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The exploration of the self in Robinson Crusoe Essay

‘In all the time of my solitary life, I never felt so earnest, so strong a desire after the society of my fellow-creatures, or so deep a regret at the want of it.’ (Robinson Crusoe). Use this quotation as a starting point for the exploration of the self in Robinson CrusoeSelf is broadly defined as the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others. In Defoe’s words the word, “governs the whole world; the present Race of Men all come into it. ’tis the foundation of every prospect in life, the beginning and end of our Actions.” It is the essence of man.

Crusoe undergoes a journey of self discovery whilst on the island. He learns things about himself that, quite probably, only years of isolation could have brought out in him. Defoe’s novel was the first of a long pattern of story writing in which the hero undergoes a massive devlopment and maturation. Preliminary ignorance allows Crusoe to acquire wisdom whereby in Richetti’s words, “the self can gradually discover outside itself that which it carries within.”Defoe’s exploration of the self lies in Crusoe’s journey of self-discovery and his accomplishments in isolation vs. the inevitable loneliness that his life of solitude entails.

The story explores how an individual can survive without society in the state of nature that the deserted island provides. Crusoe adapts to island life incredibly well, exploiting his limited resources and becoming completely self-reliant. It is a stirring account of the personal growth and devlopment of the self that takes place whilst stranded in solitude. Crusoe withdraws from the external social world and turns inward. In his ‘solitary life’ Crusoe is in fact able to explore himself and gains a sense of self-awareness by the end of the novel.

We see that self-awareness is incredibly important to Crusoe in his normal day-to-day activities and his keeping of a calendar described as, “a sort of self-conscious or autobiographical calendar with him at its centre.” Likewise, Crusoe is obsessive about keeping a journal and accounting for every minute detail that comes to pass on the island. Being self-aware is a coping mechanism for Crusoe exemplified in his teaching his parrot to say, “Poor Robin Crusoe. . . . Where have you been?” Crusoe may not seem a man to express his feelings well, but he voices his inner feelings here through the parrot. The taming of the parrot, wild goats and the land in general, all signify Crusoe’s need to feel master of his fate in some way. He needs the sense of control in a life, which he may feel he has had little control of since being exiled on the island. By becoming a master over nature he feels he is more a master of his own fate and self.

Becoming a master of the self is a key aspect of Defoe’s ultimate survival. At the start of the novel Crusoe refers to his ‘original sin’ for disobeying his father and heading off to sea, and frequently blames himself for his destiny as a castaway. By mastering nature on the island he gains a sense of self-determination rather than seeing himself as a passive victim. He finds prosperity despite his difficult fate.

It is only through his hard fate of confinement that Crusoe develops and improves. He learns that by working with his surroundings and making the most of what has been provided for him, he is able to find sufficient to carry out life. Whilst he cannot escape the island he cannot run away from his problems so he must face his fears. By farming, manufacturing and making a home of the island, Crusoe acquires a sense of place that may also help him establish a sense of self.

The removal of all constraints, though not objects, of the civilised world creates a paradox as it is with all notions of civility and society removed that we can actually observe the real self, the real human instinct and behaviour that forms society and civilization.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book,Émile ou De l’éducation(1762) interprets the island as a vehicle for education on how to live ‘properly human life.’ He commends Crusoe’s participation with nature and his eagerness to always be developing his resources.

I seldom gave anything over without accomplishing it, when I once had it in my head enough to begin it.

Rousseau commends Crusoe and his mastery of nature through his existence, and indeed prosperity, on the island, as a triumph of man’s individualism and the self.

His mastery of nature is not quite enough for Crusoe on the island. He still suffers in his solitary life and ultimately his confinement causes him to turn to his bible and repent his sins. This repentance becomes a mechanism of coping with solitary life and he complains much less about his fate, taking a much more positive view of the island. The self will turn to religion in times of need.

His ordeal takes on a religious implications, particularly in retrospect when, after returning to England, Crusoe compares his experience to that of Job, whose faith was tested by God through the loss of family and wealth. His positive outlook on his experience as an intricate lesson in Christian patience, shows that despite his loneliness, he has learnt more about the self than perhaps any other experience could have taught.

There can be no doubt that Crusoe becomes accustomed to life on the island. In fact he becomes so used to his isolation, that the idea of another human being, particularly on discovering the footprint in the sand, petrifies him and causes him to risk ruining all that he has built for the sake of self defence. It is a key moment in the novel and it symbolizes Crusoe’s conflicted feelings about the need for human companionship. Crusoe’s desire after ‘the society of his fellow-creatures’ is thrown aside as the evidence of a man on his island sends him into a panic.. His immediate negative and fearful attitude towards the possibility of human company makes the reader doubt he could ever be re-inserted into society again, but this was not Defoe’s intention. His representation of the self shows a need for society and company, even if the thought of it after being coming so acustomed to solitariness is a scary one.

Another key motif in the novel in an exploration of the self is Crusoe’s mixed feelings of disdain and desire for money,O drug!” said I aloud, “what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no, not the taking off of the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap; I have no manner of use for thee; e’en remain where thou art and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saving. However, upon second thoughts, I took it awayThis demonstrates his nostalgia for human society.

He appears the epitomy of the practical man on the island and admits to himself the money is worthless to him, and yet he keeps it. It has only a social worth, and thus reminds us that Crusoe cannot get away from the fact he is a social creature still. We must be reminded of this in order to appreciate that Crusoe neevr submits to becoming a savage. He constantly has society in mind and so constantly craves it. In Defoe’s words,Man is a creature so formed for society, that it may not only be said that it is not good for him to be alone, but ’tis really impossible he should be alone.

Commenting on Crusoe’s attitude on the ilsand, Defoe describes his “invincible patience recommended under the worst misery.”This highlights the idea of the self as a social being for whom loneliness was the worst condition and solitary island life, the cruellest of situations. Through loneliness Crusoe experiences a constant fear of intrusion. Crusoe’s knowledge of living amongst society makes the lack of it so much more of a burden to bear. He is an educated man, separated from humanity to fight for survival amongst nature.

His isolation,”identifies him with the state of nature that precedes society, a condition in which man could not live alone not because he was godlike, but because he was bestial.”Defoe’s comments here on the moral implications of the self are derived from Aristotle’s view that man who could live alone must be a God or a beast. It is no wonder that Crusoe felt such a desire after the society of his fellow creatures on the sighting of a ship after so long without company. .

This expresses Crusoe’s dilemma in the title, he is torn between his new-found self that has grown out of his solitary island life and the company of society that he so desperately craves.

The exploration of the self is a factor in Defoe’s popularity as it addresses the entire human race. James Sutherland said,”To read Robinson Crusoe is to be compelled to face up to all sorts of physical problems that civilised man has long since forgotten. It is in some sense to retrace the history of the
human race; it is certainly to look again with the unspoilt eye of childhood on many things that one had long since ceased to notice at all.”There is a definite profundity in Robinson’s journey of self-discovery, which may explain the success of the novel even now. As a reader we are aware of the importance of his journey as that of the self.

Crusoe himself must be aware of the intense nature of his experience since, despite feelings of ardent loneliness, he still regrets the want of the society of his fellow creatures. Crusoe has lived on the island for twenty-three years. He has had to create new values and essentially had to find a reason for living. It is human nature to struggle for life, but, after twenty-three years, Crusoe has to find psychological and spiritual meaning in his solitary life. Ian Watt explains the success of the story as an exploration of the self as the readers,rejoice to find that isolation can be the beginning of a new realization of the potentialities of the individual…They imagine themselves to be sharing each representative step in his conquest of the environment, and perform with him a heartening recapitulation of humanity’s success story.

The power of the story may come from the bare facts of his survival in solitude but Defoe’s representation of the self and our consequent admiration for Crusoe, is for what he achieves despite his loneliness. This in recognition of humans as social beings, for whom human company is not just a pleasure, but a necessity.


PrimaryNovak, Maximillian.E. Defoe & the Nature of Man. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Richetti, John.J. Defoe’s Narratives: Situations and Structures. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1975.

Rogers, Pat. Robinson Crusoe. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1979.

Seidel, Michael. Robinson Crusoe : island myths and the novel. Boston : Twayne, c1991.

Watt, Ian. “Robinson Crusoe as a myth. An Essay in Criticism.”
1951SecondaryFlorman, Ben and Henriksen, John. SparkNote on Robinson Crusoe. 30 Nov. 2007 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/crusoe/

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