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Ideology and structure in Robinson Crusoe : Dafoe's resolution of the trade-morality conflict Foster, James O.

Abstract

It has been said that Defoe's writings embody an unresolvable split between a Puritan morality and an essentially capitalist economic interest. Defoe is either a Puritan, in some cases, writing works with heavy moral and religious overtones; or he is a capitalist, disregarding the virtues of a Puritan morality in the pursuit of economic gain. This split between trade and religion becomes a central critical issue in his first novel, Robinson Crusoe. There are sections of the novel in which Crusoe meditates upon religion, virtue, God's providence, his own place in the divine scheme, or in which he reflects on his past life of sin and adventure. There are other sections in the book in which the excitement of the narrative is generated through a focus on an action-economics pattern. Thus, the reader becomes involved in Crusoe's various survival projects, his explorations of the island wilderness, even in his early trading ventures. The latter, of course, are antithetical to the religious point of view maintained throughout the novel. The split in Crusoe's character, and the concomitant split in the structure of his "autobiography," can be resolved by looking at Defoe's ideological background as it relates to the themes and structure of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe's religion is a form of Puritanism; he comes from a Presbyterian household. Therefore, his ideas on economics tend to be moralistic and conservative; he is a mercantilist, not a capitalist. In Crusoe, the main character's "capitalistic" schemes for getting quickly ahead in the world are justly punished by Providence. Providence, in this sense, is the hand of God operating as a force for moral and economic order in human affairs. Through a careful structuring of his narrative, Defoe indicates his own moral and thematic intentions. There is a religious pattern in Robinson Crusoe which manifests itself through spiritual emblemism (i.e., events can be read for their spiritual significance), traces of allegory, the actions of Providence in Crusoe's life, Crusoe's own series of moral reflections, and a structure based on the conventional patterns of the seventeenth century spiritual autobiography. In the latter, the conversion scene is always the central dramatic event, and in Crusoe, the conversion stands squarely at the center of the novel; it is the scene central to Crusoe's own development as he evolves from a "capitalist" to a moral and religious man. In all, the religious pattern gives the reader a perspective on Crusoe's economics; rather than being a capitalist and disrupting the status quo, Crusoe learns to create order and stability on his island through an application of the principles of reason and faith. Thus, the religious and economic patterns work together throughout the novel; they are not antithetical. One other basic pattern in Robinson Crusoe is that of Crusoe's growth to moral wisdom and rational knowledge. Crusoe evolves through three stages, from an early "brute" stage (Crusoe as capitalist), through reason, and finally to faith. Again, Defoe's intention is to show that reason and faith should operate to control impulsive behavior and action. Thus, this pattern blends with the religious pattern in the book, but it also indicates Defoe's knowledge of the seventeenth-century natural law philosophers. Basing himself firmly on philosophical definitions of man and nature (as found in Grotius, Hobbes, and especially Locke), Defoe structures his text in order to show Crusoe's growth into faith and rationality. The result is, of course, that Crusoe becomes an example of the "good" eighteenth-century Englishman, able to control his actions through reason and morality, and thus he becomes a force for moral order and social stability throughout the last part of the book. Robinson Crusoe, then, can be seen as a text structured to indicate a resolution of the conflict between trade and morality. Defoe reduces and simplifies a complex ideology—made up of elements of Puritanism, conservative economic theory, natural law philosophy— for purposes of fictional presentation. It is this model, reduced and simplified, that the reader must understand in order to fully comprehend Defoe's moral and economic intentions in Robinson Crusoe and, finally, to see the book as it resolves the trade-morality conflict.

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