tropical island in the ocean

The Modern Impact of Robinson Crusoe

The literary world generally views Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as one of the competitors for the “first great English novel”. The novel has had an enormous impact on the media today. It also carries many historical and cultural influences. As Defoe filled the text with many outside references, Robinson Crusoe remains such a dynamic topic of discourse. You can then understand why a novel from the early 1700s is still beloved by children and adults today. 

Literary Realism

picture of open books with flowers and a globe
Image Source:

Readers of the 18th century and the present considered Robinson Crusoe the first landmark of literary realism. At the time, it was a novel idea for an author to market and tell a story set in real life. Therefore, readers would interpret the story as part of their world. Some readers of Robinson Crusoe genuinely thought he was a real person. In terms of eras of literature, the literary realism movement started in the 19th century, well after the book was published. Prior to this, Romanticism was popular. As one can see, the trend of realism was a sharp 180 degree shift from its predecessor.

What is Literary Realism?

Literary analysts define literary realism as a narrative that represents reality.  Literary realism portrays the familiar and focuses on the middle or lower class, as opposed to upper class. It wants to communicate the truth instead of dramatizations. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, a realist novel, to be the first of its kind in 1719. 

Types of Literary Realism

Literary realism has 6 different categories. The first is magical realism, which seems contradictory. It attempts to display reality with supernatural elements mixed in. Social realism hones in on the experience of the working class. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example. Kitchen sink realism is related to social realism in which it talks about British working class men. It was a cultural movement in the 50’s and 60’s that expanded to other forms of media. Socialist realism is self-explanatory: it describes the working class in a pro communist point of view. Naturalism is mostly founded on the promotion of science. It argues that science can explain everything in the world. Charles Darwin influenced this mindset. The last is psychological realism. It is centered on the characters deciding and steering the plot. The genre can additionally be social commentary. Readers could potentially think of Robinson Crusoe as psychological realism. 

Religion and Robinson Crusoe

the inside of a church lit up
Image Source:

Many literature critics and enthusiasts look at Robinson Crusoe through a religious perspective. Some even view the novel as a spiritual biography. This is because Daniel Defoe cast Robinson Crusoe as a Christian. In the novel he beseeches and prays to God multiple times. The protagonist often has many religious self-reflections and internal conflict. At the same time the novel was written, religion dominated many people’s lives in England. Denominations of Christianity clashed with each other, which impacted authorities as well as normal people’s lives. The history and culture of England is closely associated with the ebb and flow of different religions in the country. 

Puritan Principles

A popular perspective is Puritanism. Religion experts can sum up Puritan beliefs in the TULIP acronym. The T is total depravity, which puts humans at a low rank compared to God. The U is Unmerited Election, where only God decides which people deserve to go to heaven. L for Limited Atonement means that Christ had died for certain “deserving” people. I, or Irresistible Grace means that you can’t control whether you are in God’s favor or not. P, Perseverance of the Saints, directs that the blessed people will receive signs from God. 

Puritanism Within Robinson Crusoe

As a result of their uncertainty, Puritans examined their own lives for divine signs. They dwelled over whether they were one of the chosen special people. The arc of a spiritual autobiography follows the protagonist that rejects God at first and commits a sin, but eventually repents and comes to realize God’s importance. If the sin was emotionally taxing, God’s salvation was dramatized further. Obviously, readers draw parallels between that specific plot and Robinson Crusoe. In the framework of a Puritan spiritual autobiography, Robinson Crusoe’s sin was disobeying his father. As a consequence, he ended up on the island alone. However, in the same fashion, he grew to find God again. On the contrary though, Defoe never depicts Robinson Crusoe as “saved” at the end. This complicates the overall interpretation of the novel. It does not traditionally subscribe to their doctrine. 

Puritan History

People mostly remember Puritans from their voyage to America. Puritans were the colonists who built Plymouth. Another lasting memory of Puritans is the Salem witch trials, in which paranoia about witchcraft spread through the budding New England. In Britain, Puritans were part of a religious reform movement in the 16th century. Puritanism was a part of English Protestantism. They viewed the Church of England as too similar to the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually Puritans grew in authority and political power. They also played a part in the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651. The Puritan reign ended in 1660 and gave way to the Anglican Church. At this point, they migrated in large groups of families to America. 

Protestantism Individualism

Furthermore, Protestant Individualism has a role in Robinson Crusoe. The message of Protestantism claims that if one works hard, they will earn a reward from God. There is a reason that Protestantism comes with the concept of Protestant work ethic. People gained an incentive to be hard workers and to content their own self-interest. The Protestant ideology also stoked the flame of capitalism and provided justification for the wealth gap that capitalism created. It was the Christian’s job to follow their calling and therefore follow the path to heaven. People again looked for signs of God corresponding to their economic prosperity. If they were prosperous, this meant they were on their way to heaven. 

Protestantism Within Robinson Crusoe

Literary scholars found comparisons to this Protestant idea to Robinson Crusoe through the character’s constant labor, as well as the fruits of his labor. Throughout his time on the island, he produces ways to sustain himself. He works hard to build himself a home and an agricultural source. He tells his own story as describing the steps he takes to construct an entire life. Though some of his projects fail, he often stumbles on luck and prosperity. The Protestant outlook would say that good fortune could be a notice from God. 

Karl Marx’s Das Kapital

French diagram of Capitalist system with images of people on a pyramid
Image Source:

The famous Karl Marx referenced Robinson Crusoe in his critique Das Kapital. He cites the character Crusoe as a paradigm of producing enough for himself. In other words, the production is not for profit. Crusoe generates his own wealth. In Das Kapital, Marx observes that Crusoe made objects of use for himself. He contrasts this with social products, which are for society. In his overall critique of capitalism, he discusses how the capitalist undercuts the worker’s pay in relation to their worth. In the network of commerce and trade, the individual connection the worker has with the product is diminished. Moreover, other critics instead viewed Robinson Crusoe as a proto capitalist. Marx brought up his own point to counter those capitalist analyses. In his eyes, Crusoe is not an appeal for a simpler life but a precursor to a more ideal system. 

British Colonialism

a map of all the countries the British Empire has colonized
Image Source:

Considering the novel was published in 1719, during this period British colonialism and slavery was booming. The first colonial settlement in America was the founding of Jamestown in 1607. From there, settlers continued to make colonies along the East Coast. Besides this, British colonies were successful in the Caribbean. Over the 17th century, the British took over islands such as Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, etc. They established sugar plantations and instilled slave labor. The slave trade was massively lucrative for the British empire throughout the century. By 1780, 80% of the British Caribbean and 40% of colonial America were slaves.

This context of the British empire is important because of Robinson Crusoe’s role as a colonist. Not only did he colonize the island, he was a slave master over Friday. Daniel Defoe did not seem to be afraid of employing current events in the narrative. Sophisticated readers widely interpret Robinson Crusoe to be a racist and colonialist novel.


a shot from the movie The Martian
Image Source:

Authors over the years frequently take inspiration from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Due to its typical storyline of a character redemption, people could easily adapt the story. Johann Schnabel called those emulations “Robinsonades”. 

Building a Robinsonade

Robinsonades revolve around a main Man vs Nature conflict. Any version of the person being victorious over nature or devolving into a caveman is accepted. The island can either be abundant or desolate, which again affects the hero’s level of struggle. “Crusoe”, or the protagonist, could already be knowledgeable in survival instincts, or be clueless in the wild. The latter offers up an opportunity for character development. When there are multiple characters who are shipwrecked together, the conflict and interplay of characters in crisis compounds the excitement. The feeling of being stuck on an island indefinitely will bring out the anxieties, the strength, the loneliness, the comfort of the characters. Sometimes the setting includes other antagonists that the characters have to battle, often supernatural.   

Stranded on an Island

Stories that include an emphasis on island castaways are The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), The Coral Island (1858), and Treasure Island (1883). The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne very much mimics the British empire in the same echo of Robinson Crusoe. It shows a group of boys who work together on the island to make a society. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) is a direct inverse of The Coral Island. It famously features a group of boys who give in to anarchy on the island.

Another deserted island story is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). She additionally added the element of a murder mystery to the subgenre. A modern form of the Robinsonade is The Martian by Andy Weir (2011). This transformed the traditional island shipwreck to a spaceship wreck on Mars in the future. A Robinsonade-type television show is Survivor, where contestants must learn self preservation on an island. 

Children’s Books

A cartoon of Robinson Crusoe on a raft
Image Source:

Robinsons Crusoe also was reworked into the genre of children’s literature. However, those authors changed certain themes to be appealing to children and their parents. Originally, the book of Robinson Crusoe is not just a story of adventure and survival.

Filtering and Editing

Before he ends up on the island, Crusoe befriends a slave called Xury but later on sells him. He actually embarks on the journey with the intent to participate in the slave trade. Clearly, adapters omit these plot points in the beginning. Especially for young children, parents don’t want to explain the immorality of slavery. Likewise, the cannibalism of the savages is too inappropriate for children. Storytellers additionally downplay the unethical and disturbing relationship between Crusoe and Friday. Canonically, Friday puts himself into servitude in exchange for Crusoe saving his life. He declares that he would rather kill himself than be apart from Crusoe, his master. In the edited versions, Friday is not a slave, but a friend. 

Biblical Parable

Conversely, those who want to market Robinson Crusoe as a biblical story translate the book through a different angle. Then, it sits on the shelves at a church youth program. To add onto the sanitization of the story, authors layer on the emphasis of Christianity. Though the novel already features a religious awakening, the marketing even further stresses following God. Youth leaders and teachers then use the book as an educational source. On top of that, sometimes authors deliberately keep the colonial Christian message. The children’s book will volunteer the idea that Crusoe teaching the primitive Friday about Christianity is beneficial. Other reproductions of the novel strip away the Christianity. In the effort to make Robinson Crusoe secular, the spotlight will be on his struggle for self-sufficiency. Some retellings maneuver the survival aspect of the book into a pedagogical approach. 

Cultural Impact in Anthropology

A painting of Robinson Crusoe and Friday
Image Source:

As one of the first pinnacles of literature and realism, Robinson Crusoe is still everywhere in the modern world. Being stranded on an island, which was converted to being stranded anywhere, is now a trope. Within this cliche setting, creators push themselves to imagine people in an unlikely life or death situation. Nonetheless, there’s a reason the Robinsonade has proved to be timeless. The story is influential for producing a trend of realism; the thousands of “realistic” stories out there have indirectly stemmed from this one novel. Despite the book’s racism, the genre is tried and true for providing a hero that must fight for their life against the forces of nature. The Robinson Crusoes and their echoes throughout the media touch on the subjects of individuality, isolation, making mistakes, and ambition. Most importantly, the novel discusses what it means to be human. 


Leave a Reply