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Capitalism and Individualism in Robinson Crusoe

In popular imagination Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has become an adventure story for children, for which the original novel is not responsible, but the abridged and bowdlerized versions must be blamed. A close reading of the original text reveals a novel of enormous significance. In many ways the novel can be said to be defining the modern citizen of capitalistic society. It is also widely regarded as being the first modern novel. In fact this latter claim is not unrelated to the previous proposition.

The modern novel is not only a mirror to the modern psyche, but also bears an organic relationship to it. A general proposition is that literature was the means by which the modern psyche came into being, and the modern novel is particularly instrumental in this sense. In this regard Robinson Crusoe not only sets the agenda of modern capitalism and individualism, but was also a key phenomenon that helped bring about its realization.

The German sociologist Weber made the observation that the character of Robinson Crusoe was the ideal example of the Protestant work ethic in action (118).

In his desert island isolation Crusoe makes the discovery of God, and establishes personal communion with Him through his newly found faith and the aid of the Bible. Therefore he is the quintessential Protestant. Weber’s general thesis was that the Protestant nurtures an ascetic relationship to work. In the absence of supporting church and societal structures, the Protestant falls upon his worldly activity to express his devotion.

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According to the doctrines set out by Luther and Calvin, the Protestant establishes a personal communion with God, justified by his faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior, and in the Bible as the word of God. This was the doctrine of “justification by faith”. It necessitated that the Protestant maintain an intense relationship to work, this being the only means by which to establish piety and purposefulness. This is what Weber calls the Protestant work ethic.

There is no doubt that Robinson Crusoe exemplifies this principle. The overriding characteristic of the Protestant is his isolation and individualism. In normal circumstances we would think of a Protestant as spiritually isolated. But in Crusoe’s tale this isolation is magnified and made tangible. He is physically isolated from society, marooned on a desert island, and his spiritual isolation comes in tandem. He discovers God in the worst depths of his despair, and it is a discovery born purely of his own life circumstances, and the signs that God has transmitted to him therein.

He comes to God in complete isolation, with his own experience and the words of the Bible alone pointing the way. The rest of the novel can be seen as his continuing conversation with God. On Crusoe’s part the conversation is carried out through a constant strengthening of faith, along with diligence in his work to maintain himself on the island. The responses of God are to be read in the improving circumstances of Crusoe, as he gradually becomes more and more master of his own dominion. This is exactly what the Protestant expects. Salvation is through work, which is a form of piety.

Weber’s further contention is that modern capitalism is result of the Protestant work ethic. In the following passage he explains the process whereby religious enthusiasm brings about economic activity:

Those mighty religious movements whose significance for economic development lay primarily in their ascetic and educative impact, commonly only exhibited their full economic effect after the high point of purely religious enthusiasm had already been passed; when the convulsive search for the kingdom of God was gradually beginning to dissolve into sober, vocational virtue, the religious root was slowly dying out and giving way to utilitarian worldliness. (Ibid)

Diligence was the prime virtue of the Puritan from the very beginning, even though it did not appear to be capitalistic at first. In the early days, after the Protestant Reformation, much of the Puritan zeal was transmitted into revolutionary activity. The English Civil War, the overcoming of monarchy, the uprooting of the old aristocratic order, the annulment of organized religion, all this stemmed from Puritan zeal.

Eventually the Whigs, the moderate Protestants, took over the reins of power and began to persecute the Puritans in turn for their zeal. In time the religious enthusiasm mellowed and was channeled, as Weber describes, into “sober, vocational virtue”. Utilitarian worldliness was only the end product of this evolution, and in which form we recognize it as modern capitalism.

Weber goes on to cite the Shakespearean scholar Edward Dowden, who places Defoe’s novel at exactly this point of sociological transition. It was where “Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’, hurrying past ‘Vanity Fair’, filled with his lonely inward striving after the kingdom of heaven, was replaced in the popular imagination by ‘Robinson Crusoe’, the isolated economic man who pursues missionary work on the side” (Ibid). Dowden tends to belittle the religious element as false, and wants to define the character of Crusoe as unflinchingly and ruthlessly capitalistic. Weber, however, does not make this mistake.

Religion and worldly diligence go hand and hand, and is an attitude without which capitalism is impossible. Material greed does not deliver capitalism. Only if the profit-making endeavor is undertaken as an act of asceticism is it possible for all the gains to be ploughed back into industry and thereby keep the machine of capitalism in motion. Weber made a thorough analysis of all the major civilizations in order to show that they were not capable of producing capitalism because the ascetic relationship to work was absent. Any tendency in this direction would be defeated by the ills bred by covetousness and greed.

Karl Marx was also tempted to jettison the religion of Crusoe and analyze him in terms of being an “economic man” alone. “Of his prayers and the like we take no account,” he says, “since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation” (Marx 47). It is a lead followed by many modern economists. For example Peter Mathias describes it as “a sophisticated myth of the ascent of man, of economic growth by dint of the work ethic, of the imperative of ‘improvement’ and the determination to master nature” (17).

It is plain to see why economists are tempted to invade the island of Crusoe. It is because the analysis of economics is restricted to personal needs and their fulfillment. The only cognizance made towards the existence of society is in the introduction of the exchange mechanism, so that the surplus product of one’s labors can be exchanged with that of another’s to mutual benefit. In this process society is minimized and personal needs are maximized. The obsession of the economist is with personal desires, and so he is happy to push society to the distance. In Robinson Crusoe’s plight Defoe has created a situation which attracts the gaze of the economist compulsively.

Defoe does not disappoint; along with the religious awakening of Crusoe we are also given a meticulous account of his economic situation. Once set on his task of survival he surveys his situation dispassionately, seeing himself as a creature of needs, placed on an island of limited resources, and his own capacity of labor to transform the resources into products of use, i.e. commodities that are able to meet his needs. He cultivates some land to plant barley and rice. He makes a fishing rod to catch fish from the sea. After a few years of such effort he gets the measure of things and realizes that he should avoid being wasteful.

He calculates that he cannot consume more than forty bushels of barley and rice in one year, and settles thus the amount that should be planted for harvest each year. “I had no competitor, none to dispute sovereignty or command with me: I might have raised ship-loadings of corn, but I had no use for it; so I let as little grow as I thought enough for my occasion” (Defoe 118). But a bad crop one year makes him reproach himself for his laziness, and he duly plans for insurance against future disasters. “I resolved for the future to have two or three years’ corn beforehand; so that, whatever might come, I might not perish for want of bread” (Ibid 144).

But apart from this there is little of economic analysis to be pursued in his situation. This is because, beyond future insurance, he has no need for surplus production, and more importantly, because there is no exchange. After he recovers gold coins from the wreck of the ship he realizes the intrinsic futility of money when it has no exchange value. This has led Rich Whately to comment that “Robinson Crusoe is in a position of which Political Economy takes no cognizance” (5). While this is true, the fascination for the economist still holds.

This is probably because Crusoe exemplifies the inner heart of capitalism, that which political economy tries to overlook or deny. For example, social cost is a concept that has only recently forced its way into the discourse of political economy, and only after degradation of the global environment on a massive scale. But to Crusoe it appears immediately. After he has cut down some wild vines he muses:

I thought those beautiful vines and those slender young trees were free goods; they belonged to nobody. I thought the costs were all external. But I didn’t realize that when I cut them down, I would be depriving myself of this intangible source of pleasure. Since I am the only one on the island and will be here for some time then it is clear that I did not correctly evaluate my true costs of production. (Ibid 91).

Crusoe also exemplifies the ascetic impulse involved in capitalism, that which totally escapes the scrutiny of political economics. While he has become seemingly immersed into the world, he makes contrary claims, saying that he now sees the world as something remote. “I had nothing indeed to do with it, nor was ever likely to have, so I thought it looked, as we may perhaps look upon it hereafter – viz. as a place I had lived in, but was come out of it” (Ibid 117). Through his isolation, and his discovery of God, he has found a purpose that lies beyond the confines of the world. If he was yet physically in it, his diligence was but an expression of his piety.

Without this otherworldly presence he would be consumed by greed and covetousness. Crusoe is always conscious of the fact that he has escaped these evils by being distanced from society. He sees the hands of Providence in this design, that he should be marooned on a desert island, “removed from all the wickedness of the world here,” in order that his soul be saved (Ibid). He comes to see the island as a veritable Eden, capable of cleansing sin from anyone who finds himself in his own situation: “The most covetous, griping miser in the world would have been cured of the vice of covetousness if he had been in my case; for I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with” (Ibid 118).

Another aspect of modern capitalism is the inalienable rights of the human, which we also find delineated in the novel. Locke has established the concept of human rights on a philosophical basis through his Two Treatises on Government. The premise to his analysis was the individual as an isolated element in society, and therefore he works on the basis of Protestantism. That which Locke derives through philosophy, Defoe presents to us in vivid narrative form through the situation of Robinson Crusoe. The first step is his removal from society, and the second step is his removal from the world, through his discovery of God, and the realization that his diligence is but a means of worshipping God, and beyond this he had no truck with material existence.

But the more and more diligent he becomes, therefore, the more and more he strengthens his communion with God, the more and more conscious does he become of his mastery over his own dominion. As Philip Zaleski puts it, “This conversion does not go unrequited; as Robinson surrenders to God, the island surrenders to him” (40). His purposefulness is otherworldly, but the worldly mark of it is the right of possession that he establishes over his territory. It is part of the conversation that the Protestant establishes with God. If he is justified by his faith, and that alone, God will convey this message to him through his worldly circumstances.

In many points of the novel we find Crusoe becoming conscious of his inalienable rights, and marveling at what he possesses by the grace of God. In one guarded moment, while ambling through a scenic valley, he rejoices in his sense of possession: “I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England” (Defoe 92) This is indeed a novel conception of right, and one that was overtaking the feudal and aristocratic rights of old, rooted in primogeniture. Only through his pious diligence has Crusoe come to possess this piece of land. The example of Crusoe is a microcosm of capitalism staking its right over the commodity products of capitalistic diligence.

This sense of mastery and possession eventually extends to people too. He saves a prisoner of the cannibals, who occasionally visit the island to ritually consume their captives. He enslaves him in turn, calls him Friday, converts him to Christianity, and more importantly, teaches him awe towards European civilization, and thereby establishes between them the colonial master-slave relationship. Most modern commentators find this aspect of the novel hard to stomach. James Joyce said of Robinson Crusoe, “He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity” (qtd. in Phillips 33).

The feminist critic Ulla Grapard comments that the self-sufficiency of Crusoe is misleading, for it fails to take into account the slavery he imposes on Friday. There is also the suggestion that civilization is the product of European man and his communion with god, with the exclusion of women and others, and therefore “imposes boundaries separating those who belong in economic discourse from those who do not” (Grapard 33). These are all valid complaints, but fail to take into account that colonialism and male-centeredness are inextricably part of capitalism.

Not only the contents of Robinson Crusoe, but the medium itself was a revolutionary phenomenon. The novel form was an innovation that proved ideal to capture the spirit of individualism, as well as portray the plight of the individual in context of capitalistic modernity. According to Chesterton, the novel concerns itself with relationships. He also calls it a feminine medium, because understanding social relationship is the forte of women (39).

Many consider Aphra Behn to be the first novelist, who published a generation before Defoe. But Oroonoko does not dissect social relationships to any extent, and is more intent on plain narrative, even though long. When the novel came of age in the Victorian era the female practitioners of the form advanced the medium greatly, among them Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. But there is good reason to call Robinson Crusoe the first novel, even though it is set far from human society, and therefore cannot deal with human relationships greatly.

Defoe’s effort is the first novel because it considers the relationship that precedes all others, which is the relationship between man and God. Because of his physical isolation and instinct for survival, Coleridge saw in the character of Robinson Crusoe “the universal representative, the person for whom every reader could substitute himself” (qtd. in Keane 51). For a novel to succeed the reader must be able to identify with the protagonist in some way. In the case of Crusoe the reader’s identification is not only universal, but also works at a very fundamental level.

Walter Allen call it a dramatization of “the inescapable solitariness of each man in his relation to God and the universe” (28). It is something that the individual must come to terms with before he can relate to others. Weber contends that Protestantism gave birth to the individual of modern capitalism, and identifies the Protestant work ethic as the means by which this became the social norm. But he fails to recognize the extent to which literature was also the instrument.

Even before the advent of the novel literature was thoroughly engaged in the process of creating a “secular” instrument of creative expression. In the Christian era literature was overwhelmingly devotional, and even then limited by the parameters of Church doctrine. Like Bruno, Savonarola and Galileo, many were the martyrs and victims to the cause of self-expression. With the Protestant Reformation the authority of the Church was overcome, resulting in the emancipation of literature. It did not just express individualism, but was the means by which the individual discovered a new voice.

For example, instead of composing paeans to the saints, Ben Jonson wrote flattering poetry aimed at his aristocratic patrons, and meant only for circulation in aristocratic circles. Even when the content was religious there was bound to be a personal or metaphysical element associated, as we find in the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. The specific genesis of the novel can be traced to the search for scientific clarity and objectivity in literature. The Royal Society of London, apart from fostering scientific experimentation, also encouraged a style of writing that reflected scientific precision. The trend emerged of keeping diaries and journals; such a process was thought to mimic the procedure of scientific and empirical observation.

The early members of the Royal Society were avid keepers of diaries, notable among them Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Diaries of prominent people were published posthumously. These served as the blueprints for the first novels. We notice that in Robinson Crusoe, Defoe is straining to follow the diary format in order to infuse credibility to his tale. There is even a section which is strictly in the diary format, which Defoe abandons after a point, with the excuse that Crusoe had run out of paper and ink. In truth it is a desperate attempt at realism, and Defoe only discards it when he sees that it is impeding the flow of the narrative, and that the last is more important.

It must be kept in mind that Robinson Crusoe is not yet a novel, but is striving to become one. The greatest effort is made to camouflage the fictional aspect. The frontispiece of the original edition emblazons the word “LIFE” from the full title, which reads “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner”. To Defoe it was vital that the work be read as autobiography. The desired effect was realism, and to achieve this Defoe employs the style of the diarist.

David Marshall comments: “From the outset, the narrative is preoccupied with autobiography itself as Robinson Crusoe engages in repeated and at times almost compulsive acts of autobiography” (899). Believability and the willingness of the reader to identify with the protagonist is crucial. To the modern novelist this comes naturally, for he creates his characters and immediately engages in their mutual relationships, which makes them both identifiable and believable. But for Defoe such a technique was not to hand. Nor did the circumstances of his protagonist allow for such. He has no option but to strive for realism through the context of autobiography.

However, even the most vivid realism would not have made Robinson Crusoe a novel, if it was not for the continuing conversation that Crusoe establishes with God. This is the accidental feature that qualifies this work of literature as a novel. Not only this, but because the relationship that it considers is the most fundamental one, it becomes the protean novel, i.e. that starting point from which all other novels stem. It accomplishes the most difficult task, which is to establish the individual though his relationship with God and the universe.

After this all subsequent novels can engage in the simpler task of exploring the relationships between individuals. This is why the mood of the novel is extremely somber throughout. It has led Charles Dickens to comment “Robinson Crusoe should be the only instance of a universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry” (599). It is too serious for the ordinary emotions. Dickens himself wrote novels that made the nation laugh and cry with abandon, and such is what we normally expect from the medium.

In conclusion, in Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe has created a character that establishes the individual of modern capitalism. In his circumstance of isolation on a deserted island, and also in his discovery of God therein, Defoe finds the opportunity to demonstrate the Protestant work ethic in action.

Through the portrayal of the work ethic we discover the emergence of capitalism and individualism, both advancing in tandem. As Crusoe strengthens his communion with God he discovers his individual self, and at the same time senses more and more his mastery and possession over the island. At the same time we notice the emergence of a new literary form, the novel. It is not only the ideal medium for the expression of capitalistic individualism, but was also historically the means by which it came to be established.

Works Cited

Allen, Walter Ernest. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. Boston: Dutton, 1955.

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. The Victorian Age in Literature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. ICON Group International, 2006.

Dickens, Charles. Selected Journalism, 1850-1870. Ed. David Pascoe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.

Grapard, Ulla. “Robinson Crusoe: The quintessential economic man?” Feminist Economics.1.1 (March 1995): 33-52.

Keane, Patrick J. Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Marx, Karl. Capital: An Abridged Edition. Contributor David McLellan. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Marshall, David. “Autobiographical Acts in Robinson Crusoe.” ELH. 71.4 (Winter 2004): 899-920.

Mathias, Peter. “Economic Growth and Robinson Crusoe.” European Review. 15 (2007): 17-31.

Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London: Routledge, 1997.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. Translated by Gordon C Wells, Peter R Baehr. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Whately, Rich. Introductory Lectures on Political Economy. 4th ed.; London, 1855.

Zaleski, Philip. “The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe.” First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life. 53 (May 1995): 38-44.

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Capitalism and Individualism in Robinson Crusoe. (2017, Feb 25). Retrieved from

Capitalism and Individualism in Robinson Crusoe
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