Colonization and Civilization on a Desert Island through Robinson Crusoe’s Eyes
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is an interesting and attention grabbing work of the 17th century based on the issues it depicts, especially the presence of colonization. During this time empiricism permeated literature. This novel shows the happenings in Crusoe’s life as they are real, therefore the reader can feel as he or she is actually involved in them and those are not only delivered through the book. Robinson is the main character, who lives for one aim: sailing. Although he wants to gain newer and newer experiences, he cannot deny his cultural roots in connection with the English society’s point of view about civilization and colonization. During reading, the reader is able to realize the attempts of the protagonist to civilize and to colonize, starting with the domestication of animals, proving it through all of his relationships appeared and maintained in the novel. It is interesting to examine these previously mentioned phenomena of civilization and colonization as a lot of people would see an opposition between them. That is why I am going to analyze the novel based on the process and manifestations of colonization (the process of occupying territories for one’s own nation, strongly connected to imperialism) that Crusoe provides us; also paying attention to whether the civilizing process stands strictly in connection with colonization or not.
First of all, the most conspicuous issue is the attempt of domestication. Whether it is the question of tradition or the society someone comes from, it represents civilization. Thus domestication could be understood as the first step that leads to where civilization bounds with colonization. Therefore, even if there is a kind of opposition between civilizing and colonizing, they overlap. Especially, if we consider the differences based on skin color, not to mention the presence of unjust slavery. These are strongly connected to how Crusoe embodies the traditional view of superiority based on his own society.
Furthermore, civilization can lead to colonization. These two phenomena do not just overlap, but one follows the other based on historical knowledge and based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Throughout history it was proven that white societies, like England started to enforce their own will and “civilize” the less developed ones. According to McInelly, Crusoe also realizes his power on the island: “the colonial setting facilitates Crusoe’s individualism as he comes to recognize the unique place he occupies as a British Protestant in a world in which he is surrounded by religious and cultural Others” (McInelly 2). This demonstrates the real presence of superiority and inferiority between different nations. People from different ethnic groups get different treatment from the others. The aim is colonization and the cover story is bringing civilization. Crusoe is part of the developed culture that accepts slavery. Thus, his identity and individualism as a definition are mixed with his society’s perspective. Not to mention that Crusoe appears here as a prototype of English colonizer.
Moreover, what are really important in connection with this viewpoint about the novel are the opposites: society against individualism, identity against slavery and civilization against colonization. Interpreting the first two pairs, they can stand closely in connection with materialism, mercantilism and religion. Society is the one thing that defines traditions and people’s roles. How society thinks about civilizing the “savages” and colonizing other parts of the world partly defines how individuals do the same. Another good question is the role of money within the novel. What is interesting is that critics do not seem to care about it or do not think about the definition of mercantilism, though these are fascinating features appearing throughout the whole book. The very fact that Crusoe cares about money reflects on how that era cared about it. Although the protagonist realizes that money has no value on a deserted island, in the back of his mind he also knows that in England and in any market money is a useful resource: “upon Second Thoughts, I took it away” (Defoe qtd in Spielman 72). The other important issue in the novel is religion. Crusoe prays a lot of times during the novel, but whether he is religious in any ways or not, stays unclear. He turns to God when he needs something: “This was the first prayer, if I may call it so, that I had made for many years” (Defoe 106).
Moving back to the question of religion, sometimes it looks like Crusoe tries to act as a God. It can partly refer to the little pieces of colonization that affected Crusoe’s dreamland as well. For example, in the case when Crusoe gives a name to Friday we see his superiority and power over the black person: “Crusoe transforms his island world through the agency of language, and particularly…through a creative process of naming” (Novak qtd. in McInelly 5). Not to mention how politics affected Crusoe’s way of thinking after he recognized that on the island he could actually act like a king. His every move is concerned with the aftermath of the political institution created on the basis of his homeland.
Furthermore, in a way Crusoe’s own development is also based on colonization. He recognizes his own self-importance and that is the end-product of English social norms at that time. Therefore, culture and society are also key terms here. The habits he inherits from his own nation, neither the presence of colonialism and imperialism cannot be denied. England as an empire was not famous for its purpose of welcoming or getting to know new cultures, it wanted to conquer. Going to the depth of this phenomenon, another interesting fact is that Crusoe left England to avoid the affects of Puritanism, yet on the island he creates almost the exact same features that he originally ran away from. He easily becomes the ruler of the uninhabited land by showing his strength, cleverness, wisdom and all the “values” he brought with himself from his mother nation.
The above mentioned pair of society and individualism stands in connection with the British identity and the question of slavery as well as with the affects of colonization:
The entire process of isolating the personal, religious, political, and even economic facets of a fictional subject’s life within an imagined colonial setting contributed directly to the features we know associate with the early novel: attention to individual character and particulars of day-to-day experience, and an intense exploration of the dynamics of selfhood. (McInelly 19)
According to this quotation the reader can clearly see that selfhood is also represented by traditions and the characteristics of colonization. What is even more important is that though the protagonist represents one side of the coin only, both the colonized and the colonizer’s points of view are depicted.
Also, to add another new point to this topic based on the previously mentioned factors, questioning the impact and the manifestations of colonization is also important. According to the novel, the very first act of civilizing some aspects of the land leads to an unavoidable chain reaction to start. People can argue whether the background massage of colonizing comes with advantages or disadvantages, the book somehow seems to lack or even neglect freedom in any way of its meaning. Considering the above mentioned phenomena, the naming process of Friday, the question of religion, the bringing of civilization through domestication and the presence of other society-related phenomena like carpentry; the reader can realize that these are all acts resulting in becoming aspects of the colonizing process itself.
What is more, considering the beginning of the novel escapism on its individual form and the struggle with society appears. Of course, here these are totally different from their original meanings. The way Crusoe escapes from his family and from society brings up a goal: sailing and adventure. Later on, he is struggling with the requirements of his society; the result is actually the following: he colonizes not just the land, but also people and their identities. How he thinks about the differences between white and native or colonizer and colonized is based on owning and wanting to own or gain, whether it is land or its inhabitants is of no great importance: “I understood that my man Friday had formerly been among the savages…” (Defoe 169). This refers to the idea that savages need to be civilized, even controlled by those who are superior. Crusoe also renames things; he calls the tent and the cave as cellar and house. It represents his property, also civilization and demonstrates the work of human hands. From the cave he actually ends up with a kingdom.
Crusoe’s journal also adds a few points to the list that describes how he created and developed his own territory and how it became the embodiment of colonization. This is what represents reality; it also refers to movement and an actual plot. It deals with Crusoe’s everyday life and gives the impression of being there, as well. It is divided into sections from which a few can be seen as milestones of successfully creating property. He also writes about Friday, his appearance and behavior. Friday is happy to serve him because this is the form of living he has known in his entire life. Crusoe’s relationships are questionable in a way that he makes differences based on skin colour and origin. Yet, he is capable of change, for example his feelings about Friday. At the beginning he simply asks for companionship, later on he starts to like him: “I began really to love the creature” (Defoe 216). Even though he is a divisive character, he demonstrates reality in a form that everybody can understand.
Name, freedom and language are key elements of owning one’s identity and Crusoe successfully oppresses these: “I began to…teach him to speak to me…his name should be Friday…I likewise thought him to say Master” (Defoe 209). Friday is the one who learns Crusoe’s language. This is also an important aspect of superiority. Crusoe uses the skills of his own society’s developed world, for example guns to overpower people and to force his own will in a way. Another good example is saving the white men with pleasure, in this occasion even killing is acceptable, not just for him but for God as well. He is craving for his fellow mates companionship: “I never felt so earnest, so strong a desire after the society of my fellow-creatures” (Defoe 192). The major matter is that Crusoe does these things silently, it is not conspicuous, and thus the readers have to search for evidence.
All in all, Robinson Crusoe is an ambiguous character who evokes a multitude of topics. Within the novel, imperialism, civilization, colonization and capitalism appear to the reader as issues of all centuries. This is one of the reasons why Robinson Crusoe is a timeless reading. The novel is very reality-based in a sense, also shows culture and cultural expectations and roles based on concrete facts. All of the happenings and relationships in the island are influenced by the huge impact of British colonization. What is probably the most important factor here is not the process of colonization itself, but the impacts it has on different nations. Also the fact that through the novel everybody can replace the main character with himself or herself and explore the travels through an era based on colonization, so that we can realize the truth: a lot of issues are parts of today’s society as well; also the peculiar phenomenon that whenever a civilizing process takes place, there is some kind of a superiority accompanying it.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994. Print.
David Wallace Spielman. “The Value of Money in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 107, no. 1, 2012, pp. 70-76. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.
McInelly, Brett C. “Expanding Empires, Expanding Selves: Colonialism, the Novel, and Robinson Crusoe. “Studies in the Novel”, vol. 35, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1-21. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.
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Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is an interesting and attention grabbing work of the 17th century based on the issues it depicts, especially the presence of colonization. During this time empiricism […]