Robinson Crusoe suffers enormous hardship before he ever gets to his island, and the hardship seems disproportionate to the wrong he commits. Is running off to sea against his father’s wishes such an enormity?
In his classic study of Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, GA Starr explains that Robinson “defies the joint authority of family, society, and Providence.” While running away “may be somewhat more complex than, say, eating an apple, yet each deed is significant primarily as an outward token of a spiritual state.” Crusoe’s sin “is merely the first overt expression of a more fundamental source of trouble: the natural waywardness of every unregenerate man” (79).
Crusoe’s journey to the island has to be understood in the same context. Why, Starr wonders, does it take “nearly fifty pages before Crusoe clambers ashore on his island”? Starr points to other texts that use “metaphors of physical distance . . . wandering, straying, fleeing, hiding, and rambling in order to convey the inward spiritual remoteness from ‘the true center of his being.’” Defoe literalizes the metaphor: “Crusoe actually undergoes such wanderings” (84).
Biblical analogies fill out Crusoe spiritual journey. Starr indicates that there are analogies between Defoe’s book and the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24): “Like Crusoe, Balaam ventures forth on a mission contrary to his clear duty; like Crusoe, he is opposed by God, but he is blind to the cause of his obstacles, and persists obstinately on his course. As with Crusoe, only the appears of an angel, brandishing a sword and threatening his destruction, finally forces him to repent.” Not only are the narratives similar, but Starr finds an “inward affinity” between the “spiritual plights” of the two: “In each case journeying bodily is a graphic representation of erring spiritually; in both cases the ways of sin are repeatedly obstructed, and ultimately blocked altogether, in order to deflect the culprit from his false object and restore him to the truth path” (100-1).
Crusoe’s ultimate conversion is not only a reconciliation with God, but with the world that is providentially ruled by God. He isn’t delivered from all fears and anxieties, but “he becomes better able to confront new hazards, and to dispel their terrors, for he gains security from the conviction that he is an object of Providential care” rather than a target of Providential discipline (113). His is a very Protestant conversion, not only because it takes place in isolation with no mediator but the Bible, but also because it changes Crusoe’s stance in the world. Reconciled to Providence, he becomes the model of the inner-worldly, disciplined builder of civilization.