Robinson Crusoe: Metaphor Analysis

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Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is by no stretch of the imagination an overtly, self-conscious symbolic novel. Presented as a true account from its title page on and modeled, most scholars agree, after the narrative of marooned Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, Defoe's text seems to spend most of its time on the surface, and therefore readers may feel tempted to take it at face value. After all, as Walter De la Mare has commented, "The spell of [Defoe's] enchanting masterpiece is not, of course, mere romance, but the dressing-up of romance to make it look like matter-of-fact" (Downs, Famous Books Since 1492 [New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961], p. 110).
But as Professor Thomas C. Foster reminds students in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, symbols are present in every work of literature, whether the author intends them or not, whether the author explicitly calls attention to them or not. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, the predominant symbols are the title character and the island on which he finds himself.
As the commentary above has stressed on several occasions, Crusoe is presented as a new Adam-he recapitulates much of human history in his own life's experience. Washed ashore in a shipwreck that carries rich baptismal overtones, Crusoe is given new life. Like Adam who tilled Eden's soil, however, Crusoe must work to appropriate that gift. He thus becomes, throughout the text, a "living metaphor" for the individual human being's ability to grow and adapt, to learn from experience, to prove resourceful and industrious-to be, as American readers particularly will no doubt think, a "rugged individual." He is the self, prevailing against an environment (or, perhaps, a "providence") that is indifferent at best, cruel and despising at worst. Yet prevail he does-and with great style, even panache: note how he styles himself "Governour" of the island near the book's conclusion. Defoe clearly intended for his readers to cheer Crusoe on: in so doing, they are cheering on all that is best and noblest about themselves. Crusoe's story is, as John Clute argues, "a triumphant justification of entrepreneurial individualism." Clute also, however, makes the case that the tale is at the same time the account of "a religious punishment for disobedience," and an indictment of "paternalistic relation" to others and "mercantilist opportunism" (John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995], p. 1017). Crusoe thus also serves as a metaphor for that which is worst about humanity: our pride, our greed, our willingness to exploit and use others for our own ends and good, without much regard, if any, to their own. While this metaphorical interpretation of Crusoe was no doubt far from the mind of Defoe-who was writing, he believed, a morally edifying, didactic.

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