcome some of the forces of nature, which he comes to believe strongly over the course of his time on the island is God's hand at work.

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