Tuesday, December 31, 2019

ROBINSON CRUSOE @ 300; Or, an Epic of Freedom of Conscience Out of a Parable

We all must learn life’s deep lessons by reflecting on our experiences in the light of God’s revelation.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe turned 300 in 2019. The book’s pervasive influence on the English-speaking literary world can be seen in various adaptations, movies, references in other literary works. 

Nearly 150 years after its publication, Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins published his detective novel, The Moonstone (1868). In that novel, one character swears by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe saying that that book taught him almost everything about life. That’s one example of the lasting impact this book has had on other writers and books. 

Robinson Crusoe when it appeared in 1719, was a literary sensation. Nothing like that had ever been written.

The “first novel” in the English novel, however, was an outgrowth of the parable of the Prodigal Son told in the New Testament (Luke 15: 11–32), and the whole book is the retelling of the parable from the prodigal son’s perspective. Just as the younger son the parable told by Jesus rebelled against his father and left home, Robinson Crusoe too disregarded his parents’ advice and went seafaring. Like the prodigal son, he too repents and returns. 

Critics and scholars who love theories, systems and ideologies, said a lot about this book. From Marx to Max Weber, everyone had an opinion on the book, it’s protagonist, it’s setting, etc. For simple readers, it’s quite a riveting piece of writing, where the writer has you in his grip even when he is writing—for the most part—about a single shipwrecked man trying to survive on an uninhabited island. And when he is not working, he is coming to terms with his own past and realigning his inner life with the will and purpose of God, or as the biblical text says, “comes to his senses”.

At one point he says:
“It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming, or, indeed, for the two years past.”

A spoilt young brat turns into a hard working artisan; a mason, a potter, a carpenter, a tailor—all rolled into one. 

The gradual conversion of his heart is the heart of the book. Just as the prodigal son was given the liberty to rebel, and was then given the opportunity to repent, Robinson Crusoe learnt a basic lesson about liberty of conscience. You cannot force any man to do your bidding. We all must learn life’s deep lessons by reflecting on our experiences in the light of God’s revelation. Even a prodigal must be given the freedom to disobey. 

Later in the book, when three more people join Crusoe on his island, he, in a moment of vanity, considers himself the monarch of his island and the three people his subjects. But he grants them liberty of conscience—one Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one animist, all living together. 

A lesson, indeed, for our times. 

Defoe has certainly created a modern epic out of a short parable about human condition.

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