Allegory in Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’

The last day of the Easter Quote Week!

On the 25th of April 1719, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was first published. The original title, extremely long and detailed, led many people to believe that the book was based on a true story and authored by Robinson Crusoe himself. The title read as follows: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Over the years, this highly popular adventure novel, the subject of various critical interpretations, has become increasingly involved in economic theories. Here is a fragment of an article by Christopher Hill (Robinson Crusoe, History Workshop, No. 10, Autumn, 1980), in which Robinson Crusoe is analysed as an allegory of various economic concepts.         

51L7bcBUA3LFrom Marx onwards much has been written about Defoe as economist, as a precursor of Adam Smith. The phrase ‘the wealth of nations’ occurs at least 33 times in Defoe’s writings, it has been calculated. Robinson Crusoe attacked the monopoly of the East India Company, which could condemn a man unheard once he had been wrongfully accused of piracy. His accusers were both his judges, from whose arbitrary sentence there was no appeal, and his executioners. This monopoly created the same insecurity for lawful traders as did ‘savages’. 

More important perhaps is the clarity of some of Defoe’s concepts. ‘All that I could make use of, was all that was valuable’, Crusoe observed. ‘I suffered no more corn to grow, because I did not want it’ [i.e. need it]; and he contrasted the world to which he returned, in which ‘the men of labour spent their strength in daily strugglings to maintain the vital strength they laboured with, . . . living but to work and working but to live’ to produce wealth which the rich then squandered ‘in vile excesses or empty pleasures’. On the island Crusoe’s large stock of money and bullion was useless. ‘I would have given it all for three or four pairs of English shoes and stockings’. Defoe had learnt a lot from Locke (or his predecessors) about the labour theory of value; and from Harrington (and the world around him) about the influence of economics on politics. (‘The revolution of trade brought a revolution in the very nature of things…. Now we see the nobility and the ancient gentry have almost everywhere sold their estates and the commonalty and tradesmen have bought them: so -that now the gentry are richer than the nobility, and the tradesmen are richer than them all ‘). 

Notwithstanding his own unsuccessful commercial practice, Defoe wrote popular and successful books like The Complete English Tradesman. ‘Trade’, he wrote here, ‘must not be entered into as a thing of light concern; it is called business very properly, for it is a business for life; … nothing but what are to be called the necessary duties of life are to intervene, and even these are to be limited, so as not to be prejudicial to business’. A man must not ‘be so intent upon religious duties as to neglect the proper times and seasons of business. Defoe discusses cases of conscience such as a pious shopkeeper might encounter. He was in favour of high wages and freer trade, believing that England’s industrial superiority would enable her by these means to gain the advantage over all other nations.

In many ways Robinson Crusoe, a book about life on a desert island, is a glorification of west European technology. It is thanks to the tools and commodities which Crusoe salvages from the wreck that he is able not only to survive but to prosper, drawing on the heritage of centuries of civilisation. But in the process he has to master many new techniques; division of labour and diversity of acquired skills, he points out, would have infinitely lightened this labour. ‘What might be a little to be done with help and tools was a vast labour and required a prodigious time to do alone and by hand. ‘I believe few people have thought much upon … the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing and finishing this one article of bread’. Just as man in Hobbes’s state of nature brings with him many of the assumptions of bourgeois society, so Robinson Crusoe has on his island much of the capital equipment and more of the mental furniture of an eighteenth-
century English bourgeois. The very pointed criticisms of China in Parts II and III, though no doubt motivated by what Defoe regarded as excessive fashionable adulation of Chinese art and culture, derive ultimately from a contempt for China’s technological and therefore military inferiority to western Europe. From this point of view Robinson Crusoe could be read as a tract in favour of west European imperialism in its early eighteenth-century phase. Crusoe takes possession of the island as his property. He brings to it capital and technical skills, but until Friday appears he lacks labour power to develop these to the best advantage. Part II describes the much more effective solution developed by Crusoe’s successors on the island. Indians are reduced, first by military defeat, then by starvation, to accept the position either of subordinate labourers or of smallholders producing under supervision. Crusoe contrasts this brutal behaviour with his own treatment of Friday, whom he had ‘instructed … in the rational principles of life’. His successors failed in ‘civilizing and reducing them by kind usage and affectionate arguings’, and so ‘never had them to assist them and fight for them as I had my man Friday’. Two approaches to colonizing, each with its advantages, each with its disadvantages…