As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.
Robinson Crusoe’s story is, as I said, a well-known one that has been adapted multiple times in various different ways. It is not the story of the guy who traveled to unknown places and went to the land where everyone was tiny. That gentleman would be Lemuel Gulliver from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (which I was also forced to read). Interestingly, Swift and Defoe were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and Gulliver was in some ways a response to Defoe’s novel.
The story of Robinson Crusoe could be summed up thusly: As a young man, Robinson Crusoe defies his father’s wishes and sets off to make his fortune by the sea-trade. He is shipwrecked, captured by pirates, escapes and becomes a plantation owner in Brazil. While taking part in a slave-trading expedition, he is shipwrecked again on a deserted island. Overcoming his despair, he is able to eventually eke out a comfortable if solitary lifestyle. This solitude is broken when he befriends a native boy whom he names Friday, and he eventually escapes the island after about 20 years.
However, what this summary leaves out is Crusoe’s conversion experience on the island. As my professor pointed out, Robinson begins the book by lamenting how he should have listened to his father all those years ago and stayed home where it was safe. But if you think about it, if he had done that, he would have simply carried on being the shallow and money-obsessed young man he was in the beginning. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are his religious awakenings, such as when he sees the hand of God in the events that led him to discover what kind of edible plants could grow on the island, and the touching scene where he wakes to his parrot saying the words he’s been repeating to himself:
…for in just such bemoaning language I had used to talk to him and teach him; and he had learned it so perfectly that he would sit upon my finger, and lay his bill close to my face and cry, “Poor Robin Crusoe! Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?”
While at this point in the story Crusoe has come to a better understanding of God, we didn’t really know that he taught his parrot Poll to say these words. In fact, when he wakes up to Poll’s voice he has a moment of shock, thinking that he was being addressed by a Higher Power. And in a way, I think he was – it’s easy to imagine God using Poll to ‘parrot’ out some truths to Crusoe in his exile. It’s also easy to imagine Jesus saying these words to the worldly, fortune-obsessed man who was even willing to turn to the slave-trade in his quest for riches. Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?
Crusoe thus shows himself to be not only physically shipwrecked on the island, but also spiritually shipwrecked and in need of rescue by his Saviour. Charles Dickens would later bring his famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, into dialogue with this scene in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to the time where he read Robinson Crusoe as a lonely, isolated boy:
“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, […] ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know.
Scrooge, who up to this point in Dicken’s novel has been nothing but a grumpy, selfish old man, is shown to suddenly burst into boyish excitement upon remembering this scene. The reader is shown that the call of ‘Where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ resonates with the old miser’s heart, and offers the hope that Scrooge too can be redeemed from his spiritual shipwrecking on the island of Greed and Isolation. And of course, at the end of the novel, he is.
Defoe and Dickens were both great storytellers, and their stories of conversion and rescue from the shipwrecks of our spiritual lives shines through their (occasionally dull) prose. However, it is important to remember that whether consciously or not, their stories contain elements of a story told by the Great Storyteller himself. Long before either author was born, Jesus Christ told the story of a son who ungratefully left his father’s house, fell into tragedy and came back contrite of heart. And also of a Father who ran pell-mell to welcome him back and tell him that he was still loved and cared for. We are never told if the son truly came to love his father more on his return, but what is important is that he has every opportunity to do so.
I feel that we all have Robinson Crusoe somewhere in our heart. We all have moments where we forget God and wish to act by our own will and our own strength. But this timeless story encourages us to use the inevitable disasters that we face in those moments to turn back to God, to love Him more and try to serve Him as best we can. As John Henry Newman said, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’
Speaking of Cardinal Newman, in the second and final part of this series, I will be introducing you a little more to him and his story. We will also be looking at Newman’s work St. Paul at Melita, a short poem in which he tells the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck near Italy, and how a true Christian reacts when facing the disasters of life. Till then, God bless!
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng